Washington, D.C., city and district, capital of the United States of America. The city of Washington has the same boundaries as the District of Columbia (D.C.), a federal territory established in 1790 as the site of the new nation’s permanent capital. Named after the first U.S. president, George Washington, the city has served since 1800 as the seat of federal government. It is also the heart of a dynamic metropolitan region. During the 20th century, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area grew rapidly as the responsibilities of national government increased, both at home and throughout the world.
The city is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and is flanked on the north, east, and southeast by Maryland and on the southwest by Virginia. Although the city has retained some aspects of its Southern origin, it has assumed a much more cosmopolitan character. At the same time, the city struggles with social and economic disparity, and a number of its residential neighborhoods suffer from poverty and crime. Washington’s climate is hot and humid in the summer and cold and damp in the winter. The average daily temperature range is -3° C (27° F) to 8° C (46° F) in January and 22° C (72° F) to 31° C (88° F) in July. The city averages 98 cm (39 in) of precipitation per year.
II WASHINGTON AND ITS METROPOLITAN AREA A The Outline of the City
Designated to serve as the permanent seat of the federal government beginning in 1800, the District of Columbia was named for Christopher Columbus. It was created from land ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland, and it incorporated the existing seaport towns of Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, Maryland. The district was originally 259 sq km (100 sq mi), or 10 miles square, as established under the Residence Act of 1790. The central town site was laid out by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791. The remaining land was an open area stretching north to the border with Maryland. It was designated as Washington County. In 1846 Congress returned that portion of the federal district that had originally been ceded by Virginia.
In 1871 the cities of Washington and Georgetown were consolidated with Washington County to become Washington, D.C., making the city, the county, and the federal district one and the same. Washington, D.C. has a total area of 176 sq km (68 sq mi), and the Washington metropolitan region—which in addition to Washington, D.C., contains 24 counties in the surrounding states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia—has a total area of 17,920 sq km (6920 sq mi).
In his plan for the city of Washington, L’Enfant attempted to represent symbolically the new United States and its republican government. He gave prominence to each of what were then the primary elements of government—the executive and the legislative branches. He also featured the states in giving their names to broad diagonal avenues. These he arranged both according to geography and to each state’s prominence in the nation-building process. Massachusetts, Virginia, and especially Pennsylvania, with its associations both with the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Constitution, gained the most prominence. Avenues named after other states with prominent roles in ratifying the Constitution, notably Delaware and New Jersey, intersected at the Capitol. Also, L’Enfant hoped that the intersection of diagonal avenues with the city’s straight grid of numbered and lettered streets would provide squares where each state would locate facilities, thereby giving them the same symbolic importance in the capital city that they held in the federal system. 59942ebl53hti3j
B Patterns of Settlement and Development
Initially Washington was slow to develop the dense pattern of settlement characteristic of cities. By the 20th century, however, Washington had filled its open spaces and dominated the surrounding area, which remained largely rural. This pattern changed after World War II (1939-1945), as the city lost population to the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. While the federal presence remained concentrated in Washington, it also expanded considerably to the suburbs. At the same time, new private business—the fastest-growing source of regional employment—concentrated almost exclusively in the areas outside the city.
While the metropolitan area expanded outward, it did not do so randomly. Growth tended to follow the location of federal facilities outside the city and the development of major transportation routes. During World War II, the construction of the Pentagon as the headquarters of the Department of Defense spurred development nearby on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Growth was also stimulated by other key facilities, notably the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia; and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Science and Technology), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , all in Maryland.
C Public Buildings
Washington is home to many famous and interesting public buildings and monuments. Many of these are associated with the federal government. The Capitol of the United States is located on a hill rising 27 meters (88 feet) above the Potomac and consists of two wings that branch from a central rotunda. The north wing is occupied by the Senate, and the south wing by the House of Representatives. The rotunda is crowned by an immense dome, topped with a statue of a woman representing Freedom. East of the Capitol is the Supreme Court Building, with its portico modeled after a Greek temple. North of the Capitol, at the end of Delaware Avenue, stands massive Union Station, now a retail center as well as a train station that has long been a hub of the city.
