A Sense of Place in DC

Posted on 05 February 2010

I recently saw—and thoroughly enjoyed—the 2007 film, Talk to Me, by Kasi Lemmons.  The movie pleasantly surprised me with its drama, wit, and cool-handed insight; but most of all it shared a sympathy and understanding of Washington, DC that I had never seen before.

Despite the fact that I’ve lived here for over two years now, I’d be hard-pressed to describe the “character” of DC.  For many of the other cities where I have lived, this has been a fairly straight-forward process.  Boston is quaint, salty and historic; New York is huge, bustling and business-like; Chicago is cultured yet gritty; San Francisco is vibrant and culturally unfettered; and Honolulu takes laid-back to a whole new level.  But DC, with its myriad monuments and endless parade of politicians, somehow doesn’t slip into a set category or lend itself to any particular two or three adjectives the way other places do.  Both culturally and economically, it has undergone tremendous change over the past 20 years, even as it has continued to rock and tumble with the regular spasm of political change. 

Since the 1960s the rapid development of downtown and the gentrification of a succession of neighborhoods has gradually transformed the capital.  In many cases, lofty expectations for the improvement of the city led developers to tear down some of the city’s most beautiful historic buildings, literally dismantling its character brick by brick, or board by board.  As a result, most of today’s downtown is an architectural mishmash whose streets could as easily be described as “anywhere, urban America.”  Even the supposedly ethnic neighborhood of Chinatown is disappointing: a giant arch and five or six chinese restaurants nested among a spread of chain stores and restaurants whose names have been written in Chinese.  But when high prices were being offered in this downtown neighborhood, it was difficult for this area’s former residents to stay put.  The result is a largely rootless cultural landscape, with few old-time businesses and only a few historic buildings.  In today’s DC, people come and go depending on who’s in office and personal ambition; and the turnover is so constant and unbroken that actually meeting a “DC native” is almost worthy of an autograph.

When I first arrived here, I’m rather ashamed to admit, I couldn’t have picked out the Washington Monument from the Jefferson Memorial (though—not to worry—I COULD distinguish the Capitol from the Pentagon, in a line up).  I laughed at names like Foggy Bottom and Farragut, and got hopelessly lost one day when I confused 1st St. NW with 1st St. NE (silly bumpkin).  I had visited the nation’s capital only once, around the age of ten.  It was on a family roadtrip to visit relatives in Virginia, and for good measure we swung through DC on the way by.  I don’t even remember what we saw or where we went; all I have is a single, vague memory of walking on the Mall.  My ignorance of DC could perhaps be called un-American; but somehow the glory of national monuments and political pomp never captured my imagination the way it does for many others—Americans and foreigners alike.  On some level, I think I took for granted our politics and system of government—unique and remarkable as they are—and took my under-appreciated American-born wings of liberty and used them to sail off into the sunset (across the country or overseas, usually), rather than pay homage to their founders.  

It is DC’s very glory, however, and its constant preoccupation with being in the national and international spotlights, that lie at the root of its identity crisis.  Living here today, I find myself drawing a blank when it comes to understanding this iconic town as a city and a community.  Like the storied tug-of-war between federal and city officials that has always characterized its governance, the “real” DC of mostly African American residents is consistently cast in contrast to the more transient populations of the city’s northwest quadrant.  As a card-carrying member of the latter group—right down to the northwest part—I have throughout my time here struggled to understand and identify with the rest of the city’s population (see posts on Service Day and Anacostia, from May and April 2009).  Bridging this gap is a monumental task, from a cultural as well as an economic standpoint; and perhaps one of its biggest challenges is that defining community is nearly impossible in an environment of transient residents.  Still, seeking to understand this issue and the underlying divide goes a long way to explaining why DC seems to lack character.  

Another reason why it is difficult to find a sense of place in DC is its sprawling nature, both in geographic and self-defining terms.  A classic example is provided by a website that my sister recently forwarded to me: tastingtable.com/dc.  The website, a self-described “food culture daily” that sends members daily food and restaurant related emails, recently broke onto the DC scene and at first sparked my interest.  However, when I clicked on what looked like a mouth-watering brunch recommendation, it turned out to be about a restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Sigh.  True, as my boyfriend was quick to point out, our house in northwest is only a short drive from Silver Spring.  And certainly other cities frequently become more “metropolitan areas” rather than insular cities, per se.  Yet, as I kept thinking about it I increasingly realized that the reason this annoyed me in this case, particularly, was because it happens all the timein DC.  Looking for an Asian-food store?  Oh, yeah—there’s a great one!  Out by Seven Corners in Falls Church, Virginia.  How about a fabric store, or some place that sells a variety of arts and crafts supplies (i.e. not Staples)?  The nearest one I’ve found is in Rockville, Maryland—a couple light-strewn miles down the dreary 3-lane road known as the Rockville Turnpike.  Perhaps the worst part about the whole thing is that when you look these places up on Google or Mapquest, getting there looks like a breeze (1.5 miles?  No problem!); but a series of painful learn-by-experience incidents have taught me that any DC time estimate given to you by a mapping website is at least 15 minutes shy of what your real travel time will be.  Mostly this is because anywhere you go in DC, there’s always a crapload of traffic.  But please excuse me—in my approach to bitterness I stray from the topic at hand…

When the definition of a nation is determined so much by unique qualities in culture and character, it seems strange to say that our own nation’s capital, or what is meant to be its crown jewel, has no true character.  Yet, at the end of the day, this argument is not a difficult one to make.

The character I wish DC would embrace, the spirit that has always been there but is constantly being swept under the rug or—literally—relegated to the outskirts, is the character I saw and recognized in Talk to Me.  As all movies do, this feature both dramatizes and romanticizes the culture and spirit of DC in order to make it more easily understood; yet in it I also recognized many familiar aspects of the city where I live.  I wish there were more of that spirit coming out from under the rug and into the middle of the parlor—onto the Mall.  Rather than the hopes, dreams and ambitions that permeate politics, a firm grounding in reality could do a lot for DC.  On the other hand, maybe a democratic nation’s capital—a city of politics, politicians and their entourages—is not meant for unity or homey character.  Without a sense of place to anchor it, DC can be a comfortable home to anyone…for a few years, at least!

The Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Bridge, and Washington Monument view from Virginia

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