Archive for the ‘DC’s Gifts’ Category

Washington, DC’s 3rd Gift to the World – Capital Beltway

Castles had moats. Washington D.C. has the Capital Beltway. Few roads compete with the Beltway for cultural meaning. It figuratively represents American politics and government to the rest of the world. Typically, when someone from outside the region says “inside the Beltway” they are not saying out of admiration for the wonks, politicos, lobbyists, journalists and others that work in the nation’s capital. Inside the region, we think of “inside the Beltway” as a way to distinguish whether one lives in suburban sprawl or denser, old development with more mass transit options. Credit Mike Causey with coming up with the term in The Post in 1969, five years after the highway was completed.

Literally, the Beltway is a interstate highway that circles the District. President Eisenhower wanted a loop around the city for the military to circle around in case of an atomic attack. From a more practical perspective, it was designed to have through traffic bypass the city. It was completed in 1964 and christened I-495. Much of it was two lanes in each direction. By the mid 1970s, the explosive growth along it necessitated widening to four lanes each way throughout, with a few exceptions like the Wilson Bridge. In the 1970s, when I-95 (along with other freeways) was cancelled in the District, the Beltway also officially became the main street of the east coast with I-95 running along the southern and eastern portions. In 1989, the I-495 designation was returned to I-95 portion to reduce motorist confusion.

I suppose the gift of the Beltway to the rest of the world is handy way to refer to the politically powerful, with slang. For Washingtonians, the Beltway doesn’t usually seem like much a gift with the traffic. We can probably find something to appreciate about it, can’t we?

Oh and to those Americans who really dislike the powerful that reside inside I-495, remember that you helped send them here. If you ever voted for Bud Shuster, Jesse Helms, Jim Trafficant and Robert Byrd you lose all right to complain.

Actually, I kind of miss Trafficant.

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Washington, DC’s 4th Gift to the World – Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms Okay, okay, we admit it. It’s time to come clean.

Here in DC, we’re terrible re-gifters. Here we are, claiming the cherry blossom trees along the tidal basin as our gift to the world, when the first 3000 trees were in fact a gift to the city from the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki in 1912 as a way to build friendship between Japan and the United States. Ozaki was a liberal who opposed the rising tide of Japanese militarism, and would be imprisoned during both world wars for his anti-war activities.

In 1965, twenty years after the end of WWII, Japan gave another 3800 trees to the US. In 1981, we gave cuttings back to Japan to replace trees which had been destroyed in a flood.

While the grove along the Tidal Basin is certainly the most famous, and the water and the monuments certainly add to the overall effect of viewing the blossoms, you have plenty of other options if crowds aren’t your thing. Yoshino cherry trees have been planted in smaller groves all over the area- they’re easy to spot because they bloom before almost anything else does. My personal favorite spot for hanami, or blossom viewing, is actually under the tree on the hillside across the street from our house. A blanket, a bottle of wine, and a picnic lunch make sakura season complete.

So, maybe this re-gifting thing isn’t so bad?

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Washington, DC’s 5th Gift to the World–Music (Chuck Brown)

While some may debate the musical classification, influences, and origins of go-go, there is no question that Chuck Brown (1934 – ) was a fundamental force behind its creation. Brown was born in North Carolina, but moved to D.C. with his parents at age seven. He grew up listening to jazz and blues and took up playing the guitar. He began his musical career in the early ’60s, making his on-stage debut with Jerry Butler and the Earls of Rhythm. In "65 he began performing with a Latin-inflected band called Los Latinos, whose syncopated backbeat thrilled him.

Affectionately referred to as the "Godfather of go-go," Brown pioneered a musical blend of Latin beats, African call-and-response chants, rhythm and blues, and jazz whose heavy, complex, and non-stop rhythm arrangements inspired people to get up and get down to a brand new funk:

"I got sick and tired of watching people sitting around. Disco was too fast people didn’t want to get all sweaty, and they just sat down. So we cut the beat in half (and called it Go-go) because it never stops."

