Who would have thought you could turn a swampy bog-like landscape into the nation’s capital we enjoy today. George Washington chose and surveyed the area in 1790. Influential leaders in the government wanted a location that straddled north and south and a diamond-shaped area was selected. It took land from Maryland and Virginia to create the new city. Even though Thomas Jefferson had wanted to have a capital that included a region that accepted slavery, shortly after the planning had begun, abolitionist forces cut out the area of Virginia that included Alexandria because it was active in the slave trade.
After a stint in New York City, and an interim period in Philadelphia, the new government moved to Washington D.C. in 1800. Thank goodness Pierre L’Enfant had a brilliant plan for the design of the city with its grid pattern, crisscrossed by a wheel-spoke system for state named avenues. The self-taught genius free Black mathematician, Benjamin Banneker, provided the astronomical calculations for surveying and laying out the city. For several years, the fledgling government and its workers stomped through mud and meadows to get around, and then the British burned most of it to the ground in 1812. The city grew slowly, but more businesses began to develop and the population increased.
During the Civil War, though, the city became an armed encampment bursting at the seams, and it was the acknowledged center of the country, or at least of the north, and after 1865 it was truly turning into the city it was meant to be. It was not until the turn of the century that the construction of the National Mall began running from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument and the first Smithsonian Gallery constructed early on; the Mall continued to fill up with the museums and monuments that have drawn tourists to the city for a hundred years.
Of course, being the capital, no matter how rough it was is the beginning, it has always drawn dignitaries of foreign governments. That created a touch of class, and has contributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the city.
Today it is a city to be enjoyed and absorbed in all its diversity — like a banquet to consumed in small bites over time. The original plan has triumphed providing a lot of green space between the monumental government buildings — and some are vast. Most are neo-Classical, but the need for space for all the businesses in the city drawn to the federal government has created a new, modern areas around the government center.
When my kids were young, we lived in Arlington, the closest Virginia suburb to DC. — one traffic light and 15-20 minutes away. We often went downtown to see the dinosaurs or Native American displays at that Natural History Museum, or the insect zoo. Looking at the airplanes and early spacecraft and in the Air and Space Museum or viewing an IMAX film was always a treat. We spent time outside in the Sculpture Garden, riding the carousel, having a picnic on the grassy Mall, and touching, exploring the wonderful monuments, and joining people from all over the world to see the cherry blossoms. It was our extended neighborhood. I might add that since the taxpayers pay for everything, visitors don’t. It’s a wonderful city now, but there are two Washingtons. There are vast areas where poor people live in dangerous neighborhoods, and when a shooting or knifing takes place, it’s there.
If I could change anything, it would be the city government. There’s too much corruption and not enough change that would help the poorest of the population. There’s a long history of ineffective government, and not enough strong, honest, and driven politicians to inspire necessary, meaningful change. So much potential, so much beauty, but still poverty and not enough help for the neediest.