From the Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue runs slightly northwest and Constitution Avenue runs directly west. Between 6th and 15th streets NW the two avenues form an area known as the Federal Triangle. Within this triangle are concentrated a number of government buildings, including those of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the departments of Justice and Commerce. Also in the triangle is the National Archives Building, which contains the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. bt942e9553htti
Just north of the triangle, on Tenth Street NW, is the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). On the block north of the Hoover building, also on Tenth Street, is Ford's Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865, and across the street is the Petersen House, where he died. Together they make up Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.
Northwest of the triangle, at 16th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, is the oldest federal building in Washington, the White House, official residence of the U.S. president. The mansion's foundations were laid in 1792, and every president except George Washington has occupied it. Tours are conducted daily through the most-famous ground-floor and first-floor rooms, such as the East Room, the Blue Room, and the State Dining Room.
Flanking the White House are the Treasury Department Building to the east and the Executive Office Building to the west. Across the street is Blair House, the official guest house for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. Blair House, built in 1824, served as a temporary executive mansion for President Harry S. Truman and his family from 1948 to 1952, while the interior of the White House was being extensively reconstructed.
North of the White House is Lafayette Square, with a statue of General Andrew Jackson made from a melted-down cannon captured by Jackson during the War of 1812. West of the White House, at New York Avenue and 18th Street NW, is one of Washington's oldest landmarks, the Octagon. Completed in 1801, the Octagon houses a museum dedicated to architecture and the early history of Washington, and is also home to the American Architectural Foundation. It was one of the first residential structures built according to L’Enfant’s plan. During the War of 1812, British troops set fire to the White House, destroying its interior. President James Madison and his family lived in the Octagon while the White House was being rebuilt.
South of the Federal Triangle is the Mall, a narrow park stretching roughly 1.6 km (1 mi) from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Although the Mall officially ends at 14th Street, landscaped greenery extends to the Potomac. The Washington Monument, whose marble shaft dominates the skyline, stands 169 meters (555 feet) high near the center of this parkland. The interior of the monument is hollow, and visitors may either climb its 898 steps or ride its elevator 150 meters (500 feet) for a magnificent view. A height restriction law enacted by Congress in 1899 ensures that no private structure in Washington, D.C., will extend higher than the monument or the Capitol.
Beyond the monument in West Potomac Park, still in a straight line from the Capitol, is the massive Lincoln Memorial. This monument’s 36 columns represent the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death in 1865. Its interior contains a great stone seated figure of Lincoln carved by sculptor Daniel Chester French. Nearby, the Arlington Memorial Bridge spans the Potomac and connects the Lincoln Memorial with Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Located at the cemetery are the Tomb of the Unknowns; the Arlington House, home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee; and, on the slope directly below that, the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
Close to the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This memorial commemorates the American men and women who died during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Southeast of the Lincoln Memorial is the Tidal Basin, framed by Washington's famous Japanese cherry trees. The government of Japan gave the cherry trees to the United States in 1912. Reflected in the water of the Tidal Basin is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. This circular, colonnaded marble memorial contains a bronze standing figure of Thomas Jefferson by sculptor Rudolph Evans. Roughly halfway between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which opened in 1997.
The once-premier neighborhoods near early federal activity, notably Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, and Capitol Hill, all declined over time. Although they were rediscovered and restored in the second half of the 20th century, in the interim newer communities became popular. In the mid-19th century streetcars began to offer easy commutes to areas outside the city core. At this time, Anacostia’s Uniontown section, where abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass settled after the American Civil War (1861-1865), and LeDroit Park, near Howard University, developed as Washington’s first suburbs.
In the early 20th century, Mount Pleasant, a few miles north of the White House, became popular. With the availability of automobiles, first Cleveland Park and subsequently Wesley Heights and American University Park emerged as preferred residential destinations. Just above the old downtown, the area known as Shaw emerged as the most prominent black section of the city. The concentration of theaters and other social activities there gave U Street the nickname of Black Broadway. Somewhat further above the old city, the Adams Morgan section emerged in the 1960s as one of Washington’s most diverse neighborhoods, with large populations of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants.
