I walk up the escalator into the center of the National Mall and sigh.
Washington, D.C., has been my favorite city since I was nine. The clean limestone of the monuments and government buildings has always felt comforting. It seems so orderly, so commanding, and it showcases the very best of American intentions.
On my first trip, when I was in fourth grade, I thought nothing could be more perfect than this city. Ten years later, I’m back for a conference over spring break and I notice both new parts of the District to appreciate and its undeniable flaws.
At nine, I was in awe of the massive government buildings and never dared to imagine myself working inside. Now, all my time studying at Miami is spent in pursuit of that. I study global politics and East Asian language and culture, a decision that was probably shaped by my trip to D.C. long before college and certainly shaped my reasons for visiting now.
Washington is a city striving to impress. And I am easily impressed.
I love the diversity of the tourists and residents. I hear German as I pass the map of the monuments and Mandarin bubbling up from the entrance of the metro. I love to walk along Embassy Row and see the various flags and quirks of each of the buildings.
I had grown a little weary of the classic Smithsonian stops like the Air and Space museum, so this time, after a quick walk around the National Mall, I head toward the Freer and Sackler galleries which feature Asian and Middle Eastern art. Sackler offers an exhibit titled “Encountering the Buddha” in which you can immerse yourself in a room filled with Tibetan artifacts and the heavy sounds of chanting monks. It’s intimidating and spiritual and exactly what I need, but not something I would have appreciated properly before. It’s hard for a fourth grader to get excited about dark, inanimate artifacts, but now, after studying East Asian culture and art history, the meaning resonates with me.
Afterward, I make my way to the Folger Shakespeare Library, which houses gorgeous collections of the works of the Bard, as well as paintings and esoteric knickknacks from the era. It’s a little isolated and, in fact, is completely empty when I walk in. The employees are extremely passionate and friendly, however, and one woman insists on taking me on a solo tour.
I see stained glass windows featuring the most famous characters from the works of Shakespeare but nothing to label them, so I have to guess who they are. I see a bracelet that contains a lock of hair from a famous Elizabethan actor.
Then the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Hirshhorn groups pieces from their collection thematically rather than chronologically. I see art from the 80s protesting AIDS and capitalism alongside pop art from the 60s. I stumble upon “Perfect Lovers” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and try not to cry.
Unlike on my previous trip, this time I notice the homelessness in the District and the signs of gentrification. I walk out past the Capitol building and the manicured lawns of the Smithsonian museums and find tents pitched in parks. There are people shivering on curbs outside the State Department. The feeling of righteousness and order I had always associated with D.C. seems more like a facade for tourists now. Washington, perhaps obviously, suffers from the same issues that plague the rest of America’s cities.
I end my visit with a late-night walk along “the wall.” The Vietnam Memorial is breathtaking and provokes reflection, quite literally.
I wonder who I’ll be the next time I’m in the city.