What to read to understand the city of Washington DC?
March 1, 2012 12:26 PM   Subscribe

DC-area-history-filter! I'm about to move back to the US, where I will be either in DC or North Virginia (working in Ashburn, specifically). I like having a sense of the history that contributed to the physical environment around me. Why is this town here, who built what building, why, and what does the allegory in the decoration mean. Things like that. What books, articles, or whatever should I read to understand these qualities about my upcoming home?
posted by Schismatic to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Walking around peaceful Fort Washington gives you a great sense of that small chapter in history.
posted by Melismata at 12:30 PM on March 1, 2012

I know the George Mason University archive has a lot of materials about Reston and maybe some other planned communities in the area. They have a bunch of other stuff too but it seems like a lot of it is not working right now... you might want to check out their online collections.
posted by mskyle at 12:35 PM on March 1, 2012

Specifically for DC:

Greater Greater Washington often has great posts about DC's history; one good starting place is this post about the legacy of DC's street grid. It also has a lot on the surrounding area and local politics, including NoVA. When you get here, if you want to explore a little, the MLK branch of the library houses the special collection of Washingtoniana. There are many historical trails through out the city, if you want to take a stroll, and although I don't want to narrow it down, there are a number of short histories about specific sections of the city that you can pick up at local bookstores. The Building Museum is also a great resource.

If you really want to learn about the history of the building pieces, my dad [full disclosure, I spent a lot of high school taking photos for it] has a whole blog about the fossils visible in buildings in DC, which he calls the “Accidental Museum of Paleontology.” It's actually kind of a cool way to see the city-- there are fossils in nearly every old museum, as well as long the Tidal Basin.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:46 PM on March 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not to be pedantic, but it's definitely Northern Virginia.

Shifting to not-pedantic mode, The Great Society Subway is a good overview of Metro, as well as the redevelopment of communities on the Orange Line in Arlington (Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, and Ballston/Virginia Square)
posted by downing street memo at 12:47 PM on March 1, 2012

The Washington DC History Network has this list of '50 Essential DC History Books'.

Also, listen to a bunch of Fugazi & The Dismemberment Plan.
posted by troika at 12:47 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

or Duke Ellington!
posted by troika at 12:49 PM on March 1, 2012

If you end up in DC, read the chapter about your new neighborhood in Washington at Home. (That's Washington the city, not the man).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:52 PM on March 1, 2012

The main branch of the Fairfax County library system, the City of Fairfax Regional Library, has a section called "The Virginia Room." Oooohh, shiny local history stuff! Also make sure to visit Historic Bleinheim House when you get here.
posted by easily confused at 12:59 PM on March 1, 2012

It's now dated but Constance Green's Washington (1963-64) is still the best overview of DC's founding and early history. Some books that work well as companion volumes:

Kenneth Bowling: The Creation of Washington, DC: The Idea and Location of the American Capital (1993) [incorporates more recent scholarship about DC origins.]

Frederick Gutheim & Antoinette J. Lee: Worth of the Nation: Washington, DC from L'Enfant to National Capital (2nd ed., 2006) [more information about the forces that shaped the structure of the city, including the mid-late 20th c.]

Joseph Passonneau: Washington through Two Centuries (2004) [large, highly detailed maps of the core of DC that show its evolution over time, and put it in context.]

All of these books mention the neighborhoods and domestic DC only in passing - seconding Washington at Home (get the 2nd ed., 2010) as a good place to start learning about this aspect of DC.

There isn't a single comprehensive reference book on Washington architecture, but the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington (2006) and Scott and Lee's Buildings of the District of Columbia (1995) are the ones I find myself using the most. James Goode's Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings (2nd ed., 2003) will help get you oriented at the street-level to what DC looked like in the past, and to the many great buildings we've lost (his Washington Sculpture: A Cultural History of Outdoor Sculpture in the Nation's Capital is also the standard guide to the hundreds of monuments, memorials, and statues dotting DC.)

There are many, many more - two that I'll plug, since they're well-written and focus on elements of the city that are generally forgotten, overlooked, or slandered:

John R. Wennersten: Anacostia: The Death and Life of an American River (2008)

James Borchert: Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (1980)

If you need specific suggestions in the future, post a question to either H-DC or Historic Washington - the DC history nerds will be happy to help :)
posted by ryanshepard at 1:11 PM on March 1, 2012

Check out the D.C. Preservation League site and join when you arrive.
posted by jgirl at 1:24 PM on March 1, 2012

As a NoVA resident, I'm loving this thread. My contribution: check out a copy of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles as this region was the site of many Civil War and some Revolutionary War battles, and the related local parks do a great job of memorializing that history. Also the C&O Companion is a great book. (Who knows, you might even be inspired to do the annual One Day Hike from Georgetown to Harper's Ferry.)
posted by longdaysjourney at 1:46 PM on March 1, 2012

I second longdaysjourney's recommendations that you learn as much about Virginia and Loudoun County (/Leesburg) as you do about DC if you plan to live near your office. Ashburn isn't too far from DC as a crow flies, but they have pretty wildly different histories/cultures/architecture/etc..

And you definitely need to plan a meetup when you arrive!
posted by argonauta at 2:23 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Almost forgot: for a local author, there's Michael Lee Pope and his books "Ghosts of Alexandria" and "The History of Alexandria, DC". The first is a fresh look at a number of local ghost stories; the second covers the period when Alexandria Va. was part of the District of Columbia, and how it was 'retroceeded' back to Virginia.
posted by easily confused at 5:10 PM on March 1, 2012

Since nobody else has said it yet, you can´t really talk about the history of DC without eventually getting to the topic of gentrification. For a stark view of how much DC´s changed in the past 20-some years; read Rosa Lee: A Mother and her Family in Urban America. (I´d recommend this highly for the quality of writing even if it weren´t such an interesting historical piece now.) Take note of the neighborhoods around 14th St NW, U St NW, and Clifton Terrace NW where Rosa Lee and her children just buy drugs out in the open. When you get to DC, take a walk around contemporary U Street. Note the fancy condos and trendy restaurants. Remember that the events of Rosa Lee took place on those very streets in the late 80´s and early 90´s. Yikes.

I like the 60 hikes within 60 miles book listed above, but it´s missing my favorite histsorical hike: The Circle Fort Trail. During the Civil War era, DC had a whole ring of forts around it. After the war, there were grand plans to link all the forts together in a greenway. That plan mostly fell through--except for the eight mile stretch linked above. You can´t see much of the fort remains anymore, but the trail itself is still lovely.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:18 PM on March 1, 2012

Oh, and one more--if you're interested in DC local political history, watchThe Nine Lives of Marion Barry Like it or not, Marion's been a major presence in the city since home rule started in the 70's; Nine Lives is a pretty even-handed overview of his early hits and more recent misses.
posted by ActionPopulated at 12:07 PM on March 2, 2012

I should also have mentioned Harry Jaffee and Tom Sherwood's Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. (1994).
posted by ryanshepard at 4:04 AM on March 27, 2012

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