Go-go in this case is not the popular music of the 1960s that inspired a dance and fashion craze, but rather a music and social scene deeply rooted in our nation’s capital. Brown exploded onto the scene with his first hit "We the People" followed by the gold album "Bustin’ Loose"
and its number one single of the same name. Building on the international success of his mid-80’s album Go Go Swing, Brown went on several tours around the world to play packed international venues.

Today, the sound of go-go is still heard in clubs and dance halls, as well as on the playgrounds and street corners, of D.C. The music continues to hold a large international following and Brown spends much time touring Europe and Asia. In 2000, go-go music was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Brown was presented with the District of Columbia’s Mayor’s Arts Award for his pioneering contributions to the music of the city. The 2005 opening game for the Washington Nationals baseball team featured Chuck Brown singing "Bustin’ Loose" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. Brown was the recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts that same year.

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Washington, DC’s 5th Gift To The World-Music (Bad Brains)

A tad less refined than Sousa or Ellington, my portion of DC’s 5th Gift to the World is just as influential to its respective audience. I’m here to write about Bad Brains.

Talking about the musical legacy of the Velvet Underground, David Bowie once said that during their original run not many people had heard VU but everyone who did went on to form their own rock-n-roll bands, himself included. The same could be said for DC’s own Bad Brains, the most influential East Coast Hardcore band.

Bad Brains was formed in 1979 by Dr. Know, a former jazz guitarist, who wanted to combine the chaos of live UK Punk shows and the protest song mentality of Reggae lyrics. To do so he recruited three other young, DC-born, african-american musicians – Darryl Aaron Jenifer (bassist), Earl Hudson(drums), and of course the legendary H.R. (vocals).

Taking their musical inspiration from the previously mentioned styles, Bad Brains crafted a hyper-kinetic speed-punk style that no one had ever heard before. Here was a band doing something enitrely new. Bad Brains live shows quickly took Washington by storm and the rest of the East Coast shortly there after. Combining their musical stylings with the Napoleon Hill’s Positive Mental Attitude pseudo-philosophy the Bad Brains were not only spreading a new style of music, but a new way of life. A positive self-reliance that offered some hope in an otherwise nihilistic scene.

In the early 80’s the reputation of Bad Brains spread across the United States. In every community their music reached dozens of Hardcore imitators appeared. The high point of Bad Brains’ hardcore phase was the release of their epic debut album, the ROIR Cassette. Released after 4 years of touring, their self-titled cassette was like a musical hand-grenade, the shrapnel of which lodged into thousands of American punks, creating wounds that would fester until American Hardcore was spreading through Ronald Reagan’s America like gang-green.

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Washington, DC’s 5th Gift to the World-Music (Duke Ellington)

My portion of this 5th Gift to the World is a tribute to the coolest musical Washingtonian ever – Edward Kennedy Ellington, the Duke.

Many people may associate Duke Ellington with New York (thanks in part to the classic “Take the ‘A’ Train”) but his roots were firmly planted in DC, and especially in the U Street neighborhood where he grew up and had his musical start, from his birth here in 1899 to his departure for Harlem in 1923. PBS did a brilliant documentary on “Duke Ellington’s Washington” a while back, and its website also gives an overview of Black Broadway and Shaw. The Howard Theater, the Whitelaw Hotel, True Reformers’ Hall, all are landmarks still visible today that featured prominently in his life. DC’s great Ellington School for the Arts bears his name and the spirit of his legacy proudly, and we now even have a jazz festival in his honor.

Thanks to my jazz-loving father, I was exposed to Ellington’s music as a small child (though as Duke once said naughtily, “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”). I find his brilliance undimmed – jazz with the backbone of classical training, complexity of rhythm, and essence of cool unmatched. I especially love his piano improvisations, but I really can’t pick any favorites. I just know that when I walk down U Street and look up at the mural bearing his image, I think of him decked out in that seriously spiffy tuxedo, smiling at the audience, and saying farewell with, “we love you, madly.” Genius.

