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Washington is America’s most intentional city. We have long, deliberately unobstructed vistas. Statues on plinths in circles. Rigid design guidelines. A government panel that dictates the collective taste. Big, imposing projects that represent big, imposing ideas.
Sometimes you wish everyone would just stop trying so hard. Because all that heavy thinking is getting us nowhere. The big idea is attractive when it’s still on paper, and it remains tantalizing as the city breaks ground. But once it’s born, once the concrete plaza is completed, the concept loses its luster. It becomes part of the never-changing pattern of the city—the same maddeningly simple hard expanse, the same gurgling fountain.
The city’s best public spaces evolve with time and grow into their surroundings. Take Rock Creek Park: This wild tear in the urban fabric sends fingers of untamed woods into a dozen neighborhoods. You can actually get lost. But most public spaces lack that spontaneity and end up feeling inert. Take the Mall: Jogging along the gravel, you might as well be running on a treadmill.
Spaces like this reinforce the isolation of urban life rather than the collective vitality of the city. Curiosity about what or who is around the corner becomes a solipsistic lack of expectation. Sameness begets boredom, and boredom breeds neglect; the city is full of very expensive places that were very well planned, but that we’d rather not visit.
Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center, 2200 Champlain St. NW
In the early ’70s, the people of Adams Morgan drew up a list of what they wanted in their new elementary school. Apparently, its builders had trouble saying no. The Marie Reed complex includes a pool, a recreation center, a health clinic, and adult-learning classrooms. The west side of Champlain Street wasn’t big enough to contain all those good intentions, so the design for the bloated concrete building expanded across the street, closing it off to traffic.
The portion of pavement that used to be street became an opportunity to add yet one more amenity: an open-air performance stage. “One of the things the community was saying was, ‘We have no room for teenagers,’” recalls Louis Fry Jr., the building’s architect. “They wanted someplace to call their own, so to speak, and not disturb the neighbors.” So Fry designed an outdoor version of the conventional rec room, with concrete substituting for shag carpeting, and including electrical inputs for a sound system. The space was partially sheltered from the elements by the second floor of the building, so teens would run less of a chance of electrocution. The enclosure also helped muffle the shrieks and booms of band practice.
But it’s been a while since anyone jammed in the so-called amphitheater. Today, the area around the stage includes broken glass and the ruins of a concrete chess platform. And then there are the dumpsters. After the building was packed with amenities, there wasn’t anywhere left for the trash. The dumpsters seem to have found a permanent home at the stage’s northern edge, helping the area maintain the vibe of a highway underpass.
Reserve 721, 500 block of I Street SW
If much of Southwest feels detached from the city, and if its constituent parts seem detached from each other, this unnamed park, behind the Waterside Mall, makes you feel downright stranded. It seems the architect believed that sitting on a park bench was the starting point for outdoor adventure. The benches are perched on three islands in an artificial, black-bottomed pond. One island is raised above the pond. One is at water level. One is below water level, so when the pond is full, the benches on this island are partially submerged. When there’s no water—which is most of the time—the pond resembles a tar pit.
Techworld, K Street between 7th and 9th Streets NW
This may be the most gratuitous seizure of a public thoroughfare in Washington history. At least the old convention center—now being demolished—occupied the streets it stole from L’Enfant’s grid. Techworld, though, a giant office and hotel complex completed in 1990, closed off a block’s worth of 8th Street NW just to span it with an overpass. Nearly all the retail establishments, including a food court, are hidden in the depths of the building, leaving the streetside barren but for the grace of a sports bar. The architects invested their energies in gimmicky Chinese gardens located in side passages through the massive structure: fake alleys for a once-real street.
U.S. National Arboretum, New York Avenue NE
The Metrobus from Union Station to the U.S. National Arboretum is one of the loneliest rides in town. You can catch it only on Saturday or Sunday, and when you do, you’re not going to have much company. It’s frequently empty. So, it seems, is the arboretum.
The place itself is lush with life, encompassing some 450 carefully cultivated acres. But tall fences isolate the grounds from the rest of the city. Worse are the busy roads that surround it on most sides, like an uncrossable moat. Only a few miles from the Capitol, the place is most sensibly reached by car. A recent count determined that about half the cars in the arboretum lots sport Maryland plates.
According to its Web site, the arboretum gets 500,000 to 600,000 visitors a year. Maybe so. But you’ll seldom see more than a dozen at a time.
