Washinghton D.C

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 taxed funds.

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 1828.

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 implement social reforms in Washington. In addition to making Washington the first place to enforce the emancipation of slaves, 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 million. By 1874 power had shifted in Congress, and Shepherd now faced hostile critics. With debt exceeding 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 government.

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 population.

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, 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. Thus as the bicentennial anniversary of the federal presence in Washington approaches in 2000, city and capital remain in an uneasy and unsettled relationship.

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Michael Newman
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