Getting to Know Washington
What makes a city feel like a city? Being in Washington for a few days has started to make me think about how big metropolitan areas are set out – and challenged my European ideas a little bit!
Firstly, it’s a cliché about the US that it’s big… but I don’t think I’d appreciated how different this would make cities feel. Buildings tower above you, vast edifices of glass and steel and concrete. The word ‘block’ really is apposite – these feel like vast lumps of matter, most of them around the same size and shape and colour, that have been arranged on a giant chessboard by a huge designer in the sky… Meanwhile, you make your way between these huge monoliths, feeling rather dwarfed by them.
And they’re all so new! At least in downtown D.C, where we have now found and moved into a new apartment, it feels as though nothing has been here longer than a few decades. This means every shopfront, every restaurant, every apartment entrance looks pretty similar to every other one. It probably makes me sound like a terrible snob, but in Paris and even London to some extent, a strikingly new, colourful, regular-shaped shopfront or restaurant quite often implies an uninspiring chain (be it a bank, a restaurant, a bar, a supermarket)… and if you’re someone who knows the city well, you can probably skip it in favour of somewhere more interesting. In Paris at least, I’m used to tiny wooden shopfronts up winding little alleys, quaint wrought iron tables on a quiet cobbled square, half timbered ceilings and poky staircases. Not everywhere of course, but in lots of places, and often. Here, ‘downtown’ at least, most places are new and colourful and at the bottom of a huge ‘block’ of a building. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no good. It just means I have to adjust my eye a bit…
Of course I’m aware that not everywhere in D.C is like the centre. Up behind the Capitol in Eastern Market, which I’ve already visited once, or in Georgetown (which I’ve seen from a bus!) things get a lot more European. There are beautifully painted colourful houses, of a normal, two or three storey, human kind of a size. There are little pavement cafés and wine bars and places where you can sit and read a newspaper. I think there may even be roads that don’t go in an entirely straight line. But the interesting thing about D.C is because it’s so big, all of these different areas and neighbourhoods feel so far apart. Perhaps it comes of cities growing in an era when everyone drives and space to expand outwards is relatively unlimited. Why put a new building or complex crammed right next to other ones, when someone could just drive a couple of miles extra to find it in a whole new area of town? As a result of this, it feels – albeit to a total newcomer, who’s only been here a few days – that Washington is divided into lots of different areas, with distinct characters, a little like Paris and its arrondissements, BUT unlike Paris, where these different quartiers are all on top of one another and overlapping in a snail shaped pattern, here they’re very spaced out.
And it’s what’s in between these areas that struck me. There seem to be lots of roads and spaces in Washington that are a bit…well, nothingy. They’re just on the way to somewhere else. There might be a couple of apartment blocks here, a takeaway pizza shop there, but there’s no agglomeration of life, nothing to give the area shape or character. There’s shape and character just up the road, or down the road, but right there, it’s no man’s land.
Several of the apartment blocks we looked seemed to be in these kinds of districts. They felt weirdly empty, like ghost towns. I’m sure that’s partly just because of the time of day we were there (generally, in the middle of the afternoon) but overall, it didn’t strike me that there was much going on. That’s why the flat we’ve chosen in the end is right in ‘downtown’. It has lovely facilities, to be sure, but so did some of the others we looked at. But it was the only one we found, in our very limited timeframe, that didn’t feel as though it was stuck on the route halfway through someone’s daily commute, in no man’s land.
And no man’s land seems to be where some people in Washington inhabit as well. As a newcomer, I can’t begin to comment on America’s social structure – what I know about its ‘safety net’, or lack of one, comes from horrified European media, and I’ll be interested to make my own observations as a semi-permanent resident. But one thing’s for certain – there are certainly a lot of poor black people on the streets here. People with obvious mental health problems, people with clear drug addictions, people who obviously don’t have a dime or a cent to their name – these I saw every day on the streets of Paris and to some extent in London. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen these problems so clearly restricted to one socio-economic group. Perhaps this is just a Washington thing? In France, there are a lot of Roma (gypsy) beggars (so much so that President Sarkozy tried to have them all shipped back off to Romania, with limited success.) But they weren’t the only people asking for your euros, trying to steal your phone or shouting alcohol or drug-fuelled obscenities at you. In this city, that dubious distinction seems to belong, so far in my experience, almost only to black people. (This is not to say I’ll be thrilled if a white or Asian man nicks my Blackberry.)