United States of America
Washington, D.C., city and district, capital of the United States of America.
The city of Washington has the same boundaries as the District of Columbia (D.C.),
a federal territory established in 1790 as the site of the new nation’s permanent
capital. Named after the first U.S. president, George Washington, the city has served
since 1800 as the seat of federal government. It is also the heart of a dynamic
metropolitan region. During the 20th century, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan
area grew rapidly as the responsibilities of national government increased, both
at home and throughout the world.
The city is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and is
flanked on the north, east, and southeast by Maryland and on the southwest by Virginia.
Although the city has retained some aspects of its Southern origin, it has assumed
a much more cosmopolitan character. At the same time, the city struggles with social
and economic disparity, and a number of its residential neighborhoods suffer from
poverty and crime. Washington’s climate is hot and humid in the summer and cold
and damp in the winter. The average daily temperature range is -3° to 6°C (27° to
42°F) in January and 22° to 31°C (71° to 89°F) in July. The city averages 980 (39
in) of precipitation per year.
Washington and its Metropolitan Area - The Outline of the City
Designated to serve as the permanent seat of the federal government beginning in
1800, the District of Columbia was named for Christopher Columbus. It was created
from land ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland, and it incorporated the
existing seaport towns of Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, Maryland. The district
was originally 259 sq km (100 sq mi), or 10 miles square, as established under the
Residence Act of 1790. The central town site was laid out by French architect Pierre
Charles L’Enfant in 1791. The remaining land was an open area stretching north to
the border with Maryland. It was designated as Washington County. In 1846 Congress
returned that portion of the federal district that had originally been ceded by
In 1871 the cities of Washington and Georgetown were consolidated with Washington
County to become Washington, D.C., making the city, the county, and the federal
district one and the same. Washington, D.C., has a total land area of 159 sq km
(61 sq mi), and the Washington metropolitan region—which in addition to Washington,
D.C., contains 24 counties in the surrounding states of Maryland, Virginia, and
West Virginia—has a total area of 17,920 sq km (6,920 sq mi).
In his plan for the city of Washington, L’Enfant attempted to represent symbolically
the new United States and its republican government. He gave prominence to each
of what were then the primary elements of government—the executive and the legislative
branches. He also featured the states in giving their names to broad diagonal avenues.
These he arranged both according to geography and to each state’s prominence in
the nation-building process. Massachusetts, Virginia, and especially Pennsylvania,
with its associations both with the Declaration of Independence and the signing
of the Constitution, gained the most prominence. Avenues named after other states
with prominent roles in ratifying the Constitution, notably Delaware and New Jersey,
intersected at the Capitol. Also, L’Enfant hoped that the intersection of diagonal
avenues with the city’s straight grid of numbered and lettered streets would provide
squares where each state would locate facilities, thereby giving them the same symbolic
importance in the capital city that they held in the federal system.
Washington and its Metropolitan Area - Patterns of Settlement and Development
Initially Washington was slow to develop the dense pattern of settlement characteristic
of cities. By the 20th century, however, Washington had filled its open spaces and
dominated the surrounding area, which remained largely rural. This pattern changed
after World War II (1939-1945), as the city lost population to the suburbs of Virginia
and Maryland. While the federal presence remained concentrated in Washington, it
also expanded considerably to the suburbs. At the same time, new private business—the
fastest-growing source of regional employment—concentrated almost exclusively in
the areas outside the city.
While the metropolitan area expanded outward, it did not do so randomly. Growth
tended to follow the location of federal facilities outside the city and the development
of major transportation routes. During World War II, the construction of the Pentagon
spurred development nearby on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Growth was
also stimulated by other key facilities, notably the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) in Langley, Virginia; and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the National
Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Science and Technology), and
the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , all in Maryland.
Washington and its Metropolitan Area - Public Buildings
Washington is home to many famous and interesting public buildings and monuments.
Many of these are associated with the federal government. The Capitol of the United
States is located on a hill rising 27 m (88 ft) above the Potomac and consists of
two wings that branch from a central rotunda. The north wing is occupied by the
Senate, and the south wing by the House of Representatives. The rotunda is crowned
by an immense dome, topped with a statue of a woman representing Freedom. East of
the Capitol is the Supreme Court Building, with its portico modeled after a Greek
temple. North of the Capitol, at the end of Delaware Avenue, stands massive Union
Station, now a retail center as well as a train station that has long been a hub
of the city.
