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Tuesday, December 29, 2009


For some reason, this is the time of year that I think of Boston, the unofficial capital of America’s northeast New England region. That’s odd in a way, since I’ve never spent the holidays there, and now’s when the gray skies and snow and slush set in for the winter. One memory that I have of Baahston, as the natives call it in their flat New England twang, actually traces to a day in April, when I was astounded to see an awful lot of homes still displaying festive outdoor Christmas lights. I suspect it has something to do with prolonging a little cheer, since snow in April is not unusual at all.

Any time of year, though, Boston oozes history.

If freedom were a concrete thing, something that could be seen and touched, Boston would be the place for the seeing and touching. The Cradle of American Liberty is an endlessly fascinating living-history museum of the 17th and 18th centuries. And it is so much more: a city whose libraries, colleges, medical centers, museums and parks, and architecture compare with the best on the globe.

In my experience, Boston is the nation’s pre-eminent walking city, built to a human scale that, remarkably, has been preserved. So many roads and streets follow the routes of old cow paths — or permit only one-way traffic — that only a longtime Bostonian can decipher where they lead. Locals say that what sometimes seems like their superior Brahmin bearing stems not from their pedigrees or intellectual accomplishments — though the streets are crammed with smart, cultured people — but from the simple fact that they know the shortcuts!

Superhighways skirt the city, save for one that cuts right across renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace” of serene parks and greenswards on its way across the Charles River. Approval of that concrete intrusion into the lovely Back Bay neighborhood, and the decision to raze an entire old community of homes in the West End in the name of urban renewal, are seen as so misguided that historic buildings and green spaces are doubly and triply protected today.

None more so than the 16 sites on the Freedom Trail, a self-guided walking tour of 15 Revolutionary War and other colonial sites conveniently marked with red bricks or a red line down the sidewalk. National Park ranger tours cover six of the locations, including Paul Revere’s house, the Boston Massacre site, and Faneuil Hall.

An interlude to explain each of those:

• On the evening of April 18th, 1775, Boston silversmith Paul Revere caught a rowboat ride across the Charles River. In Charlestown, fellow revolutionaries plotting against British rule had seen a pre-arranged lantern signal — “one if by land, two if by sea” in the bell tower of Christ Church across the river in Boston. “The British were coming! The British were coming!” — by sea. Revere borrowed a horse and galloped to Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn two other men whom we now call patriots — Samuel Adams and John Hancock — that British forces were on their way to arrest them. This adventure was later made famous in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that begins, “Listen my children, and you shall hear/of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and that millions of other kids and I recited in school.

• The Boston Massacre had ignited the colonists’ revolt five years earlier. A brawl between citizens and British soldiers on a March day after a boy had thrown a snowball at a sentry — I told you winter lasts into Spring in Boston — erupted into gunfire in which five colonists died. The first volleys of the American Revolution had been fired.

• Faneuil Hall, now a sort of tourist jumping-off point, is the town market and meeting hall where the flames of revolution were first ignited.

Visitors are wise to bring sturdy shoes to Boston, as there is yet another fascinating walking path to be trod: the Black Heritage Trail on the North Slope of Beacon Hill. Beginning on a short street where African Americans once occupied all of the houses, it passes Boston’s first interracial school, a house that was a stop on southern slaves’ Underground Railroad to freedom during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Open to visitors is the African Meeting House, the oldest black church in the nation that is still standing. The structure, known early in its history as the “Black Faneuil Hall,” served as a church, school, and nexus of the anti-slavery crusade. Abolitionist orators, including a former escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, declaimed from its pulpit.

Ironically, given Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism, the thrall of segregation was once so strong that for the dedication of the African Meeting House in 1854, blacks were forced to sit in the balcony while whites occupied the premium pews below.

The story of Boston as a settled place begins with John Winthrop and his band of about 750 pious Christians called “Puritans,” who sailed in 11 ships from wicked England in 1630, with a charter from King James I in hand, in search of what they called “a city upon a hill.” The charter entitled their “Massachusetts Bay Company,” as it was called, to occupy a sliver of land near the mouth of the Charles River that reached, at least in theory, as far west as land extended.

They had no way of knowing, of course, that the land stretched all across North America to the Pacific Ocean.

Other English religious dissidents called Pilgrims had preceded the Puritans to New England, founding a settlement called Plimouth, south of Boston. Upon landing, Winthrop and his Puritans spread out, forming separate settlements that included Boston, named after a town back in Lincolnshire, England. It was a crude place, built among the marshes in what would one day be called Boston’s North End. So full of swamps and brambles was the neighborhood that Bostonians derisively referred to it as the “Island” of North Boston. Houses were scattered in no apparent order on hillsides and in dales, so that streets — the same streets one struggles to navigate today — wound to and fro in no logical pattern.

The Puritans were a smart bunch. A fellow named Cotton Mather, the son of a pioneer minister, for instance, became an astronomer, botanist, and such an astute student of physics that he would be elected to the British Royal Society clear across the Atlantic.

The Puritans had expected to farm in the New World, but they soon realized that the sea held out their best shot at wealth. By the late 1600s, Boston merchants were sending cod to England, importing manufactured goods, and distilling rum, which they traded for West Indian sugar and slaves. We don’t call entrepreneurship “Yankee ingenuity” for nothing.

(The term “Yankee” has long been around as a sometimes-unflattering name for folks living in the New England states. Specifically, for “Connecticut Yankees,” referring to the state just south of Massachusetts. In 1889, humorist Mark Twain published a novel called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “I’m a Yankee of Yankees — practical, yes,” the leading character, Hank Morgan, described himself, “and nearly barren of sentiment.”)

Somehow the slave trade was reconciled with the Puritans’ holier-than-thou religious beliefs. Until the colony grew too large to be kept under the church’s thumb, dissent from stern Puritan teachings was not tolerated. Free spirits like Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson, who argued for religious tolerance, were banished, as were Quakers and members of other faiths. Williams founded a whole new colony next door, called “Rhode Island,” even though it’s part of a peninsula.

Those who persisted in questioning the church’s teachings, including a woman named Mary Dyer, were hanged.

But eventually the Puritans caved in. Cotton Mather himself opened holy communion — the sacred ceremonial sharing of bread and wine meant to signify the body and blood of Christ — to Baptists and Lutherans. Methodists and Anglicans built their own churches in the North End, and people of many political leanings moved to town.

