America’s Main Street

Posted November 20th, 2009 at 11:58 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

In February, with the nation in the throes of a deep recession, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It provided for $787 billion in one-time-only federal “stimulus” payments to states, cities, and private employers to spend on reinforcing bridges, modernizing schools, and the like.

Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty recently announced that his city will spend $30 million of the $123.5 million it received to, as he put it, help make Pennsylvania Avenue a “great street.”

That caught my eye, since I thought Pennsylvania Avenue already was more than a great street — a thoroughfare so majestic that people call it “America’s Main Street.” People the world over certainly know who lives in the big white house in the 1600 block.

But not ALL of Pennsylvania Avenue is grandiose. The part that knifes northwestward beyond the White House, ending abruptly at a downtown cross street, is filled with attractive but undistinguished office buildings, restaurants, and traffic circles. And another extension — eight kilometers [five miles] long — shoots southeastward from the Capitol, across a polluted tributary of the Potomac River and into the heart of Anacostia, Washington’s poorest neighborhood, adjoining the Maryland state line.

This stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue is no Main Street. Past clumps of humble houses, cluttered convenience shops, payday-cash-advance stores, and streetcorner churches, the avenue widens into four lanes here and becomes little more than a drab commuter funnel into and out of town.

It is here that Mayor Fenty intends to spend the $30 million on new medians and curbs, improved traffic signals, and “rain gardens” — plantings in depressions along the street designed to absorb storm-water runoff. The project “is strongly focused on reestablishing historic neighborhoods,” Fenty told the Washington Post, “and will create a unifying place where [residents] can come together to shop, visit, play, learn and live without being separated any longer by extreme traffic conditions.”

Whether this will be enough to turn this overlooked stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue into a “great street” remains to be seen.

That’s just about everything I know about Pennsylvania Avenue outside the ceremonial corridor. But over many years in Washington, I’ve learned a lot about the central core, which once was also a grungy, dog-eared piece of road that bore no resemblance to the American Champs-Élysées that it would become.

All nations have a place for common celebration and public sorrow. America’s is a broad, shimmering boulevard that has become symbolic of the American democracy. “The Avenue,” as this 1.6-km [one-mile] corridor is known, has been shaped by a couple of centuries of flooding and hooraying and weeping and any number of facelifts. Here, presidents and bookmakers, northern Yankees off to fight southern rebels and soldiers home from foreign fronts, slaves in chains and women’s suffragists on prairie wagons, racist klansmen and civil-rights leaders have all passed in life — and more than a few in death.

The Avenue has been a hallowed place and a shabby disgrace. It’s been pondered and poked fun at, sketched and reconfigured, torn up and torn down more often, from what I can tell, than any other street in the land. Over the years here, we’ve bought the freshest fish, drunk the cheapest booze, caught the quickest cab, and followed teams of “hill horses” pulling passengers along the Avenue and up 15th Street on the longest streetcar ride in town. We’ve changed presidents on the Avenue, collected great art, tattooed love to Mom and other women, driven sleighs, and built our own Great Wall of enormous, neoclassical federal buildings.

On the Avenue we’ve cheered heroes like aviator Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh and chased villains like John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. Listened to the Boss here, too. Not the musical Springsteen, but the charismatic reformer Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the governor when Washington was run solely by Congress as a federal territory in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

Even at its tackiest, Pennsylvania Avenue has always been a place to be and be seen, though President Gerald R. Ford once joked that when Richard Nixon resigned and he got the job in 1974, he had to move into “public housing on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

One hot, sleepless summer night in August 1963 at the Willard, the “Hotel of Presidents” on Pennsylvania Avenue at 14th Street, where the FBI had wiretapped his room, Martin Luther King Jr. put the final touches on his speech to cap off the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The added language began, “I have a dream.” Twenty-five years later, a new city common built at a wide spot of the Avenue was named Freedom Plaza in King’s honor.