From the Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue runs slightly northwest and Constitution Avenue
runs directly west. Between 6th and 15th streets NW the two avenues form an area
known as the Federal Triangle. Within this triangle are concentrated a number of
government buildings, including those of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the
Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the departments of Justice and Commerce. Also
in the triangle is the National Archives Building, which contains the original drafts
of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the
Bill of Rights.
Just north of the triangle, on Tenth Street NW, is the J. Edgar Hoover Building,
the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). On the block north
of the Hoover building, also on Tenth Street, is Ford’s Theatre, where President
Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865, and across the street is the Petersen House, where
he died. Together they make up Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.
Northwest of the triangle, at 16th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, is the oldest
federal building in Washington, the White House, official residence of the U.S.
president. The mansion’s foundations were laid in 1792, and every president except
George Washington has occupied it. Tours are conducted daily through the most-famous
ground-floor and first-floor rooms, such as the East Room, the Blue Room, and the
State Dining Room.
Flanking the White House are the Treasury Department Building to the east and the
Executive Office Building to the west. Across the street is Blair House, the official
guest house for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. Blair House, built
in 1824, served as a temporary executive mansion for President Harry S. Truman and
his family from 1948 to 1952, while the interior of the White House was being extensively
North of the White House is Lafayette Square, with a statue of General Andrew Jackson
made from a melted-down cannon captured by Jackson during the War of 1812. West
of the White House, at New York Avenue and 18th Street NW, is one of Washington’s
oldest landmarks, the Octagon. Completed in 1801, the Octagon houses a museum dedicated
to architecture and the early history of Washington, and is also home to the American
Architectural Foundation. It was one of the first residential structures built according
to L’Enfant’s plan. During the War of 1812, British troops set fire to the White
House, destroying its interior. President James Madison and his family lived in
the Octagon while the White House was being rebuilt.
South of the Federal Triangle is the Mall, a narrow park stretching roughly 1.6
km (1 mi) from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Although the Mall officially
ends at 14th Street, landscaped greenery extends to the Potomac. The Washington
Monument, whose marble shaft dominates the skyline, stands 169 m (555 ft) high near
the center of this parkland. The interior of the monument is hollow, and visitors
may either climb its 898 steps or ride its elevator 150 m (500 ft) for a magnificent
view. A height restriction law enacted by Congress in 1899 ensures that no private
structure in Washington, D.C., will extend higher than the monument or the Capitol.
Beyond the monument in West Potomac Park, still in a straight line from the Capitol,
is the massive Lincoln Memorial. This monument’s 36 columns represent the 36 states
in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865. Its interior contains a great
stone seated figure of Lincoln carved by sculptor Daniel Chester French. Nearby,
the Arlington Memorial Bridge spans the Potomac and connects the Lincoln Memorial
with Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Located at the cemetery
are the Tomb of the Unknowns; the Arlington House, home of Confederate general Robert
E. Lee; and, on the slope directly below that, the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
Close to the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This memorial commemorates
the American men and women who died during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Southeast
of the Lincoln Memorial is the Tidal Basin, framed by Washington’s famous Japanese
cherry trees. The government of Japan gave the cherry trees to the United States
in 1912. Reflected in the water of the Tidal Basin is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
This circular, colonnaded marble memorial contains a bronze standing figure of Thomas
Jefferson by sculptor Rudolph Evans. Roughly halfway between the Jefferson Memorial
and the Lincoln Memorial is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which opened
Washington and its Metropolitan Area - Neighborhoods
The once-premier neighborhoods near early federal activity, notably Georgetown,
Foggy Bottom, and Capitol Hill, all declined over time. Although they were rediscovered
and restored in the second half of the 20th century, in the interim newer communities
became popular. In the mid-19th century streetcars began to offer easy commutes
to areas outside the city core. At this time, Anacostia’s Uniontown section, where
abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass settled after the American Civil War (1861-1865),
and LeDroit Park, near Howard University, developed as Washington’s first suburbs.
In the early 20th century, Mount Pleasant, a few miles north of the White House,
became popular. With the availability of automobiles, first Cleveland Park and subsequently
Wesley Heights and American University Park emerged as preferred residential destinations.
Just above the old downtown, the area known as Shaw emerged as the most prominent
black section of the city. The concentration of theaters and other social activities
there gave U Street the nickname of Black Broadway. Somewhat further above the old
city, the Adams Morgan section emerged in the 1960s as one of Washington’s most
diverse neighborhoods, with large populations of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants.
