Washington DC – Some Characteristics

Regiment of bronze cavalry could be formed, so the impression comes, from the host of bronze horsemen scattered about Washington streets.

Washington is a wonderfully be-statued city; it has more statues in its streets in proportion to its size, than has any other city, and the statues are almost all equestrian and almost all to commemorate heroes of war.

Look in any direction, up any street or avenue, and the eye is struck by a row of statued men. For example, follow along Vermont Avenue, and you find only a block apart, Logan, and Thomas and McPherson and Jackson. Very prominent, beyond the south front of the White House, is the tall and rather recent equestrian Sherman. On Mt. Pleasant, in particular prominence, is a large and quite new McClellan. In fact the horsemen are everywhere.

The placing of statued generals about the city began many years ago, and among the first were the Washington which fascinated Bret Harte and the careering Andrew Jackson. Grant of course is one of the many, and the Grant Memorial displays horse-men galore in highly excited groups. There are now far more bronze horses than live ones to be seen on the streets of the Capitol.

Washington has markedly the air of a military city. During the Great War it did not look so military-like as did, say, either New York or Philadelphia, although it might naturally have been expected to look very military-like indeed at that time. There were generally no great number of officers or soldiers to be seen on the streets, and even the White House and its grounds, carefully though they were in reality guarded, gave little outward evidence of watchfulness except for here and there an isolated soldier or policeman. But since the war, Washington has become the special goal of army men and it now has more of a military aspect than have the other cities.

It seems curious but is perhaps quite natural, that thus far, although the veterans of the late war are highly honored, the period has not yet arrived in which they are to be mistily haloed, a period which a great many years ago was reached in regard to the men of the Civil War. And this is remindful of Mrs. Burton Harrison’s amusement, when a young girl, who had been reading with avidity novels of the Civil War, asked her in all seriousness if it were really true that every man of that period was hand-some, clever and a palladin of bravery, and every woman a radiant belle and beauty.

Washington is preeminently a city of social activities. It is not, as would naturally be expected, a city of many theatres. A city thronged not only with residents with time at their disposal, but with visitors from all quarters, would naturally be expected to demand an active drama, as an important feature, whereas on the contrary it is seldom in the winter that a good play comes. One is tempted to wonder if the explanation can be the intensity with which the people who would under ordinary circumstances be supporters of the theater and demanders of good plays are wrapped up in matters of social life. Residents and visitors, speaking broadly, follow eagerly in the round of dinners, receptions, luncheons and teas.

It is the more remarkable that it is not a great amusement city, for it is a city of the shortest possible working hours. The great department buildings with their thousands and thousands of employees, turn them all into the streets at extremely early hours, and a most curious corollary is that museums and galleries also close by the middle of the afternoon! With practically all of the places of instruction or sightseeing closing early in the day, there are still few theaters other than for moving pictures.

It may be said, however, that dancing is a marked diversion of a great part of the population, and this of course partially explains the absence of great theatrical demand. The present occupants of the White House, the Hardings, both have a pleasant liking for dancing, not at all a usual White House feature, at least in recent years.

Washington has gradually become a Mecca for bridal couples. In this respect it is believed to out-rival even Niagara Falls. Someone with a bent for figures has estimated that the average is one hundred thousand a year: a rather incredible seeming number, but the actual figure must be high.

It was not in relation to a marriage but a funeral that Mrs. Jefferson Davis once came in touch with what was, to her, an entirely new feature. The funeral carriage called for her, and as it started off she noticed on either side, four negroes, walking in solemn glory, in black clothes and white cotton gloves. Instantly she demanded of the negro coach-man an explanation, and she was told: “This, ma-dame, is the way we always does at funerals and sich like.” Telling the story herself she used to say that she was almost sorry to order the eight negroes to vanish, so proud had they been and then so crest-fallen.

Among American cities Washington seems to be the black man’s paradise. They are mostly happy and contented. They seem to be good citizens al-though some live in little narrow alleys, of which there are not many in the city; others live in excellent houses on excellent streets, they having of recent years acquired a good many districts of homes

which used to be prized by the whites. Many negroes owned bits of land in the most exclusive North West section and by selling became prosperous. Although there are quite a number of shops for negroes, negroes are unobtrusively welcomed in all the large stores as well.

There are negroes who are small shop-keepers, prosperous working men, office-holders, and small landlords. A great many past middle age, have the garb and facial expression that in other cities would mark them as negro preachers instead of, as here, negroes of settled prosperity. Even where negro homes are in rows of little houses in every shade of green and red and bronze and yellow, there is not an impression of poverty.

