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
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.