DC

 

David Whitley chats to an Australian bar owner, and discovers that there’s far more to Washington DC than first meets the eye.

 

If you fly into Washington, try and tick off the highlights and then leave within a couple of days, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s not much more to it than showpiece monuments and a rather unfulfilling downtown area. And it’s true that this is one major part of Washington. The museums and memorials around the National Mall are what a lot of people come for, and if you don’t venture too far afield from there, you’ll be surrounded by suit-clad types intent on showing how big their wallets/ balls are in hugely expensive be-seen steakhouses.

 

But once you get beyond the area where it’s all about impressing dignitaries, interns and monument-loving visitors, the city starts to get a whole lot more interesting. I spent my second evening in the city in a small bar in the up-and-coming district of Columbia Heights. You’d really have to know Room 11 was there and target it directly, as there’s no way you’d accidentally stumble across it.

 

It’s the sort of place that Washington is, quietly, starting to do well. It doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s all about the people you talk to rather than the people who see you there, and it shows that this city can be cool without having powerdress and surround yourself with opulent marble.

 

Over an enormous glass of wine (“we don’t believe in micropouring...”) I end up chatting with Ben Gilligan. His accent is more east coast Australia than east coast US – unsurprising, given that he grew up in Brisbane – and the conversation provides a classic lesson. It’s easy enough to get an idea of a city by walking around it and looking at things, but to really delve into it and begin to understand how it all holds together, you’ve got to talk to people. It’s the faultlines that make Washington fascinating. The reason the capital was built here was because it is where the north meets the south. During the American Civil War, the two sides could stare at each other in their own territory across the Potomac River. The city’s character owes as much to Atlanta and Memphis as it does to New York and Boston.

 

Race matters too. Washington is a majority African American city and the contrasts between the upmarket northwest and much poorer south-east are stark.  It’s the most staunchly democratic city in the country – over 90% voted for Barack Obama – but there are still major political divisions. In the recent Democratic primary for the mayoral election (essentially the mayoral election given that no other party has a chance), incumbent Adrian Fenty lost, even though he won in 58 of the 61 majority white areas. He won just 10 of the 118 majority black areas. If Americans try and tell you there’s no racial divide in their country, the evidence suggests otherwise.

 

But in Washington, the most interesting areas are where the ‘white’ half and ‘black’ half of the city lap at each others’ shores. U Street is the classic example – it was the scene of riots in the 1960s, but now there’s a relatively easy coexistence between people of all races and incomes. This is spreading north to Columbia Heights, and to little pockets such as H Street in traditional no-go areas.

 

As Ben says, “Washington is finally getting little enclaves that are starting to grow – it’s an unpretentious version of the New York thing where a lot of people rarely leave their home area.” There’s still crime in Columbia Heights, but three years ago, a place like Room 11 would have never taken off here.

 

“Getting Obama in has eased a bit of the tension in the city,” says Ben. “It’s still a tense city, though – and that’s what makes it exciting.”

 

Tense, exciting, whatever you want to call it – Washington is certainly a lot more interesting than it first appears. Step beyond the Mall, explore the borderline neighbourhoods that get the tag “new DC” and you uncover a city you just want to know more about. Most of all, though, it’s a great lesson – it’s good to talk.

 

 

Details: Room 11 (Room11DC.com) can be found at 3234 11th St. NW in Columbia Heights. David stayed at the Dupont Hotel (Doylecollection.com) and W Hotel (Starwoodhotels.com/whotels).

 

Museumed out



David Whitley tries to cram too much in, then tries to work out whether we really regret not seeing things 

The Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress is utterly beautiful inside. It’s covered with paintings, murals and sculptures that should make the heart sing.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that because my eyes had glazed over. I felt slightly faint, my whole body was weary and I was desperately craving a nice sit down and a beer.

