Prefrosh Preview: Our fabulous District

The editors figured you should know something about the federal enclave that you will call your home almost nine months out of the year. See below for a general history and profile of the District, from D.C. voting rights to race politics, and stay tuned for profiles of individual neighborhoods on Wednesday.

L’Enfant’s wet dream

As a consolation prize to the South for assuming Northern war debts, the capital city would take root firmly below the Mason-Dixon line.

In 1790, Congress asked President Washington to select the location. He gladly obliged with a location on the Potomac River that would be navigable to ships and just so happened to lie less than 20 miles from his house. The new city absorbed the old port towns of Georgetown and Alexandria (the latter returned to Virginia in 1847 because they were afraid D.C. would ban the slave trade).

Washington then appointed a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, to design the rest of the city. The planner offered up the city of grand avenues and plazas that we know today. Unique among American cities, they recall a European imperial capital.

However, L’Enfant was a temperamental prima donna, and Washington fired him before he could see the city developed. The designer of the capital city died in poverty. And they named an ugly modernist development near the Mall after him.

Taxation without representation

In a freak accident of history, the capital of the free world has no vote in its national legislature. The U.S. Constitution only gives votes to states and their residents. But the District of Columbia is a “federal district,” and the Congress functions as its local government.

Why ever would Congress need its own private fiefdom, you ask?

In 1783, angry Continental Army soldiers marched on Independence Hall in Philadelphia to demand wages the Congress had neglected to pay. At the time, there was no national army and Pennsylvania took a pass on confronting a mob of over 400 backcountry yokels.

After Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey, they vowed never to be so vulnerable to such pesky “civic participation” ever again. The U.S. Constitution authorized the establishment of a capital over which Congress would have exclusive jurisdiction.

Georgetown and the “City of Washington” had their own governments, subject to Congressional veto, until 1871. After that, D.C. was rolled into a single government with a governor and legislature. Because of the sorry state of the city at the time (it was a swamp with no paved roads), Governor Andrew “Boss” Shepherd was afraid Congress would move to St. Louis. So he spent millions on renovating (and bankrupting) the city.

This experiment in local government ended in 1874 and Congress turned the city over to a presidentially-appointed Board of Commissioners. In 1974, the Home Rule Charter gave the city a Mayor and Council. However, Congress can still overturn D.C. laws, and they briefly revoked home rule in the 1990’s because the city ran deficits and accepted a federal bailout.

In the recent past, Republican majorities in Congress have interfered to ban Republicans have particularly enjoyed banning gay marriage, block medical marijuana, and bar needle exchange programs (at around 6 percent, D.C. has the highest incidence of HIV in the country). Also, even though most of its revenue comes from local taxes, the District government shuts down with the federal government.

Remember all that “no taxation without representation” and “government of, for, and by the people” stuff you learned in high school? That doesn’t apply here.

A chocolate city, for now

In 1975, Parliament’s George Clinton proclaimed, “they still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary situation.” D.C. was the first black-majority city in the U.S., and 71 percent of its residents were black in 1970.

By the 2010 census, only 51 percent of Washingtonians were black. These changing racial dynamics reveal a stirring microcosm of American race politics that has always defined this city.

D.C. rests solidly below the Mason-Dixon line: the slave market at the 800 block of Independence Avenue (now the FAA building) was the largest in North America. Congress abolished the D.C. slave trade in 1850. Under compensated emancipation in 1862, the federal government bought out slave owners; former slaves only received money if they agreed to leave for Liberia.

After the war, the liberal rule of Radical Republicans made D.C. a Mecca for black elites. Luminaries such as jazz great Duke Ellington and poet Langston Hughes built a vibrant cultural life in the U Street Corridor, the largest urban black community before the Harlem Renaissance.

Presidents Taft and Wilson gradually segregated the federal government and D.C. public facilities in the early 1900’s. At the same time, the Washington Real Estate Board and the Parks and Planning Commission razed black “slums” and placed restrictive covenants on properties. They intended to relocate the poor black population northwest of the Capitol and east of the Anacostia River (they succeeded).

Federally backed loans financed rapid suburbanization in Washington area in the 1950’s, but black residents had almost no access to these loans. The white flight from the city center exacerbated poverty and social unrest for the largely black population left behind. Tensions reached a head in 1968 when the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., spurred devastating riots in Columbia Heights and the U Street Corridor.

With home rule in 1973, civil rights activists came to see D.C. as an experiment in black self-determination. Unfortunately, the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and increasing divestment only brought more crime and economic misfortune.

The city began to recover in the late 1990’s under the tenure of Mayor Anthony Williams. Adams Morgan, U Street, Columbia Heights, and Capitol Hill became popular among white young professionals. The resulting influx of white residents caused rising property values and widespread displacement of long-time, mostly black residents.

