My Brother's Keeper: The Federal Government in D.C.

The federal government today seems the most able and the most likely candidate to rescue the District of Columbia, but in the past locals and federal officials alike have expressed some concern over its ability to provide for the community, both in the things it has done and in the things it has left unaccomplished. In the earliest days of the District, Thomas Jefferson served on the local school board as part of his presidential duties, but he resigned after a short time because he didn't have enough time to devote to local matters. A few decades later in his 1831 address to Congress, Andrew Jackson charged that the federal government's administration of the District was neglectful.

Seventy years later, Teddy Roosevelt proposed to develop "a systematic and progressive social policy for DC that would lay down standards for states and municipalities throughout the country." (1) The federal government had limited power in other cities to effect the kind of changes he had in mind, but no such restrictions existed in the District. Roosevelt's plans included new parks, sewers, hospitals, playgrounds, a system of pubic relief, eradication and/or rehabilitation of slum dwellings, a child labor law, a compulsory education law, and juvenile courts. Southern Democrats, however, opposed increased appropriations for the District, and in 1908 they cut estimates for repairs ond improvements by $175,000, road repairs by $100,000 playgrounds by $186,000, schools by $1,700,000, and police by $100,000. Senators who worried about the idleness of youth and the government's intrusion into the family stalled a child labor bill for two years, and passed it only after considerable amendment which weakened it considerably. This debate reflected Congress's divided stand on social legislation. One study of Congress during this period noted, "To many urban members...[a model city] would enjoy an armory of advanced social legislation and a battery of highly developed social facilities to better the living and working condition's of the city's "neglected neighbors." However, to many western Republicans and Southern Democrats a model city would be one that sternly checked real estate speculation and ultility "monopolies," and it was attacks upon these that elicited their enthusiasm and interest." (2) In addition, the District had to compete with other Congressional concerns; Congress passed most of its D.C. legislation on "District Days," two hours in the morning on every second Monday of the month. Thus, "Far from giving a lead to the nation as a whole, Congress was too preoccupied with other business, too hopelessly divided on questions of social policy, and too predominantly conservative to provide a progressive city government for Washington." (3) D.C. was left without a modern system of sewers, with overcrowded and underfunded schools, and bereft of many of the other improvements Roosevelt had envisioned.

The Frederick Douglass housing project was built over the community of Stantontown, which was founded by freed slave Tobias Henson.
The federal government continued to enact piecemeal reform aimed at Washington, particularly Washington's housing. Congress approved the 1914 Alley Dwelling Act "at the earnest desire of the first Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, then on her death bed;" the courts later declared the law unconstitutional. (4) A 1929 alley dwelling bill drafted by the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission empowered the U.S. President to raze and redevelop the alley neighborhoods of Washington. Thus, when the Henson family's land (and the rest of the black community of Stantontown) in Anacostia was condemned and its structures targeted for demolition in the early '40s, the Hensons appealed (unsuccessfully) to Eleanor Roosevelt for help.

In a response to the federal government's nationwide housing programs under the Subsistence Homestead Program, the Resettlement Administration, and the Suburban Resettlement Division, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled in 1945 that the federal government had no constitutional power to engage directly in the construction of housing. Following the court's decision, the modern federal-local structure of the public housing system came into being. While the federal government supplied considerable financial support to local housing authorities, the court's decision "effectively removed the decision of where to locate public housing from the federal government and placed it in the hands of local governments.". Some scholars of urban history have suggested that this lack of direct federal involvement contributed to the dense concentration of public housing by local municipalities: "In the absence of federal oversight, public housing developments were frequently constructed in the least desirable part of town." (5) However, the federal government's more direct involvement in Washington D.C.'s public housing, and the concentration of public housing projects in Anacostia, contradicts this assumption. The details of how Anacostia became host to a disproportionate number of the city's public and subsidized housing, and the role played in that process by the federal government, have been explored in another section of this web site. The National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, which has been a major factor in the urban renewal of Washington D.C., was and continues to be a federally dominated body. In its earliest form, the NCPPC comprised four presidentially appointed "eminent citizens well qualified and experienced in city planning, one of whom shall be a bona fide resident of the District of Columbia" and seven federal appointees, including the U.S. Army Chief Engineer, the Director of the National Park Service, and the chairmen of the District Committees in the House and Senate. (6) Presently the Commission includes 9 federal and 4 local members. Its original charter empowered the Commission to acquire land for parks and public works, to develop a comprehensive plan for development of the Nation's Capital, to approve the plans for all federal structures within the District, and to make recommendations to the appropriate legislative bodies regarding transportation, parks, zoning, public and private buildings, public works, and industry. Congress extended the Commission's purview in the 1940s to make it the coordinator and central authority on slum reclamation and redevelopment. The Commission recognized its own power: in its 1930 annual report, it noted that the parking problem in the District could be solved by the federal government because in D.C., "the Government not only has all the power 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." (7) As development in adjoining areas of Maryland and Virginia transformed D.C. into a metropolitan center, the Commission sought to extend its authority into the neighboring states. Congress responded in 1952 by creating the National Capital Regional Planning Council, a separate entity whose membership included representatives from Maryland, Virginia, and from the National Capital Planning Commission, which got a new name and retained control over development within the District.