Over the years, the suburbs outside the city have grown rapidly. In addition to older areas such as Arlington, Virginia, and Chevy Chase, Maryland, new suburban office and retail complexes have emerged at Tyson’s Corner and Pentagon City in Virginia and Freedom Plaza in Maryland.
Washington, D.C., grew slowly from the time of its origins until the Civil War. Its founders expected it to emerge as a great city because of its favored trading site along the Potomac River. However, the city proved incapable of fully exploiting its opportunities—due to, among other things, a lack of federal funding for development—and it lagged behind other major port cities along the eastern seaboard. Washington’s population boomed during the Civil War, rising from a modest population of 61,122 in 1860 to 109,199 only a decade later. During the first half of the 20th century, the federal presence in the city expanded, and population grew with it, reaching a peak of more than 800,000 in 1950.
The city’s population dropped thereafter, as it lost residents to the suburbs. Nearly 69 percent of the metropolitan population lived in Washington in 1940; by 1960 that number had fallen to 37 percent, and to less than 16 percent in 1996. In 1998 the population of the city was 523,124. In contrast, the population of the metropolitan area in 1996 was estimated at 4,563,000.
Partly because the District of Columbia was originally formed from slaveholding states, the national capital has always had a significant black presence, approximately 25 percent of the population from its origins until World War II. After the war, many white families relocated to the suburbs, and the city’s demography changed. In 1957 Washington became the first major city in America with a black majority. Between 1950 and 1960 Washington’s black presence grew by nearly 50 percent, from 280,803 to 411,737, while the white population declined by one third.
Until recently the great majority of the black population was located inside the city. But like an earlier generation of whites, the black middle class began to leave the city and move to the suburbs. In 1990, when the city’s population was 606,900, blacks constituted about 66 percent, compared with about 30 percent white. Hispanics, who may be of any race, constituted about 5 percent of the population. The city had about 400,000 black residents; however, just the two surrounding counties of Prince George’s, Maryland, and Fairfax, Virginia, contained a combined population of about 430,000 black residents.
During the early 19th century, Washington lacked the industrial base that drew immigrants to other cities, and so the population retained its largely native-born character. In the late 19th century, small Italian and Eastern European Jewish communities formed, creating their own churches and synagogues and associated ethnic institutions. Many descendents of these immigrants left the city for the suburbs in the 1950s, along with much of the rest of the white population. While the Italian Roman Catholic Church, Holy Rosary, still functions near Union Station, few of its parishioners still live in the city. Most of the early synagogues near downtown have left, replaced by black Protestant congregations.
A small Chinese community formed in Washington in the late 19th century. Originally concentrated downtown along Pennsylvania Avenue, Chinatown moved several blocks north to make way for completion of the Federal Triangle office complex in the 1930s. Chinatown still exists along H Street NW, but only about a third of Washington’s 3000 Chinese listed in the 1990 census live in that area. An additional 37,000 Chinese live in surrounding suburbs. In the suburbs, they are joined by more recent immigrant groups from Asia, most notably Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Lao. Both suburban Maryland and northern Virginia support Asian populations of about 100,000 each.
Hispanics form the other major immigrant group in the area. Although the District of Columbia’s population is about 5 percent Hispanic, the largest number of these immigrants are located in the suburbs: an estimated 90,000 in Maryland and 100,000 in Virginia. In 1991 the Washington metropolitan area ranked tenth in the nation as a destination for new immigrants.
IV EDUCATION AND CULTURE A Institutions of Higher Learning
It was George Washington’s dream that the capital city host a national university. Congress, however, was reluctant to fund such an entity. As a result, while a number of institutions have aspired to national roles, none has been favored with a national mandate. Founded in 1789, Georgetown University is the oldest Roman Catholic college in the United States. George Washington University was founded in 1821 by Baptists as Columbian College. Gallaudet University is the only liberal arts university in the world specifically for deaf and hearing-impaired students. Former Union General Oliver Otis Howard founded Howard University as a predominately black university after slavery was abolished in 1865. The two other private universities in the city are the Catholic University of America and American University. Also, the city opened the University of the District of Columbia with congressional approval in 1977 by consolidating a teacher’s college, a city college, and a technical institute.
