DC was created as a symbol: a symbol of a young country, a place to come together, an ordered city on neutral land from which to govern the nation. With timeless monuments, Greek architecture, and a grand city plan, the District of Columbia successfully conveyed the image of power and stability to the country. Citizens from around the nation elected officials to become temporary residents of this city in order to represent the folks back home. These politicians moved in, sometimes for many years, but still identified primarily with another part of the country. Federal DC has always been a shifting cast of characters acting against a marble backdrop.
Tourists come to view this federal grandeur, which their tax dollars built. Visits to the Mall highlight United States history. National leaders fill Congressional halls. The Library of Congress houses all of the nationís books. Tourists flock to the places that represent a history that unfolded far beyond the confines of the 61 square miles of the District. They come to see their ninth grade history books in three dimensions.
While the workings of Capitol Hill may be the primary part of DC telescoped to the rest of the country, a real city developed alongside the federal ocean that brought fresh faces in and out with the political tide. Real residents remained here generation after generation. A local community full of vitality, culture, and history developed. Neighborhoods emerged, each with its own identity. The beauty of DC unfolded in the houses, parks, stores, and clubs that spread across all four quadrants.
The rest of the country remains blissfully unaware of the local side of DC. Newspapers relate the cityís struggles to the nation. Murder. Poverty. Assault weapons. Crack. A mayor smoking crack. Yes, this city has problems. Most cities do. But does that mean every area outside of Northwest and Capitol Hill should be presented as a place providing target practice for crack dealers?
Visitors learn quickly to stay away from the majority of DC, from the neighborhoods beyond the Capitol or Northwest. If youíre here for a short trip, then thereís plenty to see already. Why go to the Smithsonian thatís in Southeast? Why go to the Frederick Douglass House, the Basilica, or the Hillwood Museum? Why go to the neighborhoods where Spanish is as common as English or that give some hint that almost two-thirds of the city's residents are black? Why visit DC?
Even permanent residents of the metro area buy into the stereotypes. If you grow up outside of the city or along the Northwest border of the city, you learn to visit the other quadrants only to do your volunteer work. Why go all the way to the rest of the city when there are plenty of chain stores in Georgetown or on Wisconsin Avenue? Why look for a restaurant in Northeast when there are already so many catering to your family in Bethesda? The illusion of distance begins to take hold. Things seem far away. Yet, the city is quite small and the hardest road to cross is a mental one.
In the Nationís Capital,we begin to examine the ways in which different media sources present DC to the rest of the country. What do guide books tell visitors who are planning a vacation here? What do realty guides teach potential residents?
For example, the Letís Go 2002 guidebook might be extreme, but it captures many of the fears and prejudices that the nation has incorporated into its view of the capital. Letís Go's safety section mentions murders that took place here in 1942, an honor not even bestowed to its guidebook for Germany. It advises tourists not to stay out of specific neighborhoods, but instead out of Northeast, Southeast, and east of 14th Street Northwest Ė well over half the city. It fails to mention amazing sights outside the wealthiest part of the city. True, tourists should be wary in unfamiliar places. But that doesnít mean they should be scared away. Guide books need to learn to be responsible but fair and to actually help guide people to places they couldnít find on their own from the Smithsonian Metro stop. The reactions to Letís Go and other descriptions of DC on this site are meant not only as complaints about being ignored, but also to give the country a clue as to what lies beyond the federal city.
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