No Through Street

The "reopening" of Pennsylvania Ave. is just another stage in the closing of Washington, D.C.


Want to take a stroll in front of the White House? Pennsylvania Avenue has been "reopened," so feel free. But better hurry: It's about to be shut down again.

Tuesday, Laura Bush formally opened the stretch of the Avenue that runs in front of the White House, declaring that it was "marvelous" that pedestrians could once again use the famous and now redesigned block. My old friend Ben Forgey, the Washington Post's architecture and design critic, didn't see it that way. He thought that the plaza, with its guardhouses unfinished and still lacking 100 planned elm trees, "looked distinctly unmarvelous." In fact, the area struck him as "enormously barren and somehow sad."

Actually, you can say that about much of the central capital, which is being reshaped by security concerns. Some streets have been narrowed, others closed, and a few obliterated. The experience of approaching the city's famous monumental destinations no longer consists of wandering the intentionally grand (perhaps too grand) spaces intended by Pierre L'Enfant and the designers who came later; it is now an adventure in confronting chain-link fences, cement obstacles, bollards, and wary armed guards. Places like the U.S. Capitol are preparing "visitors' centers" that are underground, so as better to control crowds; visitors in the past would gather in the Capitol's Rotunda.

For that matter, getting into many government buildings is an ordeal not unlike boarding a plane. Indeed, getting into Washington itself, if you fly into Reagan National, can be a peculiar ordeal of its own, especially if you're flying across an international border. Passengers to Reagan must gather in distant terminals far from any other human activity, and are subjected to repeated personal searches and wandings.

Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, thinks that the experience of Washington now evokes fear. Writing just before the election, Hiatt was concerned that "the openness that must be the hallmark of a working democracy" was being lost. He was pleased by the reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue, but knew that "for every torturous step forward, somewhere else another street is closed, another block seized, another hundred feet of hideous fencing unspooled. And once a street is closed, it does not reopen; no one dares confront the security bureaucracy, knowing that if a bomb does go off, any memo favoring access will be waved as an indictment."

As for the Avenue, it's taken nearly a decade to dress up this stretch of town. Pennsylvania between 15th and 17th Streets, once a typically busy downtown street, was closed to vehicular traffic in 1995, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing (as was a pair of intersecting side streets). Its problem was that it was rather too democratic a thoroughfare; Thomas Jefferson himself declared that the street should be cut through what was originally intended as a grand presidential park. (Cutting the street through the grounds created Lafayette Square.) Eventually, the street ran right by the president's front door and past the Treasury Department to the east and the over-ornate Old Executive Office Building on the west. Indeed, it ran right under the windows of Blair House across the street, where visiting heads of state often stay. Local D.C. officials had hoped that the federal agencies that had closed the street would one day relent, but they were kidding themselves. After September 11, everyone knew that the Avenue would probably never reopen again. (On the other hand, things could be even worse: The stretch of E Street that used to run past the South front of the White House doesn't even exist anymore.)

For most of this period, pedestrians could still walk around in the area, but there was no pleasure in it. Lafayette Square was still welcoming, but the Avenue itself was empty of everything but barriers and guards. Still asphalted and painted for the traffic that no longer passed, the area had the inescapable feel of abandonment.

Now, the street is no longer dominated by its security measures, and presumably future visitors who won't know it any other way could find the area appealing, especially when they finally plant the trees. The plaza may yet become lively in its own way. In the meantime, the "openness" Fred Hiatt wrote about will have become a matter of memory.

Recently, a former aide to the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan reminded Post readers of something Moynihan had said in the days after Sept. 11. The former New York senator and academic had been involved with Washington planning and revitalization for many years, and in the wake of the attacks he took part in a symposium on "Freedom Without Fortresses: Shaping the New Secure Environment."

"[A]rchitecture," he said, "is inescapably a political art and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular age were… Surely ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in the darkness. A precaution, yes, sequester, no."

Anyway, take that walk on Pennsylvania Ave. soon, because an inauguration is coming, and this one promises to feature the most stringent inaugural security measures ever taken in the city. They'll be closing the Avenue to prepare for it.