Taking a Walk Through Washington DC: Monumentalism and Mass Transit the Nation’s Capital

This post can also be read on the PreservationNation.org blog.

A few weeks ago I took a long walk through our Nation’s Capital. I started off at McPherson Square Metro Station and walked across to Chinatown for lunch. My friends and I then walked down 7th Street to the National Mall, and crossed over to the base of the Washington Monument to watch the National Cherry Blossom Festival performances. After a brief respite we meandered over to the Jefferson Memorial where I left them to travel diagonally past the World War II memorial to the Lincoln Memorial and 23rd Street. From there I walked up through Washington Circle and Foggy Bottom to make my way into Georgetown. I took a brief break, but after grabbing some time to read and some chai, I wandered along the pathway next to the C& O Canal until I could cross the Key Bridge into Rosslyn to catch a train home. Every single step was punctuated by amazing views and beautiful clear skies.

When I’m away from home I say am from DC, which is not wholly accurate and therefore is infuriating to some DC residents, but it suffices for outsiders. I am, in fact, from Northern Virginia – or more specifically from Springfield, the land of the mixing bowl (where Interstates 395, 95 and 495 meet). I am, however, an ardent defender of DC to those from who find it boring, staid, and devoid of diversity, and I recognize that there is more to this city than what tourists see. Washington is a place with running trails and hiking in the woods of Rock Creek Park, museums that aren’t all affiliated with the Smithsonian, individually unique neighborhoods, concert venues and theatres (I’m partial to the Shakespeare Theatre/Harmon Center for the Arts), and ice rinks in the winter.

Of course, there’s also my favorite thing to do when I come downtown: Walking directly into the middle of the National Mall (between the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building) and to look first left at the Washington Monument and then right at the iconic dome of the Capitol Building. For some reason I can’t explain exactly, it’s a vista that is exhilarating and energizing.

Which is why, when I started reading the various articles floating around about the DC streetcar system that I paid attention—especially since one of the arguments against the planned version involved the wires cluttering up the grand vistas of what is often referred to as the “monumental core” of the city. Some preservationists are opposed to this, while others – as discussed in this Washington Post op-ed – disagree. In this piece Adam Irish states that, “the monumentalist vision of Washington has choked nearly all urban life from the Mall and its environs. It has fashioned large sections of our city into pleasing vistas for tourists but has given the rest of us lifeless wastelands …”

Now I suppose I should be clear. I don’t see the wires as an impediment to the current landscaping of the National Mall; in fact I think that you won’t really notice them. I also agree that the streetcar system will be a benefit for the city, especially in the parts that Metro can’t really reach. While I do take a measure of notice to the argument that the National Mall and the monumental core are only for tourists, I also agree with David Alpert’s assertion in his post on Greater Greater Washington. He argues that there are better ways to make use of the public space, that being a 21st Century city that is an example for sustainability and planning, and a city that thinks strategically about preservation (of those very sightlines that bring visitors from all around the world) are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think we have to choose one or the other. Streetcars and sustainable design can live hand in hand with the Lincoln Memorial and the White House.

I know that Alpert’s assertion that the National Mall is “unpleasantly sun-baked, too spread out, and largely devoid of convenient transportation or food, “ is not a feeling shared by him alone, but if there was one thing that I learned from my walk that gorgeous spring day was that a modern city does not need to be one of towering buildings punctuated by greenery like much of New York City, where the insanity of choices begs for an oasis like Central Park. Rather, I think that the very expansiveness and openness of that monumental core can inspire planners, residents and preservationists alike to find a compromise that everyone can enjoy.

Click here to view my pics

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