As we followed Phil on the streets he had carefully picked out for our ride, since it was a Friday afternoon on mostly neighborhood streets, there were few cars to contend with. And yet when we came across anyone who was outside, we could see the excitement on their faces as they waved and smiled. It was easy to reciprocate their joy.
No longer in California, I kept waiting for the brown that always seems to come with warmth to return. And yet DC and its outlying areas were no different from anywhere else we had been since we left Boston. With the exception of the almost surreal sand dunes at the tip of Cape Cod, everywhere we looked there was always green. It grew out of the cracks in the sidewalk. It filled the occasional empty lot. Even here, if we saw weeds it looked like someone had taken the time to regularly water them .
I made sure to savor the blessings brought by year round precipitation as I knew that once we crossed the Rockies that dry, unforgiving brown would fill the outermost reaches of everything we saw. But for now I made doubly sure to celebrate the verdant aliveness that was fighting to be seen.
It was good that I did because as we got closer and closer to the heart of DC, all this was tamed by the structure of a city. Here the nature was well manicured as it complimented the grey of stone. Besides the government buildings made of rock, statues and monuments to American leaders began to appear everywhere.
Established as a city by an act of Congress in 1790, Washington DC was planned and partly laid out by a French engineer named Charles L’Enfant. Initially drawn as a square, 10 miles on a side, the US Capitol building stands at its center. In 1846 however this perfect symmetry was corrupted when nearly a third, the land on the other side of the Potomac River, reverted back to Virginia.
Named to honor this country’s first president, George Washington, it also honors the man who found America. In colonial times, Christopher Columbus’s discovery was referred to as Columbia. And it was from this spot, 45 miles south of Baltimore, as we’ve said before, that the governance of the United States would take place after if officially left Philadelphia on Dec 1, 1800.
As a Mayors' Ride city, Washington, DC is unusual in the sense that it answers directly to the federal government. For example, it did not have an elected mayor until 1974. Up until that time, it was ruled by the US Congress. However, three years later, because its second Mayor, Marion Barry, mismanaged funds, a congressionally-appointed financial control board still oversees the city’s finances.
What’s interesting to cyclists about Washington DC, besides its constantly improving cycling infrastructure, are its two populations. During the week, the city nearly doubles in size as roughly 410,000 people flood in from neighboring cities. Once America’s 9th largest city in 1950 at 802.178 people, it is still home to 563,384. And because of all the busyness that results , it takes the persistent work of the Washington Area Bicyclist’s Association (WABA) to make it possible for cyclists to effectively move about here.
Besides government jobs, its numerous colleges generate many of the trips that move to and from the city. One university, Georgetown, is older than the District itself, having been founded in 1789. American, Catholic and George Washington Universities, to name a few, can also be found here.
Within the city itself, a great number of foreign consulates also add to the swarm of activity taking place. It wasn’t long before we were witness to a common sight here. We were required to stop at a street along the way by police on motorcycles as a several car motorcade whisked past. We later found out that one of the vehicles contained a diplomat from one of the many nearby embassies.
Soon, we were at the National Mall where even more cars could be seen scurrying about. They were visiting the museums and other points of interest that bordered the Mall, a massive lawn, several football fields in width, that stretches from the US Capitol building to the Potomac River two miles away. Dotted with statues and commemorative structures, where it reaches the water is the Lincoln Memorial, while half way down is the towering Washington Monument where it is fed by another wide section that reaches to the White House.
It was near the president’s residence that we would meet the Mayor of the city. While the US Capitol where Congress and the Chief Executive do their work is about two miles away, Washington DC City Hall, where the Mayor and his council performs their duties, is less than five or six blocks from America's most famous home.
Nor was there anything distinct about Washington DC City Hall. Unlike some of the grand City Halls we had seen in the Northeast, this one just looked like an old, stone office building. It was not set off by a lawn or gardens, nor was it graced by distinctive architecture or rock carvings. It was all business.