I LIKE living in the Washington area. I almost said "love," but there is something about Washington that precludes real passion. It is clean; it is beautiful. The arts flourish. Educational opportunities abound. We have an enormous selection of places to shop, eat and drink, and the people are generally intelligent, knowledgeable and well-meaning.
Yet there is something cold and sterile about life in Washington. There is something missing. We all feel it and yet have trouble defining it without falling back on cliches, social science jargon or, worse yet, fatalism and cynicism.
But it is there those people riding alone to work, going up crowded elevators in fear that they may be touched by the persons around them, arriving at their offices where the cartoons on the wall try to make light of the despair ("I'm so happy I could ----"), struggling through their eight-hour day knowing that any real creative achievement is apt to be met with alarm.
Then those gray people come out of those gray government buildings and drive home alone, or stand at the bus stop alone -- seemingly afraid to speak to the persons next to them. They arrive home, walk into their apartment or house, and bolt the door behind them -- secure in their splendid isolation. They hardly know their neighbors, and though they might go out alone again (as an individual, a couple or an estranged nuclear family) to go shopping or see a movie, it is most likely that they will stay home and continue their passive love affair with themselves or with Walter Cronkite and Mork and Mindy.
This picture, in its composite form, may be an exaggeration. But based on what I have observed and read in Washington the past 10 years, I do not doubt its basic accuracy.
The inactive condominium associations, the lukewarm support for the Bullets and the Dips, the antipathy we feel for the persons in front of us and behind us in the supermarket checkout lane, the two-career couples who have purchased unaffordable houses and potentially sacrificed their chance for a home, the spiritless United Way campaign, the kids in Montgomery County who are apparently more concerned with their right to smoke pot than, say, who the next president will be, the terrorizing of merchants and the elderly by youngsters in Reston, the rapid turnover of those in leadship positions (in government, business, education, you name it), the poor taxi service, the Memorial and Labor Day commemorations at Tysons Corner, the total rejection by suburbanites of any responsibility regarding the problems of the inner city, the snide, haughty derision of suburbanites by those living in the city, the virtual fear of the foreign-born among us, the continuing social discrimination against one race by another (e.g., the record charges directed at D.C. discos), the vapidness of the inevitable cocktail party question, "Where do you work?" -- those are all bits of evidence which seem to have little in common and which we tend to separate out and look at in their isolated form.
This is the problem. What we somehow fail to see is that all of these issues are linked together. Our apparent inability to influence them, and the resulting sense of hopelessness ("life is unfair"), is caused by a specialization mentality that deals with individual links but never the entire chain -- where it goes or how it holds together.
Some years ago R. Buckminster Fuller suggested that our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking." It is this specialization, and its role in fueling our exaggerated individualism, that is a primary cause of Washington's most basic problem: a virtual absence of community, along with a lack of comprehensive vision which would allow us to deal with the problem in an integrated and effective manner.
There are some who would respond to all of this by saying that every urban area faces this breakdown of community. There is some truth to that. But the Washington area is unique in many ways that cause the situation to be more extreme here:
1. The area is inundated with specialistic;
2. Regional government is fractionized;
3. A major portion of Washington's propulation is transient and has its roots and loyalties elsewhere (Why have any concern with this community's future, i.e., its resources, environment, schools, etc., when you are dreaming of your return to Los Angeles, Vermont, Paris and Plains?);
4. A large percentage of those living in Washington work for the government and thus have virtually inviolable job security which in turn breeds a kind of spiritual apathy; and
5. The area has a high concentration of single professionals and childless professionals. (This is not to imply that having children is "good," but a scarcity of children and young people certainly has a prefound effect on the kind of community you have.)
So it is not so much creativity that is lacking in Washington, for creativity is essentially an individual act -- and there are plenty of individual acts around here. Rather, those of us living in this area must reject a lifestyle which threatens our very humanity; the "technocratic freeze that has immobilized the human spirit," which one writer recently made reference to, is present among us.
Sometime during this holiday season, or soon thereafter, journalists will take note of an increased level of despondency and an increased suicide rate in the Washington area. Most likely, Christmas will be identified as the culprit. And the rest of us, looking out for Number 1, will walk away free and alone.
We are not the kind of animal that can live alone. To be human is to be a social being. We need to associate with others to find purpose in life. We need to belong, we need love and affection, and we need to feel that sense of accomplishment and respect that can only come from others.
We must look for new ways and new institutions that will allow these associations to occur and be meaningful. For example, to whatever extent employers, whether it be IBM or HUD, can fulfill this function and relate to the whole of their employes, it should be encouraged. Also we should find out what might be done to revitalize neighborhood ties.
And while some of Washington's shopping malls already support community causes in a peripheral sort of way, couldn't they do more? For instance, why couldn't Lakeforest Mall promote town meetings, political debates and amateur theater? Why couldn't they have a child-watching service staffed by teenagers? How about an inside jogging lane and other health promotion activities? And what about a real public house where people could meet and talk and know each other and dance and play cards and drink beer and watch the Redskins on a 100-foot TV screen and scream their lungs out? Why not? t
Another possibility would be the creation of a dynamic regional civic association, one that could be led by those who have that greater vision and who understand the need for community. I'm sure Daniel Boorstin understands that need, and Martha Pennino, and Father Healy, and Haynes Johnson, and Abe Pollin, and Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver, and Gordon Peterson, and Sabin Robbins, and Nancy McCloskey, and William Raspberry and S. Dillon Ripley.
There must be hundreds and hundreds of other eligible persons in this community. Alan Campbell, head of the Office of Personnel Management, should be involved; government employes need to understand the purpose and meaning of their jobs and must have managers who know the meaning of the word leadership. And A. Ernest Fitzgerald and C. Kenneth Dodd, two people who actually had an interest in their work (cost overruns and snakes, respectively), can't be left out. Certainly all of these persons should be asked to participate. And students. Students should take part. The very clear and nonspecialized vision of young people is so desperately needed in Washington.
Maybe Mayor Barry could be invited to join, though politicians are generally to be avoided since their vision is rarely greater that the boundaries of the jurisdictions they represent. There definitely should not be any one-issue representatives recruited -- no doctrinaire consumer advocates, right-to-life ideologures, no dogmatic labor leaders or businessmen, no person whose vision is limited to one sex, one race, or one idea. What is needed are the generalists who can see beyond the trees, so that the forest can grow and become lush. This is Washington's promise, and given the human and intellectual resources that exist in this community, it can be kept.