|Andrew Lindemann Malone's Internet Playpen|
New York is a great city. No one who agrees with the notion that one can call a city "great" can disagree with that. And along with the greatness of a city inevitably come endless, strident affirmations of its greatness from its residents; this overexuberance is exhausting for nonresidents but, nevertheless, a harmless phenomenon in and of itself.
Lately, however, New York media outlets have been publishing curiously vehement denunciations of Washington, D.C., the city that, regardless of my Maryland residency, butters my bread, and the city where I find most of my non-movie cultural diversions. (I will not ascribe these denunciations to New Yorkers in general, whose appreciation for their city, in my experience, does not often pass from the celebratory into the belligerent.) The first salvo in this battle was fired from the keyboard of New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, who took a whole bunch of words in that newspaper's Sunday magazine to assault D.C. on various charges with a ferocity that could only come from someone who had grown up there, as Rich did, and fled to grimier streets. Gene Weingarten, of the Washington Post, took up the cudgels in that newspaper's Sunday magazine with such acidic invective that I presumed no one would be so silly as to repeat Rich's arguments nearly unchanged in a national forum.
Rudely shattering my presumptions, Jeffrey Frank, once an editor at the Washington Post, expressed virtually identical concerns about the home of his former employer in Nov. 18's New Yorker. In a review of Katharine Graham's posthumously completed and released anthology of writing about Washington, he concludes that Washington is an insufferable bore of a city, and thus any anthology of writing about it is doomed to failure. This being the New Yorker, he doesn't say it like that; he took two pages to say it, with occasional caveats thrown in as (I suppose) a sop to the charge of bias. But Frank also throws in an unbroken, column-long laundry list of grievances against D.C., grievances presented with the casual lack of proof and fudging of facts that come not from argumentation but from long-festering resentment. This kind of sloppy writing doesn't really deserve a response, but it's going to get one anyway, here.
Furthermore, it is going to get a response directed to New Yorker Jeffrey Frank, rather than just Jeffrey Frank, since he is now a senior editor at a magazine called The New Yorker, and some of his criticisms apply to almost every major city in the country except New York and one or two others, all of which create an implied adversarial relationship between the cities. This puts Frank in a specific rhetorical position that may be mocked thusly (Frank gets the italics):
Assembling an anthology about a place is invariably thankless; almost no one will be satisfied by what was put in or left out. But Washington is an especially hard place to get a grasp on, because it is not like any other city. Perhaps it isn't a city at all, for it is made up of separate pieces and layers that don't quite connect.
The New Yorker, of course, being a magazine that gets much love in the South Bronx. In truth, all modern cities are made up of separate pieces and layers that don't quite connect. That's Reaganomics and a widespread culture of fear for you. The fact that some intrepid filmmaker has not yet made an art-house hit movie about Washingtonians in all different walks of life whose paths intersect on one fateful day (a task already undertaken dozens of times by New Yorkers) doesn't mean people don't interact here. And though Jeffrey Frank apparently never ate a half-smoke from a cart, went to a go-go club or an outdoor harDCore show, or got out of his car in the NE or SE quadrants of town while he worked in D.C., that doesn't mean he couldn't have.
(In a 1933 Vanity Fair piece included here, the writer Jay Franklin calls it "a political village which has become a world capital, without becoming a metropolis.")
D.C. has a lot more people in 2002 than it did in 1933, but it still has only about 570,000 within the city limits. However, this ignores the rapid growth of the metropolitan area, which now (according to Census) includes Baltimore and has over 7 million people, making it the fourth-largest such area in the United States. D.C. alone is the seventh-largest media market in the country. Not quite metropolis stature, but not inconsiderable. It is odd that Frank selected this seventy-year-old quote to bolster his argument, since almost no one would argue that being a city is the same thing as being a metropolis. One wonders why Frank would use it at all, unless his other evidence was lacking.
Until fairly recently, the inhabitants of the District of Columbia, which is officially a federal enclave, couldn't vote for President, and they have no voting representative in Congress.
The fact that D.C. does not have the vote is indeed a cruel irony of our Constitution, which makes it all the more puzzling that Frank's reaction is not "We need to correct this injustice" but, essentially, "Glad I don't live there anymore."
