The National Limited on the Baltimore & Ohio line from St. Louis, with a cut of cars from Louisville, arrived at Union Station pretty much on time on the morning of Feb. 29, 1956. I got out, walked through the waiting room -- one of the nation's magnificent indoor spaces -- and took a cab for the first day on a new job.
I was armed with some advice from a friend: "Tell the driver you are heading for The Washington Post (pause) office. Because when I arrived a few years ago, I spoke too fast and the cabdriver took me one block, across the street, and deposited me at the Washington post office."
No, none of that overblown junk here about the Washington of 30 years ago being a small Southern town. By any measure, with a population then topping 800,000 and a metropolitan population twice that, it was a big city -- ninth in the nation.
But the region has since doubled in population and proportionally sprawled even more across the landscape. The scale of 1956 was more manageable. It was a company town, the company being the federal government. Sure, the federal establishment is still central, but service industries and private enterprise now dominate employment.
The Washington of 1956 had a nifty streetcar system. One could ride on green streamliners from Branchville to Cabin John. Red buses with friendly southern-accented drivers would take you to Alexandria. Congress forced the end to streetcars and the red buses got enveloped into a larger, faster Metro system we couldn't do without today -- but the red buses are still missed.
Driving around the region in those days was a horror. There was no Capital Beltway, no Woodrow Wilson or Cabin John bridge, no Southwest Freeway, no I-270, no expressway to Annapolis. If you lived in Virginia, you thought twice about accepting an invitation from a longtime friend in Rockville. It was overland, through the center of Washington, out Wisconsin Avenue and a two-lane Rockville Pike past village-like Bethesda. A freeway trip that now takes, say, 30 minutes outside the rush hour consumed an hour and a half.
The District of Columbia was administered by three presidentially selected commissioners -- two civilians and an Army officer, usually a brigadier general -- and these were earnest, devoted men. But they were answerable to an oligarchy of southern segregationists on the House District Committee, who in turn carried water for a then-conservative business community and, especially, for those who controlled the parking industry.
The federal payment to the city, more or less in lieu of taxes, was $18 million in fiscal 1957, 14.7 percent of the operating budget (with city tax collections of $122 million). My story in 1959 when the federal payment reached $25 million got a three-line banner headline across the front page. This year, the scarcely noted federal payment is $425 million, or 23.5 percent of the budget (with city tax collections an astounding $1.8 billion).
Three papers competed for local readers: The Post in the morning (having absorbed the Times-Herald two years earlier), the Evening Star and the Daily News in the afternoon, and competition was stiff. Why, I remember the horror of being scooped by the Star's disclosure, under a two-column headline on the front page, that the chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission was retiring!
Television news? Channel 9, then a Post-owned station, and the then-affiliated WTOP radio, sent a scout to The Post newsroom every afternoon to crib from items we were writing for tomorrow morning's paper. Roger Mudd would read them on the evening newscast.
The biggest civic project was Southwest redevelopment. A lot of people fondly recall the buildings worth saving that were torn down -- there were too many -- but nobody who visited the ghastly slums that festered in much of the area could forget them. Their stench sticks in my nostrils.
A lot of things about today's Washington are improvements over 1956. Mobility is better. Housing conditions, on balance, are better, and so are restaurants. Widespread use of air conditioning makes summertime living bearable.
Driving southward across the 14th Street bridge yesterday, I realized that not one building visible in Virginia -- except for the Pentagon and the Naval Annex -- existed in 1956. Every building one can see from the Hotel Washington rooftop lounge to the west of 17th Street NW has been erected in the past 30 years.
But there are lamentable losses, too: The Transportation Building. The old fish market on Maine Avenue. The Norfolk night boat. The National Presbyterian Church on Connecticut Avenue. The old Esso Building on Constitution Avenue. Hall's and Olmstead's restaurants. And the lox and cream cheese sandwiches at Hofberg's deli next to the Georgia and Alaska avenues streetcar loop.