COULD YOU STOP the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People's and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived and revitalized. This city -- the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit -- has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that is is getting better.
Without a doubt, there is a new Washington, but it does not follow, as The Washingtonian suggested recently, that the city is "coming of age." And there certainly is no renaissance -- for that you need ideas. This town hasn't seen an idea of any magnitude since the antipoverty program. To be sure, there is "cultural growth" but it is largely characterized by an artistic oligarchy, critical promiscuousness and growing indifference to indigenous creativity. The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington's "greater sophistication" is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.
The real story of the new Washington is that the told story is a lie. Strip away the icons of progress -- Metro, the East Wing, The Kennedy Center, Neiman-Marcus and Pisces, and you will find a new Washington that is not vibrant; it merely vibrates. A Washington that is not more sophisticated because it comprehends and considers less. A Washington whose interest in culture is marked more by acquisition than by appreciation. And a Washington whose power is, in truth, declining because it has lost the key component of respect. It used to be that if you came to Washington from Peoria you'd be embarrassed to say so. Now it's the other way around.
The new Washington disdains nearly every contact with the city as a community and treats the place as part shopping mall and part Plato's Retreat for the ego. The new city is the one you read about in Style and Washington Life (the old city is stuck in the ghetto of the District Weekly -- a peculiar ghetto at that, since it is only open on Thursdays). It is the city of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without It, clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day's work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you're all tied up.
The city in which never have so many been paid so much to do so little. The city (to improve the cliche) which in just two short decades has changed from a sleepy Southern village to a catatonic Northern metropolis.
Fortunately, there is still an old Washington, a place with character, civility, creativity and common sense. I think of it as D.C., not Washington (new Washingtonians never call it "D.C."). But this old Washington is rapidly becoming an endangered species.
Many of the species see through the Gucci-Pucci facade of the new Washington. Some are angered and frustrated by it. Just when we seem to be making progress in our tedious struggle toward political autonomy, economic and social forces are threatening to destroy what colonialism couldn't. A black friend admits that what worries her about statehood is that she won't be able to afford to live here when it happens. Voters in Ward 7 send an old-line Washingtonian to the City Council because, implies a reporter for The Post, they distrusted and resented the new Washington style of his opponent. I meet a long-time activist on the street and ask how it's going. He practically yells at me: "I'm so f---ing mad at these Cleveland Park lawyers. All they want to do is deregulate energy."
Occasionally, even someone who you might think would be a prime enthusiast of the ethos of the new Washington turns on it, as Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus did recently in an interview with the Associated Press. He said he was tired of the "silly games they play" in Washington and is going back to Idaho.
"When I was governor I could implement a decision quickly, I could even implement a poor decision . . . Here you can't even implement a good decision in a timely fashion . . . It's like playing 100 games of chess, any you're one person playing against the other 100, and you have to run around and make all your moves."
Of course, Andrus, like most federal officials, never got to know D.C. -- only Washington. But his unhappiness reflects complaints of local residents who feel something happening to the city that leaves them disquieted. It's not just the federal influence; that's always been there. It's the quality of the influence and the arrogance and relentlessness with which it is being pursued. The old city is not just being submerged; it's under attack.
You can see the effects almost anywhere you look. The disappearance of eating and drinking places that cater to other than the expense account crowd. The eviction of neighborhood shops and services. The growing tumor of institutional architecture. A downtown designed for those who work here but don't live here.
You can see it in the business community. A few years back it was represented by people like John Hechinger, Gilbert Hahn and Frank Rich. Their politics were not always the best, but they took a sincere and active part in the political and civic life of the city. There are no equivalents today among the new breed of commercial hustlers. They are too busy making money and turning their connections with city hall to personal benefit.
Or look at the old-line black establishment. Better yet, look for it. The Walter Washington/Sterling Tucker crowd has virtually disappeared from view in what appears to be a mass tacit surrender to the new Washington. On the other side, the last of the red-hot black militants, Doug Moore, has left no forwarding address.
Look at the artists. Has the East Wing helped them? Of course not. Has the Kennedy Center helped local theater? Zelda Fichandler told the Star the other day that after 30 years of the Arena, "People are beginning to go back to the earliest syndrome we fought against -- hit shopping."
The truth is that the whole city has veered towards hit shopping. Spurred by an affluent and intrusive transient elite, the city's values are being forced into transience as well. New has become a superlative form of good.
To be sure, much of the new Washington represents nothing more than the idiosyncrasies of a new elite. Elites come and go and if they stay, maybe they change. As long ago as 1898, an observer noted that Washington's smart set was "too much concerned with smartness to be interesting." But a hundred years ago such elites could be ignored; today they can't. Today elites bully their way into ordinary life.
Washington's old society of cavedwellers was tolerable because it didn't bother anyone. The buyer at Woodies would have been fired on the spot if he had proposed stocking a fall line modeled on the wardrobe of Mrs. Bliss or Mrs. Post. The denizens of the Metropolitan, Cosmos or Sulgrave clubs would have dropped dead before they would have shared their chic.
But all this has changed, and it's not just a local phenomenon. Today elitism is mass marketed; it is part of popular culture. It is no longer sufficient to consider one-self better than the rest of the world; it is crucial that the world recognize it. This need, once characteristic of only a few elites (such as movie stars), is now felt by even secretaries of state and heads of the National Security Council. Further, the absolute mass of the elite and would-be elite has grown dramatically here along with the city's affluence. More and more people are among the potential elite, the media has to constantly replenish its supply of people to recognize and industry needs more and more people who feel they can afford what the elite should have.
