For nearly four years, I lived just 20 miles from Washington, in Annandale, VA, and I worked in D.C. for 9 months. From my home in Philadelphia, I've also gone down to Washington at least a hundred times, so this metropolis should not be alien to me, and yet no American city is more off putting, more unwelcome, more impenetrable, and this, in spite of its obvious physical attractiveness, and here, I'm talking mostly about its Northwest quadrant, the only part visitors are familiar with, and where commuters from Virginia and Maryland arrive daily to work.
Even though it's the world's foremost generator of mayhem, Washington is supremely tranquil and orderly. With its wide streets, unusually wide sidewalks, many leafy squares and the vast, magnificent Mall, D.C. is the ultimate garden city. It's greener than Portland, Oregon. It's also a showcase for culture. All of its publicly owned museums don't charge admissions, a unique arrangement not just in the United States but likely worldwide, thus the unwashed masses can stream into the National Gallery to admire the only da Vinci in the Americas, 15 Rembrandts, 12 Titians, four Vermeers and two Albert Pinkham Ryders. A laid off factory worker or brain damaged war veteran can stuff his face with Bonnards, Degas, Canalettos and Morandis, then pick his crooked teeth with a Renoir or Cassatt. If still not sated, he can hobble over to the Hirshhorn, Freer or National Museum of American Arts for more artistic nourishment to heft up his mind and bevel down his rough edges.
Washington museums feature almost no local artists, however, for this is a profoundly uncultured place, paradoxically. Nothing germinates here but power. (The only D.C. artists I can think of are Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, two innocuous painters whose canvases are designed for corporate lobbies.) Unlike in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco or even Philadelphia, there are no first rate galleries of contemporary arts here. The politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, military types and spooks who dominate D.C. have loads of money, but they are all culturally conservative. Elites everywhere tend to be that way, sure, but D.C. is a magnet nonpareil for those who crave power and can think of nothing else. They are here to gain and barter influence, not to be distracted or pestered by arts that haven't been curated, many times over, to be palatable to the status quo. Even arts from many decades ago can threaten and disturb, and that's why the caustic social commentaries of Max Beckmann or Otto Dix, for example, are safely kept in storage and rarely dragged out for public contemplation. As this nation normalizes legal sadism, Leon Golub's images of torture will not be on display. Here, why don't you ogle these colorful blobs of nothing by some garbage painter!
Other capital cities have rich artistic heritages, but not Washington, for it was conceived only to be a center of power. Built up almost entirely from scratch, it's the ideal American city, literally, with just about every aspect of it carefully calibrated, and almost nothing that's organic or spontaneous. Its oldest section, Georgetown, was a major slave trading center, as was Alexandria, just across the Potomac. Providing quaintness, fine dining and shopping, Georgetown and Alexandria give tourists a much needed breather from the oppressive monumentalism of downtown D.C.
After its founding, Washington itself became a major slave trading center, and one must remember that Washington, the president, inherited ten slaves at age eleven, had 50 slaves before he married Martha, and owned 123 slaves when he died. (Martha and her children from another marriage had 195 more slaves.) Ben Franklin, by contrast, never owned more than a handful, so it was much less painful for him to release his two slaves, and he only did this at age 79, three years before his death. For much of his life, Franklin only objected to slavery because it was bad, well, for white people, for it made them arrogant and lazy, he claimed. Plus, it wasn't too wise an investment, and to bring resentful blacks into your household is a pretty stupid idea, Franklin pointed out, and here he was thinking of the domestic slaves common in the North, not the platoons of field hands that an oligarch like George Washington could whip into inhuman productivity in the South.
In 1987, I worked as a looseleaf filer in Washington. I had just quit college and was sleeping on my aunt's living room's floor in Annandale. My daily task was to file thousands of pages into binders in law libraries. With a coworker, I would walk from law firm to law firm, and sometimes take the Metro to go as far out as Bethesda, Maryland. Before this job, I didn't even know that many of these 13-story buildings in downtown were law offices. Since no building in Washington can be higher than the Capitol, the tallest all have 13 floors. Due to superstition, however, many elevators display a "14" button after "12." Washington Circle, Dupont Plaza, Logan Circle, Mount Vernon Square and the White House do make an inverted pentagram, but that evilness, if you believe in such things, was part of the original plan, and has long been enshrined by concrete, asphalt and tradition.
My job was very low paying yet exact, and we had to work at breakneck speed. Wearing rubber finger grips, we had to zero in on thousands of tiny numbers to make sure no page was inserted wrongly. Rushing, I ran into a glass partition once, but the secretaries, paralegals and lawyers near me did not laugh. For months, a law librarian kept calling me "Kim," and I never bothered to correct him. I had no time to lose. It didn't matter. We were just rushing in and out and not a part of any firm. Though at the very bottom of the legal hierarchy, looseleaf filers still had to look somewhat professional, and so I bought five polyester dress shirts and four pairs of old man's pants from Sym's, the discount clothing store.