Carl Abbott. Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xv + 252 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2478-8; $27.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4805-0.
Reviewed by Alan H. Lessoff (Department of History, Illinois State University)
Published on H-Pol (April, 2000)
Washington on the Potomac, in the Nation, and in the World
Boston is in New England, Chicago in the Midwest, Denver in the West, and Atlanta in the South. Where is Washington? Is it in the South? The North? The Mid-Atlantic? Is it a southern city that has become northern? A provincial city that has become national and global? A national capital that uneasily abides its enduring regional ties? Is it a contested border between North and South? Or a gateway for white and black southerners to the North, and vice-versa? Urban historian Carl Abbott explains that all these regional identities and ties coexist at Washington and indeed interact with one another. In thus describing Washington's layers of identities and regional, national, and international ties, Abbott has produced an innovative study that could potentially transform the way historians treat region as a factor in American urban development.
Abbott notes in his analytical first chapter that urban history often treats locality and region as "residual" matters, as relics from a past that urbanization, industrial capitalism, state expansion, and cultural modernization are progressively wiping out. Much of the social theory on which urbanists base their work regards regional mindsets and customs as rooted in the countryside, where folk cultures can survive for the time being in relative isolation. Modern cities, with their commercial and communications networks that span continents, transcend and erode regional distinctions. In theory, therefore, the more modern and urban a society, the less relevant to it questions about region are. "The stronger the local attachments or the regional identification," Abbott explains, "the less the place is thought to have been influenced by modernization and incorporated within modern institutions" (p. 19). With regard to the United States, urban scholars have paid attention to region mainly when dealing with "peripheral" areas: the backwards South and the colonized West. As the South and West developed vigorous urban networks during the twentieth century, they presumably became less distinctive regionally, more like the "norm" of the Northeast and Midwest, whose cities do not often provoke questions about region.
Abbott, on the other hand, has long been identified with the argument that cities retain regional distinctiveness, even as they become integrated into national and international networks of exchange, finance, and communication. In previous writings, Abbott challenged the presumption that region was gradually ceasing to have meaning for the urban West. Despite the growing presence of western cities in North America and around the world, Abbott has concluded, regional history, geography, and environment continue to shape their economy, politics, culture, and life.
In Political Terrain, Abbott applies this line of analysis to a city often posited as losing its southern regional character as the national state that Washington houses gained in authority and presence. Washington, Abbott believes, remains rooted in its geography, even as its reach has grown global. In suggesting that the story of the capital's regional identity is "layered," rather than a "straight-line" progression from an "initial southern character" to "northern city, national city, global city" (pp. 23-24), Abbott has by implication created a case that region retains importance throughout urban America.
Moreover, Abbott emphasizes, because of Washington's special function within the American polity, the federal city's regional identity has often intertwined with fierce political debates over national identity and direction. Hence the title, Political Terrain. "Regional claims on Washington," the author insists, "have also been claims about the character of the nation." Washington's founders and planners back in the 1790s set out to create a national city that emphasized the South's crucial role in the continental republic, not a regional or border city that presumed the South to be peripheral. To the extent that the founders' Chesapeake- and southern-oriented vision of American nationality lost to a northern and western one, Washington's southern links have seemed a provincial chain upon it. The fact that Americans have come to perceive northern influences upon the capital as less regional than southern influences are a sign that, over the long run, the North has been more effective than the South at using Washington "to express and represent [its] own interests and values and to equate those values with the national interest" (p. 7).
After his analytical chapter, Abbott presents two chapters on how a location deemed central when chosen during the 1790s came to seem a border zone by the time of the Civil War. Abbott begins by reinterpreting the familiar story of the 1790 agreement to place Washington along the Potomac. With a clever use of early maps and views of the federal city, Abbott shows that it too simplistic to view the confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia as a "southern" site. Within the political geography of the United States during the 1790s, the Potomac River was as central, western, and Virginian as it was southern. In siting the new capital at a point on the Potomac accessible to both river and ocean traffic, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and their fellows were envisioning a continental republic with a Virginia-dominated metropolis along the route from the coast to the Ohio Valley. The federal city was not meant to define the border between North and South; it would define the nation's center in a manner congenial to "Virginia's imperial ambitions." The new capital would "guarantee national unity by anchoring a 'Middle America' that knit Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Valley into one" (p. 35).
