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GP23Apr: Richmond, Washington, and Warm Rooms

Tired Richmond.  Like Philadelphia, Richmond has the air of a city that missed its moment.  Still the capital of the Confederacy, it made several fortunes in the tobacco trade, but today consists of memories and empty streets because it could not reinvent itself.  For the tourist the obvious temptation is to visit the ring of Civil War battlefields, but these, too, are still and vacant.  Only a video at the Chimborazo Medical Museum or the audio re-enactment of carnage at Cold Harbor remind you that the city once was the crossroads of the South, the center of all its dreams, and the ultimate fortress in the Civil War.

Hail, Jefferson.  The real treat in town is the Jefferson, an 1895 hotel to the west of the business district and the capitol.  The enterprising Lewis Ginter, emigrant from New York who arrived in 1842, set to work on the hotel with his third fortune from tobacco (already having lost two), a majestic, graceful establishment designed by New York’s premier Beaux Arts architectural firm Carrere and Hastings.  He named it, of course, after his hero, the Revolution’s Thomas Jefferson, who, along with several other Virginian founding fathers, is the example of Virginia at its best.  It had to be revived from the dead at least 3 times, surviving a 1901 fire, a 1944 fire, and economic depredations that temporarily closed it in 1980.  Its public spaces make every other Richmond hotel seem paltry and wrap you in an enchanted cocoon that takes  you away from the desolation outside.  No wonder Louis Malle chose to film his My Dinner with Andre in its ballroom, the right tableau for a long, ironic, low-key conversation.

The Road to Washington.  The minute you hit I-95 North into Washington, you are gripped by traffic that only thickens as you draw closer to Washington.  Washington, we learn, has the second worst traffic congestion in the country, only surpassed by Los Angeles.  The traffic jams, the beleaguered schools, and the parlous state of local government suggest that the Feds, stumbling in their own backyard, should stay out of transportation, education, and a host of other matters. 

City without Joy.  Richmond has been defeated for 135 years, and has lingered in its past.  But Washington itself does not have the smell of victory.  It’s not just the traffic that drives you for cover.  The commercial areas are almost universally tatty, and the service is at best slapdash.  Besieged, Washingtonians fear another 9/11 attack, and they have piled in gas masks, water supplies, and the like in preparation for the worst.  Iraq may be won, but songs of victory are not heard in the cafes, even if the Defense Department is chortling a bit.  Richmond is tired, and Washington is anxious.

Sanctuary.  As in Richmond, you look for a place where you may retreat.  Perhaps a restaurant in Georgetown with little signage and a very discreet street front which is housed in a pleasant enough basement known to the local classes and not the masses.

FDR Memorial.  Perhaps, too, the strain will lead you to hunt out different monuments than you did of old.  Away from the Lincoln and Washington is the more elegant, less monumental Jefferson Memorial, John Russell Pope’s soothing Pantheon-style 1930’s construct, which is much less favored by the crowds.  Better yet, the FDR Memorial, completed in 1997, a secluded grove designed by Laurance Halprin, with works by several artists including Leonard Baskin.  It is the non-monument monument, consisting of 4 outdoor rooms, each dedicated to one term of  Roosevelt’s presidency.  The human scale speaks less of glory and more of concern and closeness to troubled people.  Like the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, it is a place for consolation amidst the assaults of the times.

Traffic Redux.  This is all to say that we may be looking for ways to make our cities much less imposing. There’s a need for modesty and constraint.   Last week we posted a note on the Global Province about Red Ken Livingston’s victory over traffic in center London.  This has been further commemorated in “The Day the Traffic Disappeared,” New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2003, pp.42ff.  What he did was to impose a handsome daily surcharge on those wanting to drive into the heart of town, and so far the cars are staying away in droves and gridlock is in the descent. Less is decidedly more. 

Less of Everything.  Big cities it seems are in need of very small, humble ideas.  And fortunately they seem to spring up.  A tax against too many cars.  Monuments that are cut down to size.  Hidden places—an old hotel here, an FDR memorial there—that allow citizens to beat a strategic retreat.  The big ideas aren’t working out too well, based as they are on the world as it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago.

Come to think of it, it’s the small ideas that are now helping business as well.  Ford has decided not to be a transportation colossus and is back to being a car company.  IBM, which was more of a marketing company than a technology company at the start, has bet its future on services rather than hardware.  McDonald’s is trying to be a hamburger company again.  In other words, they’re being cut down to size and adopting a less amorphous shape.  Business after business is beating a strategic retreat.

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