That, of course, is exactly what I should have gone for. On the first full day in Washington DC since I’d flown in, I’d already covered a fairly impressive amount. I’d walked the length of the National Mall, I’d been on a walking tour of many of the big sights, I’d gone around the Capitol Building and I’d parked myself inside the House of Representatives.

It’s OK to be flagging at the end of all that. The natural, sensible thing to have done would have been to call it a day, find a bar and slump at it. Or, in the world of things that make sense, I’d have gone back to my hotel room for an hour or so’s recharging the batteries.

But the idea of seeing the world’s biggest library spurred me to a last kick off energy. I’d regret not seeing it, I was fairly certain.

Well, I’m glad I did see it. But I wish I’d come back another time. I was, to use the technical term, utterly museumed-out.

This isn’t a rare phenomenon. It can happen to all of us when we look at how much we want to do in a destination and how much time we’ve got to do it in. The temptation is always there to try and push beyond the tiredness barrier to fit it all in. It can apply to single museums too – the urge is to see absolutely everything in it, even if by doing so you collapse in a weeping heap by the end.

There comes a time when nothing more will go in. It’s like over-revising for exams, of over-filling a bath. Everything that goes in forces an equal amount out, creating nothing more than a big mess.

What is achieved by pushing yourself to overflow like this? Very little other than saying you’ve done or seen something. That something won’t have been particularly memorable or even, in many circumstances, enjoyable. And if that’s the case, would it have been best not to do it?

I think my comparison point would be Cape Town. There was a lot I did there that I enjoyed immensely. There was also a lot that I didn’t have time to squeeze in – I didn’t go to the Cape of Good Hope, I didn’t get to the top of Table Mountain, I didn’t get to Robben Island. How do I feel about that? If I’m honest, it’s not regret. It’s something different – perhaps anticipation. It’s a city that I’m really excited about the prospect of going back to. I don’t know when that’ll be – but until that time, it’ll always be a city that I remember very fondly, where the idea of a repeat visit fills me with excitement.

That’s a feeling I should remember when charging round trying to complete the checklist. Surely it’s better to spend 90 minutes looking at part of a museum, or tackling two attractions a day well rather than trying to squeeze in the third, then feel like I want to come back?


Newseum



David Whitley finds the experience of going round a museum about his own profession both odd and – eventually – challenging 

A look through the newspapers from across the United States is rather illuminating. The front page of the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska features the tragic tale of two wolves being killed in the Denali National Park. The Hartford Courant in Connecticut has “Berry Good News” – fruit crops are likely to be a week to ten days early this year.

In Indianapolis, residents are being encouraged to protect their ears ahead of the Indy 500, whilst in Nebraska a shortage of helium is causing problems for party decorators.

The New York Post runs with the tale of a woman who was fired for having big breasts, whilst the Oklahoman celebrates a basketball victory before noting in a subheading “At least eight people shot after game”.

If ever you want an insight into how diverse the US is, a stroll along the front of the Newseum in Washington DC should do the trick. There’s one front page for every state, put up every day. And there’s a staggering lack of agreement on what the big stories are.

With Washington having so many free museums, it’s tempting to ignore the ones that you have to pay to get into. The Newseum is arguably the best of the non-free ones (even at an eye-watering $23.27 to get in). It’s an occasionally too po-faced exploration of the world of journalism, which charts print, broadcast and online media throughout the years. There’s also a memorial to journalists killed in action and numerous special exhibits ranging from election coverage to the relationship between the FBI and the media.

The unquestioned highlight, for me, is the collection of Pulitzer-prize winning photographs. Most of them are just extraordinary, managing to tell a complex story or invoke powerful emotions in just one shot.

But there’s something odd about going round a museum devoted to your profession. I found myself flitting past sections, thinking: “Yeah, yeah. I know all that.” And I’m sure that wouldn’t be the reaction for most visitors. I wonder if dentists go round a museum of dentistry wishing that they were learning something new? Or whether chocolatiers go round a museum of chocolate thinking that the whole experience clearly isn’t for them?

