As a Brit, everything about Washington DC seems designed to confuse and intimidate.
First, there is the sheer scale. Individually, the buildings are no larger or more impressive than London’s great landmarks – the British Museum could take on any of the museums of the Smithsonian, St Paul’s Cathedral is far more beautiful than National Cathedral, and Buckingham Palace is grander than the White House. And yet, in London each of these architectural treasures is crammed in amongst buildings so you can hardly notice it until you’re right up alongside it. In DC, each building stands alone, forcing you to take note.
But it’s not the buildings themselves which seem designed to shock, it’s the way they interact with each other. London is an organic city; fire on conquest on flood on war on misguided architectural project has left the city with a medieval street plan, sixties offices and glass towers sharing space with georgian churches and edwardian terraced houses. It’s unplanned, organic, and although London means many things to many people, it doesn’t stand for anything in particular,
London is just London; somewhere to find yourself, somewhere to lose yourself, somewhere to overcome, somewhere to become a success, somewhere to run away to, somewhere to run away from. It’s all things to all people, because it doesn’t impress its identity on anyone, rather letting them impress their identity onto its ancient streets. What does London mean to you?
(to me, it is sunset over London Bridge after an autumn day at work, crispness in the air, swirling crowds of people, and the sun glinting over the river. To you, it will be something else).
By contrast, DC knows exactly what it is: a monument to the American dream, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Tours of the Capitol are repeatedly told that this is where the spirit of liberty could not be extinguished – by the English in 1812, by the Civil War in 1861. Here, great men gathered to debate high ideals of philosophy and politics. Here, they began a brave experiment in democracy that’s lasted until this day. It’s enough to make you feel a swelling in your heart, even as a Brit.
But the truth is somewhat darker. Those great men who founded this blessed republic owned slaves, considered women property, and never would have dreamed of allowing the working classes into their midst. And the great city they founded was made possible because of two centuries worth of the most brutal ethnic cleansing imaginable. The American dream is a lie, built on the suffering of millions.
And DC, gleaming in the sunlight, doesn’t want to think about it. It’s true that nowadays some of the horrors are beginning to be discussed (but only beginning, mind). The Museum of the American Indian, an architectural treasure forming one of the latest additions to the Smithsonian, tells the full heartbreaking story of one of America’s greatest shames.
A trip across town shows how far America’s reckoning still has to go, however. We crossed from the Capitol to Chinatown, past the Federal Court building. It was the middle of the downtown area. I’d been warned that some of the suburbs were plain dangerous and we saw plenty of ruined and abandoned buildings in Baltimore from the Amtrak train zooming into Union Station. But this was the city centre; this was a five minute walk from Congress, for crying out loud! Somehow, we still managed to stumble upon a homeless shelter and needle exchange. Bleary eyes watched us with mild curiosity as we tried to walk normally through the underpass and over the concrete bridge.
Seeing the darker side of life always seems scarier in foreign surrounds – you never know really how a city works until you’ve lived there for at least six months. And if you’re totally new in town, you have no idea if you’re working through a rough patch and will end up in a nicer area, or if you’re walking further and further away from the areas tourists are supposed to end up in.
It was undeniably shocking, however. Seeing DC as this great Capitol, the City on a Hill, and then arriving and finding that the depth and breadth of poverty was greater than you as a Brit could possibly imagine was more affecting than I thought it would be.
The contrast between DC’s lofty aim and its gritty reality reminded me of nowhere so much as Beijing. The same impression of space, of a city created to worship a country and a way of life. The same double-think, as those suffering from the diseases of addiction and mental health disorders were left to rot on the streets while diplomats lived two miles uphill in $4 million houses. It had very much the same feel of a state which needed to rally its people to its cause so they would believe in their country so much they wouldn’t see the lie they’d been sold.
On our last night in DC, we went for a special dinner at the Georgetown restaurant where JFK proposed to Jackie O (we didn’t spot anyone getting engaged in that booth, alas). We sat outside and ordered $30 entrees. Across the road from us, a homeless man sat on a bin and held a loud conversation with himself for the entire time we were there. No one else so much as glanced at him. Why, if he only pulled himself up by his bootstraps, he too could be part of this shining City on a Hill.