Few of these people, though, could be characterized as freewheeling or carefree. Early Boston was a prim and proper place, just as it seems to be today. The people aren’t prickly, exactly, but neither do they appear eager to welcome you. The word “starchy” comes to mind when you meet them. Maybe it’s their lofty education level. After all, there are something like 60 highly rated colleges — including Harvard University, the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning — right in Boston and its suburbs.

While some Bostonians prospered in the “triangle trade” of fish, molasses, finished British goods, and slaves, others suffered and chafed under British rule. When George III imposed several new taxes, including the 1765 Stamp Act levy on legal documents, many in town simply refused to pay. A committee of firebrands who called themselves the “Sons of Liberty” — Paul Revere was one — led street protests and a boycott of British goods. King George lifted the Stamp Act but imposed new tariffs on goods like paper and tea. In 1773, Revere and a few dozen other Sons of Liberty, poorly disguised as Indians, took out their wrath against these taxes by dumping a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.

The “Boston Tea Party” only steeled the Crown’s resolve to assert control. Parliament ordered the harbor closed and installed a military governor, Sir Thomas Gage. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, talk of revolution spread. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, authorized the recruitment of a colonial army.

Paul Revere’s ride and guerrilla-style skirmishes followed. In one, at the North Bridge in nearby Concord, the British tasted blood, the deaths of 70 men, and defeat for the first time. The colonists’ victory there would be immortalized as the “shot heard ’round the world,” signaling the start of a full-blown revolution. In the summer of 1775, colonial commander George Washington — later our independent nation’s first president — arrived in Cambridge across the river from Boston. He plotted strategy while the British laid siege to Boston through the bitter winter. Come spring, Washington directed a skillful bombardment of British ships in Boston Harbor, forcing thousands of Redcoat soldiers and their Tory supporters to flee Boston for good.

From that point forward until independence was achieved seven years later, Boston was spared further fighting. Two centuries later a Bostonian would remark to me over coffee that had the British realized what riches the vast continent would later reveal, they might have fought harder and longer, bringing in whatever reinforcements were necessary to hold onto the rebellious colonies.

Imagine it! We’d be bowing and curtsying to Queen Elizabeth whenever she flies across the “pond” to visit us.

After the Revolution, control of Boston fell to a new aristocratic class of merchants and artisans who built mansions on Beacon Hill and striking new public buildings downtown. Charles Bulfinch, for example, created a magnificent new, gilded-dome Massachusetts statehouse before moving to Washington to work on the U.S. Capitol. The members of this new gentry were soon dubbed, derogatorily, “Brahmins” — like the educated elite of British India — as if they were a snooty, contemptible upper class.

As more colleges sprouted, Boston became America’s undisputed intellectual capital and, at least to some in the North, its conscience as well. It was there that the abolitionist and women’s-rights movements first flowered.

Bluebloods would keep political control of the city until 1884, when Hugh O’Brien, the first in a long line of Irish mayors, took office. Poor Irish Catholics had arrived by the tens of thousands in the mid-1800s. Most lived in slums in South Boston and, if they were lucky, found menial jobs as ditchdiggers on canals and railways. At almost every turn, they were greeted with loathing and violence. Signs reading “ONLY PROTESTANTS NEED APPLY” abounded. Mobs attacked Irish settlements and even burned down a convent, and priests were denied permission to enter the city’s charity hospitals to administer last rites to the dying.

For the Irish, neighborhood politics and service as police and firefighters were the only road out of poverty and into power — and they took it with vigor. Who could forget “The Singing Mayor,” John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who would croon “Sweet Adeline” in barbershop-quartet performances? Or the “Mayor of the Poor,” James “Boss” Curley, Boston’s four-time leader who once ran for city council from his jail cell — and won. He also won a mayoral race while serving as a U.S. congressman, and kept both jobs! Free on bail after a conviction for mail fraud, Curley hurried home on the train from Washington in order to organize his own mayoral victory parade.

A departure from the ward-heeling, cigar-chomping Irish “pol” was millionaire Boston businessman Joseph P. Kennedy. ”Honey Fitz’s” son-in-law, he made some of his millions running illegal whiskey during Prohibition in the 1930s, when sales of booze were, wink-wink, illegal. Kennedy’s second son, John, later to become the nation’s youngest president, was the first of a long line of idealistic but shrewd Kennedy politicians, serving to this day, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946.

As Boston politics evolved, so did its landscape. An estuary known as the “Muddy River,” off Boston’s Back Bay, was an open sewer for 150 years. But it and its surrounding fens (from which Boston’s iconic baseball stadium, Fenway Park, gets its name) changed for the better once landscape architect Olmsted moved his offices from New York to a Boston suburb in 1883. Appointed Boston’s park commissioner, he wasted little time reshaping the city’s topography to solve drainage problems and create “public pleasure gardens.” His resulting “Emerald Necklace” would include three delightful parks, including the pentagonal Boston Common — now America’s oldest public park — on a spot where sheep and cows once drank from a frog pond and British and colonial soldiers both trained.

Indeed, Boston is America’s city of firsts. It was the nation’s first commercial center, first significant port, the seed ground of the Revolution. It was the first center of learning, the first place where immigrants in large numbers debarked.

Why, then, did New York and Philadelphia, and, later, upstart inland cities like Chicago, become megalopolises, and not Boston?

Unfavorable geography in the form of those fens hemmed the city in. Boston’s distance from the heartland discouraged the development of good roads. Though it quickly became the hub of all of New England, and even though it built its airport practically downtown, Boston never had the land to create a giant air hub.

And did I mention the bleak winters?

But the answer also lies in the Boston mindset, its love of things old and tested, and its suspicion of too much change. Boston relishes its role as the trustee of a good portion of America’s colonial heritage, and it approaches modernity with caution. Even visitors take comfort in knowing that they can leave Boston, perhaps for 20 years, and return to find most of the places they love still intact.

Boston remains difficult to reach and tricky to get around in, and the natives seem to prefer it that way. It’s part of Bostonians’ character, almost as if they are saying that it does a person good to feel a little discomfort. Don’t let a little thing like a traffic jam or a blizzard slow you down. Lace up your boots and get on with it. April’s theater, ballet, and festival season will be here soon enough.

