My first job out of law school was in Washington, D.C. at Baker & Botts, a firm based in Houston and founded by the ancestor of former Secretary of State James Baker.
When I started, our offices were located on Pennsylvania Avenue with a view of the White House. A few months after I began, however, we moved to a brand new building several blocks away. It was a beautiful structure strategically located over Metro Center, the main hub of the D.C. subway system.
While it was an awesome building, it also felt a little odd. On one side of the building was the National Shops, home of the National Press Club. Once the firm moved there, I would frequently walk across the street to that location for lunch. It felt nice, new, and safe.
Walking around the building to the other side, however, was a completely different story. The surroundings on that side of the building felt old, blighted, and somewhat unsafe. I was later told that this part of town had been affected by the 1968 D.C. riots which went on for six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Evidently, this area hadn’t yet recovered from those riots even though it was twenty years later, but there was hope. Buildings like the one where our firm had its offices marked evidence that Washington was making a comeback.
It took a while for the change to come completely, but it did come. That doesn’t mean it happened overnight. When our firm initially moved there, my office was on a side of the building where I could look out the window in one direction and see the newer revitalized side and yet turn my head to see the older side in great need of repair. Later, in the typical game of musical offices we’d play in those days, I moved to an office with a clear view of the older blighted side of the building.
I’ll never forget it. On that side of the building, street vendors constantly stood on the sidewalk selling all kinds of souvenirs. One particularly enterprising man was there every day trying to drum up business by repeating the same line over and over again.
“Going out for business! Going out for business!”
I wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to say. Was he just letting everyone know he was out for the day to sell his wares or was he actually on the verge of shutting down and letting everyone know they could find real deals on assorted D.C. souvenir hats and t-shirts? He was there for as long as I was in that office, so I’ll never know for sure.
At the same time, we were instructed to be careful in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and completely avoid Southeast D.C. altogether where there was lots of gang violence.
I’ll also never forget a piece of advice my cousin gave me. He told me that if my car ever stalled on the Anacostia Bridge to immediately jump out and run as fast as I could towards Washington.
Today, Washington has completely changed. The area of town where I was told to run for my life if I had to is now the home of Nationals Park where the baseball team plays as well as condos, shops, and restaurants. If you venture to my old building over Metro Center, you’ll now find it surrounded on all sides by very sleek new looking buildings. While it’s certainly not perfect, Washington feels like a different city and all for the better.
Contrast that with Baltimore a mere forty miles away. Back when I lived in D.C., we used to go to Baltimore to visit the Inner Harbor or catch an Orioles game. While those places were nice, you were always warned not to park even a block away because it wasn’t safe. Other parts of the city were even worse.
What we’re witnessing today in Baltimore is shining a light on an important question. Why is a place like Baltimore in dire straits while Washington seems to be turning around?
I’m certainly no expert although I have a few theories. What I do know is that no one can say it’s all hopeless and nothing can be done.
If you don’t believe it, all the evidence you need is just a short car ride away.