1600s- English explorers meet the Nacotchtanke Indians living in present-day Anacostia area. Anacostia has been an important trading, fishing, and agricultural area for tribes in the eastern U.S. for centuries, and becomes so for the English.

1790s- L'Enfant and Jefferson include manufacturing in plans for the Federal City; they plan for city to expand in a southeasterly direction towards Anacostia, where wharves and ports would be located. Plan for the city includes a canal through the center of the city to connect the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers, improving commerce.

1820s- Overfishing depletes supply of fish in the Anacostia River; local fishing industry devastated.

1831- Congress refuses to fund the Canal Project through the city; extensive tobacco farming in Anacostia erodes the soil and fills the Anacostia River with silt, making it too shallow for a port.

1901- Federal employment in D.C. has increased to a level thirteen times what it was in 1861. The McMillan Plan for Washington eliminates local commercial ventures around The Mall (the Central Market, the railroad terminal) and extends federal holdings in the center of the city by developing plans for the Federal Triangle office complex.

1920s- Anacostia still relatively untouched by federal expansion in the central city. Commercial and residential acreage are balanced; composition is small communities with large tracts of open space between them.

1920s/30s- Nationwide, the number of federally owned buildings doubles.

1940s- Completion of Federal Triangle, WWII-related office buildings, and the Pentagon expand federal holdings in the District.

1950- Government employment accounts for 30% of all jobs in D.C.; wholesale and retail, 17%; manufacturing, 3%. 1950 Comprehensive Plan proposes no industrial growth for the District; concern instead is for housing and transportation needs of growing federal sector. Private industry growth will be in companies providing services to federal workers and their families.

1958- In 1950 NCPC recommended a decrease in apartment zoning for D.C.; 1958 revised regulations follow this recommendation in the most parts of the central city, but in Anacostia 250 acres of land are rezoned from single family dwellings to apartment use. Urban renewal/federal expansion in central section is displacing families to Anacostia.

1961- NCPC Comprehensive Plan calls for a 250-acre expansion of the central business district; federal employment in the area to increase by 75,000. Plan also calls for a regional addition of 200,000 industrial jobs, mostly outside the District.

1965- NCPC plans to add 50,000 federal workers in D.C. through redevelopment of South Capitol Street. Federal employees now make up 35% of region's workforce; project growth of federal workforce by 120,000 by 1985.

1967- Redevelopment of southwest D.C. has provided office space for 2 1/2 times as many workers as Federal Triangle. D.C. now has one of the most highly centralized patterns of employment in the U.S. NCPC also plans several "uptown centers" to house 5,000 federal workers apiece (also space for municipal structures and shops). First one studied is for Anacostia, would call for demolition of historic Uniontown/Frederick Douglass home. Not built.

1970- The federal government owns more land in Anacostia than in any other part of the city (includes St. Elizabeth's, Bolling Air Force Base, and foreclosed apartment buildings). Nationwide by 1974 the government owns title/mortgage to 250,000 housing units in default--equivalent to the tenth largest city in the nation--and 1/3 of U.S. land.

1995- Marion Barry goes public with D.C.'s 3.5 billion dollar debt; the city is placed in federal receivership.

1996- The NCPC unveils its new comprehensive plan for D.C. which aims to stimulate the city's economy by expanding federal holdings in the city.

1997- President Clinton's plan for the District includes significant tax breaks for local businesses in an effort to jump start D.C.'s economy.

The federal government's position as "the most gigantic business on earth," in the words of the Hoover Commission, has profound implications globally, nationally, and within the District of Columbia. The table to the left charts the growth of the federal government physically in the District and within the local economy.

In her essay "Identity in the Global City: Economic and Cultural Encasements," Saskia Sassen argued that, behind the dominant economy in urban centers there is a broader economy whose workers support the dominant economy but who are nonetheless devalorized because they share only indirectly in the production of the 'valued' goods. Although Sassen framed the essay in relation to cities housing multinational private corporations whose dominant economy is a global one, many of her observations are helpful in thinking about the ways the federal government has structured physical space and the economy within Washington, D.C.