Over the years, the suburbs outside the city have grown rapidly. In addition to
older areas such as Arlington, Virginia, and Chevy Chase, Maryland, new suburban
office and retail complexes have emerged at Tyson’s Corner and Pentagon City in
Virginia and Freedom Plaza in Maryland.
Washington, D.C., grew slowly from the time of its origins until the Civil War.
Its founders expected it to emerge as a great city because of its favored trading
site along the Potomac River. However, the city proved incapable of fully exploiting
its opportunities—due to, among other things, a lack of federal funding for development—and
it lagged behind other major port cities along the eastern seaboard. Washington’s
population boomed during the Civil War, rising from a modest population of 61,122
in 1860 to 109,199 only a decade later. During the first half of the 20th century,
the federal presence in the city expanded, and population grew with it, reaching
a peak of more than 800,000 in 1950.
The city’s population dropped thereafter, as it lost residents to the suburbs. Nearly
69 percent of the metropolitan population lived in Washington in 1940; by 1960 that
number had fallen to 37 percent, and to less than 12 percent in 2000. In 2000 the
population of the city was 572,059. In contrast, the population of the metropolitan
area in 2000 was 4,923,153.
Partly because the District of Columbia was originally formed from slaveholding
states, the national capital has always had a significant black presence, approximately
25 percent of the population from its origins until World War II. After the war,
many white families relocated to the suburbs, and the city’s demography changed.
In 1957 Washington became the first major city in America with a black majority.
Between 1950 and 1960 Washington’s black presence grew by nearly 50 percent, from
280,803 to 411,737, while the white population declined by one-third.
Until recently the great majority of the black population was located inside the
city. But like an earlier generation of whites, the black middle class began to
leave the city and move to the suburbs. In 2000, blacks constituted 60 percent of
the city’s population, compared with 30.8 percent white. Asians are 2.7 percent
of inhabitants, Native Americans 0.3, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders
0.1 percent, and people of mixed heritage or not reporting race 6.2 percent. Hispanics,
who may be of any race, constituted 7.9 percent of the population. The city had
343,300 black residents in 2000; however, just the two surrounding counties of Prince
George’s, Maryland, and Fairfax, Virginia, contained a combined population of 585,600
During the early 19th century, Washington lacked the industrial base that drew immigrants
to other cities, and so the population retained its largely native-born character.
In the late 19th century, small Italian and Eastern European Jewish communities
formed, creating their own churches and synagogues and associated ethnic institutions.
Many descendents of these immigrants left the city for the suburbs in the 1950s,
along with much of the rest of the white population. While the Italian Roman Catholic
Church, Holy Rosary, still functions near Union Station, few of its parishioners
still live in the city. Most of the early synagogues near downtown have left, replaced
by black Protestant congregations.
A small Chinese community formed in Washington in the late 19th century. Originally
concentrated downtown along Pennsylvania Avenue, Chinatown moved several blocks
north to make way for completion of the Federal Triangle office complex in the 1930s.
Chinatown still exists along H Street NW, but only about a third of Washington’s
3,000 Chinese listed in the 1990 census live in that area. An additional 37,000
Chinese live in surrounding suburbs. In the suburbs, they are joined by more recent
immigrant groups from Asia, most notably Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Lao. Both suburban
Maryland and northern Virginia support Asian populations of about 100,000 each.
Hispanics form the other major immigrant group in the area. Although the District
of Columbia’s population is about 5 percent Hispanic, the largest number of these
immigrants are located in the suburbs: an estimated 90,000 in Maryland and 100,000
in Virginia. In 1991 the Washington metropolitan area ranked tenth in the nation
as a destination for new immigrants.
Education and Culture - Institutions of Higher Learning
It was George Washington’s dream that the capital city host a national university.
Congress, however, was reluctant to fund such an entity. As a result, while a number
of institutions have aspired to national roles, none has been favored with a national
mandate. Founded in 1789, Georgetown University is the oldest Roman Catholic university
in the United States. The George Washington University was founded in 1821 by Baptists
as Columbian College. Gallaudet University is the only liberal arts university in
the world specifically for deaf and hearing-impaired students. Former Union general
Oliver Otis Howard founded Howard University as a predominately black university
in 1867. The two other private universities in the city are the Catholic University
of America and American University. Also, the city opened the University of the
District of Columbia with congressional approval by consolidating a teacher’s college,
a city college, and a technical institute.
In the Virginia suburbs are George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community
College; in the Maryland suburbs are the University of Maryland at College Park,
Montgomery College, and Prince George’s Community College. The Consortium of Universities
of the Washington Metropolitan Area links most of the area’s public and private
institutions of higher learning. Through the consortium, a student enrolled in one
institution may take courses provided at another institution.
Education and Culture - Religious Sites
There are many churches in the Washington area, the most impressive of which is
the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, more commonly
known as the National Cathedral. Another imposing church is the Roman Catholic Basilica
of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque
architecture that stands on the grounds of Catholic University in northeastern Washington.
Other famous churches include New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Lincoln
worshiped; Saint John’s Episcopal Church, known as the Church of the Presidents
because it has been attended by numerous presidents; the Roman Catholic Cathedral
of Saint Matthew the Apostle, attended by President Kennedy; and Christ Church,
where Thomas Jefferson worshiped. Outside the city is the Washington Temple of the
Church of Latter-day Saints, completed near the Beltway in Maryland in 1974.
Education and Culture - Museums
The most famous museum in Washington is the Smithsonian Institution. With help from
a gift from Englishman James Smithson, Congress chartered the Smithsonian in 1846.
The Smithsonian is a collection of many different institutions that are world-famous
for their art, historical, and scientific collections. The National Museum of African
Art was the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to African art.
The National Museum of Natural History houses many of the world’s most famous gems,
and the National Museum of American History traces the development of the United
States through scientific, technological, and cultural exhibitions. The National
Air and Space Museum has aeronautical exhibits that include the original craft used
by the Wright Brothers and the Mercury capsule in which astronaut John Glenn orbited
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden contains notable paintings and sculptures
by 19th- and 20th-century European and American artists. The Arts and Industries
Building and the Freer Gallery of Art house fine collections of American and Asian
art. Another major art collection, the National Portrait Gallery, is in a building
with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which houses American paintings, sculptures,
graphics, folk art, and photographs from the 18th century to the present. Over time,
the Smithsonian has evolved from being the so-called nation’s attic into a far-ranging
and diverse set of research and educational facilities.
Other important collections in Washington include the National Gallery of Art, one
the nation’s chief art galleries, with major collections of European and American
paintings; the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, with a collection of pre-Columbian and Byzantine
art; the National Building Museum, dedicated to American achievements in architecture,
construction, engineering, and design; and the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum, which provides information about the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe
during World War II. There are also several venerable private institutions, such
as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, launched in the 1880s through the bequest of banker
William W. Corcoran, and the Phillips Collection, opened in 1921 near DuPont Circle
as the city’s first modern-art museum. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.,
located in a 19th-century mansion built by beer magnate Christian Heurich, is the
only institution dedicated solely to the preservation and interpretation of Washington’s
rich local history.
Education and Culture - Libraries
The Library of Congress is the national library of the United States and includes
a record of every book printed in the United States. Among its priceless documents
are the first draft of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and an early draft of
the Declaration of Independence as composed by Thomas Jefferson and corrected by
John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The library’s music collection contains original
manuscripts, ranging from a Ludwig van Beethoven sonata to the score of the musical
as well as a large collection of instruments. The affiliated Folger
Shakespeare Library contains 79 first folios (early printings) of Shakespeare’s
plays. Other distinguished libraries in Washington include the Founders Library
at Howard University, with 50,000 volumes relating to black history and culture.
Education and Culture - The Performing Arts
Washington provides many outlets for the performing arts. The National Theatre,
opened in 1835, hosts new theatrical productions. The Arena Stage, founded in 1950,
opened a new facility in the early 1970s as part of redevelopment of the city’s
southwest area and has achieved worldwide recognition for its productions. Also
starting in the early 1970s, the Elizabethan Theatre of the Folger Library began
offering Shakespearean productions. Twenty years later the Shakespeare Theatre opened
to enthusiastic audiences in the restored Lansburgh Department Store on Seventh
One really big boost for the city’s arts came in 1971 with the opening of the John
F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The center includes the Opera House,
the Concert Hall, and the Eisenhower Theater, and also provides a home for the National
Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Ballet, and the American Film Institute’s National
Film Theater. The opening of the center stimulated the creation of a number of smaller
theaters serving diverse interests. In the suburbs, the Wolf Trap Farm Park for
the Performing Arts in Virginia and Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland have
become major performance centers.