The most enjoyable parts of the experience are interactive – pretending to be a TV reporter reading from an autocue script, a race against time to discover the real story behind a fire at a circus, that sort of thing.  But the most challenging – and illuminating – section of the Newseum concentrates on ethics.

On the screens, you’re presented with ethical dilemmas such as pretending to be crazy to get into an asylum and expose practices there, or taking weapons past checkpoints to test airport security flaws. The interesting thing is that the views of the public have been collated against those of professional journalists. For the most part, there is broad agreement on what’s right and what’s wrong, but one question was particularly striking.

You’re shown an image of a famine-ridden child crawling along the ground, with a vulture behind it. The question is, upon seeing this, do you take the photograph or help the child? My reaction was almost instantaneous – you’ve been sent to cover the famine, the vulture isn’t actually going to attack the child, and there’s very little I can do to help him anyway. I’d take the photo and then, after getting the right photo, I’d take a look around to see if there was anything I could do to help the child. 72% of journalists said they’d do the same. The public? Just 28%.

That’s the most jarring one, but there were also divergences on sneaking a camera into an execution chamber to watch someone dying in the electric chair. The problem there was a straight yes or no question. I’d have approved of sneaking the camera in, but not necessarily run the resulting photographs. Again, the public seemed far more aghast at the idea than the journalists.

It seems the front pages aren’t the only places to find wildly divergent views of what’s important…


Hidden Smithsonian



David Whitley goes to see a space shuttle’s retirement home whilst killing time at Washington Dulles airport – but is stunned to find a plane with a darker history alongside it 

“Close to the airport” isn’t usually much of a selling point. Generally all you’ll find close to the airport are rental car lots and businesses that provide catering services for airlines. There’s a reason why the drive into town from an airport is always a bit bleak and depressing.

Washington Dulles airport may be awful inside, but it bucks the trend by having something truly wonderful next to it. The Smithsonian Museums are major highlights once you’re into Washington DC proper, but few people realise that a branch of the Air and Space Museum can be found right next to Dulles airport. In fact, the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center is just a ten minute, 50 cent bus ride away. And, as a time-killer, it sure beats listening to late boarding announcements.

The star attraction there, at least to my knowledge before going, is the space shuttle discovery. It was flown in a few months ago, and now it sits in a hangar surrounded by other space memorabilia. You know, things like the floating collar that kept the Apollo 11 command module afloat when it plopped into the sea. And the incredibly cramped Gemini VII in which Frank Borman and Jim Lovell spend two weeks weightless in 1965. Not bad as a collection goes.

The shuttle is, of course, spellbinding. The boosters at the back are so gigantic that you half-expect stars to be sucked into them.

But, surprisingly, the shuttle manages to get dwarfed by the rest of the collection. The museum is essentially one giant hangar full of planes. 

Some are hanging from the ceiling, some are jumbled in amongst each other on the floor, almost as if they’ve been pulled out of a wardrobe and will be sorted out later. The sheer number of planes is impressive, but there are some stand-outs amongst them. There’s a sleek, black Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird – a somewhat sinister military reconnaissance plane. If Darth Vader could be a plane, this would be it. It’s the world’s fastest propelled aircraft, and in its final flight, it was flown from Los Angeles to Dulles in just one hour, four minutes and 20 seconds.

There’s also a Wright brothers military plane from 1908 and a Concorde. Yes. The hangar is so big that they can just slide a Concorde in there, surrounded by private jets and a jumbo.

But it’s one plane in particular that makes my hairs stand on end. It’s almost lost in the crowd, only partially elevated amongst the less sexy aircraft surrounding it.

It’s an odd looking thing, with the cockpit right in the nose, and the body a gleaming, polished silver. Stealth would never be its strong point, but it looks bizarre enough to attract the attention. Etched into the silver are some names – obviously the crew. And then I look further up and realise exactly what I’m looking at. It’s the Enola Gay.

