I just uploaded a set of photos of my neighborhood branch of the D.C. Public Library. The library has been closed since 2004 and no plan exists for its re-construction. It was closed with two other neighborhood plans and slated for demolition and re-construction, but the D.C. Board of Public Library Trustees canceled the construction contract last fall, deciding the plans did not fit with the overall vision for the library system a task force had outlined. At a meeting last November officials told neighborhood residents the branch might not open until 2008. Temporary storefront locations to serve the three neighborhoods now without branches have also not opened, despite assurances in October the library was moving quickly to scout out locations.
I just ordered the book Washington: City and Capital published by the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. The book was the Washington, D.C. edition of a series of books on each state published by the WPA. Although supposedly a guide, at 1,140 pages there’s clearly quite a bit else that made it in. This PDF guide on the series calls the book “one of the most interesting American Guide Series volumes. I just bought a copy for $30 off Alibris (complete with maps!), when it comes I’ll try to post something more about it.
If you’re interested, it looks like you can read the book online here.
Also, just found that H-DC has this 50 Essential Washington, D.C. History Books
“Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour.” Thus begins Thomas Pynchon’s short story “Entropy,” which I discovered leafing through a collection of his early work that I picked up at a booksale the other day. To me, the best part about this story is not the first line — although I love the idea of a lease-breaking party — but instead the setting: Washington, D.C.
In “Entropy” Pynchon explores his conception of the scientific theory through two apartments in D.C. in 1957: one is the site of a raucous, 3-day party and the other is the home of a eccentric recluse obsessing over the death of a pet bird. For more on the story this Pynchon website has some observations, but what interests me most in the story is the subtle influence of D.C. I might argue his story maps the archeology of youth culture in our fair city: there’s a local band that has only recorded one LP, a group of government girls who “worked for people like the State Department and NSA,” a drunken group of Navy enlisted men, and an “ex-Hungarian freedom fighter, and even “three coeds from George Washington, all of whom were majoring in philosophy,” each carrying a “gallon of Chianti.” (Did GW offer philosophy in 1957? If they did, was it worth taking?).
He’s even got the weather spot on:
Rain splatted against the tar paper on the roof and was fractured into a fine spray off the noses, eyebrows and lips of wooden gargoyles under the eaves, and ran like drool down the windowpanes. The day before, it had snowed and the day before that there had been winds of gale force and before that the sun had made the city glitter bright as April, though the calendar read early February. It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg [...] are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it. So that over and above the public components – holidays, tourist attractions – there are private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the year’s fugue: haphazard weather, aimless loves, unpredicted commitments: months one can easily spend in fugue, because oddly enough, later on, winds, rains, passions of February and March are never remembered in that city, it is as if they had never been.
As someone who left my apartment today in the rain this morning, watched several of inches of snow pile up and melt during the day, and return home under gray, fall-like skies, I found his description striking. Lastly, here’s his description of what can only be described as the prototype for the modern returned-from-abroad-ex-Peacecorps-volunteer-hipster you know you’ve met:
This was in early February of ’57 and back then there were a lot of American expatriates around Washington, D.C., who would talk, every time they met you, about how someday they were going to go over to Europe for real but right now it seemed they were working for the government. Everyone saw a fine irony in this. They would stage, for instance, polyglot parties where the newcomer was sort of ignored if he couldn’t carry on simultaneous conversations in three or four languages. They would haunt Armenian delicatessens for weeks at a stretch and invite you over for bulghour and lamb in tiny kitchens whose walls were covered with bullfight posters. They would have affairs with sultry girls from Andalucía or the Midi who studied economics at Georgetown. Their Dôme was a collegiate Rathskeller out of Wisconsin Avenue called the Old Heidelberg and they had to settle for cherry blossoms instead of lime trees when spring came, but in its lethargic way their life provided, as they said, kicks.
Although the modern versions of Pynchon’s characters certainly exist in the city, I have found few parties where they come together in quite the way he describes. Not only do GW undergrads rarely party with international types, I rarely spot a trio of philosophy majors each carrying a gallon of wine. Then again, perhaps I’m just going to the wrong parties.
Ok, I lied. I’m not going to try my hand at a review of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, mostly because Amazon.com already has 155 of them. Instead I thought I’d just note a couple thoughts on it. I was inspired to re-read it after I picked up a copy of a book of Pynchon’s early stories at the District of Columbia Public Library’s bookstore downtown.
I had vaguely remembered rushing through The Crying of Lot 49 for a class in college and making a note that it might be something I’d be interested in revisiting. This time through I thought it was a good deal funnier, and further impressed by how much it is a book about the 1960s, laced as it is with references to LSD, Freud, new suburban development, etc. It also seemed to me that the point Pynchon is making about Trystero (a mysterious underground mail delivery service discovered by the novel’s heroine) is one about the nature of the new society emerging in the 1960s. The system uncovered by Mrs. Oedipa Maas cannot possibly be called a proper conspiracy because those aware of the system share the so little — sometimes just the knowledge of their little corner of the system, or a misremembered name or jingle connected to the historical organization. It is this knowledge — that culture is becoming so stretched the shared connections are nearly meaningless — that Oedipa realizes. In Pynchon’s novel Trystero, which appears at first an intelligible fragment of the broader society, is like the larger society itself inherently unknowable.
