A Walk Down Pennsylvania Avenue

One of the questions that has been floating in the back of my mind is why DC seems to lack a certain liveliness, a joie de vivre so to speak, that make other cities seem energetic and dynamic. Last week, while I was on yet another of my museum excursions after work, I decided to walk. The distance between the office and the Museum of American History is about a mile and a half. Because I was too impatient to wait for a bus that theoretically comes every fifteen minutes but only shows up every thirty, I decided to travel by foot. Even the weather was cooperating that afternoon. It was sunny, but the humidity had temporarily disappeared, and the temperatures floated down to a temperate high-70s. The locals were calling it a polar vortex; I tried my best not to laugh out loud.

The most direct path from Dupont Circle to the National Mall is Pennsylvania Avenue, which cuts a straight diagonal through the heart of the city. The beginnings of the evening’s rush hour brought people with government IDs and badges hanging on lanyards from their necks. As I approached the part of the avenue that passes the White House, tourists began to outnumber the men and women wearing suits and pencil skirts. Instead of badges, they had DSLR cameras.

It certainly wasn’t emptiness that gave the city its soulless feeling. There were plenty of pedestrians, but similar to the ones that I saw everyday in Dupont Circle, they seemed to be walking for the sole purpose of getting to Point A to Point B. Had Baudelaire lived in DC instead of nineteenth century Paris, he would be hard pressed to find anyone remotely resembling the flaneur who loves crowds and walks passionately through the bustling streets. I’ve never walked downtown at night, but I can imagine it deserted. The bureaucratic buildings, which already stare blankly on the brightest and busiest of days, could only become more anonymous without its inhabitants. There would be no restaurant goers, odd passerby gazing in wonder at the moon-lit office buildings, or night owls recounting their evenings as they wait for a bus or funnel into a metro station.

A few days later, I found an article on Facebook (posted by either The Atlantic or CityLab) explaining how Pennsylvania Avenue largely fails its purpose as DC’s grand boulevard. The article cites the absence of street-level attractions and retail, its inhospitable public gathering spaces, and its sheer size to explain why the thoroughfare is far from a “lively and engaging street.” It was gratifying and reassuring to receive a tiny confirmation that my discontents with DC were not solely a result of my own fickleness.

What the article mentions is not only confined to Pennsylvania Ave. I was waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner and drinks in Adams-Morgan. I had two options for sitting space: the bus stop where I had gotten off or these uncomfortable brick boxes. I couldn’t tell whether I was inhabiting an actual public plaza or an extension of the bank next door. Were the brick structures meant to serve as places to sit? If not, then why were they there in the first place? With the exception of Dupont Circle (the actual park that makes up the roundabout that gives the neighborhood its name), the small patches of green space that dot the city are mainly inhabited by the homeless, other shady characters, and the occasional weary local, who has nowhere else to sit. I miss the tiny parks in Manhattan, where people walked their dogs, took their children, ate food on their lunch breaks, and gossiped with their friends.

This is what surprises me everyday about DC. The city has all the trappings of a bustling metropolis. Its landscaping is impeccable. The buildings possess all the majesty and history you could ask for in a nation’s capital. Cultural institutions abound. The people form a colorful cast of characters–the young and seasoned professionals; the rich, famous, and the powerful; the bright-eyed students and interns; the parents who manage their fussy children on the bus; the tourists snapping pictures in Capitol Hill. Yet despite all this, everything fails to cohere. All these components seem to run parallel to each other. Rather than intertwining to form that living, breathing fabric that I’ve always loved about cities, they sit, blank and impassive.

People Watching #2

I took a late lunch today, but Madison Square Park was still packed with people. Instead of reading, I sat at a park bench and simply ate.

I saw:

  • A New Yorker reading this week’s copy of The New Yorker
  • Girl eating sandwich and smudging sandwich crumbs onto the screen of her iPad mini
  • A guy who looked like someone who was in one of my English classes – he was chatting with a coworker next to me and I worried for a solid five minutes that I’d been terribly rude for not at least acknowledging his presence until I noticed he was balding a little and almost sighed with relief because he was merely a stranger.
  • Another French bulldog.
  • Sparrows beating each other up over potato chip scraps – they are vicious creatures.
  • Pigeons who bullied the sparrows to snap up said potato chip crumbs
  • A pigeon that looked like it had been recently interred and resurrected
  • Both sparrows and pigeons being super greedy and trying to break off huge chunks of cookie
  • Over the lawn, there were hazy clouds of small bugs flying in the air, visible only in certain angles and only in the sunlight. (Was I breathing those in?)
  • Three separate individuals eating chopped salads

An Ode to Luxembourg

Not really an ode – I’m not the one to turn to for lyric poetry. Nonetheless, I think Luxembourg might be one of my favorite spots in Paris so far. After class, my original plan was to lounge in the park before exploring the crypts of the Pantheon. However, since it’s fall and I’m in Paris, it started to rain as soon as I stepped outside. Water was already dripping down the stairs of the metro station and onto my head by the time I found my umbrella. Instead of heading towards the park, I walked in a circle through some puddles before I finally found the Pantheon, which was a logical destination because it had a roof, or to be more exact, a huge dome.