Beloved humorist Mark Twain wrote in the Willard, too. So did Julia Ward Howe, who penned the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861 after watching Union troops drill during the U.S. Civil War. President Ulysses S. Grant regularly met with federal job seekers in the hotel’s lobby, inspiring a new word, “lobbying,” that has become synonymous with federal supplications and influence-peddling.

First Wife Lady Bird Johnson put in several appearances on the Avenue in the 1960s, contributing flowers for planting and fussing over tulips already in place. At one celebration, she was greeted with huge placards reading, “I like Linden.” A punning play on her husband, Lyndon’s, name, the signs were touting the fragrant new linden trees that Lady Bird had provided.

Three decades later, following the latest in a long line of wholesale makeovers, this central stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue finally achieved the full measure of dignity and charm originally envisioned for it — two centuries earlier (1791). The city’s temperamental planner, Frenchman Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, plotted axials and vistas in the briar patches and alder bushes below Jenkins’ Hill — which would become Capitol Hill after he sited the “Congress House” there. L’Enfant was confident that his design would impart an elegant and fitting symmetry to the new capital city.

L’Enfant drew Pennsylvania Avenue as a straight shot from Jenkins’ Hill northwestward to what he called the “President’s House.” It remained a clear connection until the 1830s when, according to legend, President Andrew Jackson threw a fit at Congress and ordered the Treasury Building — a mammoth rockpile of a structure — plopped just to the east of the White House, blocking the sight line to the Capitol. The true story is that Congress put the Treasury there just to save a few bucks, since the site was already government land.

So much for L’Enfant’s wistful vista. Today instead, we have a sort of National Dogleg in which traffic and pedestrians must detour three blocks to the north up 15th Street before reconnecting with Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House.

Let’s start at Treasury and take a virtual stroll down the Avenue, weaving between yesterdays and today as we go. The block numbers that I’ll reference coincide with cross streets. Thus, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest sits at the corner of 11th Street, and so forth.

Before we head off, a brief explanation of that “Northwest” designation: It refers to one of four quadrants into which the nation’s capital was divided when the city was laid out in the late 1700s. Back then it was a whole lot bigger — a diamond-shaped federal district straddling the Potomac River and carved into four sections on a map. For it, the federal government had claimed land from Maryland, including what is now the fashionable Georgetown neighborhood, as well as taking most of Alexandria and Arlington across the river in Virginia. The Virginia piece proved so tangential to the business of national governance that Congress gave it back it in 1846. As a result, the city is left with all of its original Northwest and Northeast territory, and far smaller Southwest and Southeast quarters. The core of the Avenue that we’re about to explore lies entirely in the Northwest quadrant.

In the 1400 block — literally right in the middle of the broad boulevard — lies Pershing Park, a verdant green space in which landscape architects managed to hide a water cascade, a skating rink, and what looks like a historic stone vault but is actually rather new. It holds the rink’s ice-making Zamboni machine.

Across the street stands the massive Department of Commerce Building — noteworthy because it was the first structure completed in the sweeping, Depression-era Federal Triangle project of the 1930s that obliterated blighted, dangerous neighborhoods. How dangerous? One block, just off the Avenue on 7th Street, was known as “Murder Bay”!

From the air, you can see where the Federal Triangle gets its name.  Its parade of behemoth buildings marches up Pennsylvania Avenue, south on 15th Street to Constitution Avenue, then back eastward to the point that it intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue again at 6th Street. This triangle of stone effectively walled off the commercial heart of the city — Pennsylvania Avenue — from the National Mall and wretched Southwest neighborhoods below.

