But there I go again, caricaturing places I barely know — which is what everyone does to Washington more generally. Candidates run for office “against Washington,” as though it’s a singular institution. In reality it’s a real place with all kinds of people, most of them not actually government employees or in any way directly involved with the political world. As for official Washington, the place of monuments, museums, humongous government buildings, K Street lobbyists, frantic journalists, military bases and statues galore, that’s all been crafted over the course of two centuries in multiple pulses of creation, revision, expansion. And sometimes destruction.
There are layers to this. There are stories everywhere, symbols, signifiers. It pays to stop and read the interpretive signs. Pro tip: Walk, don’t drive.
The District was originally a square 10 miles on every side. (Retrocession to Virginia removed the part across the river.) The terrain was eyeballed by George Washington on horseback in 1790 when he was trying to figure out where exactly along the Potomac, per the Residence Act, the federal town ought to be. This was just farmland, and lots of woods, with a couple of modest port towns, Georgetown and Alexandria, along the Potomac. There was never much swampy land here, as Kenneth Bowling, the historian, has pointed out.
The city has been shaped by epochal national events, particularly the Civil War and World War II. Lately the city center has been gentrifying at superluminal speed. It’s never the same city, decade to decade.
Newcomers should be aware of how much nature there is, even in the heart of the metropolis. You can easily get lost in Rock Creek Park. The Potomac River is essentially one long national park. Barely a mile beyond the Beltway are woodsy, riverside trails lightly traveled on any given day — the humans outnumbered by the great blue herons.
This week, photographer Michael Robinson Chavez and writer Ann Gerhart published a photo essay about Washington that captures the textures of the city. We all have our favorite places, and my list includes the floating barges at the fish market down on the Southwest waterfront — another place rapidly changing amid what Gerhart calls “a flock of building cranes.”
Near the top of my list is the Library of Congress, and not just the majestic, domed Main Reading Room but also the cafeteria on the sixth floor of the Madison Building, where lunch is cheap and the view priceless. And the map room, of course — where once upon a time a curator pulled out a sprawling, astonishing map made by a young George Washington after a 1770 surveying trip down the Ohio River.
There are more libraries here than you could possibly believe, many of them specialized, like the library at the Society of the Cincinnati, where a scholar can find just about any book ever written about early American history. Ancient Greece your focus? Try the library at the Center for Hellenic Studies, run by Harvard and tucked among the embassies on Whitehaven Street. Or maybe your field is the history of science, in which case wander up the hill and find a way into the library of the U.S. Naval Observatory (security’s tricky, because the house next door is home to the vice president).
You can also still find bookstores here, as news of their extinction appears to have been exaggerated. Capitol Hill Books is jammed with used books just a few steps from Eastern Market, and Riverby Books is only a few blocks away. Kramerbooks is still going strong at Dupont Circle and has even expanded recently under new ownership. A block away is Second Story Books, a world of treasures (though the Michael Dirdas of the world are known to venture out to the Rockville area to the Second Story Books warehouse).
Any guide to Washington would talk about the restaurants, hotels, theaters, museums, etc., but one of the most entertaining things to do is simply walk around, for this is an extremely walkable city. A quarter-century ago I wrote a piece about walking in Washington, and nothing much has changed on the walkability front:
This city, like any city, is not a random pastiche, but rather is subject to rules, standards, procedures, a reigning intelligence. Washington is an intelligent city, all the way down to the curbs. In most cities and virtually all suburbs, the curbs are concrete. A concrete curb is vanilla-colored, with a rounded edge and granular surface. But in Washington, curbs are granite. A granite curb is darker, bigger, and holds a sharp corner; the streets are more dramatically delineated. The downside to granite is that it costs twice as much per linear foot as concrete. One foot is $30 worth of stone. The upside is that it lasts forever.The light and oxygen come courtesy of the city’s famous height restriction, passed in 1910. In general, a building can be 20 feet higher than the width of the street on which it fronts — to a maximum of 130 feet, no more. Shorter buildings are a Washington tradition going back to 1800; Jefferson had wanted a height limit like that of Paris, where homes were “low and convenient, and the streets light and airy.”The big trees are no fluke either. A hundred years ago, the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage inspired the idea of the “City Beautiful,” and in Washington city planners set about burying the phone lines and planting 65,000 saplings. When you see a mighty oak bursting from its tiny box between the sidewalk and the street, remember that someone once envisioned that.The city now has a block-by-block computer list of its trees: Norway maples, pin oaks, ginkgoes, little-leaf lindens, sugar maples, scarlet oaks (famous for foliage), and so on. On the busiest downtown streets the city plants something called a Bloodgood plane tree. “It’s a type of tree that really takes a beating,” Charles Lindsey, a city tree inspector for 32 years, told me one day when we walked around downtown. Lindsey can explain why there is paper wrapped around the trunks of saplings: It’s to keep car doors from gouging the bark. A tree can die from leaking sap as surely as a person with a gunshot wound can die bleeding.Another day I got led around by James Goode, a local historian, who knows as much about buildings as Lindsey knows about trees. Goode explained all those architectural gewgaws and doodads — the things more subtle than a gargoyle, more elegantly named than a porch. Those covered decks atop apartment buildings — those are “summer houses.” Goode pointed out that the Blaine Mansion at Dupont Circle still has the original porte-cochere, the carriage porch (where I come from you’d probably call it a carport). And if you look really closely at its balcony railings, you’ll see sunflower designs, which are loaded with meaning, because the sunflower was the symbol of the “aesthetic movement” of the 1880s. Frankly, though, I prefer the symbolism of the carved figures along the roof of 2101 Connecticut Ave. They’re not gargoyles — they’re men holding balls over their heads as though they’re going to hurl them down upon unsuspecting pedestrians.
This blog post has been updated and expanded.
From our Civil War project: The assassination of Abraham Lincoln
One of the things that make me happy: The Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress