Today’s Washington Post adds two new perspectives to the recently enlivened debate over streetcars and the use of overhead wires to power them in D.C. The first piece from the Arts & Style section is an article by Washington Post Staff Writer Philip Kennicott, which asks “Would streetcars in D.C. spoil the city’s vistas?” He summarizes the anti-overhead wires arguments as resting on “two essential assumptions: that the city is filled with streets that have historically significant and aesthetically impressive views; and that wires and poles would be ugly intrusions on these grand vistas.” He opines that: “The former is questionable, the latter a matter of opinion.”
Kennicott then argues:
“If you listen to preservationists, the most ardent of whom oppose any overhead wires in the city, you might think Washington was loaded with great vistas. And it is, but not the awe-inspiring views they’re thinking about, which turn out to be fairly few and often not that impressive. Even down our wide avenues, sightlines tend to terminate in small monuments that are best seen up close.
The great views down the streets of Washington are just coming into their full glory as the leaves of spring return. These aren’t wide-open vistas with monumental buildings in the far distance; they are tunnel-like views of shaded streets, overarched by majestic elms, oaks and maples. These shady tubes of green, which are rare in newer and suburban neighborhoods, are the truly distinctive beauty of Washington. The only reasonable concern about running overhead wires should be the protection of trees that create these glorious canopies.”
He calls the demands of the “ardent (shall we just say unreasonable?) anti-wire contingent” for streetcars that run completely on underground power “ridiculous” and “not just because it would limit the District’s options, force it to pay more and result in a system that might not function during weather such as we all remember from February. It is ridiculous because it assumes that wires are ugly.”
Kennicott’s argument builds to this powerful conclusion:
“Some wires are [ugly], and one is thankful for the many District neighborhoods where the majority of wires and cables are underground. But wires powering a modern and environmentally friendly streetcar are the opposite of ugly. They are a manifest advertisement to the world that the city is committed to public transportation, limiting its carbon footprint and improving quality of life. The flexibility of a hybrid system means that not only can the occasional monumental views of Washington be preserved wire-free, but that in certain areas the really distinctive views — the urban allees of overarching trees — might be kept wire-free, too. If DDOT is flexible on both counts, the addition of streetcars would be as beautiful as any view of a marble monolith anywhere in the District.”
The second piece — “Why D.C. streetcars are ‘preservationist’” which appears on the Post’s Local Opinions page, was written by Adam Irish, who is described as “a member of the D.C. Preservation League and a volunteer at the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.” He provides a different preservationist perspective from the anti-overhead wire perspective offered by other preservationists in a recent Post article. He writes: “as an active Washington preservationist, I am thrilled that streetcar service could soon be restored to D.C. neighborhoods, and I know many preservationists who share this view.”
Irish argues that streetcars are an important part of D.C.’s history and bringing them back to our streets could actually help promote historic preservation:
“As an important feature of urban life for nearly half of Washington’s history, streetcars shaped the city’s built environment perhaps more than any other technology. They were a transformative force, making once-remote areas such as Mount Pleasant into vibrant urban neighborhoods and shaping the streetscapes from which they have since retreated. New streetcars would not sully the city’s historic character but would affirm its history and aid in the preservation of its historic neighborhoods. By returning the infrastructure many neighborhoods were built to rely on, streetcars could spur revitalization and help neglected areas get back on track. Yes, all reasonable measures should be taken to protect significant views and honor the 1889 law, but streetcars should not be derailed because of a couple of wires.
This kerfuffle is about more than just ugly wires, however. It gets to the heart of an old and familiar conflict over how Washingtonians and Americans at large envision the city. In its coverage, The Post has referred to opponents of wires as “preservationists,” but I think “D.C. monumentalists” better describes their stance. For the monumentalist, Washington, D.C., the city comes second to Washington, D.C., the sanitized and photogenic capital.
The monumentalist vision of Washington has choked nearly all urban life from the Mall and its environs. It has fashioned large sections of our city into pleasing vistas for tourists but has given the rest of us lifeless wastelands (if you’ve ever stepped foot outside at L’Enfant Plaza, you know what I’m talking about).”
He concludes: “It’s high time we stopped sacrificing the vitality of our city for the sake of a grand and sterile capital. It’s a local tradition that has historically failed both our city and capital, and it’s one that I think isn’t worth preserving.”