Lights Shining on the Southwest Waterfront


December 5, 2011, Washington, DC: These holiday traditions of ours aren't remotely political and yet those underway in Washington this week starkly illustrate the unusual dynamics at play every day in this city. The identity of Washington The City is forever muddled with and overshadowed by the identity of Washington The Nation's Capital. While New York’s trends, traditions and priorities that seep into the rest of the nation belong, ultimately, to New Yorkers, much of what emerges from Washington is owned by Americans rather than Washingtonians. This weekend's holiday tree lightings and a boat parade of lights inadvertently provided clear examples of this atypical relationship.

Squeezed between last Thursday’s lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse at the White House and tomorrow's tree lighting on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol are multiple tree lightings in neighborhoods throughout this city. We attended two on Saturday evening -- one on the Southwest Waterfront and another closer to home at Barrack's Row. Both are mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building, yet they're off the radar entirely to people who don't live around the corner.

So which of these traditions are truly Washington's? Are both our intimate neighborhood gatherings and our nationally televised celebrations reflective of the identity of this unusual place? Gathered with neighbors on 8th St. SE and Pennsylvania Ave. to hear from city councilmember Tommy Wells and roasting marshmallows in a communal firepit at The Wharf in Southwest, it's evident that residents of the city have their own set of traditions that exist in a parallel world alongside this other Washington. We share the same geographical space, but ours is a hidden world of magic like the one that occupies places described by writer J.K. Rowling. Washington’s local scene exists unseen to visitors who come to town to see the sights; we live on the 9 ¾ platform of Harry Potter’s London.

If only the distinction were that clear cut. Two days after attending Saturday's boat parade of lights and sipping hot chocolate beneath the tree at the Southwest Waterfront, we read today's news of a House bill scheduled to come to the floor this week intended to clarify the District of Columbia's authority to redevelop the very Southwest Waterfront where we spent time Saturday night. It's a reminder that our local and national concerns are intricately intertwined -- that despite the fact that this tiny slice of waterfront is comprised entirely of local neighbors, it remains a topic of conversation in the U.S. Capitol. On the brink of massive redevelopment, there are changes ahead for this corner of the city. One has to wonder what this waterfront will look like ten years from now, and how empowered the District of Columbia will be to lead this charge and others like it.