Magazine: The Two Sides of America's Boulevard Magazine
In the Nation's Capital, Geography Is Destiny

For Richer, for Poorer, Pennsylvania Avenue Weds the City Together

t's hard to tell where it starts and ends because it keeps starting and ending. It is the grand boulevard of Pierre L'Enfant's dream left in tatters by politics and practicality, laid on the map of the nation's capital in abrupt chunks like the pieces of a snake chopped apart but still moving with a ghostly vitality. It may be the only grand boulevard in the world where you have to ask directions not just to get on it but to stay on it.

Much like democracy itself, it muddles along from the Northwest to the Southeast quadrants of Washington, starting with the high-class hucksterism of Georgetown, running past the paranoia of the White House and on to the Capitol, where it vanishes but reappears with the provisional quality of an afterthought, then goes all the way past the tired roadside woods and fast-food huts of Prince George's County.

It feels accidental, with its random grandeur, ironies and banality. Sometimes there's a melancholy that's a first cousin to loneliness, which is one of the conditions of being an American. It seems to harbor an on-going scheme for self-improvement, another American condition.

The Southeast end is the sort of America that tourists come from. The Northwest end is where tourists go to. One avenue, many paradoxes, many echoes.

The man alone in his yellow Corvette in Northwest Washington is probably more powerful than the man alone in the back of a bus crossing the Anacostia River in Southeast. But Corvette man is trapped, powerless, in the horrible hoi polloi hassles of rush hour. Bus man rides in serene self-possession.

The platoon of tourists steering Segways along the grandest chunk of Pennsylvania Avenue NW look richer than the woman in her motorized wheelchair at the bus stop on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. But Segways have all the dignity of something clowns would ride in a circus parade, while the wheelchair signifies its occupant's solitary refusal to surrender her independence.

How improvised and ad hoc it all is.

There you are, driving east on Georgetown's M Street, and suddenly you find yourself on Pennsylvania instead, only to have it end right away at big, dull Washington Circle, then start again on the far side of the circle, if you choose the right lane. It runs past vast office buildings that look as if they have their curtains drawn, even when they don't. Lobbyists? Consultants? Lawyers? Bureaucrats? Some sort of international bank with the gnomes of Zurich limping about in claustrophic quiet? There is nothing to see here.

Just when there is something, at 17th Street and the mad, millionpillared wedding cake of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the avenue stops almost dead. "Almost" because you can't drive, but you can walk or bicycle past the bollards, security shacks and police cars guarding the White House, walk under the eyes of rooftop snipers and Secret Service cops, along with the aging Ban-the-Bomb people who are spending eternity with their woe-saying placards in Lafayette Square, living proof of our right to free speech, in case you were wondering in this age of surveillance.

There are lots of tourists here. Notable are the Japanese, the families from heartland America and the schoolchildren on class trips. They don't seem to look at the White House as much as they just stand around in front of it -- there's a lot of standing around on Pennsylvania Avenue, squads of photographers waiting for something to happen, anarchists in surplus-store bandannas waiting to be tear-gassed, and people in front of a liquor store in Southeast waiting for whatever, whenever, however, whomever.

Like a football game, the avenue inspires ritual costumery.

One group of class-trip kids wears T-shirts yellow as the Corvette, along with day-glo safety-patrol Sam Browne belts that seem poignantly bright amid the modesty of this off-white city, something hopeful but sad about them, American in the manner of the colored plastic pennants drooping over a used-car lot miles away -- at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.

A block past the White House, the nation's Main Street stops completely, inexplicably dead, this time at 15th Street. This is not the Champs-Elysees in Paris or New York's Fifth Avenue. We're playing by Washington rules here.

You ask directions. You turn right, past the Treasury, which always looks deserted, past the semi-luxury of the Hotel Washington, and then turn left. It seems you're back on Pennsylvania. You can tell because at the far end, you see the Capitol, shiny and perfect as a white plastic toy made in China, the view that Pierre L'Enfant intended when he laid out Washington two centuries ago. He envisioned the avenue running straight from the White House to the Capitol, the executive and the legislative branches linked by the people's thoroughfare. This nice idea ended in the 1830s, when the government decided to expand the Treasury, to hell with the symbolism, the view and lost tourists.

Anyway, once again we're on the boulevard as L'Enfant planned it. On the south side, the Justice Department and Federal Triangle stand where there was once a neighborhood called Murder Bay. As late as 1969, the Park Service reported that "on the avenue and its nearby side streets, there were six bars, a burlesque house, six coffee shops, three fireworks stands, six discount stores, twelve hat or wig shops, six liquor stores, three palm readers, and seven pornography shops."

Now the north side features the Navy Memorial, the columned and semi-rotunda-ed Canadian Embassy, renovated Victorian office buildings, the FBI building that looms over the avenue as if the architect had been Franz Kafka, and big restaurants where expense-account grandees compete to see who can suck the most oxygen out of the room when they walk in.

How sad, but how very Washington, that this glory ends at the most ordinary of American scenes: a parking lot.

Ask directions again.

A right and a left, and you're on Independence Avenue. After a collection of congressional office buildings, Independence climbs Capitol Hill to blend into Pennsylvania again, grandly wide with a grassy median for no apparent reason -- it's lined by little more noteworthy than saloons such as the Hawk 'n' Dove and Mr. Henry's, churches, gas stations and apartment houses. The buildings get shorter as you drive east. The sky gets bigger in your windshield. The avenue now ennobles Anywhere USA, with its taxpayers, lawn ornaments and ramshackle American dreams. Aren't these monuments of a kind? Don't they deserve a grand boulevard, too?

Well, not really. Great avenues are about ideas, and by now the avenue has left the monumentalized ideas behind. No tourists are on hand to watch when Pennsylvania Avenue fades as casually as it began back in Georgetown, this time mutating into Route 4 in Maryland with houses, woods, junked cars, high-tension lines, a sky full of jet contrails, America.

Andrew Cutraro lives on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at Henry Allen, a writer and editor for The Post's Style section, won the 2000 Pultizer Prize for criticism. He can be reached at

© 2007 The Washington Post Company