Efforts such as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to capture the interior's trade fell egregiously short, however. Commerce ran from the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Middle America grew as an extension of New York and Pennsylvania, not the Chesapeake. By the middle third of the nineteenth-century, Washington's tidewater location, once a sign of its commercial promise, had come to seem marginal to national development. The town had come to seem not a national hub, but a border between North and South. Washington's desultory social rounds of horse racing, card playing, and receptions seemed indicative of the shabby gentility into which upper-class northern Virginia, once expansive in its ambitions, had sunk. By the 1850s, both northerners and southerners looked upon the capital as "the first southern city on the road southward" or "the last southern city on the way north" (p. 66). For northerners, it was where slavery in all its brutishness and decrepitude began. For southerners the capital became an outpost of their section, essential to hold because of the leverage it offered over national policy.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the city attracted tens of thousands of newcomers from the North. These migrants saw destruction of the city's "Southernized" character as essential to the emergence of a progressive, enterprising nation. In both business and social life, white Washington during Reconstruction experienced bitter conflict between "old citizens" with roots in the antebellum capital and upstart entrepreneurs who, like their counterparts across the Reconstruction South, sought to reorient the city toward the North, economically and culturally. The famous controversy surrounding the Territorial government of 1871-1874 dramatized Washington's role as a site for and prize in the regional conflicts of the Reconstruction era. Although a native Washingtonian, Alexander R. Shepherd, the Territory's audacious Republican "boss," identified with the goal of transforming the languid capital into a "well-built and well-paved emporium," tied to "the emerging national core" in the Northeast and Midwest (pp. 71-72). With support from key figures in Congress and the Grant administration, Shepherd embarked upon a massive program of public works, ambitious even by the standards of this age of Prefect Haussmann. By 1874, Shepherd's millions in unauthorized spending on streets, water, sewer lines, and other modern accouterments had bankrupted the capital. Faced with an embarrassing scandal in a key election year, congressional Republicans replaced the Territory with an appointed board of commissioners, a system made permanent in 1878.
Abbott sees the collapse of Shepherd's effort to accelerate Washington's modernization and the ensuing loss of local self-government, not to be restored until the 1970s, as a setback for the effort to reorient Washington from the South to the North. Among white Washingtonians, the capital again began to seem the first stop in the South, a trend ratified by the location there of the operating offices of the Southern Railway and by the promotion of Washington during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as a "Gateway to the South from the North Atlantic States" (p. 79). Abbott asserts that as the northern-oriented, Civil War-era generation died off, Washington's white elite again became predominantly southern or Chesapeake in origin and outlook. This helps explain the city's renewed reputation for provincialism by the turn of the century, as well as its leaders' self-conscious conservatism and willingness to espouse segregation openly.
Meanwhile, for black Washingtonians, whose numbers tripled during the 1860s and whose percentage of the total populace rose to one-third, the defeat of Reconstruction at Washington represented a setback for the goal of creating a nation that defined progress in political and moral terms as much as in the material or economic ones stressed by Shepherd and his supporters. Although hampered by the emergence of Jim Crow in the city and eventually in the federal government itself, Washington remained a center of African-American intellectual and professional life. The capital's dual character as a national city and as a gateway to the South made it useful to blacks, for Washington helped to keep the South permeable, while it provided a quasi-northern place of opportunity for black migrants "more homelike than a New York or a Pittsburgh" (p. 85). Still, the reality of a national capital that tolerated segregation made Washington a discouraging place for ambitious young blacks, like the cosmopolitan poet, Langston Hughes, who felt keenly the ludicrous hypocrisy of his not being able "to get a cup of coffee on a cold day within sight of the Capitol, because no 'white' restaurant would serve a Negro" (p. 89).
Despite northern white acquiescence in the "remarkable resouthernizing of Washington society and culture" between the 1890s and the 1920s (p. 81), the institutions of government continued to evolve in tandem with the evolution of an urban, industrial, corporate society whose most dynamic regions were in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Washington's steady evolution as a capital, even as it threatened to relapse into languid provincialism as a city, illustrates Abbott's argument that competing regional identities can coexist in the same city at the same time. In the fourth and fifth chapters, Abbott details Washington's transformation first into the administrative and symbolic home city for a continental republic between the Gilded Age and the New Deal and then into a world-wide center for politics and policy-making after World War II.
During the Gilded Age, the Progressive era, and the New Deal, the steadily growing presence of the federal government in American life became manifest through numerous projects to fill Washington with majestic parks, public buildings, and monuments. By the mid-twentieth century, Washington had begun to fulfill its potential as a center of learning, science, and culture, through the expansion of the federal institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Geological Survey, which in turn created a favorable climate for universities, research institutions such as Brookings, and professional associations. Even before the New Deal, Washington had established itself as a destination for tourists and conventions from across the United States.
