Committee for the Capital City
PO Box 77443
Washington, DC 20013-8443
Eugene L. Meyer, "The Making of Washington's Secret City," 1/14/1996
The Washington Post
Book World, pg. X05
The Making of Washington's Secret City
by Eugene L. Meyer
Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C.
Two vivid memories linger from my first childhood trip to Washington, circa 1951: I remember our hosts in white Northwest expressing their opposition to any form of home rule, on racial grounds. My mind flashed back to that long ago trip as I read this newest look at the city and its dual identity, as a hometown and as the nation's capital.
Between Justice and Beauty is a depressing chronicle of how historically entangled are the issues of race, home rule and the landscape - both social and physical - of the District of Columbia. The subtitle - "Race, Planning and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C." - sets out the author's thesis. Time and again in the city's history, its federal overseers have opted for physical beauty - monuments, federal buildings, office buildings, a low skyline - over social justice. The manifest result is the District of today: a place full of memorials and museums but increasingly polarized along racial and class lines, with a dwindling population and shrinking tax base, and with the virtual reality of politics but only the illusion of home rule.
Recent events have only pointed out the futility of the District's situation, as some city workers were furloughed and services suspended in tandem with the federal budget impasse. But, as Gillette's book underscores, this is only the most recent in a long list of tangible affronts to city life imposed on residents by federal overlords. While pursuing perceived self-interest, the feds have continually meddled in District affairs. "Within the framework of Washington's special relationship with the federal government," Gillette writes, "there have been creative periods, marked by activist, interventionist administrations inspired by the goal of addressing social needs . . . But more powerful and enduring among the forced determined to remake Washington were competing efforts to secure the city's beautification."
In Reconstruction Washington, physical improvements took precedence over social engineering. Territorial Gov. Alexander "Boss" Shepherd rebuilt the city, but rejected attempts to integrate the public schools, which remained segregated until the 1950s.
The City Beautiful movement that swept the country a century ago had its counterpart here, but with special force since the federal government could more easily enforce its vision for the District. While tens of thousands of residents lived in poverty, the priority was construction of the Federal Triangle. When urban renewal finally arrived, in Southwest Washington after World War II, its singular achievement was to demolish a neighborhood along with its slums, while displacing its mostly black population.
Gillette, a professor of American civilization at George Washington University, is well-equipped to tell this tale. He was also the first director of the Center for Washington Studies and an editor of Washington History, the publication of the Historical Society of Washington, and his teachings have inspired scores of graduate students to pursue the District's rich if often slighted local history.
But this is more policy primer than social history, focusing, as it does, on the politicians and the planners rather than on the people most affected. For social history, readers may refer to Washington Seen, a documentary and photographic look at the District from 1875 to 1965, also published by Johns Hopkins with text by Gillette.
Lurking in the background of the policy, always, is race: early and long-held white fears of a black takeover and, more recently, black fears of "the plan" in which whites presumably regain political control over local government. If in some places, perhaps, issues transcend race, in the District race more often transcends issues. The real issue is that both white and black Washingtonians lack any real control over their city.
Thus, after 10 narrative chapters, Gillette reaches a somewhat startling if inescapable conclusion. Since the schizophrenic structure of the District - with limited home rule still subject to congressional whim - hasn't worked for the citizens and statehood isn't in the cards, the only solution is retrocession. This would entail the return of all but a small federal enclave to Maryland. As part of a state, the argument goes, local Washington would at least have a real voice and, in alliance with its suburbs and with Baltimore, at least the possibility of determining its own destiny.
Alexandrians, unhappy over their lack of taxing powers, achieved retrocession in 1846, and Washington, D.C., should strive to do so as it approaches its bicentennial in the year 2000, Gillette argues. The politics of this may be problematic. Retrocession has been both promoted and rejected on partisan grounds, denounced as racist and regarded as a big negative for Maryland. But, by showing that all else has failed, Gillette has made a case that the idea is at least worthy of serious consideration.