The tourist industry has produced dozens of guides to Washington, yet few present the sort of detail and history that make them useful to natives, too. The WPA Guide to Washington, D.C., is an exception. Published nearly half a century ago, it remains a landmark in the field.
It's a portrait of the city at a particular point -- when for a dime you could board a streetcar; when the Senators had recently won the pennant; when more people lived in boarding houses than apartments. But it can still be used for explorations as specific as tombstone-hunting in Oak Hill Cemetery, getting to Great Falls or walking around the Library of Congress.
The D.C. guide was written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, and served as a training ground for the FWP's editorial staff in learning how to compile guides to the 48 states, Alaska and a number of large cities. First published in 1937 as Washington: City and Capital, the 1,041-page book was revised and reissued in much abbreviated form in 1942. This is essentially the version that is now available in paperback from Pantheon Books.
The WPA Guides are prized for several reasons: the richness of their writing, the exact nature of their descriptions, and the attempts to present their states or cities in a historical context. Some excerpts from the D.C. Guide:
* Georgetown: "In the last quarter of the 18th century and in the early 19th . . . friendly inns were centers of a vivid, lusty life, especially during 'Fair days' when all persons 'within the bounds of the town' were free from arrest 'except for felony or breach of the peace.' "
* The Jefferson Memorial: "There are those who find its architecture 'sweet,' and not of the times. Because of the liberal use of columns, some have called it a cage for Jefferson's statue, while more virulent critics have dubbed it 'Jefferson's muffin.' "
* The cherry trees: "Early in the week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor . . . vandals lopped off three or four of the Tidal Basin cherry trees. The act was generally regarded as a poor specimen of military retaliation."
* The Mall: "Within the memory of living men, ducks were shot from the low ground between the White House and the Washington Monument . . . Here, at night, in the quiet heart of a great city, a late passerby is sometimes stopped by a low cry and discovers a small owl."
These days, a low cry is probably cause for alarm, and going duck-hunting around the White House will land you in the slammer. But in spite of being outdated in some of its particulars, the D.C. Guide still expresses a sense of enthusiasm and appreciation for its subject. It knows the territory, and it encourages the reader to know it, too.