It is not politics that has dictated a good policy to-ward them, because nobody in the District of Columbia votes, either white or black. The birthrate of the blacks is a little greater than that of the whites, and the death rate is quite considerably greater, so that unless constantly reinforced from the South as they are, the negroes here would die out.

It is one of the most curious features of American history that less than five years before the Civil War it was solemnly declared in this city that the black race could be considered only as property. Chief Justice Taney, backed by a strong majority of the Supreme Court and by the general approval of the people and the majority of the churches, essentially declared that the negro had no right which the white man was bound to respect.

Even the opponents of slavery were so aghast that they could scarcely think it possible that the condition would ever change. It added to the striking features of the ease that Taney, violently outspoken slavery man as he was, within a few years swore into office as President the man who was to over-throw. slavery, Abraham Linclon ! Thus did fate reverse the decision.

What amounts to a new city has within the past few years been developing on the heights, which in a general way are known as Mt. Pleasant, on the long hill beyond the twisty old lane, now a street, long the boundary of the city and known as Florida Avenue. These heights command far extending views over the city and the Potomac; and many a hotel and apartment house has phalanxes of windows arranged to command these city-sweeping vistas.

There are costly homes here, and here too apartment houses of great size and expensiveness have firmly entrenched themselves. There are many apartment houses also in the general northwest section, before the heights are mounted, and they have the pleasant aspect which goes well with this city of charm.

The sidewalks and pavements are used freely by children of good class, for roller skating, and little wagon coasting : and the slopes of Mt. Pleasant are naturally not overlooked. One will sometimes be met on a slope by five or six little wagons, one immediately following the other, loaded with happy children.

By the movement of the motor cars which travel the Mt. Pleasant hills one may almost tell the time of day, for they come down in pleasantly noisy flocks between nine and ten in the morning, go back, many of them, a little more noisily for the dinner hour, and, later, about one o’clock at night, attack the hill very noisily indeed, making free runs at the grade, starting from as far back as Dupont Circle.

An interesting feature of many of the streets of the city is that they are completely arcaded by the trees which are planted at their sides, and cared for by the city authorities. Beautiful examples of this may be seen in New Hampshire Avenue. Shade is so valued that the trees are often too low-trimmed for umbrella use on rainy days.

Washington is essentially a winter city, and the spaces about the house-fronts, and some unusually beautiful gardens, are planted with all manner of evergreens, laurels, magnolias, barberries, box bushes and borders, thus achieving an effect that especially delights the eye of the Northern garden lover who finds at home his box bushes and borders a source of despair. The houses too are draped with thick-growing English ivy. Many of them have balconies over the front doors, as if the architect had in mind that public favorites might live in the houses and be called upon for speeches to crowds in the streets.

At two spots in the city, one south of the White House in the Executive grounds, and the other at Dupont Circle, are two great circular plantings of elm trees which have now become mature old trees and which show markedly from lofty points or in airplane pictures.

Washington is so attractive a city that although one may notice points of difference from other cities it is seldom that one thinks of it as anything but a place of charm and even beauty.

A characteristic that one early notices is the absence of what is expected as a matter of course in every other American city—the wholesale district ! —something which simply does not here exist. You next notice that there is also an absence of any manufacturing district. Then comes the realization that you see very few heavy trucks filled with merchandise, such as are so familiarly to be seen else-where.

There is a surprising lesisureliness in the general business and shopping of the city, whether in the few large department stores or in the shops. A mutual leisureliness of customer and clerk is either annoying or amusing if you are waiting to do some purchasing yourself.

Business in general is a pleasant feature of this pleasant city, and there is an almost naive readiness to give credit to new customers: indeed, it is not infrequently offered without being asked for: and this is a city peculiarly of transients!

I noticed the other day a man who distinctly represented a survival of the long ago past. He was a scissors grinder, and he looked precisely as that kind of craftsman still looks in all parts of the country. Here was the short shabby man of our youthful days, with a gray-black lathe-frame on his back, and so bending under the load as to let his pendulum arm agitate the tongue of the bell, and always with the same sharp sound.

The horseshoer has almost vanished; the modern shoemaker no longer sits on his queer low leather bench. How long will the scissors-grinder last?