Every political issue, no matter how minor, risks becoming racially charged in a city undergoing such rapid gentrification. Even bike lanes and streetcars meet resistance in poor neighborhoods because of the gentrifying set they allegedly attract.

Images are in the public domain.

16 Comments on “Prefrosh Preview: Our fabulous District

  1. Didn’t I get mad at The Hoya for something very similar to calling black people “chocolate”?

  2. The Original Chocolate City, and proud of it. Don’t let any bamas from New Orleans tell you otherwise.
    Now if you’ll excuse me Marion Barry, John Turner, Victor Page, George Clinton, and I have dinner plans over on Naylor Road.

    P.S. Rex Grossman for President. Fight for old DC.

  3. Vox does an excellent job of hiding the writer’s liberal bias…not.

  4. I think John Flanagan does an amazing job in giving my class a brief history of DC. Thanks John! Can’t wait to be on the hilltop.

  5. John, its a good article but certainly biased. Both parties have influenced DC politics as a tool to project their power nationally. If Democrats were as pro-DC rights as Republicans were against them, they would have taken action in the previous legislative cycle where they controlled a SUPERMAJORITY. New York City is hardly a conservative bastion, went almost 80% for Obama, and yet last month was the nexus of massive protests by Democratic slanted constituencies against New York’s recent gay marriage law.

    I realize we are college students hell bent on fulfilling the stereotype of being “liberal” and idealistic, but it doesn’t have to be expressed in a summary article about the history of DC.

  6. Mea culpa! However, the fact remains that, as far as D.C. home rule is concerned, Democrats have been far less obstructionist over the last 40 years. The last Democratic effort to stymie home rule was in the late 1960’s when House D.C. Committee Chair John L. McMillan (D-SC), a staunch segregationist, blocked the home rule charter until D.C. activists campaigned against him in his district and succeeded in getting him thrown out.

  7. I think some people here are confusing “liberal bias” with history, which the author of this post does a very good job of documenting.

  8. Hm okay, well then I’m just going to write a “history” of the Obama presidency which blames him for the current state of the economy, lackluster job growth, and the deterioration of American power abroad. It’s already common knowledge that the Voice is full of pretentious liberals. The least they could do is attempt to hide it.

  9. I think one could probably do a good job writing a critique of the Obama administration, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that if it were well written, the Voice would publish it. But this is a post about D.C. history, and not to acknowledge the way voting rights have been suppressed and popular referendums ignored is not doing the subject matter justice.

  10. The problem I have with the article is that its presented as a historical reference. “In the recent past, Republicans have particularly enjoyed banning gay marriage, blocking medical marijuana, and barring needle exchange programs (at around 6 percent, D.C. has the highest incidence of HIV in the country)”

    That reads as an indictment of a particular political party. Its a conclusion you’re free to reach based on your own slant and investigation, but presenting conclusion as fact beforehand is a logical fallacy and doesn’t belong in responsible writing. Republicans have particularly enjoyed? And then linking the needle program to high HIV incidence, transitively connecting Republican enjoyment to HIV rates? Thats a conclusion you may choose to back up with fact, but don’t try to back up your conclusions with other conclusions.

    Thats not the point of the article. So why halfheartedly venture into those categories when they can be mentioned without bias? They absolutely should be mentioned, but do so neutrally. Last time I checked, DC acknowledges gay unions, and a Democratic congress defeated a DC voting bill in the last term (due to political maneuvering by the Republicans). Even changing the quote above to “In the past Republican majorities in Congress have interfered to ban…” would reduce the bias significantly, and “Congress has” would reduce it completely and include those instances where Democrats have done the same thing. If the Dems cared enough about DC they would expend the capital on getting them more voting rights (which would inevitably be Democrat, by the way). The fact is, they don’t.

  11. Also, L’Enfant Plaza an “ugly modernist development”? The author is clearly biased against fascist architecture. This kind of yellow journalism will not stand!

  12. @John Flanagan

    I think it’s dangerous hyperbole to declare that every issue risks becoming racially charged. I’ve lived in the DC area for my entire life. While race relations certainly aren’t fantastic, I would never suggest that race relations is as indomitable of a force as you suggested. For instance, in the recent city elections, one of the largest issues was whether or not to sustain the reforms undertaken by Chancellor Rhee. That battle hardly touched upon race, but rather reflected a struggle between the DC Teacher’s Union and Rhee supporters.

  13. @This kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about

    I think the school reform debacle is just the kind of issue that has been racially polarized. See the links below. For one, the school board was the only popularly elected body in D.C. before home rule. It became a symbol of civil rights: Marion Barry was on the school board. When Fenty took away the board’s power, he ruffled a bunch of feathers among old-school civil rights activists.

    And since you mentioned the recent elections, look at the results. I’m not saying we can’t overcome the issues that divide this city, but those issues are certainly still there.

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