There’s an ironic twist, though. At the same time that Boston remains enraptured by its past, it has also been the center of remarkable intellectual innovation, owning in no small measure to those 60 exceptional colleges. Computer and biomedical miracles begin here, and Boston is one of the nation’s three top venture-capital cities.

The vagaries of innovation produced boom-and-bust cycles, however, leading to a gradual loss of population. The 1950 federal census counted more then 800,000 people inside city limits. In 1990, the count was down to 575,000. And it’s within a few hundred people, one way or the other, of that figure right now.

Other reasons for the decline? Winter. Winter. Winter.

Yet Boston has managed to get wealthier as newcomers of means — and graduates of those acclaimed colleges — moved into and refurbished whole neighborhoods.

Boston’s cuisine has never been much to write home about, unless home is somewhere else in New England. Scrod — a fish so mysterious that you’re served cod one time, haddock or some other species the next — is big. So is New England clam chowder, distinguishable from other varieties by its thick broth made with cream.

And then there are Boston’s famous beans. In 1883, Boston’s young baseball franchise, the Red Stockings, changed its name to avoid confusion with a Cincinnati squad of the same name. Boston’s team became the “Beaneaters.” And there are still “Beanpot Classic” sporting tournaments. But one is hard-pressed to find a bowl of dark, slow-baked, steeped-in-molasses beans in Boston any more.

Thanks in no small measure to the “Cheers” television show, which played for 11 top-rated seasons into the 2000s, Beacon Hill, where the real Cheers tavern still draws tourists, is Boston’s best-known neighborhood. Its well-kept buildings and impeccably presented residents — with their faintly British accents, gray and tweed suits, and red-silk ties and ascots — are stereotypical of the Hill’s Brahmin past. Less well known are the warrens of students and young working people on Beacon Hill who can afford the rent and dig the vibrant nightlife on Charles, the Hill’s one commercial street.

Photographers like Carol, searching for a neatly packaged skyline shot of the city, will be frustrated. Boston’s tall buildings — including designer I.M. Pei’s shimmering John Hancock glass-front tower, New England’s tallest building — pop up in widely separated clumps. So shutterbugs often settle for a lovely shot of a few skyscrapers in the distance, behind an inviting armada of sailboats zipping to and fro along the Charles.

Years ago when I briefly lived in Los Angeles on the West Coast, I was struck by how many people yammered on and on about their various avocations — hiking on Big Bear Mountain, skateboarding in Santa Monica, scuba-diving near Catalina Island — rather than their jobs.

Bostonians are a bit like that. Many of them either have a place on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket, or visit friends there as often as they can. Cape Cod is a scorpion-shaped peninsula of Massachusetts, whose ring of dunes and beaches is unmatched in New England. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are islands lying south of Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound. More upscale than the Cape, both are full of heaths, cliffs, biking and hiking trails, saltbox houses, and a precious commodity in this day and age: peace and quiet. Nantucket, in particular, is a town in the midst of the sea, full of cobbled lanes and byways, open moors, and delightful shops that milk visitors’ fascination with the days when the place was a thriving whaling port.

In any season in Boston, the baseball Red Sox and local politics are likely to dominate a conversation over coffee or lunch. Then, to prove that this is indeed America’s walking city, Bostonians are liable to finish their coffee and cranberry muffins on a long stroll through the Common or the Public Garden, as if they were discovering them for the first time.

Not so often in the winter, however.



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!) 

Fen. A swampy bog or marsh. 

Saltbox. A common style of home in New England, often marked by a flat front façade and an uneven arrangement of stories to the rear. 

Tory. Tories were American colonists who supported the British side during the American Revolution. The name is taken from a British political party that was an opposition party to the Whigs. 

Ward Heeler. A “machine” politician, part of a clique that controls a city or party for its own ends as much as to serve the public. The “heeler” part of the term refers to the legwork that menial party members are ordered to perform around town. 

Yammer. To cry loudly, in the manner of a howling wolf or an incessantly barking dog.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sex Scandal!!

Sorry, there is no juicy sex scandal that I know enough about to describe. But in these harried, information-overload times when Americans are gravitating to short, sensationalist stories, partisan rants, and celebrity gossip, I had to get your attention.

Shocking J.Lo News!

Don’t have that, either. Instead, I want to bring you up to date on the sickly state of American journalism, which appears to be in irreversible decline. Above a recent eulogy for the profession by columnist Michael Gerson, the Washington Post called it “Journalism’s slow, sad death.”

Come on, I can do better than that.

“Journalism is Toast!”

“Newsroom Carnage!”

“Readers Dump J.Lism for Infotainment!”

In his mournful dirge for the “Fourth Estate,” Gerson likens Washington’s journalism museum, the Newseum, to a mausoleum housing “the artifacts of a declining industry.” They include the final front pages of newspapers around the country that gave up trying to compete with showbiz mags and blogs; “citizen journalists’” raw footage from disasters and crime scenes; online videos of cute kittens and stumble-down drunks; unreal reality-TV shows; spittle-spewing talk hosts who think President Obama is a native of Kenya; and hosts of the opposite political persuasion who mock the hairspray and spray-on tans of certain Republican congressional leaders.

Gerson even dredged up a phrase that hasn’t seen sunlight since my college textbooks were published half a century ago. The “journalistic tradition of nonpartisan objectivity,” he calls it. Way back when, we debated whether journalists could stifle their inner biases and report “just the facts” of what they saw or uncovered. Nowadays, a whole lot of people who call themselves journalists don’t even try.

If you like your “news” drenched in conservatism, your view of the world from the United States would be filtered through Fox News Channel’s ranter and weeper Glenn Beck, Time magazine’s September 28 cover boy. He despises “tax and spend” Democrats, just about all forms of government, and, apparently, President Obama, whom he calls a “racist.” Or if you’re firmly camped where liberal fires burn, you can’t wait to watch MSNBC host Keith Olbermann toast his Fox competitor, Bill O’Reilly, as his “the Worst Person in the World” every couple of days.

Sometimes Washington’s all-“news” radio station — you’ll soon see why I keep putting the word “news” in quotation marks — breaks in with an urgent-sounding update from CBS — the network that once brought us such straight-arrow journalistic lions as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

When the update “sounder” played the other day, I expected to hear the latest developments from the search for a Washington state gunman who had walked into a diner and executed four local police officers who were completing paperwork over their morning coffee.

Had he been identified? Caught? Shot?

Or perhaps what we once called a “bulletin” would reveal details of President Obama’s troop buildup in Afghanistan.

Nope. CBS was almost breathlessly breaking in to tell us that golf star Tiger Woods did not meet with Florida Highway Patrol officers, despite promises to do so, two days after crashing his luxury automobile into a hydrant and a tree outside his villa.

Oh, the humanity!

Then it was back to the station’s regularly scheduled programming, including “Knuckleheads in the News” (dimwits and drunks who get into predicaments) and 18 minutes or more of commercials every hour.

You see, current wisdom — an oxymoron — holds that information consumers have the attention span of (supply your favorite cliché:) a fruit fly, a gnat, a goldfish, a squirrel, a three-year-old, Paris Hilton.

Gotcha with another celebrity mention!

So my forthcoming list of developments, quotes, and observations about what everyone seems to agree is the moribund world of journalism had better be pretty snappy. That’s a challenge, up against blogs about the mother of octuplets, the season premiere of “The Bad Girls Club” on cable, and that “Hot Celebrity Daddies” Web site.

But stick with me. Toward the end, I’ll reveal seven makeup tricks of the world’s top supermodels!

No I won’t, but if I knew them, I’d figure a way, just to keep the numbers churning, whatever that means.

So here are palatable bites about journalism while it still has a pulse. Regrettably, they do not include secrets of Freemasonry never before revealed! I’m working on that, too.

• The Washington Post, long admired as a newspaper of national scope that carries stories from all over and staffs its own bureaus in big media centers, just announced that it is closing its last three domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. "The fact is we can effectively cover the rest of the country from Washington," the Post quoted its executive editor, Marcus Brauchli.

Sure it can.

• Just about every day, there’s a story like the one from December 2, when the Gannett Corporation — already tightfisted — announced it was cutting 26 more newsroom jobs at its flagship USA Today newspaper and 11 at USA Weekend. The double whammy of limpid advertising revenue and reduced travel by Americans had already bumped USA Today from its top perch in U.S. newspaper circulation. (The paper counts on a ton of readers at the nation’s motels, many of which pass it out gratis each weekday.)

And a day later, the Washington Times, a feisty, conservative daily with a superb sports section, announced it would soon slash 40 percent — 40 percent — of its workforce and concentrate on politics, national news, and “new-media platforms,” including its online talk show. Acting publisher Jonathan Slavin said the Times would be switching from a paid subscription and newsstand product to a free giveaway, distributed to and near the offices of “Washington policy and opinion makers.” All this, he said, to “keep pace with the dynamic economic changes of the news business.”

Right. Dynamic. Tell that to the dozens of sports, business, circulation, and other staff members soon to join the legions of journalism’s unemployed.

• Several dailies, such as the Detroit News in Michigan and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in West Virginia, have eliminated or drastically downsized their state capital bureaus. Even the Columbus Dispatch has slashed its statehouse coverage, and it’s published a couple of blocks away in Ohio’s capital city!

• And if you think things are dire in the newspaper world, you should hang out in the offices of American news magazines. Once fat with ads and loaded with in-depth reflections on events of the week, they are now no thicker, some weeks, than a pamphlet and have taken to chasing the same infotainment gossip as do the grocery-store tabloids. U.S. News & World Report doesn’t even offer print editions any more, save for monthly rankings of colleges, cars and the like. Newsweek dumped general coverage in favor, mostly, of think pieces by elite commentators.

As for the granddaddy of news mags, it was a 60-page-or-so Time issue a couple of weeks ago to which I was referring with the pamphlet analogy.

Here’s one reason it got that way: when last reported, ad revenue at Time Inc.’s publishing division, which prints stalwarts such as People and Sports Illustrated as well as Time, was down 30 percent compared with the same period last year.

• Talk about dinosaurs! Consider local radio news. Two decades ago, I directed a 24-person radio operation here in Washington — and it wasn’t even an all-news station. Today, in the era of gluttonous ownership conglomeration — one company, Clear Channel, Inc., alone owns 900 U.S. stations, including seven in Washington — today’s typical radio “newsroom,” if you can call it that, often consists of two people at a central “news service,” feeding three or more stations. Or a “morning zoo” co-host, yukking it up about the First Lady’s slacks or some burglar stuck in a chimney.

• Until recently when stories about painful newsroom cutbacks came along, though, there was always a comforting balm: papers and stations could still count on coverage from the Associated Press, the cooperative news agency that kept trained reporters on staff or on call in every decent-sized town. Then, a month or so ago, came word that the AP was cutting 10 percent — 300 journalists — from its workforce.

It, too, had little choice. The Associated Press makes its money from fees collected from client newspapers and stations, which are fast losing the ability to pay them.

• Ad revenue for network and local television is also slowly slip-sliding away — much of it to cable, whose top three “news” channels are enjoying lusty profits and viewership gains. No wonder. As Michael Gerson points out, cable “news” outlets “have forsaken objectivity entirely and produce little actual news, since makeup for [talk-show] guests is cheaper than reporting.”

He also reiterates something that I’ve pounded here many times:

As people’s lives get more frantic and the media pie fragments into thousands of narrow slices, news consumers turn to stations, networks, papers, and Web sites that comport with their political preferences. Some folks are “customizing” Web pages, making sure that everything that hits their eyeballs matches their favorite subjects and political preferences.

That’s like working in an ice-cream shop, where you can pile cones high with your favorite flavors and eat to your stomach’s content. It’s yummy, if not so nutritious.

But ice-cream scoopers soon crave some substance: a crunchy carrot, maybe, or chicken soup. Unfortunately, Americans who read and listen only to what they agree with show no signs of tiring of this fare. As Louis Menand wrote in the November 2 New Yorker magazine’sTalk of the Town,” “The market for news is narrowing down to those who need an ideological fix” in a media spectrum in which “bias is increasingly taken for granted.”

I, on the other hand, have always delighted in picking up the paper and reading the unexpected — carefully vetted and artfully written stories about all sorts of things I didn’t even know were happening — rather than searching out, over and over again, viewpoints that I already share.