A fascinating-seeming kind of advertisement, not in the least exceptional, but very common indeed, and often showing in rows in the advertising columns, is that of “furniture of all kinds”—as the general phrase is, for houses or apartments of all sizes:

“Wanted—to purchase immediately, outfit for a seven-room apartment. Phone so and so.”

“Wanted—furniture of all kinds for a fourteen-room house.”

“Wanted—furniture of all kinds for an eleven-room house.”

And such advertisements go on, always specifying with amusing particularity the precise number of rooms to be so equipped. The explanation comes, from this being so largely a city of people who come for a few years at a time.

President Van Buren describes Washington as “the most gossiping place in the world.” The city has been gossiping ever since. If a man or a woman goes out to a social function he is expected to take some gossip with him, and to bring back, if he is clever, more than he takes. In the present days of prohibition, gossip is taking the line of telling the quantity and quality of wine served at great dinners; or some one may tell quietly of a retiring President ordering army trucks to move his private supply. Gossip revels over wide fields.

Washington is distinctively an American city. This cannot be too strongly expressed. Good-looking Americans and delightful Americans represent almost the complete population; and if some caviler should say something about the blacks, they too are Americans of many generations. On account of this being the center of diplomatic life there is at the same time both in street scenes and at all gatherings, a highly distinguished sprinkling of foreigners, attached to the embassies.

American as the city is, and excellent as its schools seem to be, one’s first impression is strongly of a shortage of school buildings. The public schools are so quietly placed, that you are tempted to think that it is easier to find orphan asylums or private schools. And then your fears are put to flight by coming upon the Central High School—a huge building, an absolutely enormous building, situated on a terrace overhanging Florida Avenue.

Boarding-houses have always been a feature of Washington life and it is a poor one that cannot boast a major, a dear general’s widow, a member of General Wood’s staff, a vice-consul from Birmingham, an educated Chinese, in addition to the elderly ladies and department clerks who frequent such homes.

There are quiet and highly respected “places” so called, such as Hillyer and Jefferson and Decatur; pleasant localities—little eddies off great thoroughfares where it has always been a sort of small social asset to live. Here the relicts and the maiden daughters of governors, Presidents, generals, admirals, senators, live in a well-bred, quiet round of teas, small dinners and great maintenance of old pride and tradition—each in the heavy shade of family trees. And from year to year there are more apartment houses, where thousands are pigeoned-holed in “three rooms and a bath,” with proper hall service and elaborate motor entrance.

All through the best residence sections of Washington there exists a very characteristic feature of the capital’s streets. This is the horseshoe-shaped drive which crosses the sidewalks twice, so that motors may approach and leave the actual doorstep of the house. These drives give a motor-terror to sidewalk-abiding nursemaids, children, home-going citizens and hurrying postmen, and are very destructive to pet dogs. On these horseshoe curves, a caller’s motor can wait between sidewalk and door-step, and on reception days the motors are parked up and down the street; and on the doorman’s signal or upon the appearance of the owner at the door, the motors dart from the curb, whirl into the horseshoe curve and are off over the sidewalk again, and out and into the street.

One reason why there are not so many old-time houses as might naturally be expected in Washing-ton is because the immense changes of level carried out under the direction of Colonel Shepherd did away with most of the old houses or else left them so skied or submerged in clay banks, that the owners promptly tore them down.

A feature of Washington residences is the great size of many of them. These are the homes of extremely wealthy men retired from politics or business, or their widows. More and more the city at-tracts wealthy folk who have not satisfactorily established themselves in other places or who have come here to widen their social horizon or improve upon their winter climate. And quite a proportion of those who come do so because of the acknowledged fascination of the mingled society here. ‘Constantly in their motor cars, in the trolleys, or entering or leaving some of the public buildings, distinguished folk are in evidence, whose faces ought instantly to be recognized by all.

Long ago in the “Gilded Age,” it was told that the stranger in Washington was able to see renowned generals and admirals, who had seemed but colossal myths off in some distant State, or there were world-famous statesmen passing as a plain matter of fact, and the young man of the story “had looked upon the President himself and lived.”

Washington is a markedly polite city. Such forms as a man’s keeping his hat off while speaking with a lady on the street are customary, and it is pleas-ant to hear the frequent soft-voiced “sir.” And politeness extends in a general way through all classes. Just a few days ago two dear old ladies were getting gently and slowly off a Connecticut Avenue car at R Street, and tarried for a moment on the platform to say graciously to the conductor, “It has been a cold day for you today”—a simple thing but one which warmed the heart of the conductor and the passengers who heard it.