In the Virginia suburbs are George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College; in the Maryland suburbs are the University of Maryland at College Park, Montgomery College, and Prince George’s Community College. The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area links most of the area’s public and private institutions of higher learning. Through the consortium, a student enrolled in one institution may take courses provided at another institution.
B Religious Sites There are many churches in the Washington area, the largest and most impressive of which is the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, more commonly known as the National Cathedral. Another imposing church is the Roman Catholic National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture that stands on the grounds of Catholic University in northeastern Washington. Other famous churches include New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Lincoln worshiped; Saint John's Episcopal Church, known as the Church of Presidents because it was attended by ten presidents; Saint Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, attended by President Kennedy; and Christ Church, where Thomas Jefferson worshiped. Outside the city is the Washington Temple of the Church of Latter-day Saints, completed near the Beltway in Maryland in 1974.
The most famous museum in Washington is the Smithsonian Institution. With help from a gift from Englishman James Smithson, Congress chartered the Smithsonian in 1846. The Smithsonian is a collection of many different institutions that are world-famous for their art, historical, and scientific collections. The National Museum of African Art was the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to African art. The Museum of Natural History houses many of the world’s most famous gems, and the National Museum of American History traces the development of the United States through scientific, technological, and cultural exhibitions. The National Air and Space Museum has aeronautical exhibits that include the original craft used by the Wright Brothers and the Mercury capsule in which astronaut John Glenn made the first orbit of the earth.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden contains notable paintings and sculptures by 19th- and 20th-century European and American artists. The Arts and Industries Building and the Freer Gallery of Art house fine collections of American and Asian art. Another major art collection, the National Portrait Gallery, is in a building with the National Museum of American Art, which houses American paintings, sculptures, graphics, folk art, and photographs from the 18th century to the present.
Over time, the Smithsonian has evolved from being the so-called nation’s attic into a far-ranging and diverse set of research and educational facilities. In recent years, other, more specialized institutions have joined the rich set of cultural institutions that form the Smithsonian. In addition to the many artistic and historical collections, the Smithsonian includes the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—a living memorial to former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson—which sustains research and writing of scholars selected nationally to spend time at their work in Washington.
Other important collections in Washington include the National Gallery of Art, one the nation's chief art galleries, with major collections of European and American paintings; the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, with a collection of pre-Columbian and Byzantine art; the National Building Museum, dedicated to American achievements in architecture, construction, engineering, and design; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which provides information about the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe during World War II. There are also several venerable private institutions, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, launched in the 1880s through the bequest of banker William W. Corcoran, and the Phillips Collection, opened in 1921 near DuPont Circle as the city’s first modern-art museum. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., located in a 19th-century mansion built by beer magnate Christian Heurich, is the only institution dedicated solely to the preservation and interpretation of Washington’s rich local history.
D Libraries The Library of Congress is the national library of the United States and includes a record of every book printed in the United States. Among its priceless documents are the first draft of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and an early draft of the Declaration of Independence as composed by Thomas Jefferson and corrected by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The library’s music collection contains original manuscripts, ranging from a Ludwig van Beethoven sonata to the score of the musical Oklahoma!, as well as a large collection of instruments. The affiliated Folger Shakespeare Library contains 79 first folios (early printings) of Shakespeare's plays, as well as oddities such as a corset that Queen Elizabeth I of England wore in the late 1500s. Other distinguished libraries in Washington include the National Agricultural Library, which has more than a million volumes on botany, zoology, entomology, and chemistry; and the Founders Library at Howard University, with 50,000 volumes relating to black history and culture.
