To the great relief of most Washingtonians, the average tourist never strays more than a few blocks from the National Mall; the Washington I know and the Washington that, say, the Moore Middle School’s sixth-grade class trip knows are two different cities.
Washington’s parks are counterpoints to the official capital culture, the world of tourists and senators and lobbyists. They are liminal spaces in which the city’s history, culture, and social conditions—as opposed to those of the nation—come into greatest relief. Which is why visiting them won’t tell you more about American politics, about Republicans versus Democrats or the latest congressional scandal, but doing so might give you some idea of what it’s like to live in a place where those are supposed to be the only things that matter.
Rock Creek Park
At 1,754 acres, Rock Creek is well over twice the size of Central Park; with its subsidiaries included, it is one of the largest urban expanses in the country. And yet unlike other noteworthy city parks—Central, Golden Gate, Grant—it is almost wholly untrod by tourist shoes, perhaps because Rock Creek isn’t what most of us think of as a park at all: It is a lush gash, a deep green chasm zig-zagging through western Washington. It is long and thin, and in a speeding cab you can easily miss passing over it. Only at its northern edge does it open up into fields and golf courses; for much of its length, it is only a few hundred yards wide. And outside a few grassy spots, some paths, and a parkway, Rock Creek is wild, given over to dense woods and tall trees that keep it cool and shady, even in July.
The southern end of Rock Creek is what you might call the anti-park. Unlike the Mall or the Great Lawn, Rock Creek is serene, wild, and heavily shaded; imagine several hundred acres of Central Park’s Ramble, crammed down a narrow valley. Even in the runner-heavy pre-work hours, I’ll often go several minutes between passing other joggers on the trail.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t see evidence of people. The park is a popular hangout for all sorts of marginal District residents, usually drawn from the shockingly large number of homeless in the nation’s capital. More than once I’ve seen the cardboard-and-cloth remnants of a jerry-rigged shelter up in the woods. Predictably, the park’s dual role as exercise ground for the city’s ambitious young and refuge for the desperate and often disturbed makes for an abundant set of disasters waiting to happen: This is, after all, where congressional intern Chandra Levy disappeared in 2001, and where her body was found in 2002. Even the park’s FAQ page openly acknowledges that the park is not a good place to be alone, even during the daytime, “especially for women.”
Meridian Hill Park
Every morning I wake up to a view of Meridian Hill, nine floors below me and across a four-lane street. Technically a part of Rock Creek, Meridian Hill is everything its parent park isn’t—it sits on the edge of a ridge overlooking the city, manicured and accessible. The park is split in two: an Italian Renaissance lower half and a French Baroque upper half. The bottom section is a gently sloping folly of winding paths, flowering trees, small monuments (to James Buchanan and Dante, a natural pairing), and a cascading fountain. The upper half is flat and open, and on weekends hosts pickup soccer, with teams drawing equally from the African and Latin American neighborhoods nearby. On Sundays, the soccer players make room for an enormous drum circle—a Meridian Hill tradition since the 1950s. In 1969, city legislators tried to rename it Malcolm X Park, and while that motion failed, it is still a common nickname.
The park lies at the confluence of the wealthy, western part of northern Washington and the poorer, eastern section (though gentrification is pushing that line further east every year). It’s also popular with activists—in 2003, I watched the beginning stages of an anti-war march, featuring then-presidential candidate Al Sharpton, from my bedroom window.
Like its much more famous cousin running across upstate New York, the C&O Canal was a miracle of early 19th-century engineering whose moment was cut short by the arrival of yet another engineering miracle, the railroad. Built to connect the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River (and thus the East Coast and the Mississippi Valley), the canal—and the park it has become—runs 184 miles from Cumberland, W.Va., to Rock Creek, just above its mouth on the Potomac. The path along which mule teams once towed barges is now a graveled footpath. The water in the canal moves just enough to avoid stagnation, but is still enough to encourage contemplation, especially as the canal rises above Washington and is enveloped in dense forest. Paralleling the tow path for a few miles before turning northward is the Capital Crescent, a rails-to-trails asphalt path that terminates in downtown Bethesda, Md. On weekday mornings commuter cyclists pack the trail headed into the city; on weekends they are replaced with scads of joggers, cyclists and Rollerbladers.
But like Rock Creek, the eastern end of the C&O Canal offers inadvertent glimpses of the city’s social malaise. I frequented the tow path as a college student at nearby Georgetown, and in good weather would notice, along the riverbank about 100 yards away through the woods, small collections of shanties—built by homeless fishermen, most likely. I often wondered what their presence said about a community that can afford to maintain an extensive historic park and covert a railroad right-of-way into an exercise route but can’t find the resources to house its homeless; today, somewhat more cynical, I wonder if any amount of money would make a difference.
Haynes Point, part of East Potomac Park, lies at the mouth of the Anacostia River, a sharp point of a park sticking out into the Potomac. At its tip sits the five-part sculpture called “The Awakening”—arms, legs, and the head of a giant, on his back, emerging from the muck. Haynes Point itself emerged from the muck—once under water, the peninsula is made of landfill added at the turn of the last century when the District was expanded by several hundred acres to the west of the Washington Monument, which used to be right on the shore of the Potomac. Haynes Point is, most famously, one of the many places where Councilman and former Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for drug possession, and is more generally known as a popular nighttime hangout point for drug dealers and prostitutes.
Part of Washington but accessible only by a footbridge from the Virginia bank of the Potomac, Roosevelt Island is 88.5 acres of mostly woodland, interlaced with hiking trails. At its northern center, amid the trees, sits the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, one of the most stunning unknown sites in Washington: A circular marble plaza, surrounded by low pools of water and highlighted in each hemisphere by an enormous, stone bowl, lies beneath a 17-foot bronze statue of TR, his right arm outstretched. On each side are two monoliths bearing famous quotations by the Rough Rider. Though the park is relatively young—completed in 1967—the memorial has the air of abandonment, as if it were once the site of complex rituals in observance of a long-dead religion.
The rest of the park is a swirl of trails running along the edge of the island, much of which is marshy lowlands; in these parts, the trails are paved with boards. At the northern and eastern edges you can catch glimpses back onto the city, unique views not often found in tourist guides or coffee table books. I like to visit Roosevelt Island when I need relief from the humid press of D.C. life—it’s a convenient excursion through the looking glass, a wooded idyll from which I can look back on the city.