Sam Smith, City Paper, 1987 – Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town.
This elite is not content with the mere possession of money, power, and success; it feels compelled to plaster its icons and totems all over town, giving the place the oxymoronic aura of franchised trendiness, coincidentally destroying the places and symbols of indigenous Washington.
This latter Washington — the natural city, the generic culture, the slow lane — remains but is unnurtured, unnoted, and uncelebrated. This is the Washington of Burleith and Michigan Park, the city of clerks and secretaries, the city of volleyball on the Mall and fishing at East Potomac Park, the city of shopkeepers and their assistants, of sales representatives and moonlighting cab drivers, of women taking the last bus back to Anacostia after a long day at low pay. It is the city of people choosing not between better and best, but between having and doing without. It is the city of those who know that a dreamy afternoon watching baseball at Turkey Thicket does more to reveal God’s ways than reading George Will does.
It is a place of churches and PTAs, of people whose social life revolves around relatives and friends, of a lonely drink in a crowded bar, and of shifting around to find a warmer spot on the grate. Those in the slow lane are seldom in the press except when they die or tragedy comes to their neighborhood. They worry about their reputation rather than notoriety, and seek pleasure rather than power.
It is a city, in many respects like dozens of others, but with a big exception: Its virtues and its problems are hidden in the shadows of the unrelenting spotlight on the pageant of the grand . It is a city not even given the honor of derision; it is simply ignored.
In Third World countries they call it cultural imperialism, politicians become revolutionaries to fight against it, and the signs read: “Yankee, go home!” Here they call it the ‘New Washington, the mayor brags about it, and the signs read: “Ready for Occupancy, Fall 1987.”
The members of this elite think of themselves as in the fast lane, but like the Beltway that has become, sadly, one of the last symbols to unite us, their motion is ultimately circular and peripheral to the heart and soul of the city.
They think of themselves as having added style to Washington life, but it often is the style of those described by Carlyle, “whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.” Instead of style being an outward sign of inner grace, it has become just another item to purchase.
They profess to have enlivened the arts, but rather then being critical enthusiasts or participants, they tend to be culture-shoppers looking for hits and investments. To them a painting is a BMW for the wall, a gallery is a place to be seen rather than to see, and if their theatrical tastes extend much beyond Neil Simon, the National Theatre hasn’t discovered it yet.
They claim to have improved the food at the city’s restaurants. For many residents not on expense accounts, the issue is moot. They can’t afford to go to them anymore. But certainly the quality of more than one of the city’s best restaurants has dramatically deteriorated with the temptation of easy money and easy cooking for alcohol-dazed big-spenders. Enjoyable atmosphere has been replaced with ersatz ambiance, and even the chicken salad has been doused with peculiar herbs that leave one with mild but costly dyspepsia.
They have come to be close to power, but because they have little purpose beyond power, they are loose cannons on the deck of the city. If they are real estate developers, they ruin our neighborhoods with their ugly workday mausoleums. If they am hip capitalists, they replace the useful shops of the city with endless boutiques purveying the unnecessary and the ostentatious. If they are lawyers, they spend their days serving the avaricious and spend their evenings boring us about it. If they are journalists, they fill our papers and our ears with the latest disinformation from government officials so carefully cultivated over lunch or drinks. If they are city planning officials, they proceed about the city enforcing their sterile neatness. If they are politicians, they deaden our evening news, and our morning reading with such disingenuousness, such tediousness, such gracelessness that one hopes for the next tampon commercial.
Collectively, they clog our roads and then honk at us for daring to turn left; they brutalize our language, they talk too loudly in the subway about excruciatingly uninteresting subjects and create excessive lines for increasingly marginal services and goods. Their bike-riding couriers, carrying their turgid memos and latest schemes for destroying the cityscape, run us down in the street. They don’t answer our phone calls. They so fill available aircraft on their puerile missions that we end up missing our grandmother’s funeral. They even put forth the absurd proposition that the 1980s version of the man (or woman) in the gray flannel suit is not only a role model but a sex symbol. And there’s hardly a smile or a laugh in the lot. They have overwhelmed the pleasant crazy-quilt pattern of a once vital city with the dull ritual of self-important bores.
They also consider themselves to have brought sophistication to Washington, and in this, at least, they may be right, since one of the meanings of the word in English, a language formerly spoken here, is “adulteration.” And another is “the use of sophistry.”
I know they have done their mischief not only on Washington. Part of the character of the fast-laners and the power addicts is their rootlessness. Since their values revolve around themselves and not a place, their ethic has been able to spread like social hydrilla throughout urban America. But Washington’s power and prominence has a special appeal, aid unfortunately the City is neither large enough in size nor strong enough in its own traditions to ignore them and go about its business. Further, Washington has become the capital of the insecure, and as New York marketing expert Peter Glen recently told Regardie’s, “You can’t market to the secure rich; you can only market to the insecure rich. If you’re marketing to the secure, there’s not much you can do because they don’t need your garbage. . . . Washington is the most insecure place in America, and therefore a perfect place for marketing to the rich.”
I, for one, would be happy to ignore the fast lane. But how can I when even the Hispanic carryout down the street offers its specialties on croissants? When the mayor cavorts with the cultural intruders like some official of Vichy France? When cab drivers can find the Four Seasons Hotel but not the District Building? When the superintendent of our public school system is asked whether she’s leaving for another job and says, “I’m seriously considering my career pattern?” And a ward candidate for the school board speaks of “isolating structures” and “modalities?” When waiters and clerks treat ordinary citizens as though they had a socially transmitted disease? When you get the feeling that any day now you may be bounced from your local supermarket for violating their dress code?
Other cities infected with the fast-lane mentality at least defend themselves with their sense of history, of ethnicity, and of place. But Washington, so long denied self-identity, its culture so long ignored by the local media and put down by the national one, is easy pickings for this domestic version of Euro-trash.
Lost among the glitz and the grotesque a sad but important fact.
Today, the cheap space is gone and with it those whose only sin was that they couldn’t afford the rent. The public-interest lawyers wear suits now. The Van Ness Safeway has become the Safeway Food Emporium and Goodwill Industries has become the headquarters of a huge law firm.
We have had growth, but it has been malignant, and it threatens to devour all that is healthy and natural in the city. Right on the heels of gaining a modicum of political self, we have thrown away our cultural identity for the privilege of serving and entertaining the powerful, profligate, and decadent of late 20th-century America. Our cultural symbol has become that of the $300 a night hotel doorman dressed in the servant’s garb of another imperial culture that once wanted it all but now has to mike do with the Falkland Islands.
In better times we might expect some help from local leaders in politics or the media.But the seriousness with which the city’s elite takes itself seems to have worn off on the whole city, and to an outsider we must come across as a city of worriers, complainers, and the hopelessly insecure.
It’s up to us in the broom closets of power to do something about it. We can if, in our minds and our actions, we draw a clear distinction between their Washington and ours. ‘We have to understand, as any New England shopkeeper could tell you, that you can take their money without becoming like them, and that there is a part of town for tourists and hustlers, and a part of town for people. We need to appreciate what is indigenous more than what is imposed. We need to expunge fast-track jargon from our conversations and stop “networking” when we should be having a good time. We need to eat more Chesapeake Bay crab meat and fewer over sized and undercooked chocolate chip cookie. We need to create a unity of feeling and understanding that goes beyond shared miseries of the Beltway or shared victories of the Redskins. We need, in short, a local cultural revolution that places the generic culture of Washington at the center of our lives go we can stop living vicariously through a world that most Washingtonians serve but do not own.