Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=139057
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 11:40:48 AM CST
Our first week in Washington, “avoiding the dazzle,” to paraphrase the reporter who took us around the Capitol, was a key part of learning about covering the city. Not remembering where the Ohio Clock was, or the side rooms and galleries in which reporters huddle to interview congressmen, but remembering that senators and representatives were there to be questioned. They were, he assured us, human.
It sounded reasonable enough, and three weeks in, it seemed even possible that I would get around to asking someone with election cred a question (I didn’t).
I also thought at the time, that this, the enhanced access to the Capitol and the theory that I could dive into the history of reporter-Congress exchanges, was what I would remember about this summer in Washington.
What I realize, however, is that for all the notes I took regarding where to find senators and which Metro stop corresponds to which side of the Capitol (Union Station, red line=Senate, Capitol South, blue or orange lines =House) a more subtle impression that I’d ignored off and on since arriving will also stick — and perhaps more strongly. And it’s how the city has changed.
Although I’d never been in Washington as a reporter, being in the city wasn’t a completely new experience for me. I’d had my share of swampy summers in which showering the second I got to my aunt and uncle’s house took precedence over hunger or fatigue. I also had a backlog of long steamy days where highlights included wandering the air-conditioned Air and Space Museum and being caught in a spray of water as the Capitol’s lawn sprinkler system kicked in.
However, the aimlessness I had always associated with the city was before September 11, and a lot of time and national trauma had been crammed in between my last visit here and the attacks.
I had gotten glimpses of the city since 9/11 –once when I stayed at a friend’s place on my way to a wedding in Maryland, and a few years later when I made the trek for an uncle’s memorial service. As short as these city sojourns were (focused more on getting through the District on the way to somewhere else than being in the District) what I saw this summer was in stark contrast from what I remembered.
This was no longer a sauntering city where the subway that runs between the House and Senate doubled as a carnival ride for a kid killing time. This was a city on guard.
Seeing the city up close and for an extended period of time, the impression remains. Washington is, in its own way, still somewhat open. Museums are free, the National Mall, when maintained, is a green expanse for hanging out, and you can still visit the Capitol. But the city is more guarded, and as a visitor I feel more herded, less . . . free to roam. Quasi-decorative barriers ring the edges of the Capitol and not-so decorative plates emblazoned with STOP and framed by one or two guards make it clear vehicles (and perhaps people) should think hard before entering.
Signals that the city is on alert are not reserved for federal buildings. The normality of metal detectors and X-ray machines is everywhere, including the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, which appears to be guarding little more than a dreary food court and tkotchke shops. And the ease with which the screening is done – no one halts, few people forget to drop their pens in the bins the security guards have on hand to aid their radiation peep show – makes this feel . . . normal.
I suppose the change should make me feel sad, and it does, to a degree. More unsettling, however, is that this change is not as jarring as I think it should have been.
The way in which the regular screening of people and their belongings has become a part of the city’s choreography makes me wonder if the screening-free years will be viewed as a golden age of sorts or the current levels of personal scrutiny merely the natural progression of 21st century cities.