A City-State for the Nation

By Alan Lessoff

The gaudy psychodrama that led to January’s trashing of the Capitol gave Americans even more to fret about during the already dreary months when those of us who adhered to public health advice were compelled to interact with the country mostly from home, through televisions and computer screens. As an historian who has written at length about governance, planning, and development in Washington, DC, I fretted over, among other things, the likely worsening of the federal establishment’s tendency to turn “away from the city,” as planner Elbert Peets put it in the early 1930s. Peets was lamenting the Federal Triangle, the daunting aggregation of official buildings from the National Archives to 15th Street NW that in the 1920s-30s displaced the old Center Market district and the adjacent rundown neighborhood between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall. Few regretted this shabby quarter, known colloquially as “Murder Bay.” But, Peets argued, the spirit of Washington’s L’Enfant Plan was to “amalgamate” capital and city “to make them serve each other.”  That entailed, the planner insisted, preservation of older and poorer neighborhoods amid the capital’s majesty and activity. Peets unsuccessfully pressed this principle again in the 1950s in his alternative rehabilitation plan for the historic, working-class Southwest district targeted for urban renewal.[1]

Temporary fencing supplementing the bollards outside the Longworth House Office Building, Independence Avenue, Washington, D.C. Photo by author, May 2021.

What Peets denounced in the 1930s as the “programme of isolation” has been evident in numerous ways since. The September 2001 attacks sped up the trend toward a surveilled, fortified capital, even as it catalyzed the security state overall. January 6 means even more bollards and fences, more cameras, metal detectors, guards, and black SUVs, more managed crowds and visitors centers. The insurrection means more barriers between Washington as capital and Washington as city and, by implication, between the federal city and the country.  At first glance, the apparently accelerating movement for DC statehood amounts to a local demand for divorce for irreconcilable differences—the breakdown that Peets sought to avoid. From this perspective, DC statehood can seem a concentrated manifestation of the retreat into sorted space that the United States’ public sphere has been going through overall.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s redesign of the Capitol Grounds—begun in 1874, less than a decade after the first time that insurrectionists with Confederate flags sought to overturn the government—emphasized low walls, open vistas, stately terraces, and pleasant walkways. Though historians differ as to how he understood the Capitol as a place in Washington and his grounds as space for the city, Olmsted’s landscaping did weave the people’s house into the nation’s city, while symbolically weaving together people and government.

With his romantic understanding of parks as havens of gentility amid the city’s discord, Olmsted had limited tolerance for unpredictable collective or public uses of his spaces; in this spirit, late nineteenth-century regulations forbade demonstrations and even banners on the Capitol Grounds. Later, during the twentieth century, protest did come to be accepted, more or less, as a necessary function of the capital’s public places. The use of Lafayette Square as a preferred site for demonstrations was another longstanding Washington norm called into question last year—with typically brazen inconsistency—by the same right-wing factions that incited, or at least rationalized, a violent incursion into the Capitol to obstruct the hitherto routine ritual of ratifying the presidential election. In any case, the consensus among security experts that the Capitol remain a “hardened target” with restricted public access, even after removal in July of bleak temporary fencing, is a heartbreaking reminder that the insurrectionists succeeded in bringing reality closer to their dark fantasies of barriers and alienation.

As pandemic constraints loosened, Washington was the first place I traveled. I told friends that I was going to photograph bollards and fences. In reality, I was relieved to wander the city again. With me was a fairly recent book, A Song to My City, by Carol Lancaster. A third-generation Washingtonian from a section of Southeast that, mid-century, was still mainly White and working class, Lancaster found her way to a BA at Georgetown, a PhD at the London School of Economics, and a career in international development. Eventually, she became the first female dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Her own life, as she recounts, illustrates the complex interplay between local and official Washington. Lancaster meant this book not to be “policy oriented,” like her other writings, but a personal, clear-eyed “love letter to the city that she adored,” according to her son, Douglas Farrar, who oversaw publication when his mother died in 2014, not long after she finished her first draft. Little noticed when Georgetown University Press published it in 2016—with sections by necessity not fully worked through—Lancaster’s book nonetheless conveys, as well as any I know, Washington’s dual character as a stage for political theater and as a “vibrant, diverse, lived-in city.”

