Expressway is as Expressway Does
Carving up the National Mall
The weekend after we got back from Croatia, we went into Washington, D.C. for the day. I guess after all these little towns with winding streets, we wanted a day in the big city. (And also something with more kick than the Mediterranean fare we’d been having— for dinner we went to Baan Siam, a unique Thai restaurant where most of the dishes were spicy. It was so good.)
But it was definitely quite jarring to spend a day in an American city after spending more than a week in old European cities. (Old as is built long before the automobile.) We went from streets that looked like this:
To streets that look like this:
This is 14th Street, running through the National Mall just away from the Washington Monument. All the food trucks line up here, and people wait in line, sit down, eat, and chat on either side of the street. But the street is more like an expressway: four lanes of traffic, not counting the lanes in which the food trucks are parked. The traffic is fast and loud. This “street” is a gash that rips through this otherwise pedestrian-friendly landscape. It maroons you on whichever side you’re on. It feels like it wants to be a quiet, narrow street, but it’s designed to move as many cars as fast as possible, through the heart the city.
Here’s one side of the street. It’s nice. But instead of stitching the Mall together, it segments it into isolated pieces.
After spending some days in car-free old cities, and just in an environment where cars don’t absolutely dominate, you really notice the constant dull roar of traffic, that feeling of elevated adrenaline and nervousness that I always took to be somehow inherent in urban environments. But it’s mostly the cars. I thought that sounded silly a couple of years ago. But it’s true.
So much of the chaos, disorder, and noise that suburbanites perceive in American cities has nothing to do with cities. I enjoyed the Thai food and the free museums, and I love D.C. But that was what I really took away from this post-European-vacation day trip.
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