Twenty Years Since 9/11, Revisiting Washington, DC, Part One

As a few of my readers know, I was living in Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, exactly two miles away from the Pentagon when the plane crashed into it. I moved back at Christmastime of 2006, and had only been back to the District of Columbia twice since then. I just returned for the first time in nine years for my third visit the first weekend of October with a friend who had never been there, so I showed her around the monumental core. We first walked around the Capitol, which had much of its fencing down since January 6th, but the west front still had some barricades up. It was surreal to be standing somewhere so peaceful that had experienced so much violence less than a year before.

On the north side of the Washington Monument, close to 700,000 white flags had been placed on the sloping hill for the victims of the coronavirus epidemic. I lived through 9/11, an earthquake, hurricane, a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the ground and the Beltway Sniper while living in DC, but never a pandemic. People had customized some of the flags with messages and the names of loved ones.

We walked by the White House, but then headed up to Lafayette Park, where we looked at the Baron Von Steuben statue, which is one of four at the corners of the park that commemorates foreign soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Someone had placed a wreath to commemorate his recent birthday. It’s an interesting discussion: Prussian militarism aided America twice in the Eighteenth Century, first in the Seven Years War and then in the Revolutionary War, but then America had to twice defeat and finally destroy it in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. I would imagine there was a time when people would be upset that anyone left any wreaths at this statue. Apparently it is acceptable in 2021 again.

I used to go walking around the Tidal Basin when I lived in Washington, DC, so early on Saturday we hit the streets and made it there before the tourists. In fact, nobody was there! It was weird. There were plenty of other people on the Mall on Friday and Saturday, but apparently it’s too long of a walk nowadays?

I was shocked that after twenty years they still hadn’t gotten rid of the horribly ugly Jersey barriers that were sunk in the mud; at the Washington Monument they have constructed these very nice low walls to replace the temporary barriers years ago. Honestly, portions of the park were sinking into the water and it looked really bad. It was doing that over twenty years ago. It just felt like there was a malaise around the Tidal Basin.

One of my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson on the interior of the memorial is still up.

Then we went by the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial, which generated a lot of controversy when it first opened. I had never seen it before because it opened in 2011 and I had not had a chance to see it when I last visited in 2012. I was surprised how badly many memorials had aged, particularly the ones from the last thirty years. I know we can’t all be lucky enough to have Donatello as our sculptor, but many of the monuments, for people and events that deserve to be commemorated, are just really bad. I saw one memorial out of the corner of my eye, whose purpose eludes me, that looked like a bunch of drunk people dancing around. What happened to the gravitas?

The Lincoln Memorial is still one of my favorite monuments, and was looking great in the morning light. Narcissists were busy photographing themselves for social media in great numbers on the steps and in the plaza around the monument. I swear most people were not even looking at the statue of Lincoln or reading any of the text inside.

It’s based off the Altes Museum in Berlin, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

You might not believe this, but I was walking by the day the engraver was engraving these words into the steps out front commemorating Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

We escaped the tourists by heading over to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which is a short walk to the northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. I was shocked to discover the memorial almost completely deserted, despite the steady crowds so close nearby. I suppose Vietnam is too much of downer for “selfies.” When I lived in DC, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial used to be packed with visitors. I suppose people are beginning to forget, or wanting to forget, about the men and women who suffered and died–and are still suffering–in that war, now beginning to be so long ago. There was one lone man, who looked to be in his seventies, standing at the bottom of the memorial, walking back and forth. We did not stop to talk to him, but he appeared like he was looking for old friends that he couldn’t find. I hope he finds them one day.

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