Hanging Washington out to dry – Frank McNally on an enduring myth about the US capital
The idea that Washington was ever a physical swamp is what Trump calls “fake news”. Photograph: Sean Pavone/iStock
Most great cities have a foundation myth, whether it’s the wolf-reared Romulus and Remus building Rome, or the rival bids of Athena and Poseidon for the naming rights of Athens. Washington DC is no exception, although being a modern capital, its founding myth is somewhat more modest and believable.
It was invoked, among other places, in one of Alistair Cooke’s famous Letters from America. Here he is describing how the city rose, during the 1790s, from an unlikely location on a fork of the “noxious” river Potomac: “For I should tell you that, from that day to this, Washington lies in what the guidebooks call an amphitheatre and what you and I call a swamp.”
This supposed fact has spawned a thousand metaphors, or at least a thousand variations of the same metaphor, in the past two centuries. The city being synonymous with political corruption, generations of would-be reformers have embraced the natural analogy. Donald Trump is only the latest in a long line of campaigners who promised to “drain the swamp”.
But as I found out only when visiting the place myself last week, the idea that Washington was ever a physical swamp is what Trump calls “fake news”. A recent historian of the city, Carl Abbott, whose book was subtitled From Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis, concluded that the allegations of former swampiness were “plain wrong”.
Had they been true, he suggested, many older buildings would have gone the way of the leaning tower of Pisa. Instead, they all remain perpendicular. Besides, no contemporary reports justify the legend. And yet, as the headline on Abbott’s account for the Smithsonian Magazine put it: “The Myth That Washington Was a Swamp Will Never Go Away”.
Another myth, almost equally beloved, is that by law, no building in the city may be higher than the Washington Monument. That is an effect, it turns out, not a cause.
The actual law governing most construction is that buildings may not be higher than the adjoining street is wide, plus 20 feet.
That still leaves plenty of scope, because Washington has some very wide thoroughfares. Even so, there is little risk of any building rivalling the aforementioned obelisk, which at 169 metres, makes Dublin’s Wellington Monument (62 metres) look like a traffic bollard.
The result is a handsome, stately city, unspoiled even during the 1960s and 1970s. An unfortunate exception is the Watergate office complex – completed in 1971 just in time for the burglary that made it infamous – whose ugliness may be a worse crime than any of the ones that brought down Nixon.
Washington’s more general appearance, especially the wide avenues, is a legacy of the Frenchman who drew plans for it: Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Alas for him, he didn’t get to finish the job. In his inability to compromise, or just get on with people, he seems to have been a L’Enfant terrible. So he was soon sacked, and the task of putting his plan into effect given to someone else.
But what Cooke called the city’s “preposterously wide avenues” were among L’Enfant’s monuments. They accounted for half the original site and were for decades a joke to visiting Europeans, due to the lack of anything much in between, including such usual city essentials as houses and people. Then the civil war happened, with Washington serving as the base for the Union armies. And from the resultant explosion of life, labour, and lobbying the capital never looked back.
Another thing it acquired in the mid-1800s, crucially, was woodland: vast numbers of trees in countless varieties. These are mostly deciduous, however. So despite the outbreak of greenery around the White House on St Patrick’s Day, the capital was sombrely coloured. As viewed from the air, the surrounding countryside was 40 shades of brown, and the theme continued into the city, through vast swaths of leafless trees.
That will all change soon. Last week’s visitors just missed out on one of the classic Washington spectacles, when the shamrocks on lapels give way to the pink blossoms on cherry trees, thousands of which were a gift from Japan early last century. So associated are they with the city now that the covers of guidebooks tend to have all the main landmarks fringed with pink foregrounds.
This was an embarrassment for a while after Pearl Harbor, when in a forerunner of “Freedom Fries”, the trees had to be renamed “Oriental” rather than “Japanese”. But wars come and go, and the cherry blossoms endure. With the balmy weather that enveloped Washington on St Patrick’s Week, this year’s flowering is expected earlier than usual, around April 3rd.