Washington as Symbol, Washington as City

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Published on April 9th, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

The sun shines brightly onto the portico of the National History Museum in Washington, DC, as early morning joggers run up and down the National Mall.

It is early enough that the hordes of tourists have not yet arrived, and the birds are all unabashedly singing their springs songs. The museum’s doors are still shuttered, but for some unknown reason the museum is playing classic jazz, softly, from speakers hidden discretely in the trees. A few other locals are here like me, taking their morning cup of coffee in the sun before heading to work.

Washington is a city of many faces, from run-down and weathered to clean cut and self-assured. But it is a city, a place where people work and live. One of the distressing things I’ve realized since I’ve moved here is how much this urban side of Washington is unknown to the rest of the United States and the world.

Instead, Washington exists as a symbol, representing all that is wrong with the federal government. In its use as a synecdoche for the entire federal power structure, the word “Washington” has for Americans stopped representing a real city full of real people.

This was brought home to me quite forcefully when the Federal Transit Administration denied funding for a dedicated bus-way on K Street, a major east-west thoroughfare in the city.

If there ever were a street where a bus-way made sense, it is this one — it is wide enough to easily accommodate a separated bus-way, and currently suffers horrendous traffic that makes taking any bus on K Street during rush hour often slower than just walking.

While it is unclear why FTA denied funding for the project, the speculation is that the name K Street was simply too politically charged, because too many journalists have used the name as shorthand for Washington’s lobbyist culture. The headline of the Obama Administration “giving money to K Street” may have just been too scary for the FTA.

So it’s come to this: a mass transit project helping tens of thousands of people on their daily commute (including me) might have been rejected because the road name has been symbolically linked to Washington corruption. The real city’s growth and development is now controlled by our symbolic meaning.

Indeed, maybe it was always so. The very layout of streets — the broad avenues radiating out from the Capitol, the grid of lesser streets numbering out distance from that central point — was symbolic. Rather than being symbolic of everything that is corrupt, Washington’s plan once symbolized the hopes and aspirations of American democracy.

Real life in Washington has long proceeded in the shadow of symbolism. It is a perfectly livable state of affairs, but one that sometimes seems exceedingly odd.

(Image credit: wallyg/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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