David Plotz (“L’Enfant Terrible,” 12/24/04) hurls darts in the general direction of historians interested in the city of Washington. Plotz is off the mark in charging that D.C. has no history to call its own. But his comment does point up the problem of our local lack of historical consciousness.
Plotz asserts that, to the extent that history has happened here in the District at all, it’s been national and not local history. That’s a wrongheaded distinction. Events are multifaceted and invariably have both local and national aspects. Sept. 11, that quintessentially global event, is also a central event in the local history of New York City. Lots of factors contribute to any city’s history; how these get classified on the continuum from “local” to “global” is a matter of the interpreter’s frame of reference. In fact, a key element of the District’s historical uniqueness is its unique placement at the fault line where the national and the local collide.
Plotz is dismayed to find D.C. lacking against his checklist of historicity (“grand struggles of man against nature,” “blasting railroads through mountains,” “wagon trains,” etc.). The good news is that the District does as well on this list as any other city would. That’s because cities aren’t essentially characterized by their confrontations with raw nature, or even their in-town “musket-to-musket” battles (although the District has had its share of those).
Measure the District against more relevant (and interesting) criteria and you’ll find it well-endowed. Cities may usefully be measured against their planning and physical development efforts (and the cultural and class implications of those efforts). The District is famously heir, for better and for worse, to a series of inspired and aggressive designers (L’Enfant, Andrew Downing, F.L. Olmsted Jr., Daniel Burnham) not to mention having been the early experimental subject for federal visions of urban renewal. The plans were commissioned federally; they are lived locally.
Cities may be measured through their experience of immigration and emigration. Migrations to and from the District—Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Greek, and Asian as well as African-American and Central American—have been profoundly influenced by federal policies. But it is the local working-out of the consequences of those policies that has given us the creole city (uniquely appropriate capital of this multicultural democracy) which we inhabit.
Cities may be measured through their struggles to create and control forms of local government. Our struggles for local government are literally world-renowned—and anyone with the misimpression that they originated sometime in the last 30 years may begin by consulting Federalist No. 43. It is a little disheartening that Plotz’s lament comes now, in a period of particularly lush scholarship and publication on the city of Washington.
Plotz charges Washington History, the Historical Society’s journal, with being tedious, but he could look a little further into its index and find such gems as Harrold’s retelling of the wreck of the Pearl (largest antebellum slave escape attempt, it happened here, 1848) or Marvin Caplan’s tale of the “Eat Anywhere” campaign (the resurrection of the District’s “Lost Laws,” and end of discrimination in public accommodations). The local papers have also done their part: there’s the Washington Post’s nice piece in the March 23, 2003, Sunday magazine on Washington’s 1857 Know Nothing riot—which took place in the Northern Liberties, where the City Museum now stands. And there’s Michael Schaffer’s fine piece on the District’s devastating 1919 race riot in the Washington City Paper (4/3/98).
Where Plotz’s barbs hit home is in identifying the failure of this wealth of history and scholarship to translate into a shared community self-awareness of our heritage. It’s clear that the problem is not a lack of “Washington history.” What may be missing is a compelling, consensual narrative of the city’s past. Boston has its Tea Party; New York, the Masters of the Universe. Where is the District’s foundational myth? There are no doubt numerous possibilities, but the most obvious one is in that very local-federal nexus Plotz dismisses. The city of Washington has been at times the beneficiary, at times the victim, of federal action, but we have always been its first witnesses. The story of how we residents of the federal city—stewards of “the Capital of the Free World”—have reacted to, fled from, ameliorated, or proposed alternatives to the machinations of the federal and increasingly imperial behemoth as it has evolved over the last two centuries is a local history at the very core of the American story.