E The Performing Arts Washington provides many outlets for the performing arts. The National Theatre, founded in 1812, hosts new theatrical productions. The Arena Stage, founded in 1949, opened a new facility in the early 1970s as part of redevelopment of the city’s southwest area and has achieved worldwide recognition for its productions. Also starting in the early 1970s, the Elizabethan Theatre of the Folger Library began offering Shakespearean productions. Twenty years later the Shakespeare Theatre opened to enthusiastic audiences in the restored Lansburgh Department Store on Seventh Street downtown.
One really big boost for the city’s arts came in 1971 with the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The center includes the Opera House, the Concert Hall, and the Eisenhower Theater, and also provides a home for the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Ballet, and the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater. The opening of the center stimulated the creation of a number of smaller theaters serving diverse interests. In the suburbs, the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia and Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland have become major performance centers.
F Cultural Events
Washington hosts many annual events, including the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which celebrates the blossoming of the Japanese cherry trees in the Tidal Basin. The weeklong Hispanic Festival has taken place each summer in Washington since 1970. The Mall hosts an annual Fourth of July fireworks display and the National Folk Festival. The city also celebrates the Chinese New Year, Columbus Day, and St. Patrick’s Day with parades.
The Washington region has many well-known parks and recreational areas. The Mall is Washington’s most prominent park, and it hosts many special demonstrations and events. Nearby East and West Potomac parks, formed from reclaimed land along the Potomac River, provide space for a range of recreational activities, including rugby, softball, volleyball, and polo. The Ellipse, between the White House and the Washington Monument, is a large public park that contains the Zero Milestone, from which distances are measured on all national highways that pass through Washington. Within the city, Rock Creek Park, which stretches from downtown to the Maryland border, is home to the National Zoological Park. The National Arboretum is in northeast Washington. Also, the intersection of Washington’s broad diagonal avenues with other streets laid out on a straight grid provides a number of small parks.
Professional sports are important in Washington. For many years Griffith Stadium in LeDroit Park hosted the national Negro League’s Homestead Grays and the American League’s Washington Senators. Integration of the major leagues doomed the Grays, and poor fan support resulted in a franchise move for the Senators. Another team that left the city was the Washington Redskins professional football team, which moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 1997. As that team moved from city to suburb, however, the region’s professional hockey team, the Washington Capitals, and basketball team, the Washington Wizards, returned downtown after spending nearly a generation in the Maryland suburbs. The Capitals and the Wizards play in a new sports and entertainment complex, the MCI Center, which opened in December 1997. The Center has helped to revitalize the downtown area. The D.C. United soccer team, a recent arrival to Washington, achieved success quickly and became national champions in 1996.
VI ECONOMY A Major Economic Activities From the time of its origin, Washington was expected to emerge as a great trading city because of its site along the Potomac River. However, the city lagged behind other major port cities, such as Baltimore, along the eastern seaboard. Instead of trade, the driving force of the city’s economy has proved to be the federal government.
At first employing no more than several hundred workers, the federal bureaucracy grew steadily in the 19th century and exploded in the 20th century. By 1940, 44 percent of civilian workers in the city of Washington were federal employees. Although the private economy grew faster than the public sector after World War II, it still remained closely tied to the federal presence through the proliferation of national associations, lobbyists, subcontractors, lawyers, and accountants associated with government work. America’s increasingly global role created scores of jobs in such organizations as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization of American States, in addition to the U.S. government’s own departments of state and defense. These federal jobs stimulated the economy and boosted the value of real estate in Washington, especially in the 1980s, and the federal government continued as a major presence in the city throughout the 1990s.
Tourism is the second most important aspect of the city’s economy. The national monuments and museums attract more than 18 million visitors each year; hotels are numerous. The city hosts many conventions, and a major convention center opened in 1983. The functions of federal and local government and the tourism industry have created a large service economy, which employs more than one-third of all the city’s workers. Manufacturing is of only minor importance and is dominated by the printing, publishing, and food industries.
B Transportation For years the hub of transportation to and from Washington was Union Station, served by several railroads. Built in 1907, Union Station occupies 10 hectares (25 acres) in the heart of the city. During the second half of the 20th century, airports and highways became important. Washington is served by three commercial airports—Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport—with extensive national and international connections.