In the 1300 block, there’s another huge interruption. Not a park this time, but the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza. Everything from demonstrations to chili cook-offs assembles there. It’s a wide spot in the road, and it would have been wider had President Nixon had his way. He envisioned a parade ground of Moscow-like proportions that his minions called “National Square.” Critics called it “Nixon’s Red Square,” fought the planned demolition of venerable structures such as the National Press Building, and mocked it as a wasteland so vast that visitors would have to crawl across it, crying “Water, water” in Washington’s broiling summertime. Washington Star columnist Don McLean suggested that the Treasury Building be torn down instead, thus restoring the Avenue’s White House view.

When Nixon left office, the National Square scheme faded away and died.

The 1100 block is dominated by the 1899-vintage Old Post Office Building, a Romanesque hulk that critics called a “cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill.” The Avenue’s “old tooth” and its 96-meter [315-foot] bell tower were marked for demolition to make way for another Federal Triangle building, but it survived when the government ran out of construction funds.

Pausing again on the tour — you can stop and rest your feet for awhile — have I told you the story about Carol, the Old Post Office, and Santa Claus?

When Carol worked in radio sales, she roped a friend who looked like Santa into posing for her professional Christmas card at one or another Washington landmark. This was always weeks or months in advance of the holiday, and one August day she decided it would be neat to plant her bearded pal, in full costume and waving, in a window of the Old Post Office tower.

Up he went as Carol positioned her camera on the street below.

Minute after minute passed with no sign of Santa, when Carol noticed an unusual bustling, heard sirens, and beheld a helicopter circling the tower above. “What’s going on?” she asked a sweaty patrolman.

He replied, “Some nut job in a Santa suit is up there, about to jump out of the tower.”

OK, up and at ‘em. Off we go!

The north side of the Avenue’s 900 block is entirely consumed by the F.B.I. headquarters building, named for the bureau’s long-serving, dictatorial director, J. Edgar Hoover. This colossus, too, drew the enmity of critics. “A monstrosity,” said one. “A monument to Big Ego” — Hoover’s — wrote another. But his elephantine building could not be derailed. Shops originally planned for its streetscapes were nixed by the security-obsessed agency, and the building looms, a bleak and impregnable fortress, to this day. A popular tour of the FBI’s renowned crime lab and “G-man” artifacts — tommy guns and like — disappeared, too, in the skittish days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the nation.

There’s not much in the 800 and 700 blocks, site of the ornate National Archives Building and the moving U.S. Navy Memorial, left to suggest the days when a teeming marketplace stretched the length of those blocks. Center Market, it was called. It included a long, brick indoor pavilion that brought people into town, via horsecart and streetcar, by the thousands. Across the street to the north was a mercantile row, Market Square, where dry-goods dealers, glassworks, tanners, and even two woolen mills took root. So, too, did some of the city’s first black-owned hotels, shops, and restaurants, including a place called Beverly Snow’s Epicurean Eating House. Wagon trains clogged the Avenue, fistfights abounded, and, wrote historian Richard Lee, “a growing number of embalming establishments appeared near the Market. Stacks of wooden coffins, upended on the sidewalk, announced their presence.”

Running behind Center Market, along what is now the dignified Constitution Avenue, was the foul City Canal, which residents called the “B Street Main.” It was Washington’s open sewer of choice. Market butchers routinely dumped poultry innards, rotted fish, and animal carcasses straight into the canal. A successor to a trickle of a waterway called Tiber Creek, which originated on what is now Capitol Hill and meandered torpidly to the Potomac, the canal was, according to Frederick Gutheim in his Washington study Worthy of the Nation, the source of “agues and bilious fevers causing a high death rate.” Even presidents fled its “smells and malarial mosquitos,” he added. “An indescribable cesspool,” someone else called it.

Those who excavated the area in preparation for the Federal Triangle had to sink pilings well below the vestiges of this creek-turned-sewer, and it’s said that one can still open a trap door beneath, say, the Justice Department Building and find running water.

Promenaders on Pennsylvania Avenue also once saw human commodities — gangs of shackled slaves being led to auction. Guests at Avenue hotels were invited to keep their human chattel chained in the basement while they slept or dined or moved about the city. This was in the early 19th century, when Pennsylvania Avenue also got the city’s first water main, gas lamps, house numbers, streetcars, and smallpox epidemic.

