Anniversaries, as such, are better observed in the breach, but this one comes at an appropriate time. The President's in Plains, the Congress is scattered to the winds, and it's possible to see the city as it really is - the real city, that is, not the political Potemkin Village we write about so much.
I should say right off, that these musings are prompted by two facts; It's been 20 years since I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue toward my newspaper office on a sweltering August dayf to begin working in Washington. And I've just encoutered a friend, down from New York, offering the usual things New Yorkers usually say about Washington. So boring, so plastic, so institutional, so stuffy. My father, a transplanted Southerner who became an ardent New Yorker of the '20s type, said much of the same after I moved here. "Washington," the pronounced in his Georgia drawl, "is a French-fried-and-ketchup town." So it was.
Out of nostalgia, and curiosity I went back to our newspaper library and read the papers for that second week in August, 1957. Aside from some of the names, Eisenhower for Carter, there's an cerie similarity in the news. The House was delaying for a year a bill on natural gas regulations, senators were looking into a bribery story, Congress was debating "small" and "relatively clean" nuclear weapons, the President was worrying about spending pressures on his budget, a congressional committee was voting higher postal rates, the Post Office was promising a scheme to speen the mails, scientists were testing a cancer-detection machine, Bob Hope was opening a five-day engagement at Carter Barron, the papers were talking about opening news bureaus in mainland China (they still are).
And Lippmann everyone's wise man, was pontificating thus; "What we arenow saying to the Russians and what they are saying to us about Germany, China, the middle East and disarmment is said without any expectation that it might lead to an agreement."
There were differences, of course. In the classified pages, a "delightful small house," living room with fireplace, two baths, tow bedrooms, garden, was selling for under $20,000 in Georgetown. If you wanted to rent there, you could get a one-bedroom apartment for $8950.
It's in the classified pages, too, not the news columns, that you find evidence of what Washington was really like then - and how dramatically it's changed since. There, in the lines of agate type, arethe bold labels:
COLORED - WIS. AV.
Det. Brk., 2 Bdrms.
1818 Kalorama Rd. NW.
Twenty years ago Washington was, for all practical purposes, a totally segregated city, still the sleepy Southern outpost of the past, a place of naked prejudice and bigotry. I don't think it's possible to convey to the newcomers of today how the subject of race so dominated conversations in Washington. To be white was to hear fearsome tales of "colored" or "Negro" depredations. They wer the fuel for the scare stories circulating around the country portraying Washington as Crime Capital, USA. Whites were in open flight from the city. The suburbs were the sanctuary. Debate, among liberals at least, was on how best to cut that suburban "white noose" around the city and permit. "Negroes" to live there, too.
Now when a white proposes further efforts to open the suburbs to blacks, he's publicly accused of being a racist. Now it's the whites who Kalorama Road, in the center of the city, is the latest in the line if section from Georgetown to Capitol Hill to become newly fashionable. That is, expensive.
To look at Washington today is to see a notably different city, and by no means only in structures and neigborhoods. In dress, in manner, in attitudes - in actions the city of the present bears little resemblance to its past. I remember, not long after coming to town, there was a great debate about permitting a restaurant ot open a sidewalk cafe on Pennsylvania Avenue. Long articles fin the papers, talk of posing problems to public health and morality. It was against the law. That's how stuffy Washington was.
Well, we've survived that first sidewalk cafe and the many more that have followed the enliven the city. And openness happily exists in other ways unjeard of then. You not only couldn't sit outside a cafe, you were forbidden to walk on the carefully tended public lawns. Now the greens are what they should be - places for people to sit during lunch hours, to enjoy [WORD ILLEGIBLE] seasons, the city and the sights of joggers and sidewalk vendors selling everything from plants to egg rolls.