For more detailed information on the book the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.
Hopefully this will be an evolving list.
The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital
by Constance Green
The Hidden History of Washington, DC
by Tingba Apidta
Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C.
by Howard F., Jr. Gillette
Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C.
by Francine Curro Cary
The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop
by Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson Jr.
Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital
by Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins.
The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital: The Masons and the Building of Washington, D.C.
by David Ovason
The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro
by Zachary M. Schrag
Books about DC I have read:
Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.
by Harry S. Jaffe, Tom Sherwood
The Failures Of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream
by Sheryll Cashin
Richard Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder is one of those books I had heard obliquely mentioned so many times I decided, finally, to read it. Published in 1970, it has aged curiously. Labeled “sociology” by the publisher, the books’ oddly diverse jacket endorsements suggests the stew of ideas contained — the front cover claims it a “defense of anarchism” while some on the rear claim it to be “radically relevant to the current urban crisis.”
So what is it? One part psychology, one part pop sociology, one part anarchism, above all the books makes a psychological argument about American cities. If his thesis has not stood the test of time, it certainly interesting as a counterpoint to the urban discourse of today. Fundamental to his argument is the assumption casually tucked into page 73 that there are no “mechanistic explanations” for the wrenching changes underway in American cities in 1970 — urban rebellions, freeway construction, massive suburbanization by the middle class, etc, etc.
This is, of course, a remarkable claim to a contemporary urban observer like myself. However, we must remember 1970 was years before any serious discussion of the true nature and impact of FHA home loans on the city, the true power of freeways, and before many important dissections of urban racial inequality and segregation. Sennett places blame for the state of American cities on the high modern practitioners of urban planning. While perhaps idealistic to a fault, I’m afraid the planners are perhaps just as idealistic as we will find Sennett.
However, instead of simply locating his criticisms to a misunderstanding of traditional urbanism as Jacobs does in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, he seeks a deeper explanation, the psychology of Western Man. (and it is Man, save two generic female examples) Animating the planners’ desire to rational urban space Sennett finds Americans who have an immature psyche, who desire to minimize the “contact points” between people to create pure, conflict free relationships. In the process this Man seeks to create intense nuclear families and simplify all other encounters. To Sennett this “voluntary slavery” is the choice of a generation of Americans who have been enabled to act on this previously dormant desire due to unprecedented affluence in the society. In Sennett’s mind, the desire to avoid conflict deprives the modern Man from experiences which would ultimately be good for him and help him become a more mature adult. The city as psychological broccoli, if you will.
Not only does he not have much evidence people were willing a purified life in the suburbs (and not, perhaps good schools and lower housing costs) the argument is didactic and obsolete. His public policy proscriptions are not much better — at one point he suggests citywide land use zoning should be abolished and replacing it with direct conflict (no joke!) in the neighborhoods. I am unsure whether he hopes for us to take seriously or if it is merely a point of discussion, but they are altogether wildly idealistic and impractical, especially when considered with Ms. Jacobs’ quite pragmatic suggestions.
Despite these shortcomings I do think some element of the book can be relevant today. It is precisely the individual, psychological reality of the modern city that has fueled so much of the discourse of American urbanism“ from Hoppers’ lonely figures, Chaplain’s micromanaged factory worker in Modern Times, to Wolfe’s alienated characters of the 1980s. Perhaps we can learn something from Sennett’s book today, in an era when when many young affluent whites like myself are seeking neighborhoods of intense urbanity for profoundly psychological reasons. Perhaps in grandiose discussions of gentrification, suburbanization, and segregation, it is good to remember that the thoughts, desires, and even unconscious play a role in how the city evolves and operates. Despite his many shortcomings Sennett reminds us urbanity is at some level a state of mind, itself a powerful force in shaping the city and a force deserving renewed attention by the contemporary urban observer.
> Amazon.com: The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life
The Chestnut Tree Cafe was a short-lived project of mine to collect pithy quotes about society on an anonymous Blogspot blog. Like many an ill-fated blog project, it was abandoned in the face of more pressing obligations. If I may be humored the point, it became as neglected as its namesake, yet like the purloined cafe not totally abandoned thanks to the idle whim of the solitary searcher. You may recall Orwell’s cafe was
… the haunt of painters and musicians. There was no law, not even an unwritten law, against frequenting the Chestnut Tree Cafe, yet the place was somehow ill-omened. The old, discredited leaders of the Party had been used to gather there before they were finally purged. Goldstein himself, it was said, had sometimes been seen there, decades ago.
The cafe name echos a rhyme from 1984 about a tree where “I sold you and you sold me,” itself according to the Newspeak Dictionary “most likely” a Newspeak translation of Longfellow‘s The Village Blacksmith.
Below lies the complete contents of the Chesnut Tree Cafe, Feb. 2004 – June 2004.