Last week, I took a trip to Washington DC for the first time in over a decade. The last time I went there, it was to see Fugazi play a show on the National Mall as part of a Washington cultural festival; the opening act was a go-go band, go-go being an ultra-regional soul/funk genre practiced in DC and virtually nowhere else. That’s about as close as I ever got to any of DC’s major attractions, because each previous time I’d visited, it was to see Fugazi, see another band, or to play in a band myself. The vast majority of those trips landed me at places like the Wilson Center, Fort Reno, Adams Morgan–in other words, far away from what the vast majority of folks go to see when they’re in Our Nation’s Capital.
What I saw of DC back then, I liked a lot; they seemed vibrant and genuine in a way that’s being systematically leeched out of New York a little bit more each year. But my few encounters with the more traveled areas of the city felt foreign to me. It didn’t remind me of an American city at all. The first time I approached anything close to downtown DC, it reminded me of Buenos Aires, as weird as that may sound. Wide plazas flanked by arches and statues of generals on rearing horses struck me as very South American. But I also didn’t get close enough to any of them to make a real judgment.
Having now visited the stuff everyone visits in DC, I can say that those initial impressions were only reinforced. The monuments and museums of Washington are imposing and majestic in a very non-American way. America definitely does bravado well, but in a ham-fisted, dumb kinda way, like wearing star-spangled boxer shorts or selling hand-painted silver dollars with bald eagles on them or blowing your hand off with a roman candle on the Fourth of July. Or invading Iraq.
Placed against this standard, DC’s Big Parts seem positively European. It’s all extremely impressive and regal and stentorian, but none of that represents America very well. This is perhaps because when the city was designed and laid out, and even when the Really Big Monuments were being constructed, we still didn’t quite know what America was. All we had to go on was a European model to aspire to, so we copied a bunch of French and Greek stuff and dropped it in a swamp on the Potomac. It was like the ancient ancestor of Las Vegas’s New York New York.
I was really struck by this when we went past the Lincoln Memorial. I never realized how huge the thing was, and the fact that it looks out on a tidal pool adds a further sense of awe and glory. But if you know anything about Lincoln The Man, this seems a powerfully wrong tribute to him. He wasn’t quite the log cabin man mythology makes him out to be, but he was closer to that than he was to the towering ersatz Parthenon built to honor him. You have to think that, given another 100 years, we might have been able to build something a bit more American in his honor.
Then again, even the more modern stuff has a decidedly foreign feel to it. Many of the big federal buildings constructed 30-40 years ago were done in the Brutalist style, the kind of architecture most associated with the Soviet Union; it reminded me of the bizarre Yugoslavian war monuments, only not quite so artistic. The same went for the Metro system, which I found quite efficient and comfortable, particularly in comparison to the NYC subways. But every station looked exactly the same, which made it look eerily like Pyongyang to me.
For all this, I didn’t get to see as nearly as much as I’d like; I could have spent a whole week exploring the Smithsonian. And yet, it feels odd to visit your own capital and feel not just like a tourist, but like a foreigner.