Thursday, September 23, 2010

Native is Relative

How funny is it that I had to go to a lecture about my hometown, Washington, D.C., to be told for the first time, "Well, you're practically a native Richmonder!"

The event was another in the Virginia Historical Society's Banner Lecture series, Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French Visionary who Designed Washington, D.C. and the author speaking was Scott Berg.

I was curious about the man who who been so instrumental in designing the city I knew so well (and which seems to intimidate driving visitors to this day) and even more so when I learned that the Frenchman was a relatively young 37 when Washington commissioned him to design the new capital city.

L'Enfant had been classically trained at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and his father had been a siege painter (talk about specializing) to the King of France. Berg argued that L'Enfant's original drawing for the layout of the city was the first great artistic achievement of the young country.

His vision for D.C. was the antithesis of Philly, the quintessential grid city, something L'Enfant detested. He envisioned topographical drama, with the Capital perched high on a hill for effect and with a view of the Potomac westward (the direction the country was headed). This was to be its public axis.

The President's house (the eventual White House), on the other hand, was oriented for Washington himself with a view across the Potomac toward Alexandria (a city he helped survey) and Mount Vernon, his home. Here was the private axis.

Unfortunately, both the Capital and White House eventually had their orientations altered away from the Potomac. L'Enfant felt that the mall should be a democratic gathering place, wide and grassy, and at least that didn't change. And I hadn't known that L'Enfant was dismissed/fired after a mere eleven months.

But most interesting to me was the story behind Pennsylvania Avenue, one I'd surprisingly never heard before. The ferry road that originally connected the Georgetown/Alexandria ferry to the Anacostia/Maryland ferry was the road eventually named Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the central road in the new city, grand and wide.

Pennsylvania was given this honor because they had come in second in the contest to be the country's new capital city. We'll call it a consolation prize to keep the Pennsylvanians from whining too much.

As for being called "practically a native Richmonder," the woman in the seat next to me got me talking (oh, it happens) and when she learned I'd been in Richmond twenty years, made that pronouncement. In the past, when people learn that about me, they'd inevitably say, "So you're not a native." but maybe the rules have changed.

Or maybe I've just learned to fit in. L'Enfant preferred to be called Peter rather than Pierre; I wouldn't be surprised if he was just doing that in hopes of being called a native.

Now that I'm "practically" one myself, feel free to call me Karen Kay. It has such a southern ring to it, don't you think?


  1. everytime i see "L'Enfant Plaza" on 395 i read it as "Infant Plaza" & get an image in my head of unattended crawling babies all over the plaza

    thas all i got, sorry

  2. That's plenty.

    Berg said L'Enfant Plaza is the least L'Enfant-like space in the entire city (and wasn't in his plan). It is pretty hideous. I used to work a block from there and nobody lingered.

  3. I'm still one of the intimidated driving visitors. You're not? It's such a mess of one way streets and rotaries, and I always get stuck in a loop of streets, I think it involves an M street--definitely a place I couldn't live without a bicycle.

  4. No I'm not, but it's my hometown so I should be comfortable in it. That's why I drive when Andrew and I go to the 9:30 Club.

    And it's so much more bike-friendly than it used to be! Every time I'm up there I see new bike lanes. I'd like to see that happen in RVA sooner rather than later.