Education and Culture - Cultural Events
Washington hosts many annual events, including the National Cherry Blossom Festival,
which celebrates the blossoming of the Japanese cherry trees in the Tidal Basin.
The Hispanic Festival has taken place each summer in Washington since 1970. The
Mall hosts an annual Fourth of July fireworks display and the National Folk Festival.
The city also celebrates the Chinese New Year, Columbus Day, and Saint Patrick’s
Day with parades.
The Washington region has many well-known parks and recreational areas. The Mall
is Washington’s most prominent park, and it hosts many special demonstrations and
events. Nearby East and West Potomac parks, formed from reclaimed land along the
Potomac River, provide space for a range of recreational activities, including rugby,
softball, volleyball, and polo. The Ellipse, between the White House and the Washington
Monument, is a large public park that contains the Zero Milestone, from which distances
are measured on all national highways that pass through Washington. Within the city,
Rock Creek Park, which stretches from downtown to the Maryland border, is home to
the National Zoological Park. The National Arboretum is in northeast Washington.
Also, the intersection of Washington’s broad diagonal avenues with other streets
laid out on a straight grid provides a number of small parks.
Professional sports are important in Washington. For many years Griffith Stadium
in LeDroit Park hosted the national Negro League’s Homestead Grays and the American
League’s Washington Senators. Integration of the major leagues doomed the Grays,
and poor fan support resulted in a franchise move for the Senators. Another team
that left the city was the Washington Redskins professional football team, which
moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 1997. As that team moved from city
to suburb, however, the region’s professional hockey team, the Washington Capitals,
and basketball team, the Washington Wizards, returned downtown after spending nearly
a generation in the Maryland suburbs. The Capitals and the Wizards play in a new
sports and entertainment complex, the MCI Center, which opened in December 1997.
The Center has helped to revitalize the downtown area. The D.C. United soccer team,
a recent arrival to Washington, achieved success quickly and became national champions
Economy - Major Economic Activities
From the time of its origin, Washington was expected to emerge as a great trading
city because of its site along the Potomac River. However, the city lagged behind
other major port cities, such as Baltimore, along the eastern seaboard. Instead
of trade, the driving force of the city’s economy has proved to be the federal government.
At first employing no more than several hundred workers, the federal bureaucracy
grew steadily in the 19th century and exploded in the 20th century. By 1940, 44
percent of civilian workers in the city of Washington were federal employees. Although
the private economy grew faster than the public sector after World War II, it still
remained closely tied to the federal presence through the proliferation of national
associations, lobbyists, subcontractors, lawyers, and accountants associated with
government work. America’s increasingly global role created scores of jobs in such
organizations as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization
of American States, in addition to the U.S. government’s own departments of state
and defense. These federal jobs stimulated the economy and boosted the value of
real estate in Washington, especially in the 1980s, and the federal government continued
as a major presence in the city throughout the 1990s.
Tourism is the second most important aspect of the city’s economy. The national
monuments and museums attract more than 18 million visitors each year; hotels are
numerous. The city hosts many conventions, and a major convention center opened
in 1983. The functions of federal and local government and the tourism industry
have created a large service economy, which employs more than one-third of all the
city’s workers. Manufacturing is of only minor importance and is dominated by the
printing, publishing, and food industries.
Economy - Transportation
For years the hub of transportation to and from Washington was Union Station, served
by several railroads. Built in 1907, Union Station occupies 10 hectares (25 acres)
in the heart of the city. During the second half of the 20th century, airports and
highways became important. Washington is served by three commercial airports—Ronald
Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, and
Baltimore-Washington International Airport—with extensive national and international
In 1964 an expressway known as the Beltway was completed around Washington to facilitate
traffic. Its 36 cloverleaf intersections link it to all major routes to and from
the city. In 1976 a subway system opened in the city that extends into Virginia
and Maryland suburbs. Called the Metro, the system is projected to extend more than
160 km (100 mi) upon completion early in the 21st century.
Economy - Economic Problems
A result of the growth of Washington’s white-collar employment in the 1980s was
an increasing gap in income among the city’s residents. Disadvantaged areas, predominantly
black neighborhoods, became subject to a plague of drugs and associated violence.
These areas were concentrated in the older sections of the northeast and the southeast
quadrants of the city. Even as downtown real estate values rose, so did Washington’s
murder rate. During the 1990s it became one of the most deadly cities in the nation.