And I’m hardly the first to worry that selective media surfing has fed the nation’s growing incivility. As legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes in his newest book on information in a democracy, the Internet “is serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another.” Americans are increasingly getting their information, Sunstein notes, “in a customized form, by subscribing to e-mails and RSS feeds on their favorite topics and skipping subjects they find less congenial.”

RSS stands for “really simple syndication,” which in and of itself has a worrisome ring to it.

Michael Jackson! Rihanna! Johnny Depp!

Just perking you up.

• Newspapers were late to the Web party, assigning many talented writers and creative graphic designers to mount online pages so that the papers could “rebrand” themselves in the online world. But when they tried to charge readers for this content, few people paid. All the while, to publishers’ everlasting alarm, advertisers and subscribers deserted newsprint editions in droves.

• Read this, too, traditional journalists, and weep: The person who, three years running, has ranked as young people’s No. 1 source for news is Jon Stewart. He is a comedian with not a whit of journalistic training. Stewart has been a French horn player, a busboy, a bartender, a puppeteer, and a stand-up comic. While his show, on cable’s Comedy Channel, features on-site reports from news hot spots, both the backdrops and the “reporters” are phony, part of the shtick, a few meters away on the same set.

Makes me wonder, to present a parallel, what I’d be doing today if I had learned about the events of my youth from the TV marionette Howdy Doody.

From this point forward, I am indebted to the legwork of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Each March, it publishes an exhaustive “State of the News Media.” This year’s was gloomy enough. Media moguls must be quaking at what lies ahead in next year’s report.

Just some of the grief for the news biz:

• Publishers whose print products are hemorrhaging readers and ad dollars have yet to figure out an online business model that works. Their print-trained reporting and production staffs aren’t hip to embedding attractive video components into their Web sites, which their sales forces don’t know how to sell anyway.

• Already nervous about their own fate — with good reason — journalists are troubled by the careless reporting and loosening of standards in the world of “new media.” Seasoned print and broadcast editors were once proud “gatekeepers” of timely information. While this turned some of them haughty and indifferent to stories of interest to young people and ethnic communities, it comforted readers, viewers, and listeners that somebody, somewhere was asking questions and checking facts.

Now, as one content manager told the Pew Project, news consumers must judge the veracity of reports for themselves, allowing for “all sorts of unfiltered, untrained, and unethical yahoos to donate public comments.”

That is a bit harsh, but, as the Pew Project concluded, “power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions. By “individual journalists,” it refers to not just free-lance writers and expert commentators, but also a stampede of bloggers, photographers, neighbors with cameras and palmcorders — competing for face time with singing hopefuls, reality-show aspirants, and owners of performing pets hoping their acts “go viral” on TV or social media Web sites.

They aren’t all “yahoos,” but neither are most of them trained to impartially collect and present the day’s news.

• Journalistic outlets aren’t swarming over big news events or producing in-depth analyses the way they once did. This is not just a factor of dwindling money and scarce bodies. There’s simply a shortage of time in city rooms where scribes have been given the added task of writing blogs and appearing on television, and in TV newsrooms where reporters have been ordered to carry their own cameras and sound equipment to save the stations bucks.

So what’s to rescue real journalism? You’re asking me, in the midst of a global recession when thousands of publishers and editors can’t stanch the bleeding?

They are still talking about creating new revenue streams by charging for their exclusive Web content. The world’s most famous publisher — and Forbes magazine’s 37th-richest American, Rupert Murdoch — whose News Corp. owns the Wall Street Journal financial paper and the New York Post tabloid, recently called the online search engine Google a “parasite” committing “kleptomania” for giving readers free access to News Corp. papers’ online content.

Google replied that it would come up with a way to tighten its “checkout” feature to allow publishers to charge a few pennies to a few dollars for stories. And on December 2, Google announced that it would cap the number of free news articles accessible to any reader in one day at five.

Another salvation scenario envisions a takeover of traditional news outlets by nonprofit corporations. Various new partnership arrangements, such as the sharing of news footage by local TV competitors, and the alliance of some networks with search engines like Yahoo, are also in place. But even a nonprofit needs advertising revenue to keep the presses rolling, switch on cameras and mikes, and pay the men and women who gather and report the news. Who says a nonprofit or a newly formed partnership will be any better at finding revenue sources than today’s media barons?

I hope there will always be a place for thoroughly reported news and thoughtful analysis, untainted by political cant. But after listening to the “Mike and Mike” radio show on the ESPN sports network this morning, I’m thinking the struggle against the forces of spin, gossip, and cheesy pictures may already be lost.

Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic were discussing the explosion of voyeuristic fascination with Tiger Woods’s early-morning accident, which leering scandal sheets insisted was precipitated by emotional fallout from Woods’s admitted marital “transgressions.”

Greenberg recalled a similar, hang-on-every-word buzz over another megastar, O. J. Simpson, during the long trial in 1995 in which he was charged with killing his wife and her friend. The frenzy would be compounded when a Los Angeles jury acquitted the actor and former pro-football hero. Some people inundated talk shows with complaints that “everything is O.J. this, O.J. that.” What about serious matters such as the war in Bosnia?

“I guarantee you,” Greenberg asserted, that “if there were only two media outlets back then, one covering nothing but O.J. and the other nothing but Bosnia, 99 per cent of the audience would have tuned to the O.J. station. The bottom line is that journalism is a business” that gives people what they want rather than what they need to know.

And so it is to this day — only more so, given the welter of “old” and “new” media outlets alike that are spewing chit-chat, hearsay, and tittle-tattle.

So tell me: Do I need to dig up salacious details about the love child of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for you to read my next post?

[Editor’s Note: Don’t answer that! 



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Fourth Estate. The press. Britons of the 17th century referred to three “estates of the realm”: Lords Spirtual, Lords Temporal, and the Commons. Pointing to the press gallery in the House of Commons, the effusive Whig orator Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all.”

Kleptomania. From the Greek, meaning an impulse to steal. The word is often applied to shoplifters who seem driven to lift items, even without an economic motive.

Oxymoron. Contradictory terms side by side. “Deafening silence,” for instance, makes no sense. How can silence be deafening?

Shtick. A comic performance or routine; sometimes called a “bit.”

Straight-arrow. Straightforward and honest; morally upright — traits of a “straight shooter.”