Before World War II, Washington's international role remained limited. By the 1980s, however, the capital of the West's superpower had become a major destination for immigrants, tourists, and students from all over the world, as well as for diplomats, scholars, and the officials of international organizations. Yet even as it blossomed into a cosmopolitan metropolis, Washington remained at heart what it had been since the early nineteenth century: an "information" city whose private sector revolved closely around government. In recent years, promoters have touted the liveliness of business, finance, and the professions as evidence that Washington was at last freeing itself from excessive dependence on government. Abbott notes, however, that the most important growth has been in enterprises that are outgrowths of the capital's core function as a center of politics and policy: professional, trade, and public-interest associations, corporate offices for regulated industries, research and development firms, government contractors, and publishing and media enterprises. Theories of "world" cities and globalization, such as those of Saskia Sassen, suggest that "the sovereignty of mobile capital" (p. 140), embodied in international financial markets and multinational corporations, increasingly bypasses the nation-state and renders it less relevant. Washington seems, by contrast, to illustrate the nation-state's role as a catalyst for and a component of globalization.
In a summary chapter, "Washington at 2000," Abbott stresses that despite all the dramatic changes that the capital has experienced, the tension between Washington's character as a tidewater city and its character as the capital of a modern nation-state endures. Indeed, the world-wide power of the United States may reinforce Washington's southern ties, by attracting active and retired military personnel, whose presence helps to account for the fact that the capital still draws migrants disproportionally from the South. Washington, concludes Abbott, "is central and liminal, national core and economic periphery, focus and articulator of national political culture and border zone among regional cultures" (p. 181).
The only possible shortcoming in this marvelous book is that Abbott may not adhere strongly enough to his own injunction to emphasize politics as a cause of Washington's regional identity. For example, the book at times seems to depoliticize Washington's "resouthernizing" after Reconstruction, to make this a social and cultural phenomenon that did not require constant maintenance through politics. The accommodation worked out by leading white institutions and interests in the late-1870s was that as capital Washington would continue to develop along northern and "national" lines, while as city, Washington would be more or less left to the South, to the extent that and in the ways that the South wanted it. The resouthernization of Washington's local life thus did not represent so much the removal of political pressure for northern-style change after Reconstruction as it did the application of selective political pressure from a southern direction. This uneasy accommodation between national capital and southern city became stamped in Washington's geography and appearance. Between the 1870s and the 1950s, the country's most respected architects, planners, landscape designers, and engineers -- under the auspices of urban northerners such as Michigan Republican senator James McMillan, sponsor of the 1902 McMillan Plan -- created much of the monumental capital that nowadays inspires Americans. At the same time, segregationist Southern Democrats -- most infamously the reactionary South Carolina congressman John L. McMillan -- were using their stranglehold over the House District of Columbia committee to ensure that black Washingtonians could not use the city as a wedge to challenge the South's racial order.
"The government capital is turning away from the city," complained planner Elbert Peets in the early 1930s, at the time of the Federal Triangle project, which by grouping huge federal offices tightly near the Mall seemed to ratify this division. Whereas the original L'Enfant Plan of 1791-92 had "made every effort to amalgamate" the capital and the city "to make them serve each other," more recent federal planning efforts, such as the McMillan Plan, had "mark[ed] off certain limited areas and [said] these we will conquer and hold, letting the rest of the city welter in its chaos." That the District of Columbia statehood movement can nowadays even imagine a distinction between governmental "core" and residential "city" demonstrates the failure of the vision of Washington as an integrator, not just of the races, but of regions and of the state with the nation.
That said, Political Terrain can only enhance Abbott's reputation as an urban historian of thoughtfulness, creativity, and wit. His efficient, clear book is packed with insights drawn from disparate sources, ranging from the regional origins of women federal workers, to forgotten nineteenth-century political novels and probably forgotten twentieth-century political ones [Tom Clancy?], to the fare at Board of Trade social events and the shelf contents of Safeway supermarkets. Abbott's book represents a big boost for the recent movement to integrate Washington fully into American urban history. It provides an example for all urban scholars of how to analyze even the most networked and global of cities as tangible places, not divorced from or transcending place -- as "world city" thesis would have it -- but in constant interaction and conversation with their geography and environment.
. See especially, Carl Abbott, The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993). For a reassertion of the counterargument, that regional geography and culture did not create intrinsic differences between southwestern cities and those elsewhere, see Robert Fairbanks, For the City as a Whole: Planning, Politics, and the Public Interest in Dallas, Texas, 1900-1965, (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998), 5-7. On the problematic place of region in American urban history, see Raymond A. Mohl, "City and Region: The Missing Dimension in U.S. Urban History," Journal of Urban History 25, n. 1 (Nov. 1998), 3-21.
. Elbert Peets, "Current Town Planning in Washington," Town Planning Review 14, n. 4 (Dec. 1931), 231-32; Alan Lessoff, "Washington under Federal Rule,1871-1945," forthcoming. Also, see Alan Lessoff, The Nation and Its City: Politics, "Corruption," and Progress in Washington, D.C., 1861-1902 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); and Howard Gillette Jr., Between Beauty and Justice: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington D.C. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
. Steven J. Diner, "The Nation's City," Journal of Urban History 24, n. 5 (July 1998), 655-66.
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