While the region prospered through most of the last half of the century, much of
the inner city lagged behind. The city’s tax base declined as more and more middle-
and upper-middle-class families moved to the suburbs. This lower tax base contributed
to a fiscal crisis for the city.
Government and Contemporary Issues
Unlike any other part of the United States, Washington lacks full political representation.
While its political structure has changed over time, the city has remained subordinate
to the federal government. This situation is sustained under Article I, Section
8, of the Constitution, which states, “The Congress shall have power … to exercise
exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such district … as may by the
cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of
government.” The idea of exclusive jurisdiction solidified in 1783 when Congress,
then meeting in Philadelphia, faced angry veterans of the American Revolution who
demanded back pay. When Pennsylvania authorities failed to intervene to protect
the Congress, many members insisted that any permanent seat of government should
be under congressional control. From that virtually forgotten experience, Washington
remains without direct representation in the national government that oversees much
of its operation.
The Constitution, however, did not prohibit the establishment of a lower government
body to deal with local affairs. In 1802 Congress authorized an appointed mayor
and an elected city council for Washington. In 1820 it broadened the franchise and
made the office of mayor subject to popular election. In 1871 Congress substituted
a largely appointed territorial government—although city residents still voted for
a house of delegates—as an instrument to consolidate the cities of Washington and
Georgetown with Washington County. When the experiment generated costs that Congress
found too expensive, it eliminated popular election in Washington in 1874 by placing
local government under a three-person commission appointed by the president.
Initially this system was favorably received for replacing partisan politics with
professional management. However, flaws of the commission became apparent over time.
In 30 investigations conducted between 1934 and 1941, Congress found that power
and responsibility were poorly divided between commissioners and different federal
agencies, and that political whim controlled most actions. Starting in 1949 and
lasting for more than a decade, the Senate voted repeatedly to grant Washington
local elections. However, the House District Committee refused for more than 20
years to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Finally in 1973, Congress authorized
the popular election of a mayor and city council for Washington.
In 1974 the Home Rule Act, which established the mayor and city council, became
law. The act, though restoring popular elections, retained considerable power for
Congress to review legislation and authorize Washington’s budget. It also prohibited
the city from taxing federal properties or income earned in the city by people who
commuted to work from outside the district. These restrictions remain a cause of
tension between city officials and Congress.
In the mid-1970s local activists started an effort to secure Washington’s independence.
They argued that the Constitution dictates only a maximum size for the federal district,
not a minimum size. Therefore, they suggested that the federal district shrink to
the area between the White House and the Capitol and that the residential portion
of the District of Columbia become a new state, New Columbia. Congress, however,
failed even to vote on the proposition until 1993, when the House of Representatives
rejected the measure, 277-153. Further efforts by city residents to secure representation
in Congress were rebuffed when a three-judge panel ruled in March 2000 that it had
no means to remedy their exclusion.
Marion Barry dominated local Washington politics during the last quarter of the
20th century. He served as mayor all but four years from 1978 to early 1999. During
his early years in office, Barry established a reputation as an able administrator
and a defender of home rule who was committed to solving the city’s social problems.
In later years, scandal touched his administration, and in 1990 he lost a bid for
a council seat after he was arrested and convicted of smoking crack cocaine. After
serving six months in prison, he made a spectacular comeback, securing election
first to city council in 1992 and then as mayor in 1994. Barry’s return to power
sparked immediate controversy. However, it soon became clear that the city faced
an even greater crisis in a projected budget deficit of more than $700 million in
With the city unable to secure loans from the private sector to pay its debts, Congress
intervened by passing the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management
Assistance Act of 1995. This measure established a control board with significant
powers, a move Congress justified on grounds that poor management and overstaffing
had jeopardized the city’s credit. Under terms of the act, the president appointed
five people to the board to bring the city’s finances under control. Congress directed
the control board to cut jobs.
Barry, however, refused to cooperate with the control board, and instead chose to
stress the city’s needs. He claimed that Washington’s problems derived more from
inadequate revenues than high costs, and he urged the federal government to pay
more toward Washington’s obligations. He recommended that the federal government
assume many of the costs of state functions borne by the city since 1974, but his
proposal received no sympathy in Congress. However, two years later, without input
from the mayor, President Bill Clinton incorporated Barry’s approach in his proposed
federal budget. In August 1997 the national government raised its share of Medicare
and highway costs in the city, assumed responsibility for funding Washington’s pension
plan, and took over operation of the District’s prison system.
