Chocolate City isn’t the name that’s used on the BBC for the capital of the US, but it’s a nickname for Washington DC coined by African-Americans to signify the history and culture of a place beyond the monuments of State. There’s a great film of that name telling of the destruction of a working class (and mostly black) community in the name of urban regeneration that has afflicted the South East of the city, from where I write this post.
I’d been to DC a few times before I realised it was anything more than Global Capitalism HQ. It has a unique story that is emblematic of the country as a whole. The choice of a swamp at the confluence of two rivers (the Potamac and Anacostia) to become the capital of a fledgling nation was born of a compromise between North and South and built with slave labour. If buildings reflect the ideology of the dominant culture, then nowhere is that more true than in DC. The partially realised 1792 design by Pierre L’Enfant aimed to create a European-styled city of long boulevards, grand squares and fountains befitting a ‘new’ nation. Today, the monumentalism and edifices of power make East Berlin seen quaint, but also produce a strangely open, airy urban environment. There are ordinances that restrict building height so that nothing over-shadows the symbolic dominance of the domed State Capitol and I can’t think of another city that has such an expanse of green space at its heart, as DC has the two-mile long National Mall, along which are strung the White House, the Smithsonian museums and memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and countless dead soldiers..
But the ubiquitous images we see on news coverage are no more representative of this city than Buckingham Palace is of London. Among DC’s many peculiarities is that it is a form of City State similar to the Vatican. ‘The District’ is ultimately owned and controlled by the government, as set down in the Constitution, which also specifies the size of the city’s limits (10 square miles). Only since the 1970s have residents had any form of locally elected democracy and even today DC does not have representatives in Congress, hence the popular local bumper sticker ‘Taxation without Representation’.
The size restriction and spatial plan make DC an easy place to walk around and once you get away from the tourist attractions, there are some fascinating neighbourhoods and yes, I’m going to say it, housing. The South West district was blitzed in an orgy of Modernist development in the 60s that displaced thousands and left an architectural legacy of solid re-enforced concrete. A similar process is now in train in the South East. Following a familiar corporate land-grab, the Nationals baseball stadium is the keystone of an attempt to rebrand the area as ‘Capitol Riverfront’. To the the north lie streets of shaded terraced houses dating mostly from the turn of the 20th century, but with some from the post-Civil War boom when DC also became heavily populated by black people, to the point where it became the first majority African-American city in the US. It isn’t any more, but in the cracks left by gentrification are the residue of a vibrant culture that rivaled Harlem in the period when DC was racially segregated by law instead of by practice.
The newest monument on the National Mall is the one to Martin Luther King Jr. Took over forty years, but they got there eventually. The closing rally of NAHT conference was held there yesterday – a fitting location and no surprise that the authorities tried to prevent it. I’ve had some good moments in my activist life, but being asked to make a speech there was special.
Going home now.