White Stripes

Took Metro to work, got a SmartBike at lunch to ride across town for lunch, and tonight I’m heading to the Zipster happy hour in the West End...although I will not be actually getting a Zip car. That’s a transit trifecta! And I haven’t even mentioned my shoes, those stalwart mid-height spectator sling-backs in café au lait with black patent leather toe, purchased years ago at Carbon One...

I was headed to Foggy Bottom for lunch, so I went west on G Street, happy for the bike lane that took me all the way to the Pennsylvania Ave Piazza. I love riding through that great swath of uber-public space, even if its generosity is a by-product of paranoia. It is at once bustling and tranquil, a setting for the passion play of democracy. I roll through, passing the guards, the families, the dark-suited Important People, the protesters and proclaimers, free from the tension of sharing the road with vehicles—heck, and people—that outweigh me. Out the west side, though, I’m tossed back into the mix of delivery vehicles, opening doors, stopped taxis, and giant trucks, so I weave from street to sidewalk and back, looking for safe passage.

Gee, I wish there were a bike lane here on Pennsylvania Avenue, widest of all the streets in Peter L’Enfant’s magnificent plan. If only he had been prescient enough to provide one. Without his guidance and direction who are we to stripe a pavement or set off a lane with bollards? Oh wait...we have striped pavement and speckled our streets with bollards! Look down --I know it’s hard with that dramatic vista demanding your attention—what’s this? Why, there’s white paint all over the place, dashed lines, hatching, stripes, arrows pointing every which way! OMG! Who let this happen? I can barely appreciate the latent monumentality surrounding me for all clutter. And bollards? We can’t use them for something as mundane as a bike lane. They’re only for establishing safety perimeters, and keeping vehicles away from places they don’t belong. Besides, we can’t put anything in the street that will detract from the historic view.

Okay, I’ve kept the sarcasm up long enough, time to get serious. First it was the objection to marking off a center bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue, then the wailing over the overhead wires for the streetcars. The former argument is just comical; we’ve become so inured to the wretched graphics of paint on asphalt that we’ve become blind to what’s already here but can’t extricate ourselves from the cognitive dissonance of objecting to more of the same. But the objections to the streetcar wires are of a different order altogether. Beneath the veneer of the historic preservation objection lurks a less beneficent project, the aestheticization of reality...and that is a very slippery slope. It ends in the strip mining of “historic” leaving “preservation” raw and exposed, devoid of whatever larger cultural consensus gave it authority. What's so historic about asphalt and cars anyway? Is that what we're preserving?

Even on its own terms, this urban purification has inconsistencies. Outlawing overhead wires of any kind valorizes the visual above all the other haptic experiences of the city. Can’t we give clear, emission-free air equal billing with the open vista? Well, sooner or later the vista will be obscured by the polluted air anyway, but it will happen so slowly, like that darn frog in the boiling water, that one day visitors might wonder what we are all supposed to see down those broad avenues. In that way, “vista” will become its own oxymoron.

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