In accepting these measures, Congress insisted on exercising greater influence in
Washington. It empowered the control board to choose its own city manager and to
extend its operational control over all but a small portion of daily operations.
Under the terms Congress set in establishing the control board, these powers were
to revert to the city only after it achieved four balanced budgets in a row. After
the election of Anthony Williams, who replaced Barry as mayor in early 1999, Congress
restored the authority for the city’s day-to-day management to the mayor and city
council. In February 2001 the city government announced that it had balanced its
fourth consecutive budget, and the control board ceded the rest of its powers back
to the government.
Washington’s contemporary crisis is deeply rooted in its history. From the beginning,
there was tension stemming from the city’s dual function as both city and capital.
In reserving the right to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the federal district,
Congress lavished attention on some sections of the city while other parts suffered
neglect, making a clash of interests inevitable.
George Washington saw no conflict between city and capital. To the contrary, he
conceived of the new capital as the keystone to the nation-building process. He
believed that the District of Columbia’s advantageous location on the Potomac River
would let it exploit trade opportunities to the west. Such success could have secured
national loyalty, but the states were too jealous of one another to join in promoting
a national city.
The first problem arose over selection of the city site. The state governments fought
bitterly over the site of the capital, hoping a nearby location would allow them
special influence on the new government. Then, once a location was chosen, the states
resisted paying taxes for improvements necessary to house the new government. To
finance the building of the city, the district’s land was parceled into lots, two-thirds
of which were reserved for highways and federal buildings. The remainder was sold
to the public. Despite this, funds lagged. Also, the plans of the man hired to build
the city, Pierre L’Enfant, were so costly, and L’Enfant himself so embroiled in
disputes with landowners, that he was eventually fired, in 1792. As a result, the
federal district was far from complete by the time the national government moved
there in 1800.
Federal funding for improvements remained small in the capital’s early years. Development
was slow, and the city evoked criticism from visitors from the United States and
abroad. In 1814, during the War of 1812, the city was occupied and burned by the
British. This meant that much of the city had to be completely rebuilt, which further
When the city sought congressional aid to build a canal west to boost its trade,
Congress refused. By the time it finally authorized the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O)
Canal in 1828 it was too late to make a difference. A decade earlier, New York had
completed the highly successful Erie Canal, and it was dominating western trade.
Also, Baltimore leaped ahead of Washington in the race for regional control when
it started work on the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O), in
In 1835 a committee of Congress headed by Senator Samuel Southard admitted that
congressional funding for the District was inadequate. Southard argued that the
grand plan for the city was too great a burden for local authorities to sustain
alone. His report generated enough federal funds to repay a debt owed on the Chesapeake
and Ohio Canal, but urban needs continued to exceed revenues into the 1860s.
After the Civil War, Republicans in Congress saw a chance to continue implementing
social reforms in Washington. Washington had abolished slavery in 1862, becoming
the first place to enforce the emancipation of slaves. After the war, Congress ended
the segregation of public transportation and eliminated all references to race in
the civil code. Congress granted voting rights to black males, even as many Northern
states rejected such measures. With overwhelming black support, local Republicans
assumed political power in Washington in 1868.
Some party members resisted social innovations, however, seeking instead to promote
the physical improvement of the city. After the British burned the city in 1814,
Congress had considered moving Washington to another location. Relocation became
an issue again with so many necessary physical improvements deferred during the
Civil War. Locals argued that without investment in the physical city, the government
would abandon Washington, and it would be doomed.
Mainstream Republicans—headed by Alexander Shepherd, a former plumber who entered
politics during the war—campaigned for a shift from social to physical reconstruction.
In 1870 they broke with Radical Republicans in power and elected their own candidate
for mayor. The following year they persuaded Congress to impose an entirely new
form of territorial government, with a governor and senate appointed by the president
and a house of delegates elected by popular vote.
Alexander Shepherd assumed considerable influence in the new government through
his position as administrator of a new board of public works. Under his direction,
the city systematically upgraded its physical appearance: grading and paving streets,
planting trees, and developing sewers. These improvements quelled efforts to move
the capital to a more central location in the United States.