Sassen wrote, "In the last twenty years we have seen the expulsion and continuing exclusion from the "center" of significant components of the economy, notably much of manufacturing and many industrial services."(1). She argued that corporations' global diversification as well as the rising importance of technical and information-based goods contributed to manufacturing and industrial workers' devalorization. This devaluation "coincide with a sharp demographic transformation: the growing presence of women, immigrants, and people of color generally in the urban economy."(2)

Sassen proposed that the valorization of the 'dominant' economy operated in a number of ways. First, the concept of a 'continuous flow' economy supported the idea that all sectors of the economy, even the delivery people, truck drivers, and office cleaners, would benefit from the profits of the dominant economy they supported. Sassen noted, "This account of the economy creates a "white knight" theory of economic growth: one sector is privileged as the one that will rescue the economy."(3) Second, because the global economy operates with a sense of 'placelessness,' certain types of output get valued more than others. This account "privileges the capacity for global transmission over the concentrations of built infrastructure that make transmission possible; information outputs over the work of producing those outputs, from specialists to secretaries." (4) In its place, Sassen would like to see an account which emphasizes the variety of production necessary to sustain the global city, one that would include "the various types of workers and firms not usually associated with globalization and the information economy: secretaries, manual workers, the truckers who deliver state-of-the-art software,...It is particularly important...to effect these analytic operations...because the mainstream account of this economy is so radically distorting in its privileging of information flows over the material and concrete conditions through which it operates, in its privileging of the advanced professional workforce."(5) Last, the dominant economy is valorized because of its tendency towards concentration; it amasses for itself power, control, and profits. The net effect of all these strategies is that "the corporate economy evicts these other economies and workers from economic representation, and the corporate culture represents them as the other. It evicts ways of being in the city and in the economy." (6)

Yet, Sassen argued, the dominant economy never utterly dominates or utterly obscures the devalued workers or the broader economy they represent: the domination of physical space within the city "can never be complete because of all the other presences in the city that are inscribed in urban space...its spaces are inscribed with the dominant corporate culture but also with many other cultures and identities. The slippage is evident."(7)

During a visit to Washington, Henry James noted this 'slippage' between the monumental, federal city and the local one. He wrote, "Washington...had struck me from the first as presenting two distinct faces, the more obvious of which was the public and official, the monumental, with features all more or less majestically playing the great administrative...Imperial part...never emerging from its flatness...The foreground was a different thing, a thing that, ever so quaintly, seemed to represent the force really in possession." The growth of the federal city to become the dominant economy occured earlier than the transformations Sassen mapped for global cities in her essay, but as in the cities Sassen described, in Washington the transformation coincided with the rise of a minority population. The federal government's dominance in the local economy rose sharply from 1861 to 1901, at the same time the city became home to the largest urban black population in the U.S. Its hegemony increased through the twentieth century as the black population grew to constitute a majority in the city by 1960.

Sassen's notion of 'placelessness' is problematic when applied to Washington, which for its whole existence has been firmly established in the minds of Americans as the home of the federal government, despite federal holdings elsewhere in the country. It does not share the amorphous, omnipresent corporate presence of the private global corporation. However, like the global corporations, it valorizes a certain type of output--legislation, entitlements, appropriations-- over more tangible, localized products. Also, within national boundaries there exists the sentiment that the government "belongs to everyone" and, by extension, that Washington belongs to everyone as well; in this sense the federal government transcends its physical site, and the city transcends its local character to become a national shrine, which reinforces the valorization of its dominant economy.

The 1901 McMillan plan effected a sea change in the physical conception of Washington and of its economy. It marked the beginning of the physical expansion of the federal government through Federal Triangle, a consolidation and valorization of its power through the plan for The Mall, and the subordination of the commercial, local life of the city through the displacement of the Central Market, the railroad terminal, and other commercial properties near the Capitol. The ornate, Beaux-Arts style structures endorsed by the McMillan Plan represented "only the simulacra of a living architecture: they were the concentrated expression of an age which sought to produce values rather than goods." (8) The grouping of offices in Federal Triangle and museums/memorials on The Mall represented the government's failure "to acknowledge to any important degree their part in an organic whole"(9).

