Friday, April 1, 2016

Washington: City and Capital

The Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created guides to the forty-eight states and the District of Columbia. The usual state guide fits comfortably in the hand: I judge from memory that the guide for Pennsylvania was about 450 pages. The guide to Washington, DC, Washington: City and Capital runs to 1140 pages including the index. After WW II, George Washington University brought out a much abridged version of about the size of the usual state guide. But why not have the real thing?

I mention this because today at Second Story Books I noticed a copy of the 1937 edition for sale. They have priced at $40; my own copy, purchased more than thirty years ago, has $35 penciled up front. I know that I bought it on sale, probably 40% off,  ergo $21; but in constant dollars that must be more than today's $40. I'd have bought this copy, but who would I give it to?

Washington in 1937 was a very different city. It was segregated by law, for one thing. The guide has a chapter of about 30 pages on "The Negro in Washington", and mentions the segregated schools in passing in the few pages given to the District of Columbia government. It was much smaller, for WW II began a great increase in the size of the government. The War, Navy, and State Departments still occupied what is now the Old Executive Office Building: it was only in 1941 that War and Navy left for the Pentagon, after the war that State moved to Foggy Bottom. The Smithsonian was much smaller. The Mall had temporary buildings left from the expansion of WW I. The suburbs gave way to countryside much nearer the city.

The book would not serve a tourist well today, even one strong enough to carry it without tiring. It places the National Gallery in the Natural History Museum at 10th and Constitution. Other institutions have moved or become known by other names. Washington then had streetcars and no Metro. But for the  person interested in a Washington that his parents or grandparents may have visited, the book gives a useful picture.


  1. I was ignorant of the segregation. Astonishing

  2. Or should that be "ignorant about"?

    1. Not sure.

      Washington was a distinctly southern city at that time. The public schools were not integrated until after Brown v. Board of Education, in the middle 1950s.

    2. I should add, in justice, that segregation was and is not wholly a southern matter. The board in Brown v. Board of Education was that of Topeka, Kansas. I don't know that de jure segregation was ever part of Ohio law during the 20th Century, but I do know that I spent eight years of school just outside of Cleveland without ever encountering a person of color in my schools or any streets within walking distance.