Here's what no one ever expects about Washington—it's breathtakingly beautiful. Even for people like me who have spent most of our lives here, some burst of blossom will stop me, remind me of how much this place pleases the eye. Tourists come here anticipating an educational experience, not an aesthetic one. It's the monuments of marble that draw millions of visitors each year to witness the workings of government and hear about the happenstances of history. Wary of what it's like inside the nefarious beltway, they come almost out of duty, grimly determined to see the Capitol and the White House and the Supreme Court because somehow they "should."
Yet even inattentive visitors can't help but notice the view of the National Cathedral, looking like a real-life Impressionist painting, the minute they get situated in a cab at the airport. When I collect friends, I love to hear the gasps of delight as we drive up the Potomac River in springtime, taking in the dogwood trees dotting the hillsides of Arlington Cemetery, cherry blossoms surrounding the Jefferson Memorial, tulips standing guard at Memorial Bridge. Even in the dead of winter when only a few sturdy pansies keep alive the memory of the spring and summer's profusion, there's a gentleness to the landscape that tempers the grandeur of the seat of government.
Alas, Washington has not escaped the blight of ugly glass boxes that mar most American cities, but here they are blessedly short. A height limit prevents buildings from hovering ominously over ant-size pedestrians, no caverns of skyscrapers block out the sun. And the broad boulevards of the original design that seemed so ludicrous in the swampy town of the early 19th century now afford a sense of space, provide breathing room. You never feel cramped and constricted in Washington. Even with all its trappings of officialdom, everything here is built on a human scale.
That's appropriate for the Capital City of the New World, where "Here the people...
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