Neighborhoods and Monuments – Washington, D.C.

Leaving this morning for New York on the Amtrak. I remember taking Amtrak across the country with Preston and Mom, back in the 90’s. Once we got to the East Coast, the trains were shorter and older – single level instead of double. This had to do with the train tunnels being shorter. I love taking the train.

It’s been great seeing Washington. I’m surprised by what an interesting city it is – I hadn’t heard great things about it. Downtown and the Shaw neighborhood stood out – very diverse and active, kind of how I imagine Oakland could be if the city were to really prosper. Walking around, you see there are Black institutions – from colleges to barbershops to restaurants – that are popular and well-supported. One of these places is local landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I had a couple great chili dogs.

From what I’ve read, though, DC has some problems. There are lots of federal jobs (around a third of the city works for the government, as you might expect) but rents are sky-high – and as African-American neighborhoods like Shaw get popular, gentrification becomes a major issue. The city can’t just build up to increase density, either: no building is allowed to be taller than the Capitol.

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Passing through Baltimore on the Amtrak. Decaying brick buildings overgrown with brown vines. Trees with naked branches. Tenement housing – beautiful buildings, but with worn out roofs and peeling paint, neglected and bleak. Dark tunnels… graffiti-laced brick station houses. Soot-stained stone walls.

Then you really see it – Baltimore’s back streets. Mind-numbing visions of dilapidated homes, blown-out old factories, broken windows. It looks like a war zone, it looks abandoned, as if after a nuclear war – semi-inhabited. When you occasionally see someone on the street, it’s a Black person.

This often happens on trains. You get a glimpse of America’s forgotten and neglected areas, far off the highways and freeways. Baltimore is sobering.

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In Washington, Aurora went to a Dept. of Education-sponsored conference while I worked, studying jQuery mobile for a project, and went out and explored. I intended to see some museums, but the weather was too nice and I was more interested in seeing the city.

The first day we had together, and saw the White House, Washington Monument, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, and the Lincoln Memorial. The White House seemed strangely small, and unrecognizable to me with the front doors hidden by a white tarp (there is some renovation being done, I was told). The Treasury building is next door – this was the most spooky and ominous building I saw in Washington, and it was not hard to picture a shadowy Wall Street conspiracy, mafia-like, engineering the bailout in this setting.

The Washington Monument is too imposing to have much feeling for, but the Lincoln Memorial, in contrast, is hard not to be moved by. The historic resonance of the war to end slavery has its echoes in the other images that are called to mind here – of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his speech just below it on the National Mall, a century after the end of slavery but long before the work that started in Lincoln’s time could be called finished.

And then, of Obama’s presidency – not only because of the phenomenon of a Black President is amazing when considering American history, but because the Lincoln Memorial is full of text – inscribed on the walls – and subtext – what we know to be true about America today. What are we supposed to remember at the Lincoln Memorial? Clearly, not just the man, but the way that race and the question of racial justice has divided this country to the point where it nearly split apart… and how deep the cost was to keep it together in one piece.

We know the country is still divided, that progress has been made but deep problems are still unresolved, that there is deep disagreement on the nature of the problems and how we should address them, and that injustice along racial and geographic lines (not only regions or states, but cities divided, and neighborhoods) in America persists. We know, and so we remember all these things at once when looking at Lincoln.

 

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