I didn’t realise this plane was still in existence. It was born in 1945, and I’d assumed it had been quietly retired and destroyed not long afterwards. Above those names is another small inscription. It reads “First Atomic Bomb. Hiroshima. Aug 6, 1945”. This is the plane that carried out the single deadliest act of war in history; looking at it just gives me the shivers.

In a display cabinet nearby are two safety plugs. Both were found in the navigator’s compartment, and there’s a high chance that the green one was from the ‘Little Boy’ bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. One of those names, it strikes, had to have the responsibility of pulling that plug out. A more horrific task, I’d struggle to contemplate.

I head back to the airport in a shocked silence, thoughts racing. A decent time-killer before a flight had turned into a surprise encounter that moved me in ways I still find hard to articulate. And, for that, I’ll happily skip the Duty Free shopping.

Disclosure: In Washington, David stayed as a guest of the Fairmont Hotel



Rocky

 


 

David Whitley abandons all pretence of being cool in Philadelphia, and discovered that taking the touristy option shouldn’t necessarily be sneered at

 

A decision to make

 

Stood at the bottom of the steps, a dilemma crossed my mind. I had two options here, and the first was to calmly walk up them and enter the Philadelphia Museum of Art with measured decorum. The second was to run up them, humming Gonna Fly Now with unnerving enthusiasm, stopping at the top to perhaps punch the air or shout: “Adriiiiiiiian!”

 

Despite my natural aversion to running, the latter option was always going to win out. For me (and for millions of other people), those steps (I counted 99 in total, interspersed by the odd gap and a big plaza) are not the way up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are the Rocky Steps, as conquered by Sylvester Stallone during a series of increasingly ludicrous training montages in the Rocky films. 

 

And if attempting to emulate Sly makes me look like the ultimate tourist, then so be it. In fact, if I had my way, there would be a lifesize model of Mr T at the top, constantly parroting “I pity the fool” alongside an Ivan Drago statue that periodically shouts: “I must break you” and “If he dies, he dies.” That, actually, would be brilliant. 

 

The Tourist Trap

 

In some circles, the biggest insult you can offer is to label someone as a ‘tourist’. I must admit that I’m not immune from this. I can’t stand being somewhere that is completely swarming with tour groups, and will often suggest less ‘touristy’ spots. I’m guilty. I’m a snob at times.

 

But there’s often a reason why certain places and activities are ‘touristy’. And that reason is because they’re worth seeing or doing. Sneer all you like at the people pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or following an umbrella round Prague Castle – the only reason that you’re annoyed is that they’re getting in your way.

 

And sometimes, when you’ve only got a couple of days somewhere, it’s nice to be able to abandon all pretence of cool-hunting, and just go with the obvious. Hence, after running up the Rocky steps a couple of times, I got on one of those ubiquitous hop-on, hop-off buses that you can see in just about every town in the world. Including, I imagine, Rotherham.

 

The tourist experience

 

Did I feel like I was getting a unique experience to treasure forever? No. Did I feel like I was properly getting under the skin of Philadelphia? No. Did I feel like I was taking a pioneer diversion off the usual tourist trail? Of course not. But I did have an enjoyable ride around the city, got a good overview of it, and learned a few interesting things in the process. 

 

I now know, for example, that Ben Franklin coined the phrase: “Early to bed, early to rise makes you healthy, wealthy and wise.” I know that Pennsylvania came about because King Charles II owed William Penn’s father a lot of money, and decided to pay his debt by giving Admiral Penn’s son a substantial land charter. I also know that the first ice cream ever made in the US was yellow tomato flavour. All interesting stuff, if not exactly the sort of thing I’ll be bragging to my grandchildren about in 50 years time.

 

But travel doesn’t have to be amazing all the time. It can’t always be about doing that knocks your socks off. Sometimes it’s OK to follow the herd, do the obvious thing and have an enjoyable time of it in the process. And if that makes me a tourist, then I’ll wear the label with pride.

 

Disclosure: David travelled using the Philadelphia Pass from Viator (Viator.com)