What powers attract us to water? Why do people persist in building settlements on the edges of rivers, lakes and oceans?
Earth's waters can be calm or turbulent. They allure and threaten, cleanse and mystify, sustain and destroy. We can travel on and across them or remain ashore watching as they flow past.
Perhaps such psychic and metaphoric fascination with water, coupled with its practical uses, motivated the building of the nation's capital on the banks of the Potomac. Seen two centuries ago as a means of transportation worthy of exploitation, the river only recently has become a place worthy of million-dollar condominiums.
Before the middle of the 19th century and the advent of railroads, access by water and the existence of port facilities were considered commercially indispensable to urban survival. Rivers also were thought to be a geographical necessity for defense. Thus, many early American cities -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Baltimore, Richmond -- were established on rivers, most of which led to the sea.
Georgetown and Alexandria were 18th-century port towns strongly linked to the Potomac riverfront and river commerce. Therefore, L'Enfant and his successors naturally extended the new capital's grid/avenue plan to the rivers' edges. They anticipated substantial maritime commercial activity on the lower peninsula of the city between the Potomac and its eastern branch, the Anacostia. And to the U.S. Navy, the deeper eastern branch looked perfect for a base.
But Washington failed to make it as a commercial port. Its waterfront never acquired the extensive wharves and warehouses found in other port cities. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century, it was clear that the Potomac would supply water, passenger transportation and visual/recreational amenities for a city soon to be ridded of its marshlands.
Consequently, in the 20th century, Washington became a city meeting the river in many different ways. From the Tidal Basin area to the Lincoln Memorial, they meet softly and embracingly where water and watery land once commingled. Here the river and low-lying natural landscape touch gently to form park edges lined by trees and pedestrian paths.
This great spatial event accommodates organized field sports, bicycling, sight-seeing tourists by the thousands, intensely colorful seasonal flowers, paddle boats, monuments, inspiring vistas . . . and automobiles. The parkways are a mixed blessing, however, sometimes making pedestrian movement difficult and risky.
In the 1950s, planners and politicians thought that putting freeways next to riverfronts was a good idea. Postwar thinking focused entirely on rebuilding cities and accommodating automobile traffic for a rapidly expanding commuting population. The automobile and its driver's vantage point were supreme. Parkways, the perfect blend of aesthetics and mobility, would make driving the most pleasant experience a city could offer. Moreover, aging industrial or commercial waterfronts often connoted obsolescence, decay, filth, crime and falling land values. What better place for building highways?
Whether on grade or elevated, these ribbons of steel, concrete and asphalt created major visual and functional barriers between waterfront property and the city proper. Like new rivers or aquaducts for cars instead of water, they could cut off or severely limit growth of the natural city fabric toward the water.
In the District's Southwest, urban renewal eliminated blight but gave us instead a few free-standing, isolated restaurants and parking lots between eight-lane Maine Avenue and the Washington Channel. While perhaps appealing to hungry tourists, they offer little to Washingtonians in the way of an inviting, dynamic waterfront. Small seafood markets, marinas and floating cafes are too few and far between to comprise and animate a major water-oriented activity center. Georgetown, like Alexandria, had a chance but was cursed by the Whitehurst Freeway built above K Street. It cut off the 10-block waterfront where industrial uses continued or were abandoned, and access was impossible. City tax revenues, ownership profits, public activity and visual amenity were lost.
Fortunately, recent private and public efforts are changing Georgetown's relationship to the Potomac. As in Alexandria, with its revitalized Torpedo Factory and other river-oriented projects, new public park space and pedestrian promenades finally will make Georgetown's river edge visible, accessible and usable. Unnecessary freeway ramps are being torn down to reduce somewhat the barricading impact of the Whitehurst, letting more light penetrate beneath this now-indispensable highway.
Washington Harbour, which is under construction, wisely maintains the existing Georgetown street grid so that people uphill and inland can see the river and walk directly down to it. The buildings and public waterfront plaza are literally atop the banks of the Potomac, where retractable flood gates are intended to prevent once-a-century inundation.
Despite the project's size, architectural complexity and controversial inception, its shops and stores, restaurants, offices, incredibly expensive apartments and underground parking undoubtedly will attract people because of such unique and immediate proximity to the water's edge and river panorama.
Unlike Washington Harbour, many buildings stand near riverbanks without being linked strongly to the water. Rosslyn's high-rises, the Pentagon, GSA's Buzzard Point office building and other such structures could sit just as easily next to the Beltway. The rivers do more for them than they do for the rivers.
The Kennedy Center has a particularly ambivalent relationship to the Potomac. Approaching from the city side, you do not sense the river's presence. From the grandiose halls inside, you still see nothing, even though the river is only 200 feet away. Only when you exit onto the terrace cantilevered over the parkway below, walk to its edge and look out over the solid perimeter railing (and planter), do you discover the Potomac.
The Watergate's public plazas and shopping galleries are equally disconnected from the river view. The project could have offered a continuous public promenade dramatically overlooking the Potomac and lined by shops and restaurants. Instead, a multileveled labyrinth of inwardly focused, enigmatic spaces is imbedded within. Most are below grade and without orientation.
Crossing the Potomac from Virginia affords another special opportunity to experience the city/river conjunction. When bridge railings don't obstruct the view, you can see panoramically the river, its shoreline, the landmark monuments and the city beyond.
Perhaps the shoreline arrival points could be better defined and celebrated. Only Memorial Bridge, its axis anchored by the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the Lee Mansion, signals its meeting with the land through the placement of flanking statues at each end.
Most other bridges rise, descend or curve ashore with little or no recognition of the water-to-land transition. Nothing announces arrival or bids welcome. Instead, drivers are swamped visually by an excess of green signs with white letters. You either ignore them out of familiarity or read them in desperation, meanwhile trying not to miss a critical exit or hit another vehicle.
Not all of the Potomac shoreline and river space has to be reserved for roads, parkland and National Airport flight paths. Below the Palisades, the Potomac valley becomes sufficiently broad and flat to accommodate some additional structures that could enhance, rather than detract from, the visual quality of this extraordinary site. How delightful if more people could work, shop, dine or dwell directly on parts of the waterfront where city and river meet.