When a shopping center becomes history

From our overstocked archives.

Sam Smith, DC Gazette, 1985 – The owner of our local shopping center wants to tear it down. No one knows for sure what the company would put in its place, but the site is right at the Cleveland Park Metro station and, if the past is any guide, we can expect something big, boxy, bland and boorish, which will add nothing to the community except traffic. The neighborhood is organizing to fight the invasion of the killer cartons that have already flattened much of developable Washington, leaving the city, as one person put it, looking as though someone had flown over it dumping out ice cubes.

The plans for the Park & Shop at Connecticut & Ordway are seen as the first step in a process of destroying a lovablely funky business strip of several blocks that provides everything trom superb pasta to videos to some of the last of the cheap haircuts. It’s the sort of complex that annoys city planners because it doesn’t make much planning sense. In fact, you couldn’t plan it; it is there because it works.

Some people have expressed surprise that a 1930 shopping center, indeed any shopping center, could qualify for landmark status. This reaction, mostly outside the neighborhood, provides yet another example of how limited the popular view of history often is, and how especially this is so when that history is represented by a building.

Historians have markedly changed their own view of what history is, but many of us who are not historians are still trapped, to some degree, in the narrow view that Miss Thumpberger dispensed in sixth grade, a view that equated history with Someone Important and Something Big. In historical circles and, mercifully, in many schools that view is disappearing. A few years ago, one of my sons took part in a seventh grade mock trial of Christopher Columbus to determine whether he should have his holiday taken away because he was so mean to the Central Americans upon whom he landed. When I learned about Columbus, the recipients of his explorations were barely discussed; it was presumed, I guess, that they were dutifully grateful to have been discovered at last.

So the young may appreciate the history of the ordinary, or social history, better than some of us who were taught a history that consisted of an endless and confusing succession of kings, military men and their wars and governments, leading inexplicably to the League of Nations, where history suddenly stopped because the year was over and we had run out of time.

The space between the League of Nations (or the Spanish-American War or whereever the clock ran out) and now was, by inference, not a part of history, but a sort of No-Great-Man’s-Land between the present and the past. Which might be one reason why some find it hard to see the historical value in a 1930 shopping center. Neither in terms of chronology nor in terms of grandeur does it fit the earlier standards of history.

But, by contemporary historical standards, it very much does. This is one reason why the head of the historic preservation department at George Washington University is so interested in preserving it. Richard Longstreth, like many historians, fully appreciates that you can’t understand American history without considering its commercial past. Think, for example, how dull Williamsburg, Sturbridge, the Museum of American History or Mystic would be without attention to that past. The development of the modern shopping center must surely be one of the most significant commercial developments of our recent history, so much so that one West Coast scholar recently suggested that the shopping mall had become the community, replacing such older institutions as the church. . .

In short, this modest center, with the buildings set back to provide space for cars, was at the beginning of a retail movement that would dramatically affect the nature of the metropolitan life in the years to come. Ironically, this neighborhood-serving innovation would inspire suburban planning that produced huge shopping malls far from neighborhoods that were left with few if any services near at hand.

Not a particularly noble legacy — but just as history does not have to be pretty, it doesn’t always have to have a happy ending.

Today, the center stands as the first park & shop in the area and one of the earliest still remaining anywhere in the country.

It is, though, painfully modest. And in a town that gawks at the treasure houses of Britain but tears down its own oldest downtown commercial structure, and which came within inches of destroying such grand buildings of value on Pennsylvania Avenue as the Old Post Office and the Willard Hotel, preserving the modest is a difficult task.

This is in part because architectural historians were among the first to attempt to save old buildings. Their natural bias was architectural: you save things because of their architectural significance not because of what happened there or what the place symbolizes or typifies. And the bias of the architectural historians unfortunately blended with a certain elitist bias among preservationists. Together, what they were really up to was a form of historical censorship. From an aesthetic point of view a case could be made for this approach, although often it reflected subjective cultural values more than objective standards, but from a historic point — and after all we are talking about historic preservation, what was being created was, in a sense, a lie. Thus it was not until relatively recently that Williamsburg began to deal honestly and creatively with some of the historical lies it had long sponsored — such as ignoring the crucial issue of slavery. . .

The concept of historic preservation has broadened and, in the broadening, become more honest. This is important, especially so in a city where the majority population has so little representation of its past. . .

But while we are more careful about our past than we were, we still have a ways to go. Consider the fact that some of the city’s most historic sites and ones most honestly revelatory of history are among those most rarely visited by the average tourist or even residents: Georgetown’s Old Stone House, the Frederick Douglass home, the Heurich mansion, the Woodrow Wilson home. These are places you can go to learn history yet they are relegated to the minor league of tourism.

Given that history is not a high priority in elementary or secondary education and that reading appears to be coming to be an increasingly esoteric activity, physical evidence of our past is more important than ever. We need reminders that cities can be, and for a long time were, organized on a model other than the warehouse shelf, the apparent inspiration for contemporary Washington developers. When I am in the Cleveland Park shopping center I feel as though I am in the Washington of my childhood; it is an accurate souvenir from the time before the new architectural barbarians swept across the town, arrogantly driving the human and the lively out of the city.

More importantly, it is a souvenir from a time when the city enjoyed a natural physical growth that came out of needs and experience rather than from injections of structural steroids that give it the illusion of gain while hiding the long-term physical and psychological damage being done..

PS: The shopping center was saved. Here’s a photo:

 

 

 

 

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