The Magazine

Beltway as Metaphor

Philip Terzian's nostalgic ride around the Beltway

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Like the Eiffel Tower, the Capital Beltway is an industrial monstrosity that, inadvertently, has come to represent its hometown to the outside world.

Washington Post / D.C. Public Library

Washington Post / D.C. Public Library

I wouldn’t presume to compare Washington, D.C., to Paris, but there is (in my opinion) very little about the Eiffel Tower that suggests Paris, other than the fact that it is located there. By contrast, the Beltway, in its comparatively brief existence, has become all too representative of the nation’s capital: Wavering between undue haste and numbing gridlock, careening this way and that along a series of dangerous curves, it has become both a cultural symbol (Inside the Beltway vs. Outside the Beltway) and a metaphor for the federal city.

As a native, to be sure, I bring an entirely parochial perspective. I grew up in a suburban town (Outside the Beltway by a mile or so) which was bordered by a tributary of Rock Creek and a pleasant, undulating avenue called Beach Drive, then as now ideal for bicycle riding. At an intersection along Beach Drive, in a verdant area now dominated by the Oz-like Mormon Temple (1974), there was a stone outcropping called Indian Rock. Climbing Indian Rock was an everyday ritual at the time, and bicycle riders—certainly this one—invariably paused to catch their breath within its niches and crannies.

For some reason, for the purposes of highway construction, it was decided that Indian Rock had to be destroyed—and it was, rather abruptly, in the spring of 1964. To this day, I regret that I didn’t retrieve a fragment for paperweight purposes. But more to the point, the Beltway itself is considerably distant from the site where Indian Rock once stood—several hundred yards, at least—and it remains a mystery to me, a half-century later, why it had to be blown up. Indian Rock was a minor neighborhood talisman, at best; but it was our talisman.

Nowadays, of course, such civic blundering would be slowed down, perhaps even stymied, by an engaged citizenry. But that was then. I remember a pathetic, eleventh-hour letter of protest to the old Evening Star written by some neighborhood girls, but to no avail. As the rock disappeared, the Circumferential Highway (as it was then known) took final shape; and two years short of driving age, in August 1964, I found myself a passenger in an automobile that circumnavigated the Beltway a few days after the ribbon was cut.

Gazing at the behemoth today, with its jammed corridors, giant ramps, bloody mishaps, and ever-widening girth, it is hard to imagine that the Beltway was rather quiet, almost bucolic, in its early years. In high school I drove a 1929 Model A Ford coupe, which could not exceed 55 mph, along the Beltway in perfect safety; now I would be run off the road. As late as the 1970s it was practically deserted after midnight.

To give the Beltway its due, it did fulfill the promise of the Interstate Highway System. In my childhood, to get from my home in Kensington, Maryland (just northwest of Washington), to, say, the quaint colonial port of Alexandria, Virginia (due south of the city), was an extended adventure, threading along narrow streets and clogged boulevards, and through downtown Washington, before crossing the Potomac River for the final leg. There was nothing brief or convenient about the journey.

The Beltway changed all that; and while the modern volume of traffic is such that nothing is brief, the routes from A to B or X to Y are considerably more direct than they were—and in their way convenient. The unintended consequence of all this is that over the decades the growth of Metropolitan Washington has expanded relentlessly outward, and in ways that no one anticipated. 

I can illustrate this from personal experience. In the 1960s I commuted every day, on a long, soul-destroying public bus ride to school in Washington, where my fellow students, who lived mostly in nearby Georgetown or Cleveland Park, regarded my domicile (in the memorable words of one classmate) as “Nowheresville.” As far as they were concerned, I might well have lived in West Virginia, or perhaps Delaware. Just 30 years later, however, when my late mother sold her house to enter an old folks’ home, it was advertised in the Washington Post as “close in and convenient.” 

Which, all things considered, it is. But, I would also argue, at some cost. I do not regard my formative years as a golden age, and thank whatever gods may be that I am alive in the present epoch. But the Capital Beltway has not only made the rapid, relentless growth of my hometown possible, even inevitable, it has come to resemble—in its heedless, almost violent, expansion—the worst about Washington. 

 

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