Elites are no longer a matter of secondary sociological concern. They determine what the place will look like, what we can or cannot buy and what we eat. Further, in a town with a high disposable income, a larger segment of the population can purchase the accountrements of elite status. It's what they call in the trade an up-demographics market. An in such a market, even if you don't have status, you tend to pay for it.
Washington, we are constantly told, didn't used to be like this. How it used to be is generally described in disparaging terms, but those who use them usually omit the two major things wrong with the old Washington: racism and heat. Civil rights and air conditioning created a new Washington long before anyone talked about it in such terms. Otherwise, the old Washington was a pretty nice place. It was Southern and, as such, avoided the pointless feneticism associated with more Northern concepts of the good life. It wasn't sleepy, merely relaxed. It had power but also sufficient style not to flaunt it with obnoxious redundancy. True, it lacked some of today's amenities but it compensated by having things it has discarded in return for these amenities: character, community and a sense of purpose.
Sure, people use to come to Washington for the thrill and the power, but few came for money; if they came for power they also came with some reason for the use of that power. They came with a mission as well as to make out.
To have known a Washington which had purpose, integrity, conscience and creativity is to realize what a shoddy parody of substance the official city is today. And you don't have to remember so far back. Just recall the idealism of the Kennedy administration or the productive pragmatism of the Johnson domestic efforts and then try to say that Washington is growing and better. Washington's new face job has emasculated its heart.
The trouble, I think, began with John Kennedy who, in a spirit that mixed national imperialism with New England preppie chauvinism, set out to make Washington a place he would be proud to live in. True, the city gained some amenities but the tone he set also allowed such abominations as the neo-Mussolinian Pennsylvania Avenue Plan. Other forces included the freeway and urban renewal programs, which not only would physically alter the city but introduce massive social change as well.
But Kennedy was killed, the freeway program was stopped and the "Worthy of a Nation" crowd ran full force into rising black power and consciousness. In April 1968, it was forcibly halted by the riots.
In the aftermath, it was again time for changes. The choice made by the then Commissioner/Mayor Walter Washington was a tricky and eleaborate compromise between his black constituency and his white economic base. The theology was black and the economics white. If you looked at where the city was, through subsidy, rezoning or encouragement, concentrating economic development, it was in the white or semi-white parts of town. The key to the survival of black Washington was seen as vastly increased tax productivity by white Washington.
Even then, it seemed to some a trap. There was no was that the developers and the land-grabbers were going to stop at ethnic boundaries. Once Georgetown, Friendship Heights, downtown and the West End were used up, the pressure would not disappear. On the contrary, the containment policy created massive physical changes, inflation in the housing market and displacement in every corner of the city. Walter Washington wanted the city to become just a little pregnant but it didn't work out that way.
Contrary to widespread expectations, the policies did not produce a great influx of new white residents. Yet the twon seemed to be more white. This apparent contradiction can be explained by a number of phenomena:
The daytime population of the city was increasing. The so-called "pillow count" of residents, such as taken by the U.S. Census, can be badly misleading in a city with heavy commuter traffic. Even back in 1970, the daytime population of Washington increased by about one-third owing to this traffic -- and it was mainly white. Although we don't know the figures for the 1980 census yet, a recent traffic count by the Council of Governments shows that more than 30,000 additional people are coming into downtown D.C. every workday morning than was the case five years ago. This means at least a 10 percent increase in the suburban participation in the workforce in five years.
Black population in D.C. has been on the decline, further accentuating the racial shift in workday population.
White Washington -- both commercial and residentail -- has taken more and more land for its activities, so
To these changes must be added such other white daytime contributions to the city's population such as tourists, conventioneers and business visitors. As one out-of-town businessman told me following a Board of Trade tour of the city: "You got the impression that the only black people in town were on the City Council."
When you realize that 10 years ago, D.C. residents made up only 38 percent of the downtown workforce and that today the figure must be significantly less, you wonder how any black politician could have placed much faith in "downtown revitalization."
But the black politicians did and the net result was to increase the number of jobs available to nonresident whites by tens of thousands, to geographically restrict the land available for black entrepreneurial exploitation or residence and to promote a shift in the character of the local job market that is even more heavily weighted toward government and its economic parasites than was previously the case.
To this one must add the structural changes in American cities as a whole toward professional and service employment and the increase in local employment by government.
There were other changes of dramatic proportions. There was a significant decline in the number of families as well as the number of children they had -- reflected in the receding political interest in the public schools. Housing displacement and costs increased substantially. And Metro's expansion created new nodes available for economic exploitation.
In sum, the city during the '70s experienced a demographic, social and economic shift as significant in its own way as was the mass migration of blacks to D.C. in the '50s. Only this time the immigrants got to start at the top instead of the bottom.
There is no easy way to change the course that has been set toward a go-go, look-at-me, boomtime Washington, but the first step would seem to be some resistance. Those who want to preserve Washington's cultural heritage have to be noisy as those trying to preserve its architectural heritage. Along with Don't Tear It Down, we need a group called Don't Wear It Down, dedicated to preventing the destruction of the city's sould by those who only take from it and give nothing in return.
We need to fight to regain control of our city so we can start shaping it the way we would like it, rather than the way day-trippers, powerplayers, hit shoppers, consumers of change and high style groupies would like it.
In the meantime let's drink a toast to the renaissance of Washington: "May we live to see it."