Howard Gillette, Jr.’s eyes widen slightly when he’s asked why he chose the “unglamorous” field of Washington history—but just for a moment. “I inherited from a colleague the responsibility of teaching Washington history courses. At that time,” the George Washington University professor admits, “I was not that interested.”
Since taking on the subject in the late ’70s, however, Gillette has made it his own. He became the founder and the first director of GWU’s Center for Washington Area Studies and has served as editor of Washington History, the journal of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Currently, his name appears on the title pages of three new books that address local history: Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C., which he wrote; Washington Seen: A Photographic History, 1875-1965, a large-format photo book he prepared and annotated with longtime friend Frederic M. Miller; and Southern City, National Ambition: The Growth of Early Washington, D.C.: 1800-1860, a collection of essays he edited. (Gillette’s next project, however, may focus on New Haven, the “desperate city” where he lived as a Yale student.)
Of the three new volumes, the first was the longest in the making. Soon after he started teaching D.C. history, Gillette remembers, “I started thinking about writing a text,” an alternative to Constance McLaughlin Green’s Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950, which he deems “incredibly dated.” Gradually, however, he began to focus on a particular theme.
“It became an effort to try to explain the nature of the relationship between the federal government and the city—and why it hasn’t worked,” he says. To do so, he explored every federal notion of Washington from its namesake’s—the first president expected the city to become a center of commerce—to Newt Gingrich’s contemporary “attempt to put every Republican nostrum in place.”
“This book is a local history,” Gillette notes, “but it’s also a national history.”
Washington, it could be argued, was in the right place at the wrong time. While Pierre L’Enfant laid out a grand capital, there was no federal commitment to bringing the plan to fruition. Unlike such later baked-from-scratch capitals as Ottawa, Brasilia, and Canberra, D.C. was initially created only in theory.
“There was just not an ethos of expecting the federal government to do much,” explains Gillette of the post-revolutionary period. “There was no precedent for large national programs.”
As congressional philosophies shifted over the subsequent two centuries, D.C. continued to reflect them. “The temptation is always to use Washington as a laboratory,” Gillette says. “This is the one place in the country where Congress is making urban policy every day.”
Things only got worse for the capital after Washington and Jefferson departed. “The founding fathers clearly saw the national thing,” Gillette says. “You have a shift away from that with the Jacksonian period.”
Having survived the hostility of Jackson and others, a century after its founding the city was beginning to resemble the “Capital of a powerful Empire” Jefferson had intended. Gillette argues that the 1902 McMillan plan—which engendered the Mall, Union Station, and other of the city’s monumental aspects—achieved its purpose. It created the ceremonial Washington that has retained its symbolic value.
These days, however, few Americans care deeply about that symbolism. “If I’d published this [book] in 1902 or 1932, everyone would have had it in their heads,” Gillette says.
Over the last 50 years, many political and demographic changes have altered Americans’ view of Washington and cities in general. Since the convulsive ’60s, D.C. has also been dubbed the capital of crime and murder, epithets that reflect another perpetual theme in local history: racism.
In part because Virginia law gave newly freed slaves a year to get out of the state, Washington (which then included what is now Arlington and the eastern part of Alexandria) soon developed a sizable population of free African-Americans; proportionally, this community was the largest in the country by the 1830s. Thus the city has always been a focus for shifting American racial attitudes, through the slavery era and Reconstruction into the mid-20th century, when D.C. affairs were overseen in Congress by reactionary Southern Democrats.
Between Justice and Beauty draws on the work of one of Gillette’s students, Mary Beth Corrigan, whose ongoing scholarship he calls “the latest and best” on the subject of African-American life in early Washington. (Corrigan’s essay is one of four in Southern City, National Ambition, all of which Gillette calls “first cuts of what are going to be larger books.”) Her research on the relationship between free blacks and slaves in antebellum Washington partially underlies the current exhibition at the Octagon and the Anacostia Museum, also called “Southern City, National Ambition.”
Though careful to give race its proper weight in local history, Gillette believes much of the city’s plight is economic. “The problem in the city has always been lack of investment in the infrastructure of the neighborhoods,” he says, arguing that Alexandria County was retroceded from D.C. to Virginia in 1846 primarily for fiscal reasons. Though the fear that Congress would abolish slavery in the District is often cited as the reason for the retrocession, Gillette cites another motivation: Virginia was prepared to fund much of the cost of the city’s canal development, which Congress would not.
Retrocession to Maryland has been offered as a possible solution to at least some of D.C.’s difficulties, and in the process of researching Between Justice and Beauty, Gillette has decided that such a move is the best possible option. “I’m terribly sensitive about this retrocession point,” the 25-year D.C. resident says. “But that’s not the point of the book.”
Indeed, the volume devotes less than two pages to the possibility of retrocession. In person, however, Gillette warms to discussing it at greater length.
“To be effective in the new world order, cities have to be regional powers,” he says. “Baltimore-Washington can be an international contender.
“Cities have to work with the suburbs. There’s no way around it.”
The political boundaries between D.C. and its neighbors are arbitrary and antiquated, but they’re enshrined in the constitution. “The only thing Washington could do,” Gillette says, “and I’ll tell you it will never happen, is take Alexandria County back.”
As part of Maryland, however, the non-monumental preponderance of the city potentially would develop closer ties to its suburbs. “P.G. County is already an extension of Northeast and Southeast Washington,” contends Gillette. “We have political boundaries that keep these people apart, but in fact they have strong social and economic bonds.”
Though he concedes “there’s no political support” for retrocession, Gillette thinks that Maryland is more a promising partner than the feds. “At least we’d be on the same playing field as everyone else. I don’t think we’re going to see any new [federal] urban policy in the next 10, 15 years,” he predicts.”
“The country loves to come visit the Mall, and it loves to bash what happens everywhere else in the city,” Gillette’s concluded. “It’s the core that they think about, so let them have the core.”