Tightfisted. Frugal or cheap — holding fast to a dollar.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

America’s Main Street

In February, with the nation in the throes of a deep recession, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It provided for $787 billion in one-time-only federal “stimulus” payments to states, cities, and private employers to spend on reinforcing bridges, modernizing schools, and the like.

Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty recently announced that his city will spend $30 million of the $123.5 million it received to, as he put it, help make Pennsylvania Avenue a “great street.”

That caught my eye, since I thought Pennsylvania Avenue already was more than a great street — a thoroughfare so majestic that people call it “America’s Main Street.” People the world over certainly know who lives in the big white house in the 1600 block.

But not ALL of Pennsylvania Avenue is grandiose. The part that knifes northwestward beyond the White House, ending abruptly at a downtown cross street, is filled with attractive but undistinguished office buildings, restaurants, and traffic circles. And another extension — eight kilometers [five miles] long — shoots southeastward from the Capitol, across a polluted tributary of the Potomac River and into the heart of Anacostia, Washington’s poorest neighborhood, adjoining the Maryland state line.

This stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue is no Main Street. Past clumps of humble houses, cluttered convenience shops, payday-cash-advance stores, and streetcorner churches, the avenue widens into four lanes here and becomes little more than a drab commuter funnel into and out of town.

It is here that Mayor Fenty intends to spend the $30 million on new medians and curbs, improved traffic signals, and “rain gardens” — plantings in depressions along the street designed to absorb storm-water runoff. The project “is strongly focused on reestablishing historic neighborhoods,” Fenty told the Washington Post, “and will create a unifying place where [residents] can come together to shop, visit, play, learn and live without being separated any longer by extreme traffic conditions.”

Whether this will be enough to turn this overlooked stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue into a “great street” remains to be seen.

That’s just about everything I know about Pennsylvania Avenue outside the ceremonial corridor. But over many years in Washington, I’ve learned a lot about the central core, which once was also a grungy, dog-eared piece of road that bore no resemblance to the American Champs-Élysées that it would become.

All nations have a place for common celebration and public sorrow. America’s is a broad, shimmering boulevard that has become symbolic of the American democracy. “The Avenue,” as this 1.6-km [one-mile] corridor is known, has been shaped by a couple of centuries of flooding and hooraying and weeping and any number of facelifts. Here, presidents and bookmakers, northern Yankees off to fight southern rebels and soldiers home from foreign fronts, slaves in chains and women’s suffragists on prairie wagons, racist klansmen and civil-rights leaders have all passed in life — and more than a few in death.

The Avenue has been a hallowed place and a shabby disgrace. It’s been pondered and poked fun at, sketched and reconfigured, torn up and torn down more often, from what I can tell, than any other street in the land. Over the years here, we’ve bought the freshest fish, drunk the cheapest booze, caught the quickest cab, and followed teams of “hill horses” pulling passengers along the Avenue and up 15th Street on the longest streetcar ride in town. We’ve changed presidents on the Avenue, collected great art, tattooed love to Mom and other women, driven sleighs, and built our own Great Wall of enormous, neoclassical federal buildings.

On the Avenue we’ve cheered heroes like aviator Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh and chased villains like John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. Listened to the Boss here, too. Not the musical Springsteen, but the charismatic reformer Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the governor when Washington was run solely by Congress as a federal territory in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

Even at its tackiest, Pennsylvania Avenue has always been a place to be and be seen, though President Gerald R. Ford once joked that when Richard Nixon resigned and he got the job in 1974, he had to move into “public housing on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

One hot, sleepless summer night in August 1963 at the Willard, the “Hotel of Presidents” on Pennsylvania Avenue at 14th Street, where the FBI had wiretapped his room, Martin Luther King Jr. put the final touches on his speech to cap off the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The added language began, “I have a dream.” Twenty-five years later, a new city common built at a wide spot of the Avenue was named Freedom Plaza in King’s honor.

Beloved humorist Mark Twain wrote in the Willard, too. So did Julia Ward Howe, who penned the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861 after watching Union troops drill during the U.S. Civil War. President Ulysses S. Grant regularly met with federal job seekers in the hotel’s lobby, inspiring a new word, “lobbying,” that has become synonymous with federal supplications and influence-peddling.

First Wife Lady Bird Johnson put in several appearances on the Avenue in the 1960s, contributing flowers for planting and fussing over tulips already in place. At one celebration, she was greeted with huge placards reading, “I like Linden.” A punning play on her husband, Lyndon’s, name, the signs were touting the fragrant new linden trees that Lady Bird had provided.

Three decades later, following the latest in a long line of wholesale makeovers, this central stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue finally achieved the full measure of dignity and charm originally envisioned for it — two centuries earlier (1791). The city’s temperamental planner, Frenchman Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, plotted axials and vistas in the briar patches and alder bushes below Jenkins’ Hill — which would become Capitol Hill after he sited the “Congress House” there. L’Enfant was confident that his design would impart an elegant and fitting symmetry to the new capital city.

L’Enfant drew Pennsylvania Avenue as a straight shot from Jenkins’ Hill northwestward to what he called the “President’s House.” It remained a clear connection until the 1830s when, according to legend, President Andrew Jackson threw a fit at Congress and ordered the Treasury Building — a mammoth rockpile of a structure — plopped just to the east of the White House, blocking the sight line to the Capitol. The true story is that Congress put the Treasury there just to save a few bucks, since the site was already government land.

So much for L’Enfant’s wistful vista. Today instead, we have a sort of National Dogleg in which traffic and pedestrians must detour three blocks to the north up 15th Street before reconnecting with Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House.

Let’s start at Treasury and take a virtual stroll down the Avenue, weaving between yesterdays and today as we go. The block numbers that I’ll reference coincide with cross streets. Thus, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest sits at the corner of 11th Street, and so forth.

Before we head off, a brief explanation of that “Northwest” designation: It refers to one of four quadrants into which the nation’s capital was divided when the city was laid out in the late 1700s. Back then it was a whole lot bigger — a diamond-shaped federal district straddling the Potomac River and carved into four sections on a map. For it, the federal government had claimed land from Maryland, including what is now the fashionable Georgetown neighborhood, as well as taking most of Alexandria and Arlington across the river in Virginia. The Virginia piece proved so tangential to the business of national governance that Congress gave it back it in 1846. As a result, the city is left with all of its original Northwest and Northeast territory, and far smaller Southwest and Southeast quarters. The core of the Avenue that we’re about to explore lies entirely in the Northwest quadrant.