Washington Circle NW and Barney Circle SE
These circles could have been an excellent chance to pin the ceremonial sash of Pennsylvania Avenue with flourishes at both ends. But Washington Circle, a few blocks from where the avenue disappears into M Street NW, is inhospitable. And Barney Circle, where Pennsylvania leaps over the Anacostia River, isn’t only barren—it’s not even a circle.
You’d think Washington Circle, adjacent to George Washington University, would feed off the same energy as nearby Dupont Circle, easily the most lively roundabout in the city. But at Dupont, you can frolic in the memorial fountain; at Washington Circle, the statue stands as aloof as the man it honors, separated from the public by a chain. Numbers tell the rest of the story: Of four crosswalks to the circle’s center park, only two protect pedestrians with traffic lights. And the park’s concrete-to-grass ratio is at least 2-to-1, with most of the greenery confined to the perimeter as a tree lawn. Who’s going to sit within inches of the circling traffic?
At least there are benches. At Barney Circle, an obvious site for some sort of gateway-to-the-city treatment, there’s nothing but grass. Traffic from Pennsylvania Avenue channels right through the middle of it, leaving unusable scraps of land. A few years ago, an Atlanta architect hoped to make something more of the circle, whose claim to fame is a secret, illegal exit onto local streets used by thousands of Marylanders each day. He intended to build (and pay for) a Millennium Monument trumpeting the achievements of American civilization. City planners dismissed it as wacky.
The circle seems immune to the development urges consuming Capitol Hill. In fact, the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District (BID) ends right where the circle begins. “We don’t get too much going on over here,” says Gerald Hardy, one of the BID’s blue-jacketed ambassadors. “You get a lot of traffic situations. Other than that, it’s kinda dead.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 9th and G Streets NW
For years, the overhang at the entrance to D.C.’s central library has been a daytime refuge for the people who frequent the homeless-services centers down the block. But these days visitors can appreciate the clean lines of the modernist building’s front entrance in what its fastidious architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, would have considered its ideal state: sans people. There’s no place to sit down, and a guard rousts anyone who attempts to park himself on the pavement. The “elevated threat level” is one reason for the standing-room-only policy, explains Monica Lewis, a library spokesperson. Another reason, she says, is that the loitering men were intimidating to library patrons. “I don’t know we’ve put a whole lot of effort into making people waiting outside comfortable before they’re going in,” Lewis says. “That’s not our mission. Our business is attracting people into the library.”
John Marshall Plaza, south of Judiciary Square
It may be downtown’s least famous monumental axis. From south to north between 4th and 5th Streets NW, there’s a statue of a sitting John Marshall, a statue of a young Abraham Lincoln, the frontal colonnade of the old City Hall at Judiciary Square, the lions of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, and the expansive red roof of the National Building Museum, which from a distance appears to frame it all. But if you were to actually walk the route, you’d wander into a strange void somewhere between Marshall and Lincoln. It’s a plain square of green flanked by D.C. Superior Court and a municipal office building, with an exhaust pipe at its center. Of course, elementary considerations of taste argue against an exhaust pipe protruding into public space, so this one has been discreetly masked from public view. It’s imprisoned in a 6-foot cube of decorative cement blocks.
Fort Lincoln New Town, South Dakota Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE
Most urban-renewal schemes start by clearing away old tenements, not woodland. But by locating this Great Society project on the gorgeous 350-acre grounds of a former boys’ reformatory near the Maryland border, its planners hoped to net those who would otherwise have been lured by the suburbs.
Almost 40 years after it was devised, and 30 years after it finally broke ground, this publicly funded vision has fallen well short of every one of its goals. Due to lack of demand, fewer than a quarter of the more than 4,500 planned residential units were ever built. This was supposed to be an integrated community with people of all incomes, but early on, planners acknowledged that middle-class folks—whether white or black—were hardly interested. The commercial components that were supposed to make Fort Lincoln a self-sustaining village-within-the-city never materialized. The hottest retail activity to take place there in three decades was in the ’80s, when the residents of the local senior residence fought the opening of a pool hall.
With its long stretches of undeveloped land—woods without park trails—Fort Lincoln doesn’t even look like the suburb it aspires to be. Perched above the traffic of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, it channels the spirit of exurban estrangement: It’s like Germantown with a view. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.