Spirits of Place: Not the Nation’s Capital

DC FlagI lived in Washington, D.C., for many years. “Washington” evokes a variety of instant responses: the capital of the free world, government bureaucracy, partisan gridlock, the White House, “inside the Beltway” insular thinking — I could go on and on.

That’s official Washington. I didn’t live there, though I visited occasionally.

Then there are those millions of other people who, when asked, will also say they live in Washington. Only when you probe deeper, you will find that they actually live in Silver Spring or Rockville, Maryland, or in Alexandria or maybe Arlington, Virginia. Or even way out in Reston, Virginia, or down in Southern Maryland within commuting distance.

I didn’t live there, either. I lived in the District of Columbia, that 68-square mile almost-diamond-shaped region originally carved out of Maryland and Virginia so that the capital wouldn’t be in any of the states.

It’s the 27th largest city in the country — just DC, by itself. 600,000 people live there. And while a lot of them do work for the federal government — it is the biggest employer in town, by a long shot — most of them don’t. Just like in other towns, they are doctors and lawyers, janitors and retail clerks, school teachers and tour guides.

It’s a beautiful city, with tree-lined streets and a national park running right through the center of town. (I never lived more than a mile from Rock Creek Park the entire time I lived in Washington.) In the older parts of the city — closest to the capitol and White House — there are lots of beautiful homes dating back to the 19th Century, some now cut up into apartments, others run down, but many carefully restored.

African Americans make up a majority of the population — 55 percent — but the city is also home to many people who come from outside the U.S. Since the ancestors of many DC African Americans moved to the city from the south, sometimes it has the feel of a southern small town. In residential neighborhoods, people will stop their cars in the middle of the street to talk to each other. But it’s a small town where you run into people from every part of the globe. My favorite restaurants are Ethiopian ones; you see these now in lots of cities across the country, but D.C. had them first. (I used to impress New Yorkers as well as Texans by taking them out for Ethiopian.)

The District has its problems. The gap between rich and poor is huge. Housing is expensive even in poor neighborhoods, and as poor neighborhoods start to gentrify, long time residents get moved out. I spent years helping tenant groups buy their apartment buildings and turn them into housing co-ops, so I tend to look at the city in terms of housing issues.

And it’s a political football for Congress. Washington, D.C., though it has about 600,000 people — more than the state of Wyoming and not appreciably fewer than those in Vermont and North Dakota — has no voting representation in Congress. Further, Congress can overturn some of our local laws. A few years back, the District held a referendum on medical marijuana, and Congress wouldn’t even let us count the votes.

DC VoteThings are better than they used to be. Up until the 1960s, D.C. residents didn’t even get to vote in the presidential elections. And the elected mayor and city council only date back to the 1960s, too. But given the size of the population, it’s way past time that the District of Columbia got the same two senators and voting member of Congress that everyone else in the country has.

Some people say, “Oh, you chose to live there.” Of course, many people were actually born in D.C., and some of us who moved there on purpose like to live close to our work. I hate to commute; why would I want to live out in Virginia when I’m working in downtown D.C.? I’m not entitled to representation in Congress because I’m not contributing to the commuter mess (and, oh, it is a mess) in Washington? By the way, I never worked for the federal government.

For those who say the District should just be combined with Maryland for this purpose — a supposedly progressive idea that has no support in either Maryland or D.C. — let me suggest this parallel: Why don’t we just combine Wyoming with Montana for purposes of selecting Senate seats? Actually, why don’t we just combine Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, which still wouldn’t give us the same population as Maryland?

Outside of taxation without representation — and D.C. residents do pay federal income tax, along with high local taxes since about 40 percent of the land area is tax-exempt for one reason or another — there are two other things wrong with living in D.C.: lousy weather and too many people.

For those of you who claim to love four seasons, I assure you that D.C. has them. Spring is a little problemmatic — there are years when the leap from winter to summer seems to happen without the mediation of spring — but fall is beautiful and usually lasts from mid-September (when the leaves start changing) up until about Christmas. Winter varies: some years there are dramatic snowfalls, others it’s just cold and wet and changeable. Summer doesn’t vary: It’s hot and sticky and there’s rarely a breeze. If you’re lucky, there may be a few nice days here and there.

And traffic in the entire region is a nightmare, because there are so many people (5.5 million in the metropolitan area) that the least little problem will jam things up: a minor wreck, a little rain, snow. Not to mention a terrorist attack. The subway system is good, but it doesn’t go everywhere and it doesn’t run all night and it does break down from time to time. It may look nicer than the New York City subway, but it’s not as efficient.

I seem to have descended into complaining, so let me end on a higher note. I love Washington. I love the mix of people. I love the old neighborhoods. I love the sense of excitement there. And it is a thrill to go down to the mall — that broad expanse of land running from the capitol past the White House — for big events or to go to the many wonderful museums.

GandhiIt’s a short drive to Baltimore (depending on traffic), another wonderful East Coast city. The Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware, the mountains of western Maryland, the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Harper’s Ferry in West Viriginia — all are just a few hours away.

In fact, you can get on the C&O Canal hike and bike path in Georgetown in the District and hike or bike the 100 miles to Harper’s Ferry, if you’re so inclined. There’s even a camping area along there where you can camp in the city limits — I’ve done it.

And there are statues everywhere. Everyone knows about the Lincoln Memorial, and of course there are plenty of men on horses, but there are others as well. This one of Gandhi, for instance, which was put up on a little spit of land near where a representative of the pre-Pinochet Chilean government was murdered by a terrorist. I don’t think this statue had Congressional approval — this was a District thing.

I have the same mixed emotions about the nation’s capital as any other American, but I love Washington, D.C.
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Future Washington

For those of you who would like a fictional take on non-official Washington, my story “Hallowe’en Party,” which appeared originally in Future Washington,  is available on Book View Cafe.

My story “Emergency” is part of Breaking Waves, an anthology benefitting the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. I also have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.

You can also read my latest story — “Or We Will All Hang Separately” — on Futurismic.

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Spirits of Place: Not the Nation’s Capital — 2 Comments

  1. Actually the trails now allow you to bike from Mount Vernon, down on the Potomac River, all the way to Pittsburgh. (Allow a couple days for the trip.) You can also now head north into the eastern shore of Maryland by bike. A laudable trend to increase bike access and trails has taken hold up and down the east coast. Even combined with Metro expansion it’s unlikely to have a real impact on the killer traffic, however.

  2. Wow. I didn’t know you could get to Pittsburgh on the trail. That would make a wonderful trip, if I got in good biking shape. Given the mountains in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania, though, I’d have to be in very good shape! A trip via bike to the Eastern Shore would also be delightful.

    For that matter, a hike would be good, but given how far it is to Pittsburgh, it would take quite a while. Boy, though, what a lovely idea for a vacation.