Jul 15, 2008

On Washington DC and Urban Evolution

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Pierre Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan of the City of Washington, as revised by Major Andrew EllicottPierre Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan of the City of Washington, as revised by Major Andrew Ellicott

I have traveled to Washington, DC many times in my life, and despite my familiarity with the federal district, I still maintain a sense of awe about the place. Yet only two centuries have passed since the region was an undeveloped stretch of hinterland, and the growth of the metropolis in that period is quite remarkable.

The idea that America could have once been considered a cultural backwater probably comes as a surprise to many contemporary citizens of the United States. American culture has become so pervasive that there are few people alive who can remember a time when it was not dominant, or when the United States was at best a second-rate power.

We grow up with the iconic images of such luminaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson branded upon our collective hides, and the impressions passed on to us of these noteworthy forefathers are those of erudite, preeminent statesmen. While these particular individuals were, indeed, great leaders, they were but a tiny percentage of the population. Most of the American citizens of the late colonial and early republican period would be considered ignorant rubes by their European contemporaries.

The impressive city that is now our nation’s capital began as farmland and rolling hills, and later degenerated into a mosquito-infested, swampy region with its haphazard development. Our early congressmen lodged in seedy boarding houses during the months they were in session, and extant accounts of these early legislators demonstrate a noteworthy distaste for life in the new capitol city. Margaret Bayard Smith, a woman who grew up in an era in which diet pills were not yet a fad, provided this view of DC as it looked to an outsider in 1800:
At last I perceive the capitol, a large square, ungraceful, white building, approaching nearer I see three large brick houses and a few hovels, scattered over the plain. One of the brick houses is the one where we lodge. We drive to it; it is surrounded with mud, shavings, boards, planks, & all the rubbish of building. Here then I am. I alight, am introduced to Mr. Still & led into a large handsome parlour. I seat myself at the window, & while Mr. Smith is busied with the luggage, survey the scene before me.

Immediately before the door is the place from whence the clay for bricks has been dug & which is now a pond of dirty water. All the materials for building, bricks, planks, stone, & c., are scattered on the space which lies between this and the Capitol & which is thickly overgrown with briars and black berries & intersected with foot paths. The Capitol is about as far from here as Col. Freeborn's from you. Some brick kilns & small wooden houses & sheds occupy the scene. About half dozen brick houses are seen at a small distance. The Capitol stands on a hill which slopes down towards the Potomac, from the bottom of this hill, to the river extends a thick & noble wood, beyond this you see the river & the scene is then closed by a range of hills, which extend north south as far as the eye can reach.
This stands in stark contrast with the distorted (and largely modern) historical reputation of the District of Columbia being an international hub of political, cultural, and educational activity. I try to visualize such accounts when I visit DC, but the urban sprawl and the city's innovative architecture make it difficult to imagine the place once being a muddy, uninviting hamlet.

4 comments:

Tim Higgins said...

Mike,

Many would consider that DC is now just a tick infested swamp with no concept of development.

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