Publication Date

December 1, 2007

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


State & Local (US)

Washington began as a unique act of political will, a city constructed de novo on the banks of the Potomac River. The new city suffered the growing pains typical of any newly established settlement. These pains were thrown into high relief, however, by the city’s prominent status as capital of the nation. Congress didn’t invest as much thought and planning in the city as some critics thought appropriate. So the mud and dust of the struggling town received much caustic comment from visitors, especially foreigners more familiar with established European capitals.

Before the Civil War, Washington deserved its reputation as a “sleepy Southern town.” The war brought a flood of soldiers, politicians, and other newcomers. The new population wrought havoc on the inadequate resources of the city. By the end of the war, it was in desperate need of refurbishment. A new, federally appointed city government began paving, planting, and plumbing the city in the 1870s.

The “New Washington” was an oft-repeated slogan from the 1880s into the 1920s, as new inhabitants enjoyed the municipal improvements. Wealthy newcomers in the Gilded Age built impressive mansions in new neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, and other locations in the hilly uplands of the District.

The District government adopted a development plan to create new neighborhoods. Soon thereafter the federal government proposed its own McMillan Plan (1901) for the areas under its jurisdiction, seeking to bring Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the Mall and the surrounding avenues to fruition. Its grand scheme for beautification and social improvement gave official Washington a lasting Beaux-Arts architectural visage. Construction of the Washington National Cathedral began in 1907, indicating the city’s growing status as the site for things “national.” Proliferating embassies and statues commemorating international figures gave the city a cosmopolitan feel. Washington became a place where everyone wanted to make their mark, where lobbyists, trade associations, and others planted stakes in their efforts to influence government policy.

The federal government expanded its reach over local design with the Commission of Fine Arts, created to implement and safeguard the work of the McMillan Commission. The National Capital Planning Commission was established in 1924, and the National Park Service gained local influence after its reorganization in the 1930s. These three bodies oversaw and protected federal urban planning interests in central Washington.

The federal presence contributed to population growth as the New Deal and the Second World War expanded the federal workforce. The U.S. military acquired a new home across the Potomac with the construction of the Pentagon in 1943, its 6.5 million square feet of floor space making it one of the largest buildings in the world.

Washington increasingly became a place of protest in the early 20th century—hunger marchers came and went; World War I veterans, known as the Bonus Army, camped to demand promised benefits and were routed by the military. Racial tensions increased. Washington always had a substantial African American population, but it grew rapidly in the 1920s. Sadly, the civil race relations of the post-Civil War era were long gone. Washington became a far more segregated city, sanctioned by federal mandate under the Wilson administration. Segregation didn’t always sit comfortably with official Washington, and controversy erupted when renowned African American opera singer Marian Anderson was not allowed to sing at Constitution Hall in 1939. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt instead invited Anderson to sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

In the 1950s and 1960s, residential Washington spread beyond the boundaries of the District. The Cold War propelled the dispersal of government offices. “White flight” siphoned away one-third of the city population in a few short decades. Riots precipitated by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 accelerated the deterioration of Washington’s old downtown and the Shaw neighborhood.

Proposals to build massive highways through the city were decisively defeated in favor of the Metro transit system. Public transit not only saved Washington neighborhoods from being balkanized by freeways, it also made it easier for the city’s army of bureaucrats and other middle class workers to move to the suburbs. Yet the allure of the centers of power continued to attract law firms, trade associations, and other professional groups to the K Street corridor and nearby neighborhoods, establishing a foundation for future growth and renewal.

Elected city government returned to the District in the 1970s after a hiatus of a century. The city prospered under successive pro-growth mayors, elected after political scandal drove long-term mayor Marion Barry from office. The economic revival was buoyed by a recession-resistant major employer—the federal government. Historic preservation provided an impetus for urban renewal, first in the case of Georgetown, then in Capitol Hill and other old neighborhoods. Gentrification has increasingly eradicated the scars of the riots of 40 years ago and brought new prosperity to previously troubled urban areas.

There are now many Washingtons: the city is inhabited by a rich array of distinct but interlocking communities and social networks. New ethnic groups have arrived, established enclaves, and flourished. Lobbyists, lawyers, and foreign diplomats proliferate. And the federal government continues to serve as the engine that keeps this vigorous, vibrant city moving.

Matthew Gilmore is editor of H-DC and author of Historic Photos of Washington, D.C. (from which part of this essay is derived). He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.