Washington, Washington, DC is unique among American cities because it was established by the Constitution of the United States to serve as the nation's capital. From the beginning it has been embroiled in political maneuvering, sectional conflicts, issues of race, national identity, compromise and, of course, power.
The choice of Washington's site along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers resulted from a compromise between Alexander Hamilton and northern states who wanted the new Federal government to assume Revolutionary War debts and Thomas Jefferson and southern states who wanted the capital placed in a location friendly to slave-holding agricultural interests.
George Washington, the first president and namesake of the city, chose the site and appointed three commissioners to help prepare for the arrival of the new government in 1800. In 1800 the federal government consisted of 131 employees. Pierre Charles L'Enfant designed the city as a bold new capital with sweeping boulevards and ceremonial spaces reminiscent of his native France. Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught African-American mathematical genius, provided the astronomical calculations for surveying and layout of the city. The full development of Washington as a monumental city, however, did not come until a hundred years later when the McMillan Commission updated its plan to establish the National Mall and monuments that most visitors to Washington now know.
In its 200 years as the nation's capital Washington has developed as a complex and layered city with multiple personalities. As home to the federal government, it has attracted a diverse mix of government workers, members of Congress from every state, foreign emissaries, lobbyists, petitioners and protestors.
Washington, DC was envisioned by its founders as a commercial center as well as the seat of government. The location on the Potomac River was chosen, in part, because it already included two existing port towns of Georgetown, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia which served as regional shipping centers for tobacco and wheat. When Alexandria returned to Virginia in 1846, residents argued that inclusion within the Federal District of Columbia hurt business and the city of Washington would never need that much room to grow.
But after the Civil War, Washington did grow, eventually absorbing Georgetown and the surrounding farms and rural areas beyond L'Enfant's original plans for the city. The initial boundary of Washington City was Florida Avenue, originally called Boundary Street. The first neighborhoods were those that grew up around the Capitol (Capitol Hill), the Center Market (Downtown), and the White House (Lafayette Square). The expansion of streetcar lines in the mid-19th century spurred creation of new suburbs. Two early suburbs, LeDroit Park and Anacostia, both began as developments that excluded African Americans and later became predominantly African-American communities.
While DC has always had foreign delegations from the countries of the world, it also boasts an increasingly diverse ethnic population. A growing Latino population represents every Central and South American country with a particularly large community of Salvadorans. A large Ethiopian population has resulted from the political turmoil there. New ethnic groups have brought new restaurants, as well as new residents. While DC lost residents to surrounding suburbs in the 1990s, new housing and urban revitalization is now attracting people back to the city for a downtown renaissance of housing, offices, entertainment and nightlife.
As the capital of the world's most powerful democracy, it is ironic that residents of Washington lack full self government. Limited self government was only restored in 1974 after nearly 100 years with an appointed commissioner system. Representation in Congress is limited to a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives and a shadow Senator. 1964 was the first Presidential election in which Washington residents were able to vote. While elected and appointed officials come and go, giving the city its reputation as a transient community, many of the city's residents have called Washington home for multiple generations. Their stories give Washington its distinctive character as both a national and local city.
Washington, DC is a thriving cultural capital where each season approximately 80 professional theatres in the metropolitan area produce more than 350 productions that run more than 8,000 performances and play to more than 2 million audience members. In fact, the nation's capital has the second highest per-capital number of theatre productions annually--second only to New York City. Beyond the numbers, Washington - the theater town - is more than 200 years old. In 1791 architect Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the new capital city included a congressional house and a presidential palace connected by a grand avenue lined with academies...and playhouses. More than two hundred years later, on any given night curtains are rising on upwards of 200 performances at theaters in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
And the theater scene in Washington, DC is only getting bigger. Several of the city's most popular playhouses are responding to the demand for live entertainment through capital improvement campaigns, adding playing spaces, educational facilities and more.
Museums and Art Scene
Washington, DC was recently ranked as the number one destination for museums in the entire world. Home to dozens of museums and galleries--many of them free--there's an exhibit for every art lover. Located on the National Mall, the expansive National Gallery of Art houses the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere, plus a remarkable collection of works by Monet, Rembrandt, Goya and other masters in its West Wing. In the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing, you’ll find mobiles by Calder and prints by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and other notable contemporary artists.
American art enthusiasts won’t want to miss a trip to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. The sprawling museums share a building in the bustling Penn Quarter and are filled with works by Winslow Homer, Thomas Hart Benton, George Catlin, Georgia O’Keefe and other notable artists, plus the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. Both museums frequently host notable and innovative exhibitions as well.
DC’s privately-owned art galleries charge admission, but they’re well worth the entrance fees. Only at The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, can you view Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” in its permanent home and a selection of Mark Rothko’s famous abstract impressionist paintings in a room designed by the artist himself. The city’s oldest art museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art regularly plays host to major art, culture and photography exhibitions. The Textile Museum, Kreeger Museum and National Museum of Women in the Arts are also must-sees.
While DC celebrates great artists through the ages, the city keeps pace with the contemporary art world as well. Take a stroll along 14th Street near Logan Circle for a glimpse of the vibrant modern gallery scene. A former automobile dealership, the Arts Building at 1515 14th St. NW is home to several art galleries specializing in prints, photography and contemporary arts. Trendy furniture and home furnishings stores abound in the neighborhood, one of the city’s liveliest residential quarters. Or, take a stroll through the emerging Atlas District in Northeast DC, where you'll find contemporary creations at locations like Industry Gallery and Conner Contemporary Art.