You know where Dupont Circle is, but have you ever heard of Murder Bay or Hell’s Bottom? Could you find Swampoodle on a map? Do you know that when you’re in traffic on Constitution Avenue you’re driving over the Washington Canal, one of the biggest financial failures in our nation’s history? J.D. Dickey’s Empire of Mud tells the forgotten history of Washington City, a capital every state approved, but few bothered to help build or maintain. In its haphazard evolution, struggling equally against Mother Nature and an indifferent Congress, Washington City more resembled an East Coast frontier town than a national seat of power. Amidst the chaos a few citizens like street walker-turned-brothel-owner Mary Anne Hall and scheming, raconteur socialite Thomas Law managed to thrive. The situation was often grim but Washington City endured and like the country at-large its conflicts, contradictions and contributions still shape us today.
As a kid, I loved to take the bus down Georgia Avenue and then walk. There was a tiny used-book store where I could look at books by black authors. I could see what photographs were in the windows of Scurlock studios. It was considered a dangerous area, but during the day it was full of life. I rode through there after the riots in 1968 and saw smoke still smoldering in many of the shop fronts. U Street was the cultural heart of the city. For blacks the restaurants and theaters served up the cream of black entertainers and sports figures: Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, the great jazz and blues stars. Ball players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson could leave nearby Griffith Stadium and head out to U Street to celebrate. In WASHINGTON’S U STREET (Johns Hopkins Univ., $29.95), Blair A. Ruble takes us back to the days before Jim Crow, when U street was a mixed community, then looks at the post-Jim Crow era, when it was central to black cultural and social life, and moves on to today, and its spectacular revitalization.
A revised and updated edition of James Goode’s 1974 classic, The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, Washington Sculpture (Johns Hopkins Univ., $75) includes sculpture newly constructed in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, as well as new monuments on the National Mall, such as The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Art historian Goode has established an admirable track record documenting past and present Washington architectural treasures in Capital Losses and Best Addresses, and this new volume is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.