Moving into the ’70s in Washington


Sam Smith, 1970 – Memory can fool us. Up close the 1960s often lacked the romance that time has given them. After all, at the end of the decade Nixon was president; tens of thousands of young American men and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died in a pointless war; charismatic leaders had been assassinated, and the cities were still smoldering. I missed much of the media’s version of the sixties because I was editing a newspaper in a neighborhood where, among other things, the riot of April 1968 left 145 businesses and 52 homes destroyed or damaged. In August 1970, I summed up the decade this way:

NOW that we’re into the new year a bit, we will finally get a respite from those churlish images of the sixties that the press has exhumed for us over the past few week. I don’t need to see another photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, riots or bodies in Vietnam to realize that at some point early in the last decade we should have stopped and taken it from the top again. It was all like the denouement of a Shakespeare parody: the plot forgotten, the actors merely set about to kill each other in geometric progression.

Even the “good” images didn’t help much. Their irrelevancy jarred: the Apollo rockets poised to goose space, the trivia transformed from black and white to living color, the $15,000 table model kitchen computer from Neiman Marcus. The same perverse pointlessness pervaded not only what we destroyed but what we created as well.

It was, all things considered, terrible. What was happening to people, to the country, was so unpleasant that even those fighting against it tended to lose both their humor and humanity. And small wonder . . . A blossoming police state. A bloody and bullheaded military misadventure. The concentration of economic power. Seemingly inexorable attacks on the environment. Our inability to change all those things — or even to wish them changed. We moved from “I have a dream ” backwards to a dream deferred. And the other night, at a friend’s house, I heard a record called “Tomorrow Has Been Canceled Because of Lack of Interest. ”


Later in 1970, with the city still failing to respond to the cries and lessons of the riots of two years earlier, I considered leaving Washington altogether.

The first days of fall are pleasant business. The gauze of noxious gas that stretches over the city all summer is suddenly pulled away permitting the sun a rare change to lounge unimpeded against the sides of buildings or to ricochet off spires. The air conditioner’s monotone is finally silenced. The hint of a chill is gently repulsed by a friendly jacket. Paces quicken, minds lighten, and smiles come more easily. The best thing that ever happens to Washington is the end of summer.

A few weeks ago I had veered close to leaving this town. Part of the inclination was rational: there is, after all, little hope for the senile metropolis that inordinately absorb our finances, distort our lives, kill our children and grind us into smooth featureless abstractions.

Those of us who piddle around in the “urban crisis” are just so many orderlies in a terminal cancer ward. We can’t cure anything, only help mitigate disaster – a valuable service, yet sometimes psychically carcinogenic to the provider. At some point we must escape in large numbers to new towns, old towns, empty land, anywhere where people can start again with their own foibles their major handicap rather than having to overcome the urban labyrinth of failure hat expands geometrically with time.

Part of my desire, too, was in the gut. I have loved Maine for more than twenty years, but I was educated to respect the city and to elevate respect above love. After driving through 400 miles of throat-grasping asthmatic fallout from the urban east coast on my way to spend a few weeks in Maine, I found I could no longer retain the pretense of respect. I felt a desperate urge to love rather than admire, to thrive rather than survive, to enjoy rather than just experience. As my vacation passed its way, I found fewer reasons for returning to Washington and while habit brought me back, I struggled as mightily as I ever had to accept or break a habit.

When I expressed my doubts, I was asked what I intended to do in Maine. That is the favorite inquiry in Washington: what do you do? I couldn’t answer the question; I had only worked myself to the point of beginning to recognize what I wanted to be; how it was to be done seemed a question of secondary importance, a mechanical matter like knowing that you wished to proceed to the west coast but being uncertain as to whether you should drive, go by bus, or take a plane. It annoyed me, that question, but because I could not meet it, I found my inclination wavering.

And the friends. Friends are more important than place, it was suggested. I wanted to accept the argument, yet wondered whether the city didn’t pollute friendships like everything else. I counted the friends I hadn’t seen or written for months because I was so busy doing something so important by the standards of the so busy, so important city. Yet I also counted the number I would miss should I leave.

Then, somewhere along the line, inertia took over. The old fights once again distracted me from introspection. Once again, specifics overwhelmed generalities. I was back changing bed pans in the ward.

The change in the weather made it much easier. It is hard to feel angry, frustrated and helpless here in the fall. Yet I still think that the bravest and best Americans may be those who leave the city to build new communities. The most sensible place to create a better Washington is somewhere else. But few are ready to make the change. The roof leaks, the plaster crumbles, the termites undermine the joists. We stay here together, through another season, and tell ourselves that if we can only get enough money, enough expertise, enough will, the urban structure can be rehabilitated. How long, I wonder, can we feed ourselves on hypotheses?

[A few weeks after this was written, I found myself deeply involved in the DC statehood movement and the question of leaving town was put aside for several more decades.]

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