November 2, 2007

Book review: "Grand Avenues," by Scott Berg

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Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington DC
By Scott Berg
Pantheon Books / ISBN: 978-0-375-42280-5

Of all the relatively "modern" topics to develop since the rise of the Industrial Age in the early 1800s, the subject of city planning is one I think particularly fascinating, since by its very nature it seems almost like science-fiction; the attempt to pack millions of humans into a space clearly not designed to naturally hold that many, in a way that's not only safe and physically healthy, but that God forbid might actually produce a couple of benefits as well, things that are simply impossible to replicate in a rural setting. It is a pursuit rooted in real problems that exist in the physical world, but one still deeply associated with pure theory; an industry whose practitioners most often think on a big scale, but almost never get their plans actually implemented past a small realization. It is a topic where creative brilliance mingles with both private enterprise and public politics; a combination of art form and engineering challenge that requires billions of dollars and millions of people in agreement to make happen. And no matter where on the planet you look or at what time in history, the topic has created instant and overwhelming controversy, without a single exception over the last 200 years.

Grand Avenues, by Scott Berg

Take for example the infamous case of Washington DC, capital city of the United States, whose complicated origin story gets tackled once again in the new book Grand Avenues, by full-time scholar and Washington Post contributor Scott Berg; a city literally created wholecloth from scratch by an act of the very first Congress, its very existence has been a sore point of contention for over two centuries, much less the piecemeal way it's been developed over that time period. As told by this engaging historian and writer, the story of Washington DC is the gripping story of America itself, and both its finest and worst traits: a story of compromise, a story of arrogant geniuses, a story of how capitalism can both move mountains and ruin even the simplest plans. It's a story I think a lot of Americans don't even realize, in fact -- that the seat of federal government we take so much for granted these days almost never came into being, with it certainly being a miracle that the city assumes the shape and feel that it currently has -- and a story I think a lot of Americans will find inherently gripping, as well as those like me who are naturally fascinated by the entire subject of urban planning.

In fact, the story of Washington DC's struggle goes all the way back to the beginning of the United States itself, and of the fundamental clash at the country's start that has defined us ever since; of whether the US should consider itself a loose confederation of independent states, utilizing only the most bare of federal backbones to hold things together (a model currently used, for example, by the European Union), or if we are a unified sovereign country like any other, with a large and prominent national government that actively attempts to create a better life for the citizens it represents. We as Americans still don't agree on the matter, with our two main political parties being ideologically separated mostly by this very issue; and the topic in fact goes all the way back to the founding of America itself, with Thomas Jefferson being the first prominent politician to take the "small government" side, Alexander Hamilton the first to take the opposite stance, one that would eventually be known as "Federalism."

It was the Federalists who pushed for the creation of an entire capital city, a concept that was fairly new at the time; Jefferson and his cohorts felt that the bureaucracy making up the federal government should instead be restricted to no more than a handful of buildings, placed in an unused corner of an already existing city (with most agreeing at the time that it should be Philadelphia, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in America back then). With the very concept of a United States, however, being not much more than theoretical at the time, it was the Federalist view that eventually won out; turned out that more people than not back then thought it a good idea to develop a central seat of American power, a shining new city that would demonstrate to their European allies how serious they were about this new "democratic society" of theirs. Let's not forget, at the time the very concept of a nation not ruled by a divinely-appointed monarch was an experimental one, one that a whole lot of people were sure was destined for failure, an attitude that seemed justified after France's similar attempt in the 1780s which ended in disaster; to many Americans, the establishment of Washington DC was a crucial one for the very identity of their new country, a declaration to the rest of the world that they were a civilized nation there to stay, not a bunch of bloodthirsty terrorists interested simply in usurping power from those who were formerly in charge.

Now, that said, most Americans were still fairly uncomfortable at the time as well with the full implications of democracy and free elections; as Berg reminds us in Grand Avenues, for example, George Washington was treated by both Congress and the public more like a king at the time than our first president, mostly because people were simply more comfortable back then with the idea of having a king. In fact, Washington ended up being given sole discretion by the first Congress to singlehandedly pick the location of the new federal "capital" (a word expressly invented, in fact, to describe the new city); after much deliberation, he chose a swampy area just five miles north of his home at Mount Vernon, situated on the banks of the economically important Potomac River.