Thomas Jefferson, walking out one day with a young relative, courteously returned the bow of a slave, and when the young man with him said some-thing in regard to it, Jefferson replied: “Should you expect me to be less polite than that black man?”

There is no distinctively “Great White Way.” F Street has splotches of theater, restaurant, and dry goods store lights, and Ninth Street has perhaps the closest together of lighted windows at night, but even there, there is nothing very bright, nor is there any great brightness around even the big hotels. Hotel, restaurant and theater lights unite to make a pleasant degree of brightness near Lafayette Square and the Willard Hotel, but by one in the morning there is at least semi-darkness, for private lights have been turned out and the city itself does not overlight its streets—though all its avenues have great ball-shaped lights throughout their lengths.

A usual night feature is the leaving well-lighted, particularly on F Street, of the front windows of closed shops, such as candy shops, silversmiths, women’s hat shops, and so on, so as to offer good “window-shopping” though the stores are closed, and an odd feature is that as the people drift home from moving-picture theaters or restaurants, a brisk young man, not in uniform, enters doorway after doorway, shakes the door and snaps an obscure button, leaving the shop and window in darkness, and making rapid progress down the street.

Neither at night nor in the day time, are quite so many policemen to be seen as in other cities—except traffic men: they are guarded by roof-set spot lights at night, and have mud-guarding shields about them, like huge, waist-high cans.

There is many a charming bit to be noticed by chance as one goes about the Washington streets, as the Church of the Covenant, which looks out at the Witherspoon statue at Connecticut Avenue and Eighteenth Streets, with an admirable stone tower of Norman design, to be seen with especial effectiveness in a vista from between buildings on M Street; at your right being the great St. Matthew’s church with its unfinished facade and at your left the spot where stood what was for a time the most talked of house in Washington, the one given by the public to Admiral Dewey, only to be at once handed over by him to his wife.

One of the common sights of the city, as it has been from the very beginning, is that of parties of Indians, men and women, in their native costume, walking up and down the streets, or going into public buildings, or stores: and it is always a very picturesque sight, though these wards of the nation al-ways seem a little pathetic on the hard pavements. The men seem drawn by the Capitol or White House and the women by the trinket shops of Pennsylvania Avenue. The other day a group of mocassin-shod, blanket-wrapped squaws were carefully choosing and examining and purchasing fine leather vanity bags in the largest shop on F Street.

And I noticed one day two gypsies passing by, one with orange turban, and weird green jacket, the other with turban of vivid green, and jacket of orange, and both with loop ear-rings and with skirts braided with dull red.

A pathetic survival of old Washington, and in fact of a time that has almost vanished from the entire country, is a horse market at the junction of Eleventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue on the Mall. In a few years it will be as much a thing of the past as the slave markets, which not many years ago disappeared. The poor old horses are rough, unkempt, decrepit, poorly-fed, and usually attached to old and broken-down wagons. The drivers stand dejectedly beside them, engaged in the dulling occupation of tapping the pavement with the butt-ends of old whips.

Although Washington is a city of limited manufacturing it retains various reminders of the handicrafts of the past. Even the horse-shoers are still sufficient in number to have a union, and there are unions of jewelry workers, school custodians and janitors, navy yard riggers, buffers and polishers, and the astonishingly entitled “Yeast, Cereal, Beverage and Soft Drink Workers.”

These is an association of the “Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia” and they hold their meetings in a quaint little old fire-house facing to-ward Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Georgetown.

One is not at first impressed that there are so many churches as would naturally be expected, but one by one they are come upon, and among others there are seventy-two little churches of the colored Baptists. There is a delightfully named Sunshine Temple, under the pastorate of one named Zed H. Capp. There are churches of Christadelphians. There is a Theomonistic Church. There are a couple of Pentecostal Churches of the Nazarene.

Among the various associations, one thinks first of the famous Gridiron Club with its meetings at which the greatest men in the land are expected to be present and to receive jests with equanimity.

There is an Alibi Club headed by a Proctor, assisted by a Bulldog. There are the Knights of the Golden Eagle. There is the fraternal order of the Degree of Pocahontas. There are Knights of Malta.

There are Maccabees. There is the Social Order of the Moose. There is the Improved Order of Heptasophus. And there are a Rising Sun Lodge, a Bloom of Youth Lodge, and a Lodge of the Golden Reef.