Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, site of the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference, Nov. 5-6, 2010
The Program for this week.
In honor of and inspired by the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference held this past weekend in Washington DC at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, this week is devoted to the investigation of the city from the perspective of places and spaces. This taps into an old love of mine–Washington DC history–and takes me back to my first career path out of college as a tour guide for Bike the Sites and a Program Instructor for the Close Up Foundation. For the first few years after graduating from The Catholic University of America, Washington DC was my classroom, my stage and my playground.
The conference this past weekend was in all honesty indulgent! Sadly, my teaching schedule and my family engagements prevented me from attending the entire conference, but I really enjoyed what I was able to attend. It was great to discuss both the academic and methodology questions with professional historians.
What follows in this post is an introduction to the overarching theme I am following this week in a series of posts dedicated to Washington DC, its places and spaces. DC is not like most other cities in the United States, nor other capitals in the Western World from which it was born. The many unique circumstances and situations were both intended and accidental. It is essential when discussing the history of the city to understand its at times conflicting roles which create challenging concepts of space in this city and capital.
The Place . . .
First and foremost in the minds of most Americans is the fact that Washington DC is the capital of the country. As such it is the primary workplace and hub for the federal government. For many people, the concept of the city begins and ends with this idea. Like other big cities, people are drawn to it for career reasons that often revolve around our federal workings and mechanizations. I know many people who have worked in the city for multiple decades but have no other connection to it. When people use the expression “inside the Beltway”, they often refer narrowly to the offices from which the federal government is run, highly misleading if one were to look at a map and conceive of the space that actually sits “inside the Beltway”. The “Beltway” is the 495 loop which encloses not only the District of Columbia but parts of northern Virginia and counties of southern Maryland–multiple jurisdictions, in fact!
Where Federal employees go to work: the National Mall and Federal Triangle.
Secondly, people in this country think of the great marble edifices that dot the Washington landscape. While this includes sites such as the White House and the Capital, they are seen not so much as office buildings, but as monumental shrines along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. These are symbols to be visited, photographed and cataloged in the family records (often on hot and humid summer days or in eighth grade school groups!) and are part of the DC civic pilgrimage that often further includes the Smithsonian Museums or the National Gallery of Art. What’s more these are all free of charge (unless you pay for a transportation or guide service), making them further highly desirable because they make for a cheaper vacation in many respects than other family vacations as families can stay further out and use Metro to get into the city. This is the “visited DC” as opposed to the one people come to for a job or even a mission–although, there is certainly room for overlap!
Some of the marble shrines of Washington DC: the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Finally, there is the awkwardly forgotten residential DC which is frequently only remembered by the people who actually live in or near the city. It is entirely possible to visit the District of Columbia and completely avoid the residential portions!! In fact, other than passing through the city jurisdiction on Metro you can spend an entire week in DC and pretty much avoid the city’s actual jurisdiction altogether–hotel in southern Maryland or northern Virginia, Metro to Smithsonian Station on the Mall and spend the entire vacation either at the Mall’s monuments or the Smithsonian museums, Metro back out of the city from the Smithsonian station and back to the hotel. When you think about that, it is pretty astonishing. But, in fact, people do live in DC and some of DC’s best cultural niches, stores, cafes and restaurants are in these residential neighborhoods. (Besides, how much time can you really spend looking at museums and monuments before you just start to go a little numb in the brain?)
U St. Neighborhood in DC and Ben's Chili Bowl--best half-smokes anywhere!
. . . And, thus, the Spaces.
So, this small plot of land, under 70 square miles, is geographically a cacophony of uses, experiences and jurisdictions–you wouldn’t believe how many police forces exist in that small plot of land–DCPD, FBI, Amtrak Police, National Park Service Police, Capitol Police, etc… There are many claims on this land and people experience this city differently: sometimes because of race or economics, sometimes because of politics or personal quests, sometimes because of greater or lesser understanding about how our country functions.
The health and maintenance of the city as well as the capital is difficult to achieve at times because there are often competing ends. The city does not have full autonomy to self-govern, nor does the Congress necessarily have vested interest in cooperating with city’s requests. City government is always difficult, but far more so if one has to involve Congress–and this has been the rub in DC’s history from the very beginning. Solving its problems and accommodating its growth and residents has been an ongoing tug of war on top of the social issues that affected our country from its beginnings to the present.*
The week ahead.
In conclusion, DC is unique. Whether you are talking about mayoral races or greater issues such as segregation, DC has always been a special case. Again, with the inspiration of this past week’s conference presentations, I am going to run a 4-post a series looking at the unique space of the District of Columbia. These will include a look at the city’s inception and the original conception of the Federal City, tomorrow; the locals’ space in the city, Wednesday, versus the locals’ space in the capital, Thursday; and finally, the city as it is a democratic stage and shrine on Friday.
In these posts I will cite some of the historians I listened to this past week. Their ideas along with the many I have cultivated in the course of a handful of years studying and presenting on the city (both for entertainment and education) will be a brief introduction into the complexities that few people outside of the DC metropolitan area regard or consider, presented both with an eye to the past and the present.
*Note: There exists a much more sophisticated discussion about spatial relations in sociology and social justice. I am not sufficiently well-versed or well-read to open an extensive discourse along those lines but they feature prominently in debates centered around urban-planning and spatial claims of social justice, in particular, and broader areas considering the lived environment in the U.S., including rural, urban and suburban living. Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Edward Soja treat these ideas specifically in their works–the application of which on the case of DC is a particularly intriguing question (one that George Washington University doctoral student, Greg Borchadt, is researching and presented on in “Democracy’s Stage as Contested Terrain: The Spatial Politics of Washington’s Early Civil Rights Movement, 1939-1954” at this conference).