Washington Gothic

Within the halls of Washington, D.C., lurks a stench of unsolved crimes, muttering highwaymen, and altogether strange behavior. Our writer peers into the capital’s dark corners.

I live just south of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and in the evening I often go jogging on the Mall. By 9:00 p.m., the broad green swath is clear of the tourists, Ultimate Frisbee players, and assorted protesters that clog its gravel pathways during daylight hours. By then, all that’s left are fellow runners, a few stragglers, and the occasional news crew filming a spot by the Capitol reflecting pool—a sure bet for that dramatic, ‘Live from Washington’ effect.

Last week, a cool but slightly humid May evening, seemed no different. But as I neared the Mall, a cavalcade of sirens roared around the East Wing of the National Gallery. It was a motorcade, but much larger than usual—over the next twenty minutes, about ten patrol cars and an equal number of motorcycles wound their way back and forth across the Mall, headed west, blocking traffic at intersections. Interspersed among them were four articulated sightseeing buses, low to the ground with big windows. Inside them it was dark, but I could just make out human forms, presumably taking in the sights. Dozens of them. Protected by a motorcade larger than the president’s. What was going on? It’s the stuff of X-Files paranoia, and in Washington, it happens all the time.

Call it Washington Gothic. In the capital of the world’s most powerful country, it shouldn’t be surprising that so much happens beyond simple explanation. It’s a perfect storm of politics, landscape, and people—in the same way that Hollywood’s pot of fame attracts those who lead lives of quiet desperation while nurturing dreams of stardom, so too does Washington attract the power hungry and the power deluded, people with half a plan and the conviction that if they can just make it inside the Beltway, their voice will be heard. And when they come together, weirdness ensues. Just beyond where the film crews gather for shots of the Capitol dome, there is a ‘free speech zone’ conveniently hemmed in by trees. For a week last month, a small group gathered there every night with a megaphone and a rambling sermon. Unobservable by anyone standing on the Mall, their disembodied voices rang out across the vacant expanse.

Like Hollywood, it’s amazing how well hidden the city’s dark side is from the tourist hustle and bustle. Just as Hollywood engendered pulp noir—not all of it fiction—Washington has its own macabre version of reality. But unlike Hollywood, Washington’s underside is not rooted in the psychological; it’s deeply structural. Sure, it draws in all kinds, but its broken government and weak civic culture are an unparalleled growth medium for the maladjusted and malcontent. For years the city was effectively run by North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth, a conservative Republican who chaired the Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, overseeing—and often sharply curtailing—the city’s budget. The city still has only nominal control over its finances; it has no representative in Congress; and broad sections are controlled by a panoply of federal agencies. As a result, the District’s civic culture is stunted, its police force is inept, and its streets are filled with homeless, often mentally unstable drifters (the result of Reagan-era deinstitutionalization, compounded by the city’s lack of social service funds). At night, after the tourists have gone back to their hotels, the Mall fills with mumbling wanderers, as do Rock Creek and the green swards along the Potomac.

And despite its burgeoning black middle class, the city is also one of the country’s most racially divided. The Metro system simply does not service the wealthier sections of Northwest Washington (lest the unwashed masses get too close), while the city’s white population avoids the Southeast quadrant as if it were a war zone. White flight drove hundreds of thousands to the suburbs in the 1960s and ‘70s, and despite a recent slackening, that trend has yet to reverse itself. The majority of people who work in Washington don’t live there, further robbing the city of needed tax revenues. There’s no money, there’s no social unity—the city is broken, and through the cracks ooze crime and squalor.

Geography plays a part as well. Washington is a forever autumnal burg of dark streets and Edward Gorey-inspired gardens, foreboding, always-darkened cemeteries. It is a small city, but it rolls in on itself multiple times, so that histories and tragedies and poverty and power intersect in an almost visible patina spread out over its sloping geography. Rock Creek Park is a deep, lush ravine that runs through the center of the city; that bodies occasionally turn up in the creek’s wooded banks is no surprise.

Washington has a dirty secret: Every few years, a young woman from out of town gets brutally raped and murdered. In 1998 it was Christine Mirzayan, a National Science Foundation fellow found bludgeoned to death in the woods just outside Georgetown University. In 1999 the body of Joyce Chang washed up along the Potomac. And in 2001, it was Chandra Levy. Yes, it happens in all big cities. But in D.C. these crimes are almost never solved; it often seems the police give up before they even start investigating. If you live here long enough, the regularity and brutality of the murders take on an almost ritualistic overtone; like ‘Murder Mile’ in the Anacostia neighborhood, for years home to the country’s highest murder rate, they are a part of the city’s criminal mythology. In other cities such trends might lead to public outcry; here it’s just part of the scenery.

Unlike New Orleans, another city famous for its gothic overtones, Washington’s dark side is not immediately obvious. Particularly for tourists, the city is a civics set piece, home to the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the White House, and dozens of other bright physical embodiments of the national political culture. But for every tit there’s a tat, and the center of American power is no exception. Washington Gothic isn’t a part of the city’s cachet; it’s not readily explicable and it’s hard to capture in a single example. But live here long enough, and it’s inescapable.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen