oseph Roth, the great Austrian Jewish journalist and novelist, once wrote that when he went for a walk, “What I see, what I see.”
So whenever I take one of my many walks and bus rides around the US capital, I see that Washington is alive and inspiring and beautiful and the architecture is magnificent.
Thousands of tourists arrive in Washington each day, including many who have sojourned there previously. In 2016, about 20 million visitors toured America’s capital. They visited the US Capitol building, The White House, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History, the Washington National Cathedral and the National Zoological Park. They even go out to Arlington National Cemetery and to Mount Vernon, the home of the first US president, George Washington.
But there is always a new museum opening on the landscape of this marvelous city along the Potomac River – the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Museum of the Bible are but two.
At any event, this is one city where even a smattering of American history will enhance the visit of a tourist, foreign or domestic. So it’s a good idea for the traveler to read up a little on the background of the city, which mirrors the history of the US. You might also want to pop into the National Museum of American History at 14th St. and Constitution Avenue.
Included there are galleries titled “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” and “The American Presidency.”
It does not matter where you stop in this capital, just take a simple, leisurely walk and you will relive parts of the history of the United States of America. For example, I stopped at Hyatt Place at 1522 K St. NW. Very nearby is Lafayette Square that, since it was there in president Thomas Jefferson’s Day, is often considered the front lawn of the White House. In the square – which is really a small but busy, seven-acre public park directly north of the White House – stands the statue of perhaps the greatest personage who aided the future republic overseas as it struggled for its independence from 1776 to 1783. He was the famous Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, often known simply as Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
Not only did Lafayette fight for the US, but he got aid and volunteers from France. It was Lafayette who forced the British General Cornwallis to beat a retreat to Yorktown and surrender in 1781. The war lingered on for two more years until, after eight years of war, the Treaty of Paris – which formally recognized the United States as a free and independent nation – was signed.
Lafayette Park is special to me. In the days surrounding the 1967 Six Day War, American Jews stood, paraded and demonstrated there in support of the State of Israel in the park, as they later did for Soviet Jewry.
From the park, I stand facing the White House, the oldest public building in the District of Columbia, the home of every US president except George Washington. Despite more than 200 years of expansions and renovations, the White House has kept its essential appearance and design. Here, too, I remember my American history, one that is barely spans more than 200 years. During the War of 1812, the British retaliated for the American burning of public buildings in Canada by burning down the president’s house and other city landmarks in 1814.
Traffic barriers separate the park from the White House grounds, with law enforcement and police cars definitely in view. Facing security officers at a distance are demonstrators holding banners and posters of various views, all part of America’s vital belief in freedom of speech and the right to assemble.
History is everywhere. For instance, near the White House stands one of the most interesting and popular eating spots in the capital, also known as the oldest saloon in Washington. Old Ebbit Grill was founded in 1856 and is located at 675 15th St. NW. Since that day, every president, except President Trump, has dined at this popular tourist spot that is frequented by senators and congresspersons and government officials.
Yes, the past is always present in Washington.
Strolling or driving around the city by car or bus, one cannot but be refreshed by the knowledge of the capital’s beginning, when George Washington, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant and others in the 1700s knew they were engaged in something monumental when they set out to design the capital. Actually, the US Constitution authorized the establishment of a federal district to be designated the official seat of the American government.
The District of Columbia is the official name of the location of the government of the US.
Historically, the land – containing some 70 sq. mi. – was ceded by the State of Maryland, on the north side of the Potomac River, about 100 miles from the mouth of the river and 40 miles southwest of Baltimore. Georgetown and Anacostia were included in the Maryland grant. Today, the population of Washington – to where Congress moved the capital from Philadelphia in 1800 – is about 680,000.
Soon I’m standing in front of the reflecting pool that mirrors the US Capitol Building and a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. “Superb,” I say to myself as I admire this architectural masterpiece. The most conspicuous object, seen from all parts of the city, is the white dome of the Capitol, crowned by a bronze statue of Freedom. General Grant helped save the Union during the American Civil War. No wonder, presidents Grant and Lincoln stand as bookends on the Mall. Grant is facing Lincoln, but he’s also facing beyond to the house of his old enemy, Robert E. Lee, house atop the hill in Arlington National Cemetery. Grant is positioned at the foot of Capital Hill and defends the building behind him that symbolized the Union.
Standing a mile apart but joined by Pennsylvania Avenue, the Capitol and the White House and together form a barbell, with Pennsylvania Avenue the “backbone.”
Washington is a walking city and I love to walk on the Mall, that large grassy park at the heart of the city. I watch kids playing soccer, families walking together, young men competing in touch football. The Mall is America’s most public space, a vast version of Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park I often return to the Newseum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the memorials and monuments to Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt. And a return visit is always in order to the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.
Begin your journey to the capital on a bus or trolley tour. You’ll get your bearings, find places you might not see on your own and give you a clue as to where you want to spend more time later. Enjoy! Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published “Klara’s Journey, A Novel” (Marion Street Press); “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press); “A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition;” ”A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine;” and “A Travel Guide to Jewish Caribbean and South America” (Pelican Publishing Company). Follow him on Twitter @bengfrank