For five years I worked in an office building at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC. For those who don’t know the place, it sounds kind of picturesque. On the one hand Pierre Charles L’Enfant was, after all the man who mapped out Washington’s crazy but beautiful street grid. With its criss-crossing avenues his plan not only lines up some amazing sightlines, but also created hundreds of little squares, triangles, and circles that help give DC its distinctive look. On the other hand, you have the word “plaza” which in this country is pretty much synonymous with ugly, wind-swept, patches of charmless concrete–examples of the worst kind of post-war planning and design, or equally monstrous suburban shopping centers. (Foreign variations of the word like the Italian piazza, the French place, or the Spanish plaza, and their physical manifestations are everything that American Plazas are not. Beautiful, full of life, etc.)
Long story short, in a city of amazing neighborhoods and open spaces, L’Enfant Plaza, is easily one the ugliest and souless parts of the city. It is a ghetto for federal employees entombed inside each day for 8 hours, and virtually deserted after hours. It is disheartening to see tourists from all over the country and the world emerge from the Metro station only to see the ugliness of the area. I used to have to fight an overwhelming need to apologize to them and explain that the rest of the city is not that ugly. I was always quick to offer directions to tourists looking in vain for the Air and Space Museum or the National Mall, hoping that my friendly help would make them forget the ugliness around them.
But wait you say, L’Enfant Plaza is home to the works of some pretty famous architects like Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, and Edward Durrell Stone. Methinks that their works are part of the problem. They seem to have believed more in the purity of their designs than they did in the need for humans to use them. Stone perhaps made the best effort by creating an open courtyard with a fountain and seating that was home to a weekly farmers market and providing the only outdoor space that was even remotely hospitable to the folks who work in the area. But even that small gesture will be lost now that the owners have stripped Stone’s facade off the building and plan to enclose the outdoor space to increase their rentable square footage.
But now I work in Old Town Alexandria. I have a longer commute, going from DC out to Virginia and staying on the Yellow Line about 20 minutes longer than I used to. But oddly enough the longer commute is actually more pleasant. Besides the fact that I have more time to read, I also have the opportunity each day to make a connection with the Potomac River. Each day as Metro emerges from its tunnel on the banks of the Potomac, I look up from whatever I am reading to take in the river. I notice how the water looks each day (blue, green, brown, calm, choppy, littered, clean), who is on the river (security boats, crews from Georgetown or one of the other colleges), what the weather is doing (dramatic clouds down river with a sliver of orange light peeking out), which way the planes at National are landing (ocassionally having one pass right over the moving train), checking out how bad the commute is for all of the fools crossing the river in their cars, and a million other details.
Observing all of this from my climate controlled Metrorail car, I feel so much more a part of the city and connected to life–in a way that seemed impossible when I worked at L’Enfant Plaza. Even as I think about the things people throw into the river, the invasive snakehead fish that are now populating the waters, the raw sewage that overflows DC’s antiquated sewer system, and all of the polluting runoff from cars and over-fertilized lawns, I can’t help but feel hopeful. Its volume of ever-changing water allows me to think about the endlessly renewing possibilities of life rather than the monuments to the failed idea that abstract concepts turned to concrete are more important than the needs of the human soul.