Proposed development of South Capitol Street, with a new Supreme Court building at its terminus.
The NCPC's 1996 comprehensive plan for the District is strangely silent on the questions of housing and public services for local residents. The Commission mentions the need to improve D.C.'s tax base, the goal of creating mixed-use development zones to stimulate economic development, and the need to develop a transportation system capable of handling traffic flow which will increase by a significant percentage in the near future. The NCPC notes that the infrastructure improvements of the '50s and '60s which aimed to correct such problems instead "fractured neighborhoods" and "severed the city from its rivers." Use of the passive voice masks the NCPC's role in the the '40s through the '60s in the creation of these inner-city freeways. The Commission's main concern, however, is the Mall. The plan is singleminded in its devotion to the federal/memorial presence in Washington D.C., which it describes as the "Monumental Core." The aim of the plan (which is supposedly a plan for the whole city, not simply the Mall area) is to unify D.C. around the Capitol. The plan correctly identifies tourist dollars as a major source of D.C. revenue, but doesn't seek ways to expand tourism into heretofore unexplored venues; rather, it seeks to clone the present Mall-monument model elsewhere in the city. The Commission's flatly stated goal is to find suitable sites for a dozen new museums and as many as 60 new monuments, since the Mall is now full.

Specifically, the plan includes the following elements:

An article appearing in The Washington Post at the time of the plan's debut praised the NCPC's efforts: "The fed's importance is so obvious we often tend to overlook it--it is just all over the place. This plan makes it clear that when properly channeled and focused, the federal government can have immense, positive impact on the area's development." (8)

In another article, however, The Post raised the criticisms shared by many other agencies and local officials, namely its limited scope (monumental, partial treatment of Washington) and its vagueness about funding for the redevelopment: "The NCPC...has crafted only an aesthetic framework, a fragmentary plan for the center of the nation's capital. How will a whole and complete plan for the city be fashioned, one that deals with other avenues and streets?...Finally, one can't help wondering if the D.C. government is up to the task of putting flesh on the NCPC's skeleton." (9) Deborah Dietsch, writing in Architecture magazine, argued that the plan "ignores Wasington's pressing social and financial problems, exacerbating the city's division between federal and nonfederal." (10) The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a volunteer association of local planners, urban architects, and historians, wrote a letter to President Clinton urging him not to associate himself with the plan because it ignored more realistic goals set by the D.C. government's planning agency and because it represented what some area planners have characterized as an "outdated, top-down, Olympian" approach to urban planning. (11). The President, however, applauded the plan, and sent a delegate to the NCPC's public unveiling of it to convey his approval. At the same reception, Marion Barry reminded the assembled press and guests that the city needed about $600 million immediately to pay its outstanding bills.