Down a block or two, only a sliver of the esteemed, neoclassical National Gallery of Art — but an entire façade of its modernist East Building — face the Avenue. The Gallery — a gift to the nation from wealthy art patron and former treasury secretary Andrew Mellon — replaced the old headquarters building of the American Colonization Society, which helped freed blacks reach what was trumpeted as an African workers’ paradise in Liberia. Gone, in order to build the East Building, are a long-standing tennis court and 120 climbing rose bushes planted as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification blitz.

The blocks closest to the Capitol, once a cluster of raucous boardinghouses and cheap souvenir shops, have been denuded of structures, save for the Capitol Reflecting Pool, opened in 1971, and a somber Peace Monument, installed in 1877 as an ode to navy dead of the Civil War.

There have been countless other noteworthy events and special places — gone and still to be seen — along what planner L’Enfant called the “Grand Avenue.” A few:

    • So turbulent was springtime flooding that President Thomas Jefferson once joined a crowd trying to save three men swept up in the current and clinging to sycamore branches. Then came ankle-high dust. “The slop on the Avenue dries in an hour,” New York Herald reporter George B. Wallis once wrote in a poem.
    Invisibly drying, but drying so soon,
    The mud before breakfast is dust before noon.
    • In 1873, the Baltimore & Potomac, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built a gingerbread-looking passenger terminal right on the Avenue, next to Center Market. It grew notorious for two reasons: Grimy tracks, sheds, and coal yards ran up to it from the south, right across what were then the Victorian gardens and footpaths of the National Mall. And in 1881, President James Garfield, waiting for a train to take him on a seaside break to New Jersey, would be mortally wounded by a disappointed and deranged office seeker in the B&P station’s waiting room.
    • Just how bedraggled did the Avenue become from time to time? “Pennsylvania Avenue is not the oldest street in the world,” the Washington Post wrote in 1911. “It merely looks so.” The paper noted that “one may sit down at Shoomaker’s [saloon], but one would rather not. Those who are on their feet when the building falls down will have a much greater chance of getting out.” And if the Murder Bay name did not tell enough of a tale, consider that the neighborhood next door was known as “Hooker’s Division,” only partly because Union General Joseph Hooker had marched his troops on the Avenue up the way.

    Pennsylvania Avenue did achieve Pierre L’Enfant’s dream as the nation’s premier promenading route, and not just on presidential Inauguration Days every four years — sooner if a sitting president has died. It was during such a parade in 1961 that John F. Kennedy is said to have looked from his open convertible at the disreputable array of liquor stores, cheap hotels, and X-rated movie houses along the Avenue and barked to an aide, “It’s a disgrace. Fix it.”

    That a public-private corporation, working with federal funds and investor dollars, would do in the years to come.

    Among the Avenue’s parade memories: 1857 — New president James Buchanan as captain, almost literally, of the ship of state, “sailing” toward the White House on a miniature version of “Old Ironsides” — the frigate U.S.S. Constitution. 1861 — In the first of four funeral corteges for assassinated presidents, weeping crowds watching the casket of Abraham Lincoln being borne toward Union Station for its mournful ride to Lincoln’s home in Illinois. 1905 — American Indian chiefs, marching with incoming president Theodore Roosevelt and the “Roughriders” with whom he had served in the Spanish-American War. 1919 — Workers constructing a temporary Arc de Triomphe across the Avenue for the gala return of our World War I hero, General “Black Jack” Pershing, and his men. 1926 — In robes and pointy wizard hats, an estimated 30,000 brothers of the Ku Klux Klan, the merchants of racial hate, marching past police lines and gaping crowds. 1966 — In a procession of quite a different color, the Poor People’s March, which had begun far away in Mississippi, passing in humble review. Two years later, some of its walkers, mule-wagon riders, and others would build a shanty town called Resurrection City in a far corner of the National Mall. It was soon destroyed by authorities. Later that year the smoldering ruins of much of downtown, torched during riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., would be plainly visible from well-patrolled Pennsylvania Avenue.

