January 9, 2014 No better time to visit U.S. capital
We’ve all heard the stories about Washington’s ugly dichotomy: the majesty of government buildings cheek-by-jowl with some of the worst poverty in the United States. Most of us don’t drop by East L.A. when visiting Disneyland nor scoot over to Bed-Stuy while on a theatre tour of Manhattan.
Vancouver Courier, September 15, 2002
By. Pat Johnson
To visit Washington, D.C. these days is to become part of the show itself. Aware visitors will realize they are being watched at all times while in the historic government area of town. That is not to say one is ogled by security as if shopping at Army and Navy, where the staff are ready to pounce on the assumption that you are about to commit an indictable offence. No, visiting Washington is to experience a voyeurism much more subtle, rather like that lived by Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.
One of the most unusual experiences I have had was walking through the heart of the completely deserted National Mall at midnight, enjoying in solitude the awesome monuments around me, yet secure in the knowledge that I was under the careful watch of any number of civilian or military security officials who would certainly protect me if I found myself suddenly not alone.
The cameras are rarely in view, though you can spot them in the trees every now and then. America learned a thing or two about discretion over decades of spying on foreign cabinet meetings and guerrilla movements. They can certainly keep an eye on an errant Canadian wandering jaw agape through the heart of American democracy.
Discretion is an apt description for Washington right now. I was enormously impressed at the manner in which city and federal officials have increased security while maintaining access for tourists. An article in the New York Times recently complained that security has become too rigid in Washington, making it tough to appreciate the historic riches. That’s not the city I visited around the American Memorial Day holiday. During the day, throngs packed the predictable destinations: school kids had their pictures taken at the Washington Monument, seniors tried to keep their balance staring up at it, old soldiers dabbed their eyes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
White House tours were suspended when I was there and the streets in front of the congressional offices where the real business of the country is done were blocked off to cars. Even so, I was able to wander unmolested almost to the front door of the Capitol building at dusk and circle the White House without any sense of impending intervention.
We’ve all heard the stories about Washington’s ugly dichotomy: the majesty of government buildings cheek-by-jowl with some of the worst poverty in the United States. Most of us don’t drop by East L.A. when visiting Disneyland nor scoot over to Bed-Stuy while on a theatre tour of Manhattan. Yes, there is poverty and crime in Washington, but hanging out around the tourist sites of Washington seems as safe as anywhere I’ve visited. A small detail that said much to me was the fact that sidewalk cafes close up for the night without taking chairs and tables inside nor even chaining them up, as would be standard in Vancouver. Criminals know, perhaps better than tourists, that the night has a thousand eyes.
Washington is a foot-tourist’s mecca, of course. The National Mall is an elongated green space running from the Capitol building at one end to the Washington Monument at the other. All along it are the country’s top museums, including most of the Smithsonian buildings, the National Gallery of Art, the Natural History Museum and the American History Museum. Within a few minutes’ walk are all the attractions one recognizes from a lifetime of television news and entertainment, as well as gracious pillared structures housing various government departments.
I booked a hotel online through Hotwire.com and stayed at the Grand Hyatt Washington, which could not have been more perfectly located for a tourist. The rack rate is $320US a night, but I paid $179US. Hotwire and other online booking services have deep discounts on hotels from budget to top of the line, perhaps more so now.
Rather than discouraging travel to the American capital, the perceived downturn in tourism could be an impetus to go. The lineups at the popular sites may be slightly shorter than in years past and, if you’re not shy about being watched, it’s probably safer than ever.
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