But Shepherd’s expenditures also provoked controversy, prompting congressional investigations
in 1872 and 1874. In the first instance, a friendly committee gently chided the
District government, declaring that in pursuing the city’s betterment the debt level
should not exceed $10 million. By 1874 power had shifted in Congress, and Shepherd
now faced hostile critics. With debt exceeding $18 million, Shepherd claimed that
unpaid taxes and the lack of an adequate tax base hampered him. Congress was sympathetic
at least to that point, and members reiterated the judgment of the Southard report
of 1835 that the city could not sustain the expense associated with the federal
Congress then embraced a plan to provide a regular federal payment to the District
to meet at least half its operating expenses. In accepting this argument, however,
members of Congress insisted on more direct control. In 1874 they replaced territorial
government with a commission of three people, appointed by the president. One of
the people on the commission was to be chosen from the ranks of the Army Corps of
Engineers and was responsible for overseeing public works.
A number of physical improvements followed, and as the turn of the century approached,
Washington assumed modern form. However, the federal presence lacked distinction.
With encouragement from representatives of the American Institute of Architects,
a special Senate commission formed to lay out a new plan for Washington. Presented
with considerable fanfare in 1902, this proposal projected an arrangement of federal
buildings along the Mall connected to a regional system of parks. It took more than
25 years to realize this vision, but by the early 1930s, as the Federal Triangle
complex along Pennsylvania Avenue neared completion, city planners could claim that
the capital city was at last worthy of the national government it hosted.
Instead of uniting city and capital, however, emergence of the new city core set
the federal presence apart from Washington’s residential areas. This possibility
had been recognized as early as the turn of the century. While the Senate prepared
its elaborate plan, social activists expressed concern for the rest of Washington.
They pointed particularly to unhealthy conditions in many poor neighborhoods, especially
in back alleys where small houses had been built to accommodate a largely black
Efforts to secure better housing conditions occupied several generations of reformers.
First, private funding was used to provide housing for low-income residents, and
in the 1930s Washington formed the nation’s first public housing authority. The
Langston Terrace public housing complex in Northeast Washington was built with funds
provided by the federal government. There, blacks found improved housing. But policy
shifted after World War II. Fearing the effect of white families relocating to the
suburbs, Congress authorized funds to provide a model urban renewal program in Washington’s
Southwest sector. Designed to attract middle-income residents back to the city,
the wholesale renewal of the area resulted in the displacement of many of the area’s
predominantly black residents.
The federal funds that had made possible the improvement of an old section of Washington
improved city revenues, but they also heightened tension with the city’s growing
black population. A subsequent renewal effort in the Shaw area immediately north
of downtown provoked neighborhood opposition around the rallying cry, “No more Southwests.”
Out of that experience emerged a powerful coalition of civic groups determined to
plan their neighborhood’s renewal themselves. When Congress authorized a nonvoting
delegate to the House of Representatives from Washington in 1971, the leader of
the neighborhood renewal effort, Walter Fauntroy, was the first to fill the position.
He supported the political ascent of fellow civil rights activist Marion Barry.
The home rule era was thus inaugurated in 1974 as an assertion of local as opposed
to federal prerogatives. As its most successful representative, Marion Barry was
adept at securing federal funding, but at the same time he consciously built his
political strength at home by distancing himself from federal oversight. Suspicion
of national government became so ingrained among the majority of local residents
that Barry easily regained power even after his arrest and conviction for drug use.
Congress’s decision in 1995 to impose a control board on the city struck many residents
as one more blow to the city’s political independence. Although the board promised
to seek solutions to the city’s political as well as fiscal problems, finances took
precedence. Barry chose not to seek reelection in 1998, and voters elected Anthony
Williams, who had been the city’s chief financial officer under the control board,
as the new mayor. Despite this political change, city and capital remained in an
uneasy and unsettled relationship at the beginning of the 21st century.
On September 11, 2001, Washington, D.C., and New York City became the targets of
a coordinated terrorist attack on the United States. Hijackers seized four passenger
jetliners. Two jets crashed into the twin skyscrapers of New York City’s World Trade
Center, causing their collapse and destruction as thousands tried to evacuate. The
third hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon, the nation’s military headquarters
just outside of Washington, D.C., severely damaging the building and killing close
to 200 people, including those on the aircraft. The fourth hijacked jet crashed
in rural Pennsylvania, but officials speculated that it, too, had been destined
to destroy a Washington, D.C., landmark, such as the White House. In total, the
attacks left more than 3,000 people dead or missing.