Carol M. Highsmith, “Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House,” June 19, 2020. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Even though she didn’t intend the book as systematic analysis, the sensibility that Lancaster absorbed while working on development policy in Latin America and Africa appears in cogent summaries of Washington’s cross-currents of race, class, and status and the political and economic consequences of these. For the last thirty years, any sustained discussion of Washington’s civic life and political economy arrives sooner or later at the question of whether statehood would finally give the capital the leverage it has always lacked vis-à-vis the federal government, while resolving the outrage of the city’s lack of congressional representation. The statehood movement was somewhat in abeyance while she was writing. Even so, Lancaster stresses, as the most plausible route to “full political rights,” statehood was “unlikely to go away,” despite the partisan and practical obstacles to it.

From an academic, urbanist perspective, geographic and financial viability has been the underlying question raised by the statehood idea. (One could embark here on a digression about the historical spuriousness of constitutional objections to the proposal, a task that constitutional scholars have taken care of in their own way already.) Would 68 square miles of city-state thrive on its own, given the metropolitan character of modern urban life? The state of Berlin has over five times DC’s territory and population and yet is hampered by surrounding Brandenburg. As a theoretical matter, a statehood measure ought to, at the least, undo the 1846 retrocession of Arlington and Alexandria. The urban studies pipedream would be for a new state to encompass those Maryland and Virginia counties already included for planning purposes in the National Capital Region. Concern about embedding Washington in its region partly explains why some historians I have known at times leaned toward retrocession to Maryland, also a quick way to extend congresssional representation to the disenfranchised capital. Ottawa, after all, is a municipality within Ontario. (Most historians I am aware of lean toward statehood, basically on racial justice grounds.) Yet as Lancaster remarks, Maryland has never “shown much inclination to absorb DC,” while “truth be told,” Washingtonians would almost certainly not vote for retrocession either. District residents would also likely resist a return to the strategy attempted by the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, which failed in the states in the 1980s. Under that approach, the capital would have remained its own jurisdiction under federal control—capital districts are a common arrangement around the world—but it would no longer have been the only capital I am aware of not to have voting representation in the national assembly.  

Pierre Charles L’Enfant and Thackara & Vallance, “Plan of the City of Washington,”
1792. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Over the centuries, DC’s territorial limits, the extravagant scale of the L’Enfant Plan, the resulting vast expanse of tax-exempt federal property, and the city’s specialized economy and function have combined to create cycles of fiscal instability that left the District in need of bailouts from an infamously unreliable Congress. The central episode in my 1994 book, The Nation and its City, was the wretched compromise over these issues worked out in the mid-1870s. Between 1871 and 1874, the developer-turned-public works official Alexander Shepherd oversaw hurried implementation of the so-called the Comprehensive Plan of Improvements, a desperately needed program to upgrade Washington’s public works and services. When congressional investigators found that Shepherd, with backing from the Ulysses S. Grant Administration, had run up approximately $24 million in unauthorized debts with little accountability, much of it lost through inflated contracts for slapdash projects, Washington had its own entry into the spate of municipal scandals in the years surrounding the Panic of 1873.

In exchange for underwriting Shepherd’s debts and, on top of that, providing an annual subsidy roughly equal to the half of the District owned by the federal government, in 1878 Congress abolished all remnants of home rule. An appointed federal commission governed the republic’s capital for the next nine decades. For white supremacists this arrangement brought the added benefit of undoing what was left of Reconstruction in the first major jurisdiction where Black suffrage had been implemented. While fixed federal contributions fell apart early in the twentieth century, to this day Congress retains residual oversight over DC’s budget, as well as authority to negate local DC legislation passed under the truncated home rule implemented in the 1970s. This dismal history—and the equally dismal way that for much of the twentieth century, segregationists ensconced in the relevant House and Senate oversight committees used the commission system to impose their agenda on the District—explains why, for Washingtonians, representation in Congress is essential. But, as Lancaster insists, they also seek the autonomy that statehood would bring.

