Make No Little Plans
The First 50 Years of the Federal City Council
Published in 2004
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“Make no little Plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”
–Daniel H. Burnham
Architect of Union Station
Chapter One: Laying the Foundation
n January 27, 1952, readers of The Washington Post opened their morning newspapers to find the first in a series of 18 articles decrying the state of affairs in the Nation’s Capital. The target of the series was not the machinations of Congress or the White House. Nor did the articles take aim at a political scandal or international crisis. At issue was the city itself.
“Shall downtown Washington–the original city laid out by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791–continue its drift into blight, its business importance decreasing, its traffic arteries ever hardening, its slums daily growing?”
The blunt words belonged to reporter Chalmers Roberts, but the moving spirit behind them was Philip L. Graham, the Post’s 37-year old publisher. Graham had become increasingly disturbed by the deterioration of a city whose streets had once been strolled by such giants as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and John Marshall. The series–titled “Progress or Decay? Washington Must Choose!”–was Graham’s wake-up call to his fellow Washingtonians.
The list of ills was long. So-called ‘tempos,’ built during World Wars I and II to provide temporary office space for war workers, lined the Mall, creating an eyesore from any angle. The Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and their waterfronts were little more than a disgrace. Pennsylvania Avenue, the City’s grand boulevard connecting the White House and the U.S. Capitol, had devolved into a stretch of shabby storefronts housing businesses of dubious character.
The problems weren’t merely aesthetic. Race relations were strained. The City’s poorest residents were herded into substandard housing, mainly in the Southwest and the Second Precinct.
In some parts of the City, 45 percent of dwelling units did not have indoor plumbing. The community reported alarmingly high rates of tuberculosis and syphilis.
The economy was also suffering. Downtown was a “complex of choked traffic, inadequate parking, [and] poor public transit.” Department store sales were declining, thanks in part to the “big new suburban rivals” that had opened the previous year. Between 1940 and 1950 the Washington suburbs had grown almost six times faster than the city proper. In 1940, 68.5 percent of Metropolitan Washington’s population lived inside the District; by 1950, that number had dropped to 54.8 percent.
Cars and trucks on District streets numbered approximately 361,000 in May 1941, before the U.S. entered WWII. A decade later, the number had grown by 78 percent to 646,000, just over half bearing license plates from out of state, mostly Maryland and Virginia. In the downtown core alone, a quarter million cars attempted to navigate the crowded streets on an average day. The District’s Motor Vehicle Parking Agency estimated a shortage of 38,000 parking spaces.
Complicating the picture were Byzantine politics. The District’s citizens could not vote. Municipal power was hoarded by Congressional committees whose attitude toward their second home seemed to range from indifference to outright hostility. Any serious construction or maintenance required approval by what one critic called a “political structure straight out of Alice in Wonderland…an all-but-incomprehensible maze of agencies and commissions, each with a small, sharply limited, jealouslyguarded bit of authority–each with the power to say ‘no,’ none with the power to say ‘yes.’” A series of articles in 1952 by Post reporter Chalmers Roberts highlighted many of the problems facing the Nation’s Capital.
In spite of the depth and breadth of the City’s problems, Philip Graham was convinced that matters were far from hopeless. He was confident that “an informed public, aroused by the problem, will join in meeting this civic challenge in order to make Washington a more balanced community in the best democratic tradition.”
But Graham was also savvy enough to know that it would take more than an informed, but disenfranchised, citizenry to bring about change. To his mind, the private sector had a particular responsibility…and unique strength…to bring to bear on community problems.
Graham had in mind a model for success: The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a business organization founded in Pittsburgh in 1943. With financier Richard Mellon as its guiding force, the Conference coordinated planning for the city and region and then mobilized public support for approved projects. Its accomplishments were impressive: redevelopment of the so-called Golden Triangle; implementation of flood control; smoke abatement; improvements in highways, parking and housing. Thanks to the Allegheny Conference’s efforts, more than $1.5 billion had been invested in existing and new industrial plants in the region.
Graham wanted to see similar results in his own city. In the final article of the “Progress and Decay” series, he laid out his plan: “The three essentials for Washington’s fight on downtown blight are leadership, cooperation and legislation….But Washington’s civil government is hydra-headed, involving not only the three appointed city fathers (commissioners) but a myriad of Federal agencies….Some other force is needed. This force is a body of civic leaders, leaders with both a stake in the community as a city and a conscience bothered by its rotting downtown core.”
Having thrown down the gauntlet, Graham took the next logical step: He invited a small group of local businessmen to gather in the boardroom of the Riggs Bank to transform his call for “another force” into reality.
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