Saturday, August 27, 2011

Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 25, 2011

Although this is listed as being at the Portrait Gallery, it's really not - it's right in the middle of the museum, so neither Portrait Gallery nor American Art. I guess you could say it's a portrait of a neighborhood? The show features pictures and narrative about the Penn Quarter, the part of downtown DC that's between Pennsylvania Avenue and Chinatown. It happens to be the neighborhood where I work, so it held particular interest for me. Well do I remember the days when you hurried through the streets in daylight and didn't go there at all at night. My friends and I referred to this area as the peruquerie district, as it contained so many seedy wig shops.

In the early part of the 20th century, however, the area was thriving. Looking at the pictures from that time period, it was easy to recognize the blocks I walk down every day - the stores were different, but the atmosphere was similar. Suburbanization and the riots that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King led to the decline of the area, and by the time I first arrived in the city in the early 1980s, it was a very undesirable location. The pictures from that time were much harder to identify - the buildings were the same as they are now, but they all looked nasty - either boarded up or housing unsavory businesses.

There was a chromolithograph of the Patent Office, that looks just the same as it does today. Pierre L'Enfant had originally intended that the space be used for a national cathedral or pantheon of American heroes - the more pragmatic Americans of the time decided on a building to house the Patent Office instead. Amazingly, Congress considered tearing the building down on two occasions - when I think of the many happy hours I've passed in this building (it's now the home of the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum) the thought is too dreadful to contemplate. Luckily, the first time demolition was contemplated, the local merchants were pacified with a widening of F Street, which necessitated the removal of a large staircase. The second time, in the 1950s, President Eisenhower was persuaded by David Finley, the director of the National Gallery of Art, to turn the building to its present purpose. I was heretofore ignorant of your role in enriching my life, Mr. Finley, but please accept the thanks of this grateful blogger!

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senator from New York, was also instrumental in revitalizing the Penn Quarter area. He worked under four presidents to put forth his plans for rebuilding the neighborhood - I'm sure he would be delighted to see it so vibrant today. The exhibit contains a wonderful bronze of Moynihan, done by Pat Oliphant, which is worth the trip to the show all on its own. It really captures his expression and energy.

I also discovered that several historic buildings were demolished to make way for the MLK Library, which is described as a "decrepit eyesore." I could not agree more with this assessment - what that structure needs is a can of gasoline and a lit match. It stands out in the neighborhood like a sore thumb, and is ugly and depressing to look upon. One can only hope that in some future redesign, it will go the way of the buildings it replaced.

Verdict: If you have any interest at all in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, or DC history in general, do go see this small display. It's easily seen in a lunch hour, even if you dawdle!

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