In 1964 an expressway known as the Beltway was completed around Washington to facilitate traffic. Its 36 cloverleaf intersections link it to all major routes to and from the city. In 1976 a subway system opened in the city that extends into Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Called the Metro, the system is projected to extend more than 160 km (more than 100 mi) upon completion early in the 21st century.
C Economic Problems
A result of the growth of Washington’s white-collar employment in the 1980s was an increasing gap in income among the city’s residents. Disadvantaged areas, predominantly black neighborhoods, became subject to a plague of drugs and associated violence. These areas were concentrated in the older sections of the northeast and the southeast quadrants of the city. Even as downtown real estate values rose, so did Washington’s murder rate. During the 1990s it became one of the most deadly cities in the nation. While the region prospered through most of the last half of the century, much of the inner city lagged behind. The city’s tax base declined as more and more middle- and upper-middle-class families moved to the suburbs. This lower tax base contributed to a fiscal crisis for the city.
VII GOVERNMENT AND CONTEMPORARY ISSUES
Unlike any other part of the United States, Washington lacks full political representation. While its political structure has changed over time, the city has remained subordinate to the federal government. This situation is sustained under Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which states, “The Congress shall have power … to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such district … as may by the cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government.” The idea of exclusive jurisdiction solidified in 1783 when Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia, faced angry veterans of the American Revolution who demanded back pay. When Pennsylvania authorities failed to intervene to protect the Congress, many members insisted that any permanent seat of government should be under congressional control. From that virtually forgotten experience, Washington remains without direct representation in the national government that oversees much of its operation.
The Constitution, however, did not prohibit the establishment of a lower government body to deal with local affairs. In 1802 Congress authorized an appointed mayor and an elected city council for Washington. In 1820 it broadened the franchise and made the office of mayor subject to popular election. In 1871 Congress substituted a largely appointed territorial government—although city residents still voted for a house of delegates—as an instrument to consolidate the cities of Washington and Georgetown with Washington County. When the experiment generated costs that Congress found too expensive, it eliminated popular election in Washington in 1874 by placing local government under a three-person commission appointed by the president.
Initially this system was favorably received for replacing partisan politics with professional management. However, flaws of the commission became apparent over time. In 30 investigations conducted between 1934 and 1941, Congress found that power and responsibility were poorly divided between commissioners and different federal agencies, and that political whim controlled most actions. Starting in 1949 and lasting for more than a decade, the Senate voted repeatedly to grant Washington local elections. However, the House District Committee refused for more than 20 years to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Finally in 1973, Congress authorized the popular election of a mayor and city council for Washington.
In 1974 the Home Rule Act, which established the mayor and city council, became law. The act, though restoring popular elections, retained considerable power for Congress to review legislation and authorize Washington’s budget. It also prohibited the city from taxing federal properties or income earned in the city by people who commuted to work from outside the district. These restrictions remain a cause of tension between city officials and Congress.
In the mid-1970s local activists started an effort to secure Washington’s independence. They argued that the Constitution dictates only a maximum size for the federal district, not a minimum size. Therefore, they suggested that the federal district shrink to the area between the White House and the Capitol and that the residential portion of the District of Columbia become a new state, New Columbia. Congress, however, failed even to vote on the proposition until 1993, when the House of Representatives rejected the measure, 277-153.
Marion Barry has been the dominant figure in local Washington politics since home rule took effect. He has served as mayor all but eight years since home rule began in 1974. First elected mayor in 1978, Barry established a reputation as an able administrator and a defender of home rule who was committed to solving the city’s social problems. In later years, scandal touched his administration, and in 1990 he lost a bid for a fourth consecutive term after he was arrested and convicted of smoking crack cocaine. After serving six months in prison, he made a spectacular comeback, securing election first to city council in 1992 and then as mayor in 1994. Barry’s return to power sparked immediate controversy. However, it soon became clear that the city faced an even greater crisis in a projected budget deficit of $750 million in the coming year.
