The Civil War Connections Blog

Thoughts about DC – then and now

In my previous “blog” I wrote about having seen the movie” Lincoln.”  A friend mentioned to me what living in D.C. must have been like in a mid-nineteenth century American city.  Of course, I am laughing to myself thinking of D.C. as a city at that time.  Even grammar school students learn just how much of a frontier-town it was, complete with muddy streets and no sidewalks.  There were probably a few “board walks” in the most genteel neighborhoods.  Even that is cause for laughter; this was no New York City or Philadelphia, those two Athens of North  America.

During WWI the federal government built quite a large number of “temporary” buildings to provide office space for the influx of new government employees, and for soldiers as necessary.  During WWII, these same buildings were still around, serving the same purpose.  Finally, in the 60’s they came down and were eventually replaced by more uplifting structures:  memorials to past wars.

However, quite interestingly, parts of the old Naval yard which existed during the Civil War and some built at that time, are still there and remain as they have for a century and a half.  It seems a truism that new things are often built shabbily by very poorly trained laborers while previous generations of workers were truly skilled.

Of course, the depression in the 1930’s along with the helping hand of the “works progress administration” saw the real dawn of our present U.S. capital.  The grand avenues laid out by P. C. L’Enfant in the 18th century, grew worse as the years passed and congress was uninterested in prettyfing a place seldom seen by its members.  So, it suffered the effects of neglect.  Members lived in boarding houses near the Capitol building when Congress was in session; otherwise they were in their home districts.  And the diplomatic corps considered assignment to the U.S. government a hardship assignment of little use to their career.

While Teddy Roosevelt brought some change and Woodrow Wilson put America on the “big map” to international recognition as well as importance, it wasn’t until the federal government promoted the use of unemployed men that the city we see today (or rather most of it) was built; the avenues properly widened and proper walkways installed and a real commercial area was realized as department stores began to emerge for the new found funds of workers.  And lastly, the recognition of the need for war support, an industry without equal in stimulating the flow of money and goods which creates prosperity.  And Washington was in the center of it all.  I can remember, going with my mother to shop in the big department stores and was in complete awe of those emporiums built to satisfy any desire.

Gee, nothing much seems to have changed in the world of retail in the past 60 plus years, except now it’s on line rather than on foot.  Of course, many of the department stores have disappeared as fewer people bother to actually go out to shop.  But not me; I guess I just like to see what I am buying before I plunk my money down.