As you probably figured out, the Pantheon does not refer to the ancient Roman ruins currently residing comfortably in Italy (although architecturally speaking, it did borrow many elements from its façade). The Pantheon in Paris is an odd mixture of things. Originally, it was built as a basilica honoring Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. When King Louis XV later recovered from a seroius illness, he decided to commission the building as a thanks for his good health. His renovation work on the old Abbey of St. Genevieve produced the striking structure that we have today. Eventually, the church became a favorite haunt of various intellectuals, including Léon Foucault, who set up his famous pendulum in the Pantheon’s walls. Today, tourists visit to marvel at the neoclassical designs and to see the famous crypts, which are full of celebrities, such as Marie Curie and Victor Hugo.

Being a fan of pretty architecture, dead people’s tombs, and dry places, I walked inside, presented my student ID, and was promptly asked for my passport or visa. I’ve been getting into museums for free because of my ID. Most institutions require those seeking free access to be a resident of the European Union, and most institutions accept a student ID as proof of residency. Except…you guessed it! The Pantheon. The reduced rate was €5.50, which was reasonable enough, I suppose.

The interior of the Panthéon is stunning. Polished marble columns shoot upwards towards intricately carved moldings. Sculptures of heroic looking figures decorate the corners of the bright expanse. All around the walls are paintings of St. Genevieve and her major life events. After you’ve spent enough time looking up at the domed ceiling, you can then stand transfixed with a live demonstration of Foucault’s Pendulum. I had the chance to witness a museum attendent adjust the pendulum and keep it swinging. The sphere was graceful. It was soothing to watch it move back and forth.

After I had had enough of physics and the earth’s rotation, I made my way downstairs to the crypts to check out some of the tombs. The crypts are well-lit. While not exactly spooky, there still seems to be something a little creepy about taking pictures of coffins and mausoleums. Some personalities, like Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rosseau, had their own little spaces. Victor Hugo shared a space with Alexander Dumas and Emlie Zola. Marie and Pierre Curie were interred nearby as well. Wreathes of flowers wound with red, white, and blue ribbon had been placed on the stone coffins. (I wonder if they’re remains are radioactive. Probably not, but the Internet tells me that some of her notebooks are still too radioactive to handle. Who knows?)

All the crypt wandering took about forty-five minutes, but when I wandered back upstairs, the sky still looked gray, so I took out my reading and made myself comfortable on a bench. I watched a tour guide explaining the mechanics behind the pendulum. In the hour it took for me to finish my book, tourists of all kinds of nationalities had sat next to me. An American couple pored over a map deciding how to use their metro tickets most effectively. A Turkish couple sat in silence. A Russian woman and her friend talked excitedly about something. A grandfather and his grandson, speaking what sounded like Dutch, talked about the museum’s merits (or so I assumed) while later on, a German family gathered to take a break before heading to a cafe for a coffee and a snack. It was interesting to encounter so many people from so many different nationalities all in one place.

I would have been content to go home right then and there, but lo and behold, when I walked outside, the sky was a marvelous blue! There was sunshine! It was even a little warmer! Without a second thought, I made a beeline towards the Luxembourg Gardens. The Tuileries Gardens were lovely, but the Luxembourg ones were even grander. I took a seat next to the fountain with the Senate Building to my right. Bright yellow and orange flowers bloomed in neat rows and squares. The grass was a brilliant green, but all around, the trees had already begun losing their rust-colored leaves, a strange cross between spring and autumn. Like most of Paris’s parks, the scenery was picturesque, but what made Luxembourg so fantastic was the people watching. There were a couple of tourists posing for pictures near the statues. Parisians lounged on the green metal chairs, smoking cigarettes and gossiping. A group of small schoolchildren launched a toy sailboat across the fountain where it drifted loftily with a few ducks. The children ran to the other side to watch its progress while their parents jogged after them.

Eventually, I had to go home, but I could have sat there for another hour, enjoying the beautiful blue sky and watching passerby going about their daily routines. Now that the weather has grown colder, opportunities to sit outside will be harder to come by, but I now understand why so many people in Paris enjoy an expresso sitting outside. It’s a great way to really see what’s around you.