In August 1994 I had the unwelcome honor of testifying before a rambling Senate hearing that grew from the statehood campaign of the 1990s. At that time I and a few others expressed concerns not about the justice of the District’s grievances and ambitions, but about projections on which statehood proposals were then based. Washington was in the fiscal-political spiral that ended in the 1995 Financial Control Board, while national politics had degenerated into the anti-Washington histrionics that soon played out through the Gingrich revolution. Remembering the awful outcome of the analogous crisis of the 1870s, I worried about Congress using statehood as a pretext to wash its hands of a mess that it had played a principal role in creating.

By the mid-2010s, as Lancaster, the development economist, understood, the shifting nature of governance may have rendered it feasible for the District to endure as a state without too much worry about an erratic, occasionally ill-willed Congress. For all the ill-defined hype that surrounds concepts such as the global city, the creative city, and the knowledge economy, Washington—the inveterate white-collar city—manifestly benefits from these trends. In a globalized knowledge economy, governmental institutions diffuse into an array of for-profit and non-profit enterprises in research, technology, the professions, and media, into trade and professional associations, quasi-public agencies, civil-society groups, and international organizations. All of that, along with the service and supply businesses that support government and its extensions, are what developers are counting on to fill the office spaces whose construction continued in and around Washington right through the pandemic.

The persistence of intense redevelopment, for example from Southeast at the Navy Yard site across to the Washington Channel in Southwest, juxtaposes in a jarring (but in my mind, oddly fitting) way with the spreading detritus of the security state. One would be surprised if the pandemic’s acceleration of work-from-home dents demand in Washington for office space or housing for any considerable time. The bigger worry, which Lancaster highlights, is how Washington’s attractiveness to young professionals and knowledge workers creates ever more pressure on the neighborhoods where the largely Black lower-middle class and working class have lived. Gentrification and its racial dimensions are such familiar stories in Washington that people within as well as outside DC might need reminding of their centrality to the statehood movement. Given how essential the real estate market is to Washington’s prosperity, it is hard to imagine a DC state imposing truly stringent land use or affordable housing policies. But such an entity would gain latitude to pursue the community development and neighborhood protection policies with which local authorities have long experimented.

The information society brings investment, power, and people to Washington. The January 6 insurrection highlighted the dangers it brings as well. Washington’s conception as mythological menace—a massing together of warped images and demagogic abstractions—has long had noxious consequences for the tangible city and its people. Information technology enables such accretions of myth and rumor to swirl faster and faster and recombine into ever more poisonous self-referentialities. Enclosed in a virtual-world loop and spinning around on itself, the mythological Washington detached over the last year even more than usual from the “vibrant, diverse, lived-in city” that Lancaster wanted readers to appreciate and respect. Whether called Douglass Commonwealth or something else, the federal city as a state—with two senators, a vote in the House of Representatives, and its own state constitution—may at long last be able to press its concreteness upon the country. It could remind Americans constantly that the seat of government is a place to which the country has consigned its public business and for which the country needs to take responsibility if it wants that business done.


Alan Lessoff is University Professor of History at Illinois State University. From 2004 to 2014, he edited the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He is also a former member of the UHA Board of Directors and the Journal of Urban History editorial board. His writings on Washington include The Nation and Its City: Politics, “Corruption,” and Progress in Washington, D.C., 1861-1902 (Johns Hopkins, 1994) and Adolf Cluss, Architect: From Germany to America, edited with Christof Mauch (Beghahn Books, 2005). His latest book is Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History (University of Texas Press, 2015). Among his current projects, he spent summer 2021 as a guest researcher at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, engaged with a transnational and comparative project on port cities and the urban heritage of the oil industry. His first essay connected to this work, cowritten with Carola Hein of the TU-Delft, will appear soon as “The Original North American Petroleumscape: Oil-and-Gas Empire, Petrochemical Nation,” in Professor Hein’s edited book, Oil Spaces: Exploring the Global Petroleumscape (Routledge, 2022).


[1]Frederick Gutheim and Antoinette J. Lee, Worthy of the Nation: Washington, D.C., from L’Enfant to the National Capital Planning Commission, 2nd. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 266-69.

Featured image (at top): Photo by the author, “Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW,” May 2021.

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