In the 1400 block — literally right in the middle of the broad boulevard — lies Pershing Park, a verdant green space in which landscape architects managed to hide a water cascade, a skating rink, and what looks like a historic stone vault but is actually rather new. It holds the rink’s ice-making Zamboni machine.

Across the street stands the massive Department of Commerce Building — noteworthy because it was the first structure completed in the sweeping, Depression-era Federal Triangle project of the 1930s that obliterated blighted, dangerous neighborhoods. How dangerous? One block, just off the Avenue on 7th Street, was known as “Murder Bay”!

From the air, you can see where the Federal Triangle gets its name.  Its parade of behemoth buildings marches up Pennsylvania Avenue, south on 15th Street to Constitution Avenue, then back eastward to the point that it intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue again at 6th Street. This triangle of stone effectively walled off the commercial heart of the city — Pennsylvania Avenue — from the National Mall and wretched Southwest neighborhoods below.

In the 1300 block, there’s another huge interruption. Not a park this time, but the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza. Everything from demonstrations to chili cook-offs assembles there. It’s a wide spot in the road, and it would have been wider had President Nixon had his way. He envisioned a parade ground of Moscow-like proportions that his minions called “National Square.” Critics called it “Nixon’s Red Square,” fought the planned demolition of venerable structures such as the National Press Building, and mocked it as a wasteland so vast that visitors would have to crawl across it, crying “Water, water” in Washington’s broiling summertime. Washington Star columnist Don McLean suggested that the Treasury Building be torn down instead, thus restoring the Avenue’s White House view.

When Nixon left office, the National Square scheme faded away and died.

The 1100 block is dominated by the 1899-vintage Old Post Office Building, a Romanesque hulk that critics called a “cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill.” The Avenue’s “old tooth” and its 96-meter [315-foot] bell tower were marked for demolition to make way for another Federal Triangle building, but it survived when the government ran out of construction funds.

Pausing again on the tour — you can stop and rest your feet for awhile — have I told you the story about Carol, the Old Post Office, and Santa Claus?

When Carol worked in radio sales, she roped a friend who looked like Santa into posing for her professional Christmas card at one or another Washington landmark. This was always weeks or months in advance of the holiday, and one August day she decided it would be neat to plant her bearded pal, in full costume and waving, in a window of the Old Post Office tower.

Up he went as Carol positioned her camera on the street below.

Minute after minute passed with no sign of Santa, when Carol noticed an unusual bustling, heard sirens, and beheld a helicopter circling the tower above. “What’s going on?” she asked a sweaty patrolman.

He replied, “Some nut job in a Santa suit is up there, about to jump out of the tower.”

OK, up and at ‘em. Off we go!

The north side of the Avenue’s 900 block is entirely consumed by the F.B.I. headquarters building, named for the bureau’s long-serving, dictatorial director, J. Edgar Hoover. This colossus, too, drew the enmity of critics. “A monstrosity,” said one. “A monument to Big Ego” — Hoover’s — wrote another. But his elephantine building could not be derailed. Shops originally planned for its streetscapes were nixed by the security-obsessed agency, and the building looms, a bleak and impregnable fortress, to this day. A popular tour of the FBI’s renowned crime lab and “G-man” artifacts — tommy guns and like — disappeared, too, in the skittish days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the nation.

There’s not much in the 800 and 700 blocks, site of the ornate National Archives Building and the moving U.S. Navy Memorial, left to suggest the days when a teeming marketplace stretched the length of those blocks. Center Market, it was called. It included a long, brick indoor pavilion that brought people into town, via horsecart and streetcar, by the thousands. Across the street to the north was a mercantile row, Market Square, where dry-goods dealers, glassworks, tanners, and even two woolen mills took root. So, too, did some of the city’s first black-owned hotels, shops, and restaurants, including a place called Beverly Snow’s Epicurean Eating House. Wagon trains clogged the Avenue, fistfights abounded, and, wrote historian Richard Lee, “a growing number of embalming establishments appeared near the Market. Stacks of wooden coffins, upended on the sidewalk, announced their presence.”

Running behind Center Market, along what is now the dignified Constitution Avenue, was the foul City Canal, which residents called the “B Street Main.” It was Washington’s open sewer of choice. Market butchers routinely dumped poultry innards, rotted fish, and animal carcasses straight into the canal. A successor to a trickle of a waterway called Tiber Creek, which originated on what is now Capitol Hill and meandered torpidly to the Potomac, the canal was, according to Frederick Gutheim in his Washington study Worthy of the Nation, the source of “agues and bilious fevers causing a high death rate.” Even presidents fled its “smells and malarial mosquitos,” he added. “An indescribable cesspool,” someone else called it.

Those who excavated the area in preparation for the Federal Triangle had to sink pilings well below the vestiges of this creek-turned-sewer, and it’s said that one can still open a trap door beneath, say, the Justice Department Building and find running water.

Promenaders on Pennsylvania Avenue also once saw human commodities — gangs of shackled slaves being led to auction. Guests at Avenue hotels were invited to keep their human chattel chained in the basement while they slept or dined or moved about the city. This was in the early 19th century, when Pennsylvania Avenue also got the city’s first water main, gas lamps, house numbers, streetcars, and smallpox epidemic.

Down a block or two, only a sliver of the esteemed, neoclassical National Gallery of Art — but an entire façade of its modernist East Building — face the Avenue. The Gallery — a gift to the nation from wealthy art patron and former treasury secretary Andrew Mellon — replaced the old headquarters building of the American Colonization Society, which helped freed blacks reach what was trumpeted as an African workers’ paradise in Liberia. Gone, in order to build the East Building, are a long-standing tennis court and 120 climbing rose bushes planted as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification blitz.

The blocks closest to the Capitol, once a cluster of raucous boardinghouses and cheap souvenir shops, have been denuded of structures, save for the Capitol Reflecting Pool, opened in 1971, and a somber Peace Monument, installed in 1877 as an ode to navy dead of the Civil War.

