Hints for Historians Visiting Washington DC
If you want to see the real Washington, anybody will tell you just to step outside our convention hotel during the morning rush and watch the lobbyists piling down Connecticut Avenue in their $75,000 cars, talking on their telephones. Fortunately, the city has also attracted a huge population of overeducated people like ourselves. Like you, they are foil of curiosity and want their money's worth. When I moved here in 1965, friends told me of three restaurants you could actually eat in. This has changed.
The lobbyists know where the right people have lunch, but our world seems to be scattered all over the metropolitan area. What ties it together is Metrorail, even in this car-dependent place. Metro doesn't go everywhere, but where it does go makes for a dazzling range of choices. The system is unique in this country; only the nation's capital could have won for itself an infrastructure investment so lavish. It is easy to use, no matter what some people say. The facecard machines tell you what they want (clean bills), and you can use the maps in the stations in case you forgot to bring yours.
Restaurants and other amenities come in neighborhood clusters, and they have a tendency now to be located around Metro stations. Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street, right outside the convention hotels, has one of these clusters for you to check out before you even get on Metro. Residential Washington is zoned to provide two-block shopping strips on the avenues every mile or so, and the next one north is Cleveland Park, and you can walk there (or, better, walk back, downhill), passing the entrance to the National Zoo, a wonderful zoo, and free.
Going south, the first stop is Dupont Circle. If you walk there, over the Connecticut Avenue bridge and past some handsome buildings and down the slope, you reach the top of the neighborhood where Florida Avenue crosses Connecticut. This is Washington's Greenwich Village, or one of them, full of interesting restaurants and shops including bookstores. It is also the center of the art-gallery culture, fed by local schools like the Washington realist painters. The Phillips Gallery is here at 21st and Q; a block down New Hampshire (at 1307), the Washington (formerly Columbia) Historical Society occupies the Heurich mansion. Embassy Row extends up Massachusetts Avenue as far as you want to go.
Another Greenwich Village, perhaps the main one, you can walk to from the convention hotels: cross the other bridge, on Calvert Street and after a long block, the street curves right and crosses C0lumbia Road. This is Adams-Morgan, the city's liveliest neighborhood. Among ethnic cuisines here Afghan, Ethiopian, and Salvadoran stand out and retailers will sell you just about anything.
Farther south from Dupont Circle is downtown, centered on Farragut Square. It looks for all the world like Ankara. Those boxy buildings really are all full of lawyers and lobbyists. I don't know what the buildings in Ankara are full of. This downtown zone is weak in shopping, but many inexpensive restaurants have opened in. recent years. International Square at 19th and K streets has a good food court. Both the Stouffer Mayflower and the Hay-Adams hotels are within easy walking distance of the Farragut North Metro stop.
Downtown extends eastward, trending south, past Lafayette Square and the White House and the Treasury (historically, of course, it travelled the other way: we are heading for the old downtown, and the Connecticut Avenue district in Henry Adam's time was quiet residential; Dupont Circle entirely suburban). You can find Chinatown in the 600 block of Eye Street N.W. Beyond that, are courts and government buildings, and especially the National Building Museum in the Old Pension Building, on the way to Union Station.
Remember that Metro runs underneath all this, with stops at Metro Center, Gallery Place, and Judiciary Square. Don't miss the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, both in the handsome Old Patent Office (8th and H streets). And you are travelling the length of the Mall, just a few blocks south, and the several Smithsonian Museums and National Gallery-but you came here to attend the AHA meetings, didn't you?
Washingtonians are amazed and pleased by what "they" did to Union Station this time. The Daniel Burnham building has been elegantly restored with shops and restaurants. If you take the Blue/Orange from Metro Center instead of the Red, which goes on to Union Station, you can get off at Capitol South, a district known to most readers, for the Library of Congress, the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Folger Shakespeare Library next door. Pennsylvania Avenue eastward to about 7th Street S.E. offers more amenities, and the Capital Hill residential district is lovely to walk in.
Many observers will say today that the "real Washington" exists in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Some Metro stations out there confront you, when you get off, with a bucolic scene where the only sign of human presence is a jampacked parking lot. Others, like Ballston (Virginia) or Bethesda (Maryland), are urban places worth visiting. There isn’t space here to catalogue them all: ask a native. If you need to mall it (and, let's face it, you love malls), try Pentagon City with its own Metro stop. Or, you can visit the concourse in the Pentagon itself (the previous stop) or ride one stop farther to Crystal City Underground, the play space for the Navy and civilian office workers, in the buildings above.
Or you can go all the way to Alexandria, a handsome old city in its own right. Old Town here is unfortunately distant from the Metro station, but taxis are abundant and the drivers throughout greater Washington mostly speak some English and they all know where the big hotels are. The crowds in Alexandria go to the old Torpedo Factory, built to resist an internal explosion so that it was too tough to tear down and they made it into an art center instead.
I have been avoiding the subject of our weather. The range for a late December afternoon might be 15° F to 75°. This article gives plenty of suggestions for indoor sports and some walking on city streets, but what about the beauties of nature, if the weather is good? If you like subtle colors, the Potomac valley is lovely in winter. The delights of Rock Creek Park lie right outside the hotel door. But for the essence of this place, take the towpath on the C & 0 Canal, beginning in Georgetown. (I haven't mentioned Georgetown! Well, everybody goes there anyway. Some people say it isn't what it was, but then was it ever?) The towpath quickly takes you back to 1830: you are alone with the canal, and sunlight shimmering on the river through the trees, and possibly a bird or two.
Whatever you decide to see and do while in Washington, we hope you will come and explore your nation’s capital.
Avery Andrews is associate professor of history and dean of the Columbian College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University, and is chair of the 1992 Local Arrangements Committee.
Tags: Annual Meeting Annual Meeting through 2010
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.