As this fascinating graph at peakbagger.com illustrates, Washington begins as a relatively big American city—a crowd of clerks come down from Philadelphia. During the expansionist and war-ridden 19th Century, the period when the capital mattered the most to the fate of the country, it fell into relative burgdom as the demographic center of the U.S. shifted away from the East Coast. In the 20th Century came air conditioning, a depression and government expansion, and two World Wars and a Cold War. From 1970 to 2018, according to Census data, the capital’s population grew by over 130%, a rate more like that of Dallas or Miami than that of the Northeastern cities.
Washington, until just the other day a hamlet where (Gore Vidal) "everybody knew everybody," has, rather suddenly, become just big enough to be unknowable, and therefore unknown. All the more so because so many of the people who do so much of the talking and writing about and on behalf of it have moved from elsewhere. Although the city no one loves and no one quite knows has been written about, to date the work has been done piecemeal, a hundred Mister Magoo's views of the elephant. Odd, that a city that touches the lives of so many people all over the world—a city of analysts and reporters, no less—should have so little idea of itself, and so few epics to go to begin to get one.
All else being equal, the more people a town has, the more readers and writers, the more writer's groups and centers and conferences, the more (for now) book-buyers and libraries and bookstores, and the bigger the so-called literary community. For now, though, none of this growth has yielded much in the way of those big books. Perhaps this is because our most ambitious storytellers, in realism and otherwise, now tend to go into the movies and (lately) TV—where we can find complex pictures of Baltimore, but, as yet, nothing more than the usual Cardboard Capital.
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I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.