By 1929, L'Enfant and Jefferson's plans for a manufacturing center in southeast Washington were forgotten: the National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the American Institute of Architects declared, "It was the intent of the founders that Washington should be primarily the Federal City...Whereas the immense Federal investment with consequent appreciation in value of private holdings warrants the expectation of adequate and harmonious private development...commercial buildings should be subordinated to Government projects in the National Capital."(10). In 1930, the NCPPC gave full expression to the unique situation of the federal government in relationship to D.C. in a statement about parking problems in the District: "the Government not only has all the powers and responsibilities vested in ordinary municipal governments in this matter, but is at the same time the largest single landowner and occupant of office building space in the central business district, thus uniting in a single agency responsibilities and powers...which in other cities are divided between the municipal government and the owners and users of private property." (11) Thus the federal government in Washington possesses a concentration of power which goes beyond what Sassen described for multinational corporations in other cities; the federal government's peculiar situation heightened its dominant status within the District.

The language in federal planning reports during the '50s and '60s reinforced this. A 1961 National Capital Planning Commission report offered separate plans for the region, for the District, and for the "all important core" where federal offices were concentrated. (12) The government expanded this 'core' considerably in the '50s and '60s, displacing thousands of low-income families under the banner of urban renewal. At the same time, zoning changes in Anacostia permitted construction of a high number of apartment dwellings, many of them public/subsidized housing for the families relocated from the center of town. A decrease in commercial zoning accompanied the increase of apartment construction there. The 1968 riots exacerbated the situation, prompting businesses and local banks to pull out of the community.

Partly as a consequence of its unusual governmental relationship to the federal government, the city plunged into insolvency. In 1995 Marion Barry went public with the city's $3.5 billion dollar debt. A year later the National Capital Planning Commission published its latest comprehensive plan for the District, in which it dangled the carrot of economic revitalization in front of local residents to gain their support. The NCPC envisioned that the most economically depressed areas of the city could be revitalized through the presence of federal offices, memorials, and museums in them; this, they reasoned, would attract tourist dollars and private businesses. The plan also aimed to give local businesses a boost by providing retail/office space in federal buildings.

While the plan attempted to address the problems of the larger local economy, it did so in ways that perpetuated the dominance of the federal presence in the city and in ways that required considerable sacrifices on the part of local residents and the local government. The Commission promised that that D.C. can expect that its real estate tax base will be maintained and enhanced. If commercial growth is stimulated and vacant buildings can be converted into retail/business space, this may be so. But one might question how much profit will be gained if available space is instead swallowed up by 12 museums and 60 memorials--all federal properties which are non-taxable. The Commission pledged technical and financial help from the federal government for public expenditures like transportation, major parks, and river improvements. One feature of the plan calls for the Whitehurst Freeway to be removed from in front of the Kennedy Center, and in its place a large civic plaza for pedestrian traffic and recreation is to be built. The removal of the Whitehurst Freeway may sound like a transportation expense, but the NCPC suggests that the city and the National Park Authority (administrators of the Kennedy Center) foot the bill instead.

Unfortunately, D.C.'s economics are such at present that it can't even fill potholes, much less tear up freeways. Moreover, the NCPC's claim to have D.C.'s best economic interests at heart seems dubious when one reads plans for the waterfront: "Industries that keep the public away from Washington's waterfronts would eventually be replaced with a continuous band of riverfront parks," which the Commission describes as civic playgrounds. (13) Further, plans to demolish freeways mean traffic problems, which the NCPC solves by asking employers to subsidize Metro, provide incentives for ride sharing, and institute flex-time and telecommuting practices.

