In 1981 your editor wrote an article in the Washington Post about the alleged renaissance the city was enjoying. Little did he know that this alleged renaissance, driven by developers, media and gentrifiers, would reoccur almost regularly for the next three decades.
Sam Smith, Washington Post, 1981 – Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my ‘inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit -has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better.
Without a doubt, there is a new Washington, but it does not follow, as The Washingtonian suggested recently, that the city is “coming of age.” And there certainly is no renaissance – for that you need ideas. This town hasn’t seen an idea of any magnitude since the anti-poverty program. To be sure, there is “cultural growth” but it is largely characterized by an artistic oligarchy, critical promiscuousness and growing indifference to indigenous creativity. The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity…
The new Washington disdains nearly every contact with the city as a community and treats the place as part shopping mall and part Plato’s Retreat for the ego. It is the city of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without It, clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up…
To be sure, much of the new Washington represents nothing more than the idiosyncrasies of a new elite. Elites come and go and if they stay maybe they change. As long ago as 1898, an observer noted that Washington’s smart set was “too much concerned with smartness to be interesting;” But a hundred years ago such elites could be ignored; today they can’t. Today elites bully their way into ordinary life….
There is no easy was to change course that has been set towards a go-go, look-at-me, boom time Washington, but the first step would seem to be some resistance. Those who want to preserve Washington’s cultural heritage have to be as noisy as those trying to preserve its architectural heritage. Along with Don’t Tear It Down we need a group called Don’t Wear It Down, dedicated to preventing the destruction of the city’s soul by those who only take from it and give nothing in return.
We need to fight to regain control of our city so can start shaping it the way we would lie it, rather that the way day-trippers, power players, hit shoppers, consumers of change, and high style groupies would like.
In the meantime, let’s drink a toast to the renaissance of Washington: “May we live to see it.”