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GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
Washington is back
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If the U.S. capital itself is a marsh, drowning in its own cesspool of greed and corruption, the city beyond is reclaiming itself as joyous, stylish, and proud - in spite of who lives in the White House
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By ANDREW COHEN
  
  

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Saturday, June 16, 2018 – Page O5

WASHINGTON -- Journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History here was a parade here the T other day. That is nothing unusual in a throbbing city that's always celebrating, commemorating or protesting something.

But this was saluting the Washington Capitals and the Stanley Cup, an oxymoron for decades until last week, when they shocked everyone and won the whole thing.

Tens of thousands of Washingtonians donned their scarlet hockey jerseys and flooded downtown. A red tide overwhelmed Constitution Avenue and spilled onto the National Mall. Revellers drank and danced like it was 1992, the last time a professional sports team (the Washington Redskins) won a championship.

The scene was joyous and genuine, as much about the city as its victorious athletes. Unconsciously, hockey has become an emblem of a place reclaiming itself after decades of decline.

Winning the cup says: Washington is back.

I came to Washington for the first time on a high-school class trip in 1972. Having worked here three times over 46 years, I have never seen Washington look better than today. It is safer, cleaner, richer, younger. It is more edgy and more stylish. Once stuffy, stolid and forlorn, Washington is enjoying a new season of affluence, elegance and relevance, as dazzling as the newly scrubbed dome of the U.S. Capitol.

Curiously, Washington's ascent has nothing to do with Donald Trump's arrival; if anything, the city thrives in spite of him.

Unlike presidents who served in Congress, Mr. Trump has no past in this town and no fondness for it. He flees whenever he can.

Mr. Trump calls Washington "a swamp" - a cesspool of corruption, greed and vanity among "a small group in our nation's capital."

In fact, the legend that Washington was a swamp when it was founded in the 18th century will never go away and often, it feels like one. Its humid, scalding summers induce fever dreams among politicians.

But if the capital is a marsh, the city beyond is a meadow. The splendour of postcard Washington has long been its shimmering white-washed monuments and neo-classical courthouses and office buildings, all limited in height. Beyond them lie gracious neighborhoods of sturdy homes, leafy streets and shady parks with names such as Silver Spring, Chevy Chase and the Palisades.

The story here is renewal. The city is renovating and rebuilding public libraries, improving parks and extending public transit, while the federal government continues to erect memorials and museums and private money expands the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

For years, the story was urban blight, white flight and black despair.

Fifty years ago, Washington was ablaze. When Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, riots broke out near the White House. They destroyed much of U and H streets and 14th Street. White residents left and by 1971, Washington was 71-percent black.

As cities across the United States fell into poverty and crime - New York almost went bankrupt in the 1970s - Washington suffered, too. Its population dropped and its leadership faltered; Mayor Marion Barry went to jail on drug charges.

When I was sent to Washington with United Press International in 1983, 15 years after the riots, the downtown was a wasteland, beyond the governmental precinct.

On either side of our new offices at 14th and I streets were massage parlors with women sitting in storefront windows and junkies and hustlers on the sidewalks.

When I returned to live here in 1997, 30 years after the riots, Chinatown was full of crack houses and shooting galleries.

There were still charred buildings and abandoned lots. One of my early assignments was writing about the construction of the new hockey arena downtown.

The trend then was to move sports palaces in from the suburbs, exemplifying the renaissance of the American city. The MCI Arena, as it was originally named, remains the home of the Capitals. But now it anchors a kicking entertainment district.

In past decades, F Street was adorned with majestic department stores, the city's commercial thoroughfare. The buildings fell into disrepair. People have been returning downtown, drawn by the new arena. Now F Street rocks.

A few blocks away, something otherworldly: CityCenterDC, a mixed development of condominiums, a luxury hotel, tony restaurants and exclusive boutiques, such as Burberry, Hermes and Gucci.

It smacks more of glitzy New York than cerebral Washington, but reflects Washington's new wealth. There is a growing tax base, fuelled by a burgeoning federal government. There are some 120,000 more people in Washington now than in 2000, bringing the population to almost 700,000. Many are young; the median age is nearly 34, four years below the national average.

Commuters complain about the metro but it is clean, safe, affordable and generally reliable.

It serves Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which evokes a 1930s aerodrome, and goes deep into Maryland and Virginia, soon to reach Washington Dulles International Airport.

The library system is expanding. The main branch is closed for three years while the city renovates it, at an estimated US$200-million. Many of the 25 branches have been redone.

They are bigger, with quiet rooms and community space.

Branches are open long hours every day and offer all patrons up to 20 free copies a day, so lowincome users can print out resumes and scan documents.

That's thoughtful.

Institutions of higher learning including Georgetown and American Universities grow like kudzu. They enrich the intellectual life of a community with scores of embassies, research institutes and think tanks.

What is particularly striking about Washington is the revival of its no-go neighbourhoods.

This comes home in the southeast, where the Washington Nationals play baseball in a charming stadium near the Anacostia River, now lined with bicycle paths. Hotels, restaurants, condominiums and new businesses are springing up nearby.

For residents, Washington feels like more a 21st-century city and less of an imperial capital.

Rowers on the Potomac, cyclists wheeling through Rock Creek Park, kites flying near the Washington Monument. Retirees, many of them former civil servants, faithfully attend lectures and talks, many held in local bookstores.

Washington is imperfect, struggling with crime, race, inferior schools. Chinatown is largely gone. Bad things happen. It is an unmistakably American city - loud, brash, swaggering and anxious. Sirens wail and emergency lights flash incessantly. The national security state is everywhere, particularly in the proliferation of metal detectors in public buildings, manned by burly men in Kevlar vests, packing heat. There is the characteristic friendliness, frankness and informality.

My Washington has always been personal: the National Zoo in the afternoon and the gleaming Jefferson Memorial after dark. Arlington Cemetery. Roosevelt Island. Saturdays at the National Portrait Gallery. Oysters at midnight at Old Ebbitt Grill.

Baseball at Nationals Park.

A visitor's affection for this city is as deep as that of its natives.

It's why everyone joined that parade the other day. Donald Trump has his Washington - and we have ours.

Associated Graphic

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, of Russia, holds up the Stanley Cup during the NHL hockey team's victory celebration on June 12 at the National Mall in Washington.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/ ASSOCIATED PRESS


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