It's at this point that Berg really gets into the heat of his argument in Grand Avenues for the first time, by emphasizing the experimental and capitalist way the city itself was founded -- that instead of the land being simply seized by this new government as would've normally been done in monarch-run countries, the new American government forced itself to purchase the land from the existing owners for a competitive price, a practice still mostly in use here in the US to this day. And thus did the complications in the development of Washington almost immediately start, complications that also exist to this day; the complications, that is, over the relationship between the government and private citizens here in America, over which side ultimately has the most power, of the ongoing fight over private rights versus public good. If the government, for example, wishes to build a road at the exact place where a private citizen wishes to build a house, which side should win out? And what's the fairest way to deal with the situation so that the other side gets screwed over as little as possible? As demonstrated by Berg using the real case of Duddington Manor back then, it's an issue Americans have been grappling with since literally the very formation of the country itself.

Ah, but all of this still doesn't touch on the most interesting part of the story, and the main focus of Grand Avenues overall; that of French artist Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who in the late 1700s was thrust into the role of "city planner" for one of the first times in human history, half a century before the term itself was even coined. A formally-trained creative aristocrat who became enamored with the American concept of "liberty," like many young French idealists L'Enfant actually moved to the colonies during the Revolutionary War, volunteering to help wherever he could; with his particular background, this turned out to be as a battlefield illustrator, helping then-General Washington get a quick and thorough understanding of the arena on hand, sketching up battlements on the fly at a point in history when reconnoissance missions and satellite photos didn't yet exist. As things continued to succeed with the American cause, so did things with L'Enfant's career; before you knew it, the war had been won (or at least the British had given up fighting, pretty much the same thing), and L'Enfant chosen to design the brand-new Federal Hall at the southern tip of Manhattan, site of Washington's first swearing-in as post-war President.

Under Berg's skillful hands as an author, L'Enfant's story and the story of the city become equally important; that even as a tale of infinite complexity sprang up regarding the development of Washington DC, so did a complex personality drive the man who first designed the city's layout. This is a man, after all, who basically received the commission by forcing himself on the nascient federal government, cajoling its members and constantly overselling his abilities, in a bid to take on the kind of grandiose assignments he felt were his destiny; a man who regularly threw petty temper tantrums when things didn't go his way, who often tossed out the old "Do You Know Who My Friends Are" line when encountering any petty bureaucrat who dared question his utopian vision. And indeed, as Berg so deliciously points out in Grand Avenues through numerous concrete examples, unlike a small-scale artist like a painter or author, a city planner must be as good at the politics of it all as they are the creative side; that when you start talking about billions of dollars, millions of employees, the entire creation of a city from scratch, you naturally start talking about politicians and business people who are a thousand percent more ruthless than any artist, and the need of that artist to be able to play those politicians' and business people's games by their own self-defined rules.

Of all the different things that Berg has to say and comment on regarding L'Enfant's infinitely complicated personality, that detail I think is perhaps the most interesting of all, and what maybe Berg was most emphasizing too; that as brilliant as L'Enfant was (and he was pretty freaking brilliant), ultimately he was utterly unequipped to "play the game," which single-handedly brought about his own downfall. Because make no mistake, Berg pulls no punches here when it comes to L'Enfant's quick and tumultuous downfall, both personally and as it is applied to the "official" history of Washington DC; that much like Thomas Paine, L'Enfant in a mere 15-year period went from "necessary genius who swayed the hearts and minds of millions during the war" to "annoying crackpot who keeps foisting his f--king genius on us at all times, and who makes for legitimately unpleasant personal company too." Why else, after all, would Berg end the book by focusing on the centennial of Washington DC's founding in the late 1800s, an auspicious occasion which would eventually cement the reputations of the same establishment-friendly Victorian-era urban planners responsible for the "City Beautiful" movement? In fact, Berg goes quite a bit into detail in this final chapter regarding one of these planners, Frederick Olmsted Jr, and how he had been raised from birth by his urban-planner father to play the game of public politics well, precisely so that his own eventual grand visions for city planning would go more smoothly; I can't help but to think that Berg concentrates on this particular story so much as a deliberate comment about L'Enfant's life, about how even as we should admire him for his singular and cutting-edge original vision, we shouldn't really pity him too much for what eventually happened to him, because it was mostly his own inability to "play nicely" that did himself in.

Grand Avenues, I'm happy to say, fits into a whole growing genre of history books these days, the nerdy nonfiction account that's written by an academe in a refreshingly conversational style; I'm all for books like this, and love so much that so many of them are getting published at this particular moment in history, just like one of the few things to celebrate about the proliferation of cable television is the simultaneous rise in the amount of ultra-smart documentaries. It is a book about a boring, geeky subject, written in a style I feel as engaging as any Grisham thriller; a book as perfect for the airport as any silly Nora Roberts crap-a-ma-bob, but a whole lot more intelligent. It comes with a high recommendation from me, both for Americans who wish to know a little more about the founding of their country, and also city-planning enthusiasts who wish to know more about the prehistoric beginnings of that industry.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about Grand Avenues: Official site | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:15 PM, November 2, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |