A few years ago, historian Zachary M. Schrag titled his history of Washington's Metrorail "The Great Society Subway." Lyndon Johnson, whose administration launched the wide-ranging social programs dubbed the Great Society, doesn't deserve sole credit for making it happen. Planning began in the 1950s, and it was Dwight Eisenhower who created the National Capital Transportation Agency, which oversaw the conception and design. Congress, which was once capable of enacting legislation commensurate with the dreams of the American people, funded plans for a 25-mile rail system designed to be "worthy of the nation's capital."
Johnson supported efforts to make the Metro not only functional, but also beautiful, and that dual focus says a lot about the priorities of the best American planners in the middle of the last century. In a 1966 letter to administrators of what would become Metro, Johnson urged them to create a system that would make "our Capital a more attractive and inspiring place" and serve as "an example for the Nation."
The planners were of the same mind and took the rare step of hiring a major architect — Harry Weese — who would not be simply a subordinate adviser to the engineers. Weese was brought on to create a unified aesthetic vision for the entire system, and as he and his team dealt with the major design oversight group, the Commission of Fine Arts, its members steered him toward a rational and monumental architecture equal to the best of anything in Washington.
The results were stunning. When the first phase of the Metro system opened in 1976, it was quieter, smoother and orders of magnitude cleaner and more appealing than earlier generations of urban mass transit, in such cities as New York, Boston and Chicago.
Metro opened a decade after the National Park Service celebrated its 50th anniversary with the fruition of its Mission 66 program, another major investment in modernizing the country's federal infrastructure. If Metro was to turn the capital into an efficient and modern city, Mission 66 would restore America's neglected and overburdened national parks, with new visitor centers and better access for a more mobile population. Aesthetics played a major role in this plan, too, with architects such as Richard Neutra tasked with creating a more contemporary look for park buildings.
And as Mission 66 was coming online, yet another ambitious effort to rejuvenate a dilapidated national treasure gained traction when Johnson threw his weight behind the widow Jackie Kennedy's hopes for a redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue. That eventually became the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Corporation in 1973.
The striking thing about the origins of these projects — and many others during the same period — is the rhetoric of beauty and improvement that inspired them, a shared language that often crossed political and partisan lines.
There were, of course, missteps, and disagreements about what was, indeed, beautiful. There are ugly buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, and not all of the Park Service's Mission 66 buildings were equally beloved. Nor does design that focuses on beauty guarantee functionality. But design that neglects beauty is likely to fail altogether. There are many reasons Metro is closed today, including mismanagement and, some would argue, misplaced priorities. It is straining to expand and keep up with demand at the same time that it is dealing with the inevitable deterioration of 40-year-old systems and equipment.
But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness.
That's the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too.
Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute.
Mid-century infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life all across the nation. But much of that Great Society infrastructure was a response to an earlier infrastructure that was, by the 1950s, reaching the end of its life. And the response then was to say: Let's rebuild it, and let's make it as beautiful as we can.
The truly terrifying thing about our slow acculturation to decay in the built environment is that it's reaching crisis at the same moment that many Americans are entranced by one of this country's most serious flirtations with authoritarianism. The response to earlier crises in the man-made world was: Everything is falling apart, so how do we fix it? Today, there is a more ominous question lurking in the background: Can no one make the trains run on time?