Harvey Gantt, who served as Executive Director of the NCPC during the plan's formulation, wrote a letter to The Post defending the plan. Gantt argued that the plan would spread "the benefits of tourism and federal investment to neglected parts of the city, such as North and South Capitol Streets and Anacostia...Unveiling a new plan in a time of budget cuts and bottom lines takes both courage and vision. Yet many of America's planning triumphs...occured in periods of little money and great opportunity...This plan is not for the timid and cynical. But then America has never been either." (12) His successor on the NCPC, Reginald Griffith, echoed his sentiments about using federal monuments, memorials, and office space throughout the city as catalysts for private development in depressed areas. An editorial in The Washington Times addressed the question of probable benefits to depressed neighborhoods: "The best-laid plans turn into major displacement nightmares for long-standing neighborhoods. What is touted as something to improve the quality of life for an area often translates into that area's total transformation for newcomers. Many longtime Washington residents can remember when Southwest, Capitol Hill, Foggy Bottom, Old Town Alexandria--to name a few--were populated by working-class blacks. They were later priced out of those neighborhoods."(13) Although Griffith denied that the NCPC plan required displacement of D.C. residents, his declaration is questionable in light of the federal government's track record in displacing local populations and in light of the scope of redevelopment--a plan that anticipates double the number of federal monuments and museums existing today.

The legacy extended in "Extending the Legacy" may be defined as the legacy of federal and local collisions of interest. The NCPC report advises, "As in a symphony, unless everyone plays together the piece will fall apart." (14) The Commission promises that D.C. zoning regulations will be respected (later in the report, the NCPC advises that major zoning changes will be needed by the year 2000) and 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. Who will foot the bill? Not the conductor of the symphony. Technical and financial help from the federal government is pledged for "extraordinary public expenditures...transportation, major parks, and river improvements." (15) One feature of the plan calls for the removal of the Whitehurst Freeway from in front of the Kennedy Center, and in the construction in its place of a large pedestrian plaza. 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.

D.C.s economics are such at present that it can't even fill potholes, much less tear up freeways. The 1996 Commission's awareness of this fact is evident in their emphasis on the economic revitalization that they envision should private land be converted into federal governmental/museum space. The Commission states that it wants to stimulate "federal investment in all parts of the city;" the Commission wants to place new museums and memorials in the middle of existing neighborhoods, "many of which are eager for investment and some sign from the government that they are part of the NationŐs Capital." (16) The residents of D.C. have been placed in the position of a fox in the trap, chewing off their leg (their neighborhoods) in order to survive. Do they genuinely welcome increased federal presence/public buildings in their neighborhoods? If so, should they, given the federal government's history in terms of redevelopment, displacement, and a serious flawed conception of home rule? 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. (17) 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.

While the local government is not in a position to reject federal involvement in its affairs completely, it would probably be prudent to question the NCPC's 1996 plan for the city. The plan requires considerable sacrifice on the part of local residents and businesses, is vague on the federal financial contribution to redevelopment, and ultimately privileges the ceremonial/federal parts of the city, which the NCPC labels"the Washington everyone comes to see" . The emphasis on tourism implicit in that label, and the NCPC's insistence throughout the 1996 plan that by virtue of its status as the Nation's Capital Washington belongs to everyone and should be held to a higher standard than other cities, is the latest manifestation of the federal government's growing interest in its own symbolic value, which is explored in another section of this site.

Crossing the River: Home Page


1  Robert Harrison, "The Ideal of a 'Model City:'" Federal Social Policy for the District of Columbia, 1905-1909," _Journal of Urban History_ August 1989: 435

2  Ibid 455

3  Ibid 436

4  National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Reports and Plans:  Washington Region_ 1930: 75

5  Michael Schill and Suan Wachter, "The Spatial Bias of Federal Housing Law and Policy:  Concentrated Poverty in Urban America," _University of Pennsylvania Law Review_ May 1995: 1285

6  National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Annual Report_ 1927: 1

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

8  Benjamin Forgey, "A Capital that Improves with Age:  Proposal's Unblinking Vision Brings the Future into Focus," _The Washington Post_ Mar 23 1996: H1

9  Roger Lewis, "Fine-tuning a Vision for D.C.'s Next Century," _The Washington Post_ Mar 30 1996: E1

10  Deborah K. Dietsch, "Make No Small Plans," _Architecture_ April 1996:15

11  Adrienne T. Washington, ""Better" Capital City Often Leaves Residents Out," _The Washington Times_ Mar 26 1996:C2

12  Harvey Gantt, "A Bold Vision for America's Capital," _The Washington Post_ April 28 1996:C8

13  See  11

14  National Capital Planning Commission, _Extending America's Legacy:  Planning America's Capital for the 21st Century_, 24

15  Ibid

16  Ibid 16

17  Ibid 19