With the city unable to secure loans from the private sector to pay its debts, Congress intervened by passing the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995. This measure established a control board with significant powers, a move Congress justified on grounds that poor management and overstaffing had jeopardized the city’s credit. Under terms of the act, the president appointed five people to the board to bring the city’s finances under control. Congress directed the control board to cut jobs.
Barry, however, refused to cooperate with the control board, and instead chose to stress the city’s needs. He claimed that Washington’s problems derived more from inadequate revenues than high costs, and he urged the federal government to pay more toward Washington’s obligations. He recommended that the federal government assume many of the costs of state functions borne by the city since 1974, but his proposal received no sympathy in Congress. However, two years later, without input from the mayor, President Bill Clinton incorporated Barry’s approach in his proposed federal budget. In August 1997 the national government raised its share of Medicare and highway costs in the city, assumed responsibility for funding Washington’s pension plan, and took over operation of the District’s prison system.
In accepting these measures, Congress insisted on exercising greater influence in Washington. It empowered the control board to choose its own city manager and to extend its operational control over all but a small portion of daily operations. Under the terms Congress set in establishing the control board, these powers will revert to the city only after it achieves three balanced budgets in a row. This restriction, even in the best of circumstances, will leave Washington with limited control of its own local affairs into the next century.
Washington’s contemporary crisis is deeply rooted in its history. From the beginning, there was tension stemming from the city’s dual function as both city and capital. In reserving the right to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the federal district, Congress lavished attention on some sections of the city while other parts suffered neglect, making a clash of interests inevitable.
George Washington saw no conflict between city and capital. To the contrary, he conceived of the new capital as the keystone to the nation-building process. He believed that the District of Columbia’s advantageous location on the Potomac River would let it exploit trade opportunities to the west. Such success could have secured national loyalty, but the states were too jealous of one another to join in promoting a national city.
The first problem arose over selection of the city site. The state governments fought bitterly over the site of the capital, hoping a nearby location would allow them special influence on the new government. Then, once a location was chosen, the states resisted paying taxes for improvements necessary to house the new government. To finance the building of the city, the district’s land was parceled into lots, two-thirds of which were reserved for highways and federal buildings. The remainder was sold to the public. Despite this, funds lagged. Also, the plans of the man hired to build the city, Pierre L’Enfant, were so costly, and L’Enfant himself so embroiled in disputes with landowners, that he was eventually fired, in 1792. As a result, the federal district was far from complete by the time the national government moved there in 1800.
Federal funding for improvements remained small in the capital’s early years. Development was slow, and the city evoked criticism from visitors from the United States and abroad. In 1814, during the War of 1812, the city was occupied and burned by the British. This meant that much of the city had to be completely rebuilt, which further taxed funds.
When the city sought congressional aid to build a canal west to boost its trade, Congress refused. By the time it finally authorized the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal in 1828 it was too late to make a difference. A decade earlier, New York had completed the highly successful Erie Canal, and it was dominating western trade. Also, Baltimore leaped ahead of Washington in the race for regional control when it started work on the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O), in 1828.
In 1835 a committee of Congress headed by Senator Samuel Southard admitted that congressional funding for the District was inadequate. Southard argued that the grand plan for the city was too great a burden for local authorities to sustain alone. His report generated enough federal funds to repay a debt owed on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, but urban needs continued to exceed revenues into the 1860s.
After the Civil War, Republicans in Congress saw a chance to implement social reforms in Washington. In addition to making Washington the first place to enforce the emancipation of slaves, Congress ended the segregation of public transportation and eliminated all references to race in the civil code. Congress granted voting rights to black males, even as many Northern states rejected such measures. With overwhelming black support, local Republicans assumed political power in Washington in 1868.
Some party members resisted social innovations, however, seeking instead to promote the physical improvement of the city. After the British burned the city in 1814, Congress had considered moving Washington to another location. Relocation became an issue again with so many necessary physical improvements deferred during the Civil War. Locals argued that without investment in the physical city, the government would abandon Washington, and it would be doomed.
