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Early evening rush hour at Gallery Place. With a crowd of wet, tired commuters, I’m trudging from Red Line to Green Line, beaten down by the day, ready to go home. On a wall high above the platform is a piece of Metrorail decoration depicting a train rushing beneath the Capitol and the Washington Monument. The text reads, “America’s Subway.”
I’ve seen the sign dozens of times, and it always bothers me. America didn’t just pay for my farecard; I did. And I’m going to take my subway, to my house, and have one of my beers. Not in America’s city. In mine.
And I’m not sharing standard local prickliness about tourists. As far as I’m concerned, America’s tourists are welcome to get lost on the Red Line to their heart’s content. I’ll even give them directions. But the reason I know where I’m going is the same reason the sign bothers me: I live here. I belong to the city, and it to meand neither of us is the property of some camcorder-wielding visitor from Omaha, or his subsidy-dispensing senator.
In a Washington Post interview last spring, Sen. Lauch Faircloth did a nice job of articulating the “America’s Town” doctrine. “The District of Columbia does not belong to the people who happen to live between its boundaries,” said the senator. “The city belongs to the people of the United States.” Local activistsand not-so-activistsdenounced the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District as anti-democratic.
But it isn’t Faircloth and other latter-day colonialists who do the District the most damage. It’s a local problem. District residents have internalized the very model that Faircloth described: From rhetoric to iconography, Washingtonians of all political stripes are just as addicted to being “America’s City” as Congress is to beating up on the District.
Take a look around: The Metropolitan Police Department seal features the Capitol buildinga property the department doesn’t even patrol. The D.C. seal features it, too, in the backgroundnever mind that the seal’s most regular appearance these days seems to be atop letterhead protesting congressional meddling in hometown politics. Away from the heated subject of political prerogatives, local institutions from universities to record labels to TV stations (why is Channel 9 WUSA?) seem utterly unable to cloak the pedestrian stuff of our daily lives in anything but imperial, federal robes. The Wizards may have changed their name, but the Capitals never will.
And our political rhetoric does more to deepen our federal dependence than to sever it. Statehood activists espouse the enclave mentality as convincingly as Congress does, suggesting that the District’s unique federal status is the only reason that denying democratic rights to half a million people is unjust. Instead of cranking on about the absence of a vote in “America’s City,” how about mentioning the fact that we are Americans who don’t get to vote for squat? Even the city’s most ardent defender, Marion Barry, uses the words “nation’s capital” so many times that they have fused into a single term. We aren’t asking for any quarter because the feds happen to live here; we just want what every other city in America has: a hand in our own destiny.
The most absurd examples of the chronic substitution of federal columns for local forest come in efforts to depict D.C.’s decline. This year’s New Republic issue on Washington’s crises featured a cover portraying all of the national capital’s old standbys: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Capitol.
The symbolism could not have been more wrongheaded. None of the Mall’s icons has crumbled as a result of what’s gone on in D.C. None of them, in fact, bore any of the consequences of the city’s trauma. The memorials are about the only public institutions in townunlike the schools and municipal servicesthat are insulated from it all. They exist for a different public, supported by federal money, patrolled by the National Park Service, and visited, by and large, by out-of-town tourists.
A similar piece on a crisis in, say, New York, would almost certainly not feature the Statue of Liberty. The statue is a perfectly pleasant thing to have in the harbor, but New Yorkers know that it is a national symbolin their city but not really of it. A comparable story on Washington’s crisis wouldn’t even have needed an imaginary drawing to do that. All we needed was a photograph of the District Building. Just as the city’s finances went into the drink, our own city hall was literally falling apart. But that building, symbol of a young city government and an unestablished democracy, isn’t recognizable as a local icon, let alone a national one. No one noticed.
We ought to make it recognizableor at least come up with something recognizable in its place. Political freedom requires cultural independenceand cultural independence needs its own symbols.
No one has come up with alternative ways to represent the city, in either word or image. Some folks use a map of the district. Two-thirds of a diamond, it is certainly identifiable, but mapslets face itare dorky. Others trot out the D.C. flag, whose two bars and three stars present, at times, an arresting image. Still, few state flags, let alone city banners, can be picked out of a crowd. Yet what else is there? How to highlight what’s mine about my hometown, not what’s ours about our national capital?
I came back to D.C. in June after a year abroad. My plane landed at National Airport, slowly descending before a panorama of downtown’s monumental sights. Yet the homeness of home didn’t really hit me until a certain turn onto a random D.C. street. Houses with front porches. Leafy trees above. Nocturnal silence.
I have always liked living in the federal capital. Political problems aside, it’s got some amenities that can’t be beat. But I didn’t think about the Smithsonian when I was miles away. I thought about this street, these trees, my neighbors, and my neighborhood. And if our civic leaders want to move usto political action, to civic pride, or even to just not throwing shit in the Metrothey ought to be able to evoke the District without pointing to some giant piece of federal marble.CP