October 7, 2006

Streetscape Report: Downtown D.C.

I'm just finishing up a few days in our nation's capital at a conference, and managed to sneak a couple of hours to walk around and check out the streetscape.

The silver lining in our new post-9/11 environment -- some of the street closings near the White House indeed made for a safer environment ... for those of us crossing on foot without worrying about speeding vehicles. If the wide stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue is going to remain vehicle free, though, I wish it would be designed as a pedestrian plaza, instead of remaining a wide expanse of blacktop that's obviously meant for multiple vehicles and now just serves to remind us that the designed use is no more.

I didn't get to Georgetown this visit, which I recall fondly as a walker-enticing neighborhood. Alas, downtown Washington, D.C. on an autumn Saturday is quite a bit less so. Besides hotels and bus tours, there seemed to be little residential street life. Stores were mostly closed; streets felt cavernous and mostly empty just a block or two away from the main tourist sites.

It's clear this is an area designed for the business workday, and there was little evidence of local residents. This didn't look like a mixed-use district, and could ha ve used some off-hours life.

Buildings like the White House, Treasury, Patent Office and numerous other grand structures were built to impress and not engage. The message here is to show the majesty of the republic, which is rarely compatible with a warm, human-scale neighborhood (although sections of Rome manage to pull that off, mostly with stunningly designed piazzas). Filled with people on a beautiful sunny day,  downtown D.C. works as an impressive environment to take in. Relatively empty on a cloudy, cool weekend afternoon, it's somewhat forbidding and a tad depressing.

A park near our hotel was overrun with men clearly down on their luck. Many before me have commented on the sad irony of this wealthy nation's capital being home to so much poverty; but I have to add that one of the saddest sights I saw today was a beggar within feet of a stretch limo that seemed as long as half a football field.

Street theater in the immediate vicinity of the White House was fairly entertaining, including not only the expected assortment of political protesters, but dozens of red-clad runners -- including many men sporting red dresses or skirts -- in what appeared to be some sort of run for charity. There's something to be said for this superpower capital  as political theater, no matter how forbiddingly near-empty the nearby avenues. 

1 comment:

  1. Certainly the Capitol, White House and Washington Monument are designed to impress. Well and good. But in the 1930s, the triangle defined by these monuments was filled in with huge buildings housing government agencies -- Commerce, Justice, etc. -- built in a consistent style. On first glance it's a neoclassical style, but the details are Art Deco -- appropriate to the era in which the buildings were built. While one such buidling might impress, a mile of them is hard to take.

    More to the point, the there are no storefronts, restaurants or street life throughout the whole expanse. Even on weekedays, there's nobody on the street, because there's no place to go. Compare this to Boston, where the state and City government buildings are within a block of a wide variety of restaurants and other activities.

    The point is driven home for tourists. The Capitol, National Archives, and various Smithsonian buildings have a limited food selection, if any, and anyone wanting more choices is left wandering for a long distance through this federal complex. Attempting to fill the void, rows of hot dog trucks and tables selling tacky souvenirs line the streets outside the most popular Smithsonian locations. It's a poor substitute for the variety of restauants and shops one finds in tourist locations throughout Boston and New York.