One of the best parts of doing my Masters degree in Museum Studies was getting to intern at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during the summer of 1983. My Aunt Rhoda (my father’s younger sister) graciously let me stay with her at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland (a suburb of DC) for the summer. She was working at the Library of Congress at that time.
During my internship I spent several weeks with the staff of the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibitions and Model Shop. It was located in an old warehouse on North Capital Street just a few blocks from the US Capital Building.
That part of North Capital Street was at that time, pretty run down (30 years later it now appears to be full of high-end condos) and my fellow workers and supervisors considered it unsafe for me to walk the few blocks from work to Union Station in the evening, where I caught the metro train back to Chevy Chase. In fact on the first day of my internship my aunt drove me to work and when she was just a few minutes delayed from picking me up in the evening, my boss wouldn’t let me wait on the street or in the building alone, so he stayed with me until he saw me get into the car and drive off.
I’d grown up visiting New York City as a kid and so I had been exposed to some raw urban stuff, but I was unprepared for the sights of Washington, DC. As my aunt drove me on that first day, we went through areas that had been destroyed during the 1968 riots and that were still looking like some post apocalyptic disaster scene. At one point we were stuck in an awful traffic jam in one of those areas and we sat in the car next to a fenced, weedy lot with giant metal rings in the ground. I asked my aunt what they were and she replied casually that they were nuclear silos armed with warheads. It was the Nation’s capital after all.
After that first drive in, I started to take the Metro to and from work…
It shocked me that the neighborhood around my work address was full of homeless, mentally ill people who desperately needed shelter and care – they’d been recently released from a nearby hospital that had been closed due to lack of funding, and they were left to fend for themselves on the streets. In addition to the homeless, there was just a general atmosphere of anger and violence on the street that was unnerving. That’s why I walked from the station to work every morning as quickly as I could, with my eyes down, not making contact with any one along the route (just like my parents taught me when I was a kid in New York).
One day as I was walking along North Capital Street from Union Station – just about to cross a side street – I heard a terrible sound – a giant, heavy dump truck had just completely driven over a car and crushed it under its front wheels – it happened just seconds before I had to cross that street. In the swampy blistering heat of the early morning I was just stunned and shocked, and ran the rest of the way to work.
It was hot in Washington during the summer. I never saw so many cars on fire as I did there through July and August – with the traffic jams and the heat and high humidity, cars could easily overheat and often caught on fire. It was surreal.
What was more surreal was that just a couple of blocks away from the tough urban streets, you would find yourself in a pristine marble city with beautiful green lawns and gardens – that was Washington in 1983 – a study in contrasts.