Then & Now: Washington, D.C
Our City of Washington Changes, Yet Doesn't Change
By Paul Kelsey Williams & T. Luke Young
Arcadia Publishing, 96 pp, paper, $19.99
Reviewed by Michael Kugelman
For the InTowner
One sometimes hears the observation that Washington offers so much more than monuments, memorials, and imposing federal government buildings. To many District residents, the remark is simply a statement of the obvious: after all, once-maligned and dilapidated neighborhoods in the U Street corridor, Adams Morgan, and Logan Circle have in recent years been revitalized and infused the city with character and vibrancy. To others, however, this reality may not be as clear. Arcadia Publishing's latest pictorial history of the District, Then & Now: Washington, D.C., does its best to illuminate the city's realities, past and present. In admirable fashion, Paul K. Williams and T. Luke Young visually capture the city's people, neighborhoods, parks, and buildings in a broad, holistic manner.
The intention of Williams--a local historian, the proprietor of an historic preservation firm, the researcher and writer of this newspaper's "Scenes from the Past" feature and a major Arcadia contributor, and Young, an architectural historian and photographer--is simple: contrast past images of the city with present ones, and showcase what has remained the same. "We only seek to capture scenes of the past and contrast them with what we see today . . . primarily to recognize that the nature of cities results in environments that while vastly different are at the same time similar places our grandparents once knew," they state in the Introduction.
The duo stresses its strong belief in the vitality of the District's myriad neighborhoods. "Our perspective is that neighborhoods reinforce the center, not the other way around," they write. Downtown areas, they add, are important, yet should be understood in "the context of the dynamic neighborhoods that both surround [them] and are increasingly intertwined within." This mindset accounts for the book's preponderance of photographs spotlighting neighborhood images. While snapshots of iconic structures such as the Pentagon, the National Cathedral, and the Lincoln Memorial also abound, it is the neighborhood images which are more prevalent.
Williams and Young divide the book into five chapters: "People and Entertainment," "Commercial Activities," "Institutional Roles," "Parks and Recreation," and "Residential Life." Each chapter commences with several sentences of introductory text, followed by photographs and accompanying captions. One of the book's major strengths is its image placement. A page typically has two pictures, both revealing the same building, street, or area, though from different eras. Eyeballing the images side-by-side produces a particularly strong contrast--more pronounced than if one were obliged to flip forward several pages to find a companion image. For example, the authors feature a 1955 photograph of three family members posing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Beneath it is a snapshot of a modern-day family affecting the same pose. Lincoln's likeness is captured in the 21st century exactly as it appeared almost 50 years earlier (it is a statue, after all!). Yet one also notes the marked contrasts in each family--clothes, girth, even facial expression (the man in the present-day photo smirks, while the man in the 1955 shot strikes a more era-appropriate, tight smile.) Equally enjoyable is the 1894 shot of Warwick's Café downtown contrasted with a present day snapshot of JR's Bar & Grill at 17th and Church Streets. The former features bowler-hat clad men standing stiffly at the bar, while the latter has some young men (including co-author Williams) lounging on bar stools in shorts and sneakers. At the same time, one is struck by the similarities of each establishment: the alcohol tidily arranged behind the bartender; the configuration of the stools along the bar; the ceiling lights.
Naturally, image contrast is particularly powerful in a context of familiarity. For this reviewer, a long-time resident of Dupont Circle, the dual images of the park inside the Circle (one circa. 1900, the other present-day) proved to be especially memorable. Viewing the central marble fountain's predecessor--a statue of Admiral Du Pont--in the older photograph, which is particularly surreal given the fountain's long-standing presence at the park's center. Similarly, observing a current image of the familiar corner of Wisconsin Avenue and O St.--with its omnipresent cars, cyclists and stoplights--grows even more instructive when one turns to the shot of the same street corner in the 1890s--this time replete with horse cars and trolley tracks.
Though the book is a visual history, the caption text should not be underestimated. It is appropriately concise and informative. The writing style maintains enough flexibility to morph from the acerbic (the authors recount the lamentable fate of the Alexander "Boss" Shepherd statue, which was moved from its prominent perch in front of the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue to the Blue Plains waste water treatment plant in Southeast "where it now sits between two temporary buildings and sadly hosts a Weber Grill at its base") to the technical (captions are frequently peppered with references to jargon such as "brutalist," "neo-traditional stylistic," and "concrete and sterile").
Significantly, both the photos and text captions have high educational value. By reading this book, DC residents and non-residents alike will learn much about the city. This reviewer reacted with surprise upon seeing a photograph of a gas station attendant pumping a car and the caption's text informing that some District gas stations have full service; he has rarely happened upon full service gas stations outside of his native New Jersey. Readers may also be surprised to learn about and see Orville Wright's 1908 flight at Fort Myer, just across the river in Arlington. Trivia buffs will also not be disappointed: Who knew that "the elegant front door" once found under the arch of the John Hay House (since replaced by the Hay-Adams Hotel) was later removed and transferred to a new home on Woodland Drive, NW. The reader can view the door attached to both structures.
Then & Now spotlights it all: The ordinary, ranging from outhouses to evictions (it is a testament to the authors' creativity that they think to include past and present images of evicted items strewn about outside homes). Also, gas stations. Readers will learn how these once boasted the same architectural beauty as their surroundings (as Williams and Young point out with a fantastic 1920s shot of a sprawling, lovely estate-like gas station in Northwest). The authors also accord significant attention to the city's recent corporatization and sprawl. One poignant page includes an old snapshot of an idyllic, leafy country road, Bladensburg Road, contrasted with a current view of the street near New York Avenue, where highways and strip shopping malls now reign supreme. These areas "have been gobbled up by suburban sprawl," the authors lament.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the book succeeds in shattering some of the city's stereotypes. The authors respond to the reductive perception of Anacostia as a monolithic slum by featuring a beautiful present-day Anacostia street corner, complete with large homes, manicured lawns, and towering trees. Many observers could mistake it for Spring Valley. This area of Anacostia with its "lush and quiet communities" might "surprise other DC residents with an obscured vision of the area," the authors note wryly.
Williams and Young have produced a winner. They provide such a diverse arrangement of photographs that the result is overwhelmingly enlightening; even those purporting to have seen it all will surely come across something here which they have not seen before. The photographs are high quality and reveal little blurring or fuzziness. The authors include pictures not only from their own collections but also from the Library of Congress, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, and the Historical Society of Washington (among other sources)--a compilation even more eclectic than that of Williams' last Arcadia venture, Images of America: Greater U Street. Finally, the editorial errors which marred that book are thankfully nowhere to be found in this one. It is recommended with no reservations.