The city elects a mayor, but if the mayor misbehaves (as Marion Barry did in the days when he used crack cocaine) Congress asserts its very real federal control over the place.
Congress asserts its very real federal control over Washington, D.C. whether the mayor is misbehaving or not. During the tenure of straitlaced Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Congress has barred the city from legalizing medical marijuana after a legalization referendum passed with a two-thirds majority and withdrawn funding from a needle-exchange program, in both cases for its own political purposes. Congress imposed a control board on the city in 1995 not because Barry was caught smoking crack cocaine but because he and another mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, had left the District in financial disrepair. Neither Barry nor budget crisis redounds to the District's credit, but Frank comes perilously close to conflating the two, which (to say the least) does not inspire confidence in the validity of his other criticisms.
Residents are proud of the District's history and its wonderful sightsthe National Gallery, with its Vermeers and Rembrandts; the Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans Memorials; the Air and Space Museum; the White House and Capitol, just for starters
Without exception, Frank's list names sights that belong to the nation, not to the citizens of Washington, D.C. (The word "sights" in and of itself surely indicates this.) While Washingtonians surely appreciate having them close by, why should they be proud of them? They're tourist spots, maintained for them by their representatives using their money. Yet there are places, institutions, histories that belong to the citythe parks and public spaces at Dupont Circle, Farragut Square, and Haines Point; the Philips Collection and Ben's Chili Bowl; the District-created musics of go-go and harDCore, as mentioned abovethat D.C.'s denizens rightly take pride in. As in most cities, these real sources of pride are near-invisible to casual visitors, especially when such visitors have their own sights to see. Did Frank lead a tourist's life during his entire stay in Washington?
but there is little of the self-love that one finds in so many other American cities,
If the standard here is the self-love practiced by New York City, then Washington, D.C., like almost any other city, must be counted guilty as charged of failing to meet it.
probably because so many people there not only are from someplace else but hope someday to go back to that someplace else.
Based on, apparently, his own personal interactions, Frank has come to the conclusion that in a city of over half a million people, there do not exist a vast number of people who were born in the city, live in the city and wish to stick it out in the city even through economic hardship, routinely trampled governmental rights, and questionable attacks from myopic New York publications. Frank has also come to the conclusion that everyone who comes from afar to enter into government service here has been impressed to do so by some force or duty beyond their control, instead of being drawn to D.C. by the chance to work with and change the national government for the better. These are oddly impressive failures of imagination on Frank's part; once he has decided where his blinders go on, they stay on, impervious to the entreaties of logic.
(George W. Bush speaks for this group.)
George W. Bush speaks for the Washingtonians who favor not having Congressional representation and being subject to the casual whims of the federal government in local affairs. How many Washingtonians does Frank think fit this description? (D.C.'s voting rolls, by the way, are ridiculously Democratic, meaning that not too many people who actually live in the District of Columbia think Bush speaks for them.)
The city is about sixty percent black, but its segregation is so complete and hard-edged that a demographic map would show a series of white neighborhoods (Chevy Chase, Spring Valley, Cleveland Park, Georgetown, and so on) mostly to the northwest and separated from the rest of it by a large park.
While the remaining neighborhoods would actually be recognized by D.C. natives, "Spring Valley" is a name for a little patch of whiteness most people refer to as "A.U.", because American University dominates that area. Because Spring Valley lacks significant non-student-oriented commercial development of any kind, no one goes there unless they live there; the only reason the neighborhood has any name credibility at all is because Army engineers recently found they leaked toxic chemicals into the soil there from an old experimental station. I think we may have found out where Frank lived while he worked for the Post.
On the larger point of segregation, Frank is correct as far as he goes, but a more nuanced analysis would note that integration is increasing in several parts of the city, and that the segregation that exists does not divide black people and white people so much as it divides rich white people and poor black peoplea type of segregation that unfortunately is replicated in city after city around the nation. Regrettable, surely; unique, hardly.
The commercial center of gravity slips ever farther from the city's downtownto places like Rockville and Tysons Corner and beyond to Bowie and Gaithersburg.
