It was the summer of ’95 when I headed north to New York City to try and find my way in the world. I was leaving Mount Pleasant, where I had spent my childhood growing up in the shadows of Rock Creek Park. Summers in the old neighborhood were hot and slow and familiar. I could sit out on my back porch in the evenings, smelling a citronella candle and the whiff of charcoal from my neighbor’s grill, watching the opossums sneak around in search of cat food.
At the end of the summer, my old man drove me up the interstate, and over the George Washington Bridge, and left me standing on Amsterdam Avenue with the street merchants yapping for my attention. Their words flew by my ears, and I stood dumbfounded. Everything was a blur.
But eventually, I adjusted. When I returned to D.C. to live, in the fall of 2000, I was ready to stay up later, walk faster, and talk louder to stand out in the droopy-eyed District of my youth. But somehow, the city I remembered was missing. In its place, I found a wannabe Gotham crammed with condominiums with such New York names as the Gramercy Lofts. In my old neighborhood, hipsters in hooded sweatshirts huffed coffee, smoked cigarettes, and wore black. Mount Pleasant had become Brooklyn South.
I stumbled through the streets, gawking at the Vespas and the all-night diners, feeling a little lost. What had happened to the sleepy Southern town of my youth?
It’s a question that District residents have asked themselves before. Over and over and over.
David Brinkley moved to Washington in the ’40s and watched World War II reshape the city. “The war transformed not just the government,” wrote Brinkley in Washington Goes to War. “It transformed Washington itself. A languid Southern town with a pace so slow that much of it simply closed down for the summer grew almost overnight into a crowded, harried, almost frantic metropolis struggling desperately to assume the mantle of global power, moving haltingly and haphazardly and only partially successfully to change itself into the capital of the free world.”
Brinkley grew up in the South, in Wilmington, N.C. His account of a Washington losing its Southern character is convincing. And familiar.
In the anthology Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C., historian Lois E. Horton dated the same transformation from sleepy Southern town to Northern metropolis to about 80 years earlier. In “The Days of Jubilee: Black Migration During the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Horton attributes the change to the influence of freed slaves who moved to the District following emancipation. “The Civil War and its aftermath transformed Washington from a small town into a city,” wrote Horton. “The southern city now faced north.”
Thirteen pages later, historian Kathryn Allamong Jacob described the same transformation as Brinkley and Horton. Again, the timing differs.
In “Like Moths to a Candle: The Nouveaux Riches Flock to Washington 1870-1900,” Jacob attributed Washington’s transformation to a class of socialites that descended on the District after the Civil War. “The nouveaux riches helped change the look, the image, and the actual urban geography of late nineteenth-century Washington,” wrote Jacob. “During the 1890s Washington matured into a full-fledged city.”
So when did it rise? 1870? 1880? 1890?
Or perhaps 1960.
“Washington is no longer the sleepy southern town that it was back in the 1960s, when Kennedy glitz took the place by storm,” Dan Harris wrote on ABCnews.com in January 2001. “Today it’s a major metropolitan area.”
“Earlier, with the election of John Kennedy in 1960, Washington had undergone a sea change,” wrote photographer Fred J. Maroon in the preface to his 1999 book, The Nixon Years: 1969-1974 White House to Watergate. “No longer a sleepy Southern town, the city acquired a new glamour and status by virtue of the occupants of the White House.”
Sure. But which occupants?
In a passage from Our Capital on the Potomac excerpted in Katharine Graham’s Washington, Helen Nicolay pinned the moment of transformation to the year 1921, as the Harding administration entered the White House. “[W]e realized that the leisurely town we loved had changed to a busy city,” wrote Nicolay. “Old Washington vanished, never to return.”
Only it evidently did return, so it could vanish again in the ’30s. “When I came back to Washington for good, it was to an altogether new period in its life and mine,” wrote Graham herself in her compilation. “The New Deal had intervened while I was away and had transformed the sleepy town in which I’d grown up into a vibrant city.”
In 1997, Karl Vick sat down to write an article for the Washington Post about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy in the District. The headline: “In FDR Years, ‘Sleepy Southern Town’ Woke Up.” By this point, so many people had written or talked about Washington’s transformation from a sleepy Southern town to a booming metropolis that Vick had to acknowledge the competition.
Vick quoted fellow journalist Chalmers Roberts: “Every now and then, somebody runs a story saying Washington was a sleepy southern town ‘until’…until Jack Kennedy got here or until Ronald Reagan got here.
You name it….But it really was a sleepy southern town until Franklin Delano Roosevelt got here.”
But not everyone in the city was convinced.
In 1998, then-Mayor Marion S. Barry issued a press release announcing that he wouldn’t be running for another term in office. “Mayor Barry leaves behind a legacy of serving the least, the last and the lost,” read the announcement. “Among his achievements in the District of Columbia, he can count the following: Brought Washington from a sleepy Southern town to a thriving metropolis and a cosmopolitan city.”
The District isn’t the only city to claim the status of sleepy Southern town once removed. A preliminary list of other no-longer-sleepy Southern towns would include Miami, Tallahassee, and Orlando, Fla., Atlanta, Athens, and Macon, Ga., Williamsburg and Charlottesville, Va., Chattanooga, Tenn., Annapolis, Md., Huntsville, Ala., Williston, S.C., and Fuquay-Varina, N.C.
But the District sets itself apart by reconstructing the claim over and over, repeatedly waking up and nodding off throughout history. So what accounts for this municipal narcolepsy?
Every story about a District awakening involves an influx of newcomers. Horton’s freed slaves, Jacob’s nouveaux riches, Brinkley’s wartime bureaucrats. Barry, presumably, credited himself and his entourage.
Local blues fanatic John Fahey once told the Washington City Paper: “Prior to ’55, Washington, D.C., was a city of Southern culture, like Richmond. So was Baltimore. So, from a cultural point of view, until all the goddamned government workers moved in from strange, horrible Northern places like Ohio and Minnesota and took over…”
Fahey, like all purveyors of the sleepy-Southern story, treated the influx of new residents as sui generis, a novel and unexpected turn in the District’s history. He, for one, rued the city’s arrival as a metropolis and longed for the rustic days of hillbilly music and cheap 78s. Most Washingtonians take a different view. They see the awakening as the coming of a new, energetic era of which they are a part.
But an influx of residents into the District has never been a historical turning pointit’s the historical norm. New groups of people are always moving to the District, which remains a destination city for one generation after another. The frequent turnover is not antithetical to the city’s identity but one of the city’s defining characteristics.
The sleepy-Southern-town story credits the District with a level of stability and continuity that never existed. In a Platonic sleepy Southern town, nobody ever comes or goes. Generations pile up on top of each other. The demographics of a sleepy Southern town are governed by the simple push and pull of birth and death.
Not so the District.
We like to regurgitate the myth of our sleepy roots because it provides us with a convenient scapegoat. We can blame it for our shortcomings. Each time we visit Paris, or London, or New York, or Barcelona, and our hometown insecurity reaches a fever pitch, we can tell ourselves that everything will be OK. After all, those cities’ residents didn’t have to pull themselves out of the sump. We did.
And yet somewhere out there, perhaps in Muncie, Ind., lives a Hoosier who will someday move to the District, discover a sleepy Southern town, and start the arduous process of transforming the District into a metropolisagain, as if starting from scratch. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Willliam L. Brown.