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Everyone who mattersfrom President Clinton to Mayor Barry to the guys who make latrines out of our alleysnow admits that D.C. is worth little more than the swampland it’s built on. Just look at the streets, the murder rate, and the moving vans. What’s more, the debate over how to bring the city back is every bit as tired as D.C.’s problems. There’s the inevitable tax-base argument. Then there’s the political rights/disenfranchisement argument. And of course, the dreaded municipal mismanagement argument.
Problem is, the debate is addressing all the wrong questions. Instead of racking our brains to figure out how to save the District, we should ask a more basic question: Is this really a good place to keep our nation’s capital?
Web surfers, renowned for daring to puncture conventional wisdom, have already leapfrogged the staid dialogue over the District. Take, for instance, the Washingtoncentric “Digital City” area of America Online, where I found this question, posed by JFSONE:
“Since gov’t is in decline in every aspect, should we move the gov’t seat to a central local [sic].”
SweetP2780 spoke loudly for the majority in replying,
“YES, WHAT KIND OF CITY IS THIS TO REPRESENT THE NATION.”
In fact, the opinions were unanimous and included an early vote for relocating our nation’s capital to “East Jabippsville, Oklahoma.” I could not locate East Jabippsvilleor any Jabippsville, for that matteron the map. Perhaps that was the point: make the whole damn place vanish.
The online chatter reveals the dangers of complacency. Just because we’ve got a bunch of heavy marble buildings doesn’t mean the town won’t up and mosey off. Relocating entire cities is not unthinkableor undoable.
Can’t happen? Two words: Brasilia and Canberra. In 1960, the Brazilian government moved itself from urbane, cosmopolitan Rio 1,000 miles into the middle of the absolute nowhere that is central Brazil. Even after nearly 40 years, tour books continue to condemn the place as soulless. Likewise, in 1927, formerly happy Melbourne civil servants found themselves swatting flies in a brand-new capital city deep in the outback (designed by an American architect, by the way; you see, we’re skilled at this sort of thing).
Why did these countries undertake all this seemingly needless effort and expense? Politics. And the current political climate in our town? The U.S. government doesn’t much care for the District of Columbia, Newt’s recent apologia notwithstanding.
These sentiments are hardly new. From the time the ink dried on the U.S. Constitution, it has been a tough sell convincing people to build a city on the Potomac. And getting them to live here remains a tough sell. America’s seat of power is where it is only because of a drunken compromise and the iron will of a man who can no longer speak on the District’s behalf.
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Until 1791, the federal government shuttled among eight different cities. When Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, marauding British troops sent them running to Baltimore. When the coast was clear, they scurried back to Philly, then had to flee to Lancaster, Pa., then to York, and, déjà vu, back to Philly. After the musket powder had been put away, they also spent time in New York City, Annapolis, and Trenton.
While the Founding Fathers were in the City of Brotherly Love, a group of dissatisfied Revolutionary War veterans marched from Lancaster to demand money. Local authorities refused to stop them. Faced with this dire threat, Congress acted quickly. It passed a resolution:
“RESOLVED: That the President and supreme executive council of Pennsylvania be informed that the authority of the United States having this day been grossly insulted by the disorderly and menacing appearance of a body of armed soldiers about the place within which Congress were assembled, and the peace of this city being endangered by the mutinous disposition of said troops now in the barracks, it is, in the opinion of Congress necessary that effectual measure be immediately taken for supporting the public authority.”
Blah-blah-blah, etc., etc. Congress skedaddled to Princeton.
Clearly, all this running around looked pretty foolish to the rest of the world. You can imagine the snickering in France. The solution was obviouscreate a permanent federal city and stay there, come Redcoats or foul water. But it wasn’t as simple as throwing darts at a map. Each fiercely independent state called dibs. The debate was intense, as this exchange between sage men from Virginia and Massachusetts reveals. Old Dominion takes the first crack:
“Ye grave learned asses, so fond of molasses,
You’re fairly outwitted, you’re fairly outwitted.
With this Georgetown notionoh, dear, what a potion!
In the teeth you’ll be twitted. In the teeth you’ll be twitted.
Not to be outdone, Massachusetts rejoined thusly:
The Union you’d sever, for sake of your river,
And give up assumption, and give up assumption.
There’s White, and there’s Lee, and there’s Maryland’s G.