Again, commercial vitality has undoubtedly moved from the city to the suburbs in Washington, but it has moved along similar lines in virtually every city not named New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Washington's failure in this regard is not due to a lack of whatever Frank thinks constitutes a city, but (as is well-documented) to subsidized mortgages, car-friendly federal policies including the interstate highway program, and the deterioration of America's inner cities as livable areas.
That said, the idea of Bowie and Gaithersburg as commercial centers is laughable on its face; Frank might better have mentioned Reston or even Columbia had he wished to push the boundaries out further. That he did not is another sign of his casual attitude towards the realities he attempts to describe.
Washington is the only city in America to have lost its baseball team twice: the original Senators moved to Minnesota (to become the Twins) in the nineteen-sixties, and the expansion Senators moved to Texas (to become the Rangers) in the seventies.
Astonishingly, New York has lost exactly as many baseball teams (two) as Washington has: the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the New York Giants moved to San Francisco, both in the nineteen-fifties. Why, you might ask, did teams so beloved by their awe-inspiring city decamp for the West Coast? They were promised heretofore untapped major markets and, in the Giants' case, a subsidized stadium to draw revenue from. Why, you further inquire, did Washington's two Senatorial incarnations skip town? They were promised heretofore untapped major markets and subsidized stadiums to draw revenue from.
Why has no team moved to Washington, and why has no expansion team been put in Washington, in the thirty years since the Senators last left? Because teams have chosen to use the threat of moving to the Washington area as a means of blackmailing their local jurisdictions into constructing subsidized stadiums for the teams to draw revenue from, and because Major League Baseball operates under an anti-trust exemption, which means that it can forbid teams to move unless the other teams approve, which they will not because they need the threat of moving to the Washington area as a means of blackmailing their local jurisdictions. While this whole sorry situation speaks volumes about the venality of Major League Baseball, it doesn't have much to say about Washington.
Its crime rate is high,
Again, a pretty banal complaint about an American city.
its culture is iffy,
"Iffy"? To respond to this criticism, one would first have to know what it meant.
and its weather is so oppressive that, in the years before air-conditioning, some diplomats got hardship pay.
To be honest, I consider the amazingly foul odors the summer sun pounds out of the festering pools of chemicals and excrement that gather themselves on New York streets far more oppressive than Washington's heat and humidity, but I suppose I am the sensitive type.
When one tries to get the place down on paper, it becomes mysteriously elusive.
Rather than pound on Frank further (and I could!), I would like to close with a plea for media peace between our two cities. New York is, in many waysperhaps most waysa better city than Washington, D.C. I don't see anyone disputing that fact. Washingtonians who want to trade up, citywise, almost always have their sights set four and a half hours to the north.
New York is the ultimate destination for people who want to do anything people can do, people who believe they're talented enough to do anything they want, and people who know that everyone wants to watch what they do. Washington is perceived as a destination for people who want to tell other people what to do, a place where no John Zorn, Jimmy Choo or Paris Hilton could ever exist because "we" would find a way to legislate them out of existence, a place people go to worship at temples of democracy and take their insights far, far away to home.
But most of D.C. doesn't really care about the tourist economy except insomuch as it generates jobs and taxes, and most of D.C. counts the people who want to tell other people what to doparticularly the government-hating moralizers who are nevertheless drawn here like moths to flameas part of the tourist economy. There are creative people here who don't want to pay the financial and psychological price for living in NYC. There are talented people who are dedicated to making government a force that excites invention, rather than impeding it. And there are people who don't care too much about any of that, and live just enough for the city and sometimes a little more, and they, not Jeffrey Frank's former crowd, are the people who make Washington, D.C. the city it is. The New York media elite would do well to remember this before firing their next salvo, although I'm sure it all looks the same from wherever it is they live.
Christina Nunez has pointed out that New York does actually have an appreciably lower crime rate than Washington, D.C. I have removed the statement that it didn't from the article, giving me an appreciably lower error rate. Thanks, Christina. Another correction: Dodger Stadium was constructed with private funds. It is with just such minutiae that we approach respectability.
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.