I'm a carpetbagger from New York, standing in the mud of what used to be Pulaski Triangle and watching two fellows in leisure suits stuff chunks of the Munsey Building in their van. Earlier, I was up on the eleventh floor, where I saw two others with German accents measuring some marble and wondering in my direction what would be the best way to rip the stuff off the wall.
I said I didn't know.
This place doesn't remember that it had for breakfast yesterday, it seems. Washington, my home town, is acting so cosmopolitan since I made my hegria to Manhattan's stony shores three years ago. Of course, why should not a city so crazy with Gallerias, Multi-Plexed Cine-Marts and Civix Centers have the consummate gall to rip down every shred of its old vernacular Downtown.
It's happening, Washingtonians.
On my return trips, I discover new raggedy excavations and neatly furrowed fields of bricks, where once stood rippling pressed-tin bay windows and scowling Jazz-Age griffins. You who ply the downtown throughfares daily must be amazed at the myriad assaults of hungry bulldozer and swinging ball. Look how the Old Downtown can disappear!
Al's Magic Shop, right on Pennsylvania Avenue fell quickly, with one or two swipes of a crane. Yet they tell me its creaky, peaky front has been numbered and placed in storage.
The McGill was a Romanesque office cloister on G Street. There, a savvy wrecking contractor managed to whomp giant holes in the building's roof and side wall before the demolition permits were even approved. Needless to say, the holes proved a very convincing argument for not designating the McGill a landmark.
In the basement of the McGill was a cream-glazed brick with red letters. It read: "To Mr. James McGill from his friend in England. The Farnley glazed brick. Leeds."
The brick didn't survive. The garganruan stone statues of two Renaissance explorers that graced the front entrance did survive -- in a resturant plaza in Atlanta.
I saw about 50 action films in the dim rococo recesses of the RKO Keith's Theatre, beneath a velvet-trimmed box used many years before by President Wilson for the purpose of watching vaudeville. Now, we hear that the outer wall of the theater building will be incorporated into a superblock on the same site.
Decisions of that magnitude make me a little glad that the outer wall of New York's Radio City Music Hall has not yet been deemed "more significant" than its magical auditorium.
Last month, I sat on a curb near 13th and Eye streets, talking with a bearded man in coveralls, a man probably not included in the last census and at best -- in the eyes of sociologists, demographers and multi-millionaire investors in speculative development -- a "marginal" member of the populace.
The backdrop for our chat was a scene reminiscent of movie sets for a ghost town. Tall-chimneyed old houses lined Eye Street, their tiny iron-fenced yards buried in shadow. An occasional yellow shade flapped where a window had been poked out. Iron bedsteads and spring-seat rolling chairs lay about, discarded.
The denizens here have been quite obedient in leaving by the deadline. The Convention Center was coming. Some of those folks were back now, wandering the streets for a final look at the old block. So long, Mount Vernon Square!
The fellow I'd been talking to had the same name as mine: Johnny. He was lucky to find himself a flop one block north, but his worries were far from over. "United Air Lines want to build up a hotel there . . . We just ain't got no place left to live . . . ."
So Skid Row must go?
In Seattle, where the "Skid Row" term originated (from flophouses built along the "Skid Road" of lumber beind "skidded" to the waterfront), reminders of that age remain. That city's Pioneer Square has been allowed to flourish peacefully in this brave new world, complete with rugged old buildings inhabited by less than glamorous folks, who'd feel right at home with Mount Vernon Square Johnny.
If the powers that be in Washington, the nation's capital, insist on expending large amounts of energy and dollars razing the last bits of its downtown heritage, what kind of functioning society will take the place of that colorful heritage?
Maybe we're headed for hi-tech Dark Ages.