Wise men all of gumption, wise men all of gumption.
Then there’s Daniel Carroll, who looks like a barrel,
Of Catholic faith, sir! Of Catholic faith, sir.
He swore he’d be true, but the bung, sir, it flew.
He went off in a breath, sir! Went off in a breath, sir.
Makes one appreciate Jesse Jackson all the more, doesn’t it? That “Georgetown notion” no doubt referred to the citizens of Georgetown, then a separate city, who were so anxious to host the capital that they offered “to put themselves and their fortunes under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress.” Imagine. And today they fret over the votes of a few out-of-town students!
The debate so divided Congress that the only decision it could make was to postpone any decision until after the Revolution. Once that was out of the way, the rancor picked right back up. Finally, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison struck a deal at Thomas Jefferson’s house, where, it is recorded, wine was served. Southerners would agree to vote for a federal payment on Revolutionary War debt, and the North would agree to the Potomac site. Politics as usual.
But when the hangovers went away, the 1783 Compromise in fact created two federal towns. One somewhere along the Potomac, the other near Trenton, N.J.
Congress soon realized that two sites would mean more shlepping back and forth, so it got off the pot and decided once and for all on a single site for the seat of government: Trenton.
But in the first and perhaps only case of IMBY, local resident George Washington lobbied so strongly in favor of the more Mount Vernon-convenient location that today this article appears in the Washington City Paper and not the Trenton Town Crier.
Even after D.C. got the go-ahead, the actual building of the town was a grim and embattled affair. The chapter headings of Bob Arnebeck’s 1991 book on the subject, Through a Fiery Trial, tell the entire tale, and will ring with ominous familiarity to any Washingtonian: “Nothing Honorable, Useful, or Decorous,” “Diabolical, Frenzical Disorder,” “We Are Not Now in Laughing Humor,” “Miscreant Junto of Gipsies,” and the most prophetically appropriate, “Pray, Pray, Send Me Some Money, or I Shall Die.”
The War of 1812 inspired a bitchin’ overturethe Napoleonic campaign, that is. Stateside, it incited yet another round of harsh debate about placement of the capital. After all, the invaders hadn’t exactly had a tough time getting in. With the joint burned down (estimated damages from trashing a nation’s entire capital city: $1 millionpocket change for Juwan Howard), reasonable men thought, well, this place is done, why not start fresh elsewhere? Everyone likes moving into a new home.
The Northerners piped in, as Northerners will, that America’s city hall demanded a “more urbane and cosmopolitan setting.” The kind normally found in, say, the North. This set the Southerners to harrumphingagain. Even the faraway banks of the Ohio River had supporters. The Buckeyes might have carried the day, except the debate ended, and for the same reason that continues to scuttle most progressive legislation: gridlock. Eventually, everyone got tired of yelling, wiped away the soot, and went back to business.
But the matter wouldn’t die. As the country expanded ever westward, the idea of a truly centralized capital remained not too far from the table. It was not until the 1870s, according to Constance Green’s book, Washington, Capital City1879-1910, that “talk of moving the capital to the Middle West had ceased.”
One reason is that the town had grown into its setting, sinking in leechlike, as bureaucracies will. And with the McMillan plan of 1901, part of the City Beautiful movement, the first U.S. attempt at city planning, L’Enfant’s original vision, was mostly realized. It was then that the construction of the Mall and its impressive array of columns and monuments was begun, offering vistas that, until the Vista video, were the images that most often occurred to Americans when they thought of Washington.
So those AOLers were not exactly original thinkers, merely carrying on a longstanding tradition. I recall commentary during the Bicentennial that perhaps the capital really should be more in the middle of this great land of ours. True, many things were said during the Bicentennial. There are still warehouses filled with red-white-and-blue trinkets awaiting purchase by gullible Tricentennialists.
So try to laugh at the thought of Bill and Hil and Janet and Clarence packing their bags for Missouri or Kansas, or, heyOahu. But once they’re gone, the Smithsonian Castle, the Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, the National Archivesall those amenities we both take for granted and richly cherishshuttered, locked, bulldozed.
Now think about what would be left behind: Marion Barry. Dave Clarke. Hilda Mason. Mark Plotkin. And 98-percent humidity.
Oh, taxi! Ohio River, please, and step on it.CP