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Washington, DC’s 5th Gift to the World–Music (Sousa)

The music of John Philip Sousa (1854 – 1932) is part of our fifth gift to the world. Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. and began his musical studies with the violin at age 6. He had perfect pitch – the ability to identify and produce any musical note by name. At age 13, his father enlisted him as an apprentice in the United States Marine Corps band, where he himself was a trombonist. Sousa completed his apprenticeship over the course of seven years. During this time he is said to have learned to play all the wind instruments and further master the skills of a violinist. After a brief time serving as a conductor for a theatrical orchestra, Sousa returned to the U.S. Marine Band as its head in 1880, and remained as its conductor until 1892. In his spare time, he also led the marching band of Gonzaga College High School.

Known as the "march king," Sousa ranks among the most famous American composers and conductors. After leaving the Marine Band, he formed his own band, whose members were considered the best in the world on their instruments. The band toured Europe several times before becoming the first American musical organization to make a tour around the world.

Sousa also credited with inventing a tuba specifically for marching bands – the aptly named sousaphone. He composed well over a hundred marches in all – plus various other musical works outside the marching genre. In fact, one march The Stars and Stripes Forever, is the official march of the United States of America.

Perhaps that’s why they used to joke "You can’t spell Sousa without USA…"

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Washington, DC’s 6th Gift to the World-Ben’s Chili Bowl

In the spirit of all the holiday gift giving that will be taking place over the next couple of months, all the Metroblogging cities are giving 7 gifts to the world throughout the week of Nov, 26th through Dec, 2nd. This is Washington, DC’s 6th Gift to the World – Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Open through both the 1968 riots and the Green Line expansion through U Street, Ben’s anchored the U Street neighbourhood and is favorite of both daytime construction workers and night-time bar crawlers.

But that’s not why it’s a gift to the world. Ben’s Chili Bowl gave us two amazing gifts. First Bill Cosby took his wife-to-be on dates at Ben’s and without her support, how else could we remember a dentist visit with humor or have amazingly positive black role models on TV?

Next we got half-smokes. Before you get into the whole “what’s a half-smoke?” debate, as they are neither half of anything or smoked, just savory the memory of your first one. Mine was late, way too late, with work looming in the morning. I needed food, I needed sobriety, I needed the bright lights and limitless grease of a Ben’s half-smoke chili dog.

And we all need the calming influence, good food, and great friends found at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m hungry and Ben’s is short bus ride away.

Washington, DC’s 7th Gift to the World—The Metro

In the spirit of all the holiday gift giving that will be taking place over the next couple of months, all the Metroblogging cities are giving 7 gifts to the world throughout the week of Nov, 26th through Dec, 2nd. This is Washington, DC’s 7th Gift to the World—
The Metro.

In the United States, there are four major cities that have subway systems that most of us are at least familiar with, if not ones we have actually ridden on. Prior to WW II, we had the famous “L” in Chicago and the New York Subway. After the war, San Francisco’s BART was built. Europe is home to the famous London Underground and the Paris Metro.

And of course here in Washington, DC we have our own Metro.

Very early plans for a mass transit system began during WW II, but it wasn’t until after President Kennedy’s assassination that serious planning, engineering and design aspects were on the drawing board. In a 1966 letter to the NCTA, President Lyndon Johnson called for “architecturally significant stations.” An early proposal suggested that each one have its own distinctive style, but later it was agreed that every station should be uniform in design.

Groundbreaking took place in 1969, and construction was carried out in phases over the next decade. Extensions and improvements have continued to the present day. The system is laid out like the spokes of a wheel, with Metro Center at the hub. Each route is color coded and include the Red, Orange, Yellow, Green and Blue lines. Although initially not part of the WMATA, a 6th line, the light rail “Purple” line is in design phase and is meant to act as a sort of rim to the wheel—circling the district and connecting many of the endpoints. More on that in a future post.

Although there are occasional problems, overall the Metro is clean, efficient, and inexpensive. I don’t own a car, so I rely on it to get to where I need to go. My one complaint are the stations, I think they need brighter lighting and better signage with more contrast.

The next time you plan to visit our nation’s capitol, remember you can ditch the car and use the Metro to get to all those wonderful museums and other attractions.

Happy holidays!

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