In contrast, President Clinton's plan for the District deemphasizes the federal sector, and concentrates instead on promoting local private businesses. Clinton proposes tax breaks for businesses: tax credits for investors and lenders to D.C. businesses, deductions for equipment costs, and tax credits on payroll. At the same time, he plans to stabilize the D.C. government, which he claims suffered unjust financial burdens from the federal government during the twenty-two year period of home rule, by asking the federal government to take over some of the responsibilities normally performed by states which D.C. has had to shoulder, like welfare, prisons, tax collection, etc. In exchange, D.C. would forfeit its federal subsidy and be free of Congressional oversight. Clinton's plan aims to make the District more like other cities, and to encourage the prosperity of businesses besides the federal government.

Private organizations and the local government are also attempting to strengthen the broader economy, particularly in Anacostia. A lack of employment opportunities there, and the community's physical separation from the federal center, have contributed to widespread unemployment and to drug dealing. Faced with the choice of earning $200/week at a minimum wage job or earning $1500/day selling drugs, some residents have chosen the latter. To combat this, programs like Anacostia High School's Public Service Academy provide job training and internships for students, placing them in white-collar public and private offices throughout the city: many placements turn into permanent positions. The East of the River Community Development Project, a collaboration between the U.S. Navy and the East of the River Community Development Corporation, also provides job training, day care, mentorships, and family social service support to residents in public housing projects; private management corporations of subsidized housing in the area add financial support.

In his 1998 budget Marion Barry plans to reserve $10 million for businesses in Anacostia; the money funds job training, a grant program for businesses needing improvements, and marketing to attract new businesses to the area. Given the District's financial situation and the low priority accorded Anacostia in the District's business, it's likely that this will be cut from the budget.

The new Safeway on Alabama Avenue
In Anacostia, local economic development corporations have made some headway luring private businesses back into the community after years of residents feeling that banks and businesses were boycotting the community. Safeway opened a store there in 1997; the company offered jobs to 200 people and financed the construction of an adjoining strip mall through a federal/local government lease back partnership that makes its investment virtually risk free. After the mall is 75% occupied, Safeway will sell the mall to the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, which organized the deal. (14) The strip mall represents the largest retail development in the community in the last twenty years, and the D.C. government's most substantial financial investment there in ten years. The Marshall Heights Community Development Organization also supports franchises and small businesses in Anacostia. After discovering that residents spent 80% of their disposable income outside the community due to lack of businesses there, the group bought and rebuilt a shopping center. Thirty different investors turned them down before the financing was secured. The center is now worth $11 million dollars, boasts 100% occupancy, and provides 300 jobs. Profits from the shopping center get funneled back into the community for social services, job counseling, and for development of other projects like single family townhomes. (15) Nationsbank has been another major investor in Anacostia, working with local community leaders and providing $125 million for apartment rehabilitation, school renovation, and small business loans.

The most promising model for supporting the broader economy of the District of Columbia is not the one proposed by the NCPC in its 1996 comprehensive plan. The methods the NCPC endorses promise increased federal expansion into communities throughout the city, but are vague on funding for the expansion, specific ways to attract private businesses to these communities, and possible displacement of residents by federal construction. In short, the NCPC plan proposes that problems created by the valorization of the federal/dominant economy be solved by further valorization. A more likely candidate for success would involve the federal government, the D.C. government, private institutions and local community development groups in creating employment and business opportunities throughout the city.

Crossing the River: Home Page


1  Saskia Sassen, "Identity in the Global City:  Economic and Cultural Encasements," in _The

Geography of Identity_ ed. Patricia Yaeger, 132

2  Ibid 133

3  Ibid 134

4  Ibid 135

5  Ibid 139

6  Ibid 147

7  Ibid 145,137

8  Craig, _The Federal Presence_  218

9  Ibid 312

10  National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Annual Report_ 1929: 6

11  National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Annual Report_ 1930:17

12  National Capital Planning Commission, _Policies for the Year 2000_, V.

13  National Capital Planning Commission, _Extending the Legacy:  Planning America's Capital

for the 21st Century_, 19

14  Samuel Goldreich, "Marketing Anacostia:  Service, symbol of success arrive with city's new

Safeway," _The Washington Times_ Mar 12 1997: B7

15  Hedrick Smith, _Across the River_, Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1995.