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Reader E-mail: Comparing LA and DC

Conor Friedersdorf

Reading Marjorie Williams' comments on visiting Los Angeles from Washington DC brought to mind some impressions I had visiting Washington from Los Angeles.  First, it's rather strange to go from a city with no landmarks to a city that's nothing but landmarks. Riding the train from Ronald Reagan Airport to my hotel the stations have names like the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian Institution, Capitol Hill . . .   

My hotel was on Capitol Hill, which is strangely reminiscent of downtown Los Angeles in that it's a beehive of activity in the daytime and absolutely deserted after 6:00 p.m.  Also L.A.-like was looking at a recently restored neighborhood of row houses and thinking that if you'd gotten here not too long ago you probably could have had one of these for next to nothing.  One feature of Washington that I hadn't expected and no one ever talks about is the ragtime architecture you find there, an architectural period that L.A. essentially skipped. (One thing I didn't expect which I should have: The number of soldiers in uniform you see.)  

My main business was at the Library of Congress, and the two main buildings show the two extremes of public architecture.  Look at the original Library of Congress and you realize that while the United States will not build a palace for individuals it will build a palace for books (would that the national culture were actually consistent with this).  The Madison building on the other hand comes from an era where public buildings had to prove they weren't a waste of taxpayer money by being as dreary and bleakly utilitarian as possible.  

Of the Smithsonian complex I found the air and space museum more impressive than the history museum.  The reason is that even if it belonged to George Washington, one sword looks a lot like another. Though one Me 262 also looks a lot like another, it's by no means a commonplace object. Also, it dawns on you that a great many of the objects on view are not exhibits acquired for a museum but trophies won in combat.  Looking at the exhibit of Russian and American ICBMs I had to resist the temptation to start singing "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when . . ."  Another impression I got was that where women in L.A. dress to look sexy, women in DC, or at least those in public service, dress to look like Serious Business.  It's kind of hot, actually.

A writer named R.A. Lafferty once put Washington DC and Los Angeles in the same category of Mean Southern River Towns, a characterization which to him was not pejorative.  In each city there is one major institution everyone pays attention to, government in one case, entertainment in the other, overlaid on a real, existing city that no one pays attention to. They each produce a product that the public is constantly complaining about, though the quality of the product is largely determined by decisions of the public.  

The thing about Washington is that it owes its position as capitol not to what it is but to what it's not:  It's not Southern and it's not Northern, it's not a big industrial city and it's not a small town, and it's not in a state at all.  On the one hand, it's not as if one day George Washington started a humble customs shed on the Potomac and it grew to be the nation's capitol; its status was handed to it.  On the other hand, it's status is not going to go away; no matter what happens, the government is going to be there.

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