There have been countless other noteworthy events and special places — gone and still to be seen — along what planner L’Enfant called the “Grand Avenue.” A few:
    • So turbulent was springtime flooding that President Thomas Jefferson once joined a crowd trying to save three men swept up in the current and clinging to sycamore branches. Then came ankle-high dust. “The slop on the Avenue dries in an hour,” New York Herald reporter George B. Wallis once wrote in a poem.
    Invisibly drying, but drying so soon,
    The mud before breakfast is dust before noon.

    • In 1873, the Baltimore & Potomac, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built a gingerbread-looking passenger terminal right on the Avenue, next to Center Market. It grew notorious for two reasons: Grimy tracks, sheds, and coal yards ran up to it from the south, right across what were then the Victorian gardens and footpaths of the National Mall. And in 1881, President James Garfield, waiting for a train to take him on a seaside break to New Jersey, would be mortally wounded by a disappointed and deranged office seeker in the B&P station’s waiting room.
    • Just how bedraggled did the Avenue become from time to time? “Pennsylvania Avenue is not the oldest street in the world,” the Washington Post wrote in 1911. “It merely looks so.” The paper noted that “one may sit down at Shoomaker’s [saloon], but one would rather not. Those who are on their feet when the building falls down will have a much greater chance of getting out.” And if the Murder Bay name did not tell enough of a tale, consider that the neighborhood next door was known as “Hooker’s Division,” only partly because Union General Joseph Hooker had marched his troops on the Avenue up the way.
    Pennsylvania Avenue did achieve Pierre L’Enfant’s dream as the nation’s premier promenading route, and not just on presidential Inauguration Days every four years — sooner if a sitting president has died. It was during such a parade in 1961 that John F. Kennedy is said to have looked from his open convertible at the disreputable array of liquor stores, cheap hotels, and X-rated movie houses along the Avenue and barked to an aide, “It’s a disgrace. Fix it.”

    That a public-private corporation, working with federal funds and investor dollars, would do in the years to come.

    Among the Avenue’s parade memories: 1857 — New president James Buchanan as captain, almost literally, of the ship of state, “sailing” toward the White House on a miniature version of “Old Ironsides” — the frigate U.S.S. Constitution. 1861 — In the first of four funeral corteges for assassinated presidents, weeping crowds watching the casket of Abraham Lincoln being borne toward Union Station for its mournful ride to Lincoln’s home in Illinois. 1905 — American Indian chiefs, marching with incoming president Theodore Roosevelt and the “Roughriders” with whom he had served in the Spanish-American War. 1919 — Workers constructing a temporary Arc de Triomphe across the Avenue for the gala return of our World War I hero, General “Black Jack” Pershing, and his men. 1926 — In robes and pointy wizard hats, an estimated 30,000 brothers of the Ku Klux Klan, the merchants of racial hate, marching past police lines and gaping crowds. 1966 — In a procession of quite a different color, the Poor People’s March, which had begun far away in Mississippi, passing in humble review. Two years later, some of its walkers, mule-wagon riders, and others would build a shanty town called Resurrection City in a far corner of the National Mall. It was soon destroyed by authorities. Later that year the smoldering ruins of much of downtown, torched during riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., would be plainly visible from well-patrolled Pennsylvania Avenue.

    And then there was January 20, 1977, an Inaugural Day so cold that the lips of some band members froze to their reeds, on which new president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, walked not just part of the way but the entire route from the Capitol to the White House. On this day, “I’d lined up Cinderella in a skimpy little fairy outfit” [for a photograph], my former VOA colleague Lou Buttell told me. “It’s a wonder these poor kids didn’t get frostbite.”

    Nobody thought to ask Pierre L’Enfant or George Washington, or to scribble his answer with a quill, why Pennsylvania was honored as the namesake of the most prominent street in the new capital. It just suddenly appeared in 1791 in a letter by Jefferson, the author of the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Sure enough, when Washington’s successor, John Adams, became the first resident of the White House nine years later when the capital city became a reality, it was up “Pennsylvania Avenue” that he rode.

    One theory has it that the designation was an appeasement to the state in which the Congress had been meeting. (Philadelphia wanted badly to be the capital.) Perhaps Pennsylvania, then a buffer between the merchant North and planter South, was a compromise choice. Or it could have been geographical progression. The three broadest avenues traversing the heart of Washington — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — lined up in descending order, north to south, just as the states do.

    Over the years, the Avenue has been usurped by Constitution Avenue, just below it, as the nation’s ceremonial corridor for most parades and funeral processions. The latter route runs straight to Memorial Bridge and thence across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. And Constitution Avenue is lined with government buildings, Smithsonian Institution museums, and the open National Mall. It’s better suited for crowds than commercially active Pennsylvania Avenue.

    But it is still Pennsylvania Avenue that fires the imagination. In the cowpaths and brambles along the Potomac lowlands, Pierre L’Enfant — more artist than planner — foresaw a city of incomparable scale, harking back to Versailles and broad Parisian boulevards, including an epic diagonal between two of the three seats of democratic government. After generations of scruffiness and several episodes of renewal, the Avenue today is again powdered and pressed and dressed for a world to come see.

    But a question remains: Is it a living place, especially after sunset, when the bureaucrats and tourists have mostly gone to their homes and hotels? Well, it’s not as lively as old Murder Bay. But thousands of people now live on America’s Main Street, in expensive townhouses overlooking monuments and the Mall. And of course Pennsylvania Avenue’s extremities — those neglected reaches in Anacostia — are alive at night, if down on their luck. Just as Congress and private entrepreneurs spent billions on impressive government buildings and spiffy commercial spaces on the Avenue, Washington’s mayor will soon send his storm-drain and crossing-signal crews across the river, hoping to get a “great street” started where the parades seldom go.


    (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

    Ague. A malaria-like infectious disease spread by parasites, often in dirty water. Symptoms include high fever and severe chills.

    Bedraggled. Soiled, unkempt, dilapidated.

    Bilious. Sour or ill-tempered. The adjective takes its name from gastric distress of the bile duct.

    Supplications. Humble, earnest pleas for something, such as forgiveness or a job.

    Suffragist. A supporter of suffrage, or the right to vote, especially for women. Those who mocked the most radical, female supporters of women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century preferred to call them by the derogatory term “suffragettes.”

    Tommy gun. A .45-caliber submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson, that became the weapon of choice of both gangsters and federal agents during the “roaring” 1920s.

    Torpid. Slow, sluggish. Torpid people are disinterested, apathetic.

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