    And then there was January 20, 1977, an Inaugural Day so cold that the lips of some band members froze to their reeds, on which new president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, walked not just part of the way but the entire route from the Capitol to the White House. On this day, “I’d lined up Cinderella in a skimpy little fairy outfit” [for a photograph], my former VOA colleague Lou Buttell told me. “It’s a wonder these poor kids didn’t get frostbite.”

    Nobody thought to ask Pierre L’Enfant or George Washington, or to scribble his answer with a quill, why Pennsylvania was honored as the namesake of the most prominent street in the new capital. It just suddenly appeared in 1791 in a letter by Jefferson, the author of the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Sure enough, when Washington’s successor, John Adams, became the first resident of the White House nine years later when the capital city became a reality, it was up “Pennsylvania Avenue” that he rode.

    One theory has it that the designation was an appeasement to the state in which the Congress had been meeting. (Philadelphia wanted badly to be the capital.) Perhaps Pennsylvania, then a buffer between the merchant North and planter South, was a compromise choice. Or it could have been geographical progression. The three broadest avenues traversing the heart of Washington — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — lined up in descending order, north to south, just as the states do.

    Over the years, the Avenue has been usurped by Constitution Avenue, just below it, as the nation’s ceremonial corridor for most parades and funeral processions. The latter route runs straight to Memorial Bridge and thence across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. And Constitution Avenue is lined with government buildings, Smithsonian Institution museums, and the open National Mall. It’s better suited for crowds than commercially active Pennsylvania Avenue.

    But it is still Pennsylvania Avenue that fires the imagination. In the cowpaths and brambles along the Potomac lowlands, Pierre L’Enfant — more artist than planner — foresaw a city of incomparable scale, harking back to Versailles and broad Parisian boulevards, including an epic diagonal between two of the three seats of democratic government. After generations of scruffiness and several episodes of renewal, the Avenue today is again powdered and pressed and dressed for a world to come see.

    But a question remains: Is it a living place, especially after sunset, when the bureaucrats and tourists have mostly gone to their homes and hotels? Well, it’s not as lively as old Murder Bay. But thousands of people now live on America’s Main Street, in expensive townhouses overlooking monuments and the Mall. And of course Pennsylvania Avenue’s extremities — those neglected reaches in Anacostia — are alive at night, if down on their luck. Just as Congress and private entrepreneurs spent billions on impressive government buildings and spiffy commercial spaces on the Avenue, Washington’s mayor will soon send his storm-drain and crossing-signal crews across the river, hoping to get a “great street” started where the parades seldom go.


    (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

    Ague. A malaria-like infectious disease spread by parasites, often in dirty water. Symptoms include high fever and severe chills.

    Bedraggled. Soiled, unkempt, dilapidated.

    Bilious. Sour or ill-tempered. The adjective takes its name from gastric distress of the bile duct.

    Supplications. Humble, earnest pleas for something, such as forgiveness or a job.

    Suffragist. A supporter of suffrage, or the right to vote, especially for women. Those who mocked the most radical, female supporters of women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century preferred to call them by the derogatory term “suffragettes.”

    Tommy gun. A .45-caliber submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson, that became the weapon of choice of both gangsters and federal agents during the “roaring” 1920s.

    Torpid. Slow, sluggish. Torpid people are disinterested, apathetic.

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    One response to “America’s Main Street”

    1. Halloween is surely my boy’s much loved occasions of the year to go out trick or treating along with their good friends and afterward they all round up at somebody’s apartment to munch on and exchange their candy.

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    Ted Landphair


    This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

    Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

    Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

    Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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