Mainstream Republicans—headed by Alexander Shepherd, a former plumber who entered politics during the war—campaigned for a shift from social to physical reconstruction. In 1870 they broke with Radical Republicans in power and elected their own candidate for mayor. The following year they persuaded Congress to impose an entirely new form of territorial government, with a governor and senate appointed by the president and a house of delegates elected by popular vote.
Alexander Shepherd assumed considerable influence in the new government through his position as administrator of a new board of public works. Under his direction, the city systematically upgraded its physical appearance: grading and paving streets, planting trees, and developing sewers. These improvements quelled efforts to move the capital to a more central location in the United States.
But Shepherd’s expenditures also provoked controversy, prompting congressional investigations in 1872 and 1874. In the first instance, a friendly committee gently chided the District government, declaring that in pursuing the city’s betterment the debt level should not exceed $10 million. By 1874 power had shifted in Congress, and Shepherd now faced hostile critics. With debt exceeding $18 million, Shepherd claimed that unpaid taxes and the lack of an adequate tax base hampered him. Congress was sympathetic at least to that point, and members reiterated the judgment of the Southard report of 1835 that the city could not sustain the expense associated with the federal government.
Congress then embraced a plan to provide a regular federal payment to the District to meet at least half its operating expenses. In accepting this argument, however, members of Congress insisted on more direct control. In 1874 they replaced territorial government with a commission of three people, appointed by the president. One of the people on the commission was to be chosen from the ranks of the Army Corps of Engineers and was responsible for overseeing public works.
A number of physical improvements followed, and as the turn of the century approached, Washington assumed modern form. However, the federal presence lacked distinction. With encouragement from representatives of the American Institute of Architects, a special Senate commission formed to lay out a new plan for Washington. Presented with considerable fanfare in 1902, this proposal projected an arrangement of federal buildings along the Mall connected to a regional system of parks. It took more than 25 years to realize this vision, but by the early 1930s, as the Federal Triangle complex along Pennsylvania Avenue neared completion, city planners could claim that the capital city was at last worthy of the national government it hosted.
Instead of uniting city and capital, however, emergence of the new city core set the federal presence apart from Washington’s residential areas. This possibility had been recognized as early as the turn of the century. While the Senate prepared its elaborate plan, social activists expressed concern for the rest of Washington. They pointed particularly to unhealthy conditions in many poor neighborhoods, especially in back alleys where small houses had been built to accommodate a largely black population.
Efforts to secure better housing conditions occupied several generations of reformers. First, private funding was used to provide housing for low-income residents, and in the 1930s Washington formed the nation’s first public housing authority. The Langston Terrace public housing complex in Northeast Washington was built with funds provided by the federal government. There, blacks found improved housing. But policy shifted after World War II. Fearing the effect of white families relocating to the suburbs, Congress authorized funds to provide a model urban renewal program in Washington’s Southwest sector. Designed to attract middle-income residents back to the city, the wholesale renewal of the area resulted in the displacement of many of the area’s predominantly black residents.
The federal funds that had made possible the improvement of an old section of Washington improved city revenues, but they also heightened tension with the city’s growing black population. A subsequent renewal effort in the Shaw area immediately north of downtown provoked neighborhood opposition around the rallying cry, “No more Southwests.” Out of that experience emerged a powerful coalition of civic groups determined to plan their neighborhood’s renewal themselves. When Congress authorized a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives from Washington in 1971, the leader of the neighborhood renewal effort, Walter Fauntroy, was the first to fill the position. He supported the political ascent of fellow civil rights activist Marion Barry.
The home rule era was thus inaugurated in 1974 as an assertion of local as opposed to federal prerogatives. As its most successful representative, Marion Barry was adept at securing federal funding, but at the same time he consciously built his political strength at home by distancing himself from federal oversight. Suspicion of national government became so ingrained among the majority of local residents, Barry easily regained power even after his arrest and conviction for drug use. Congress’s decision in 1995 to impose a control board on the city struck many residents as one more blow to the city’s political independence. Although the board promised to seek solutions to the city’s political as well as fiscal problems, finances took precedence. Thus as the bicentennial anniversary of the federal presence in Washington approaches in 2000, city and capital remain in an uneasy and unsettled relationship.