Comment: Washington, New York—Bonded by History

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It is my contention that the cities' sisterhood began with the nation's beginning and can be seen most dramatically represented in the unconnected lives of three prominent Americans who interestingly share a connection to both cities: George Washington, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Edward "Duke" Ellington.

New York City served briefly as the nation's capital and it was there on April 30, 1789 that General George Washington was inaugurated as the country's first president. Washington, the city that bears his name, was not even conceived until the following year and after a ten-year period of gestation, during which time the community was carefully planned, the new capital city was born in 1800. Certainly one of the most moving moments in Washington's long and illustrious public service career occurred when he said farewell to his Revolutionary War officers corps on December 4, 1783 at New York's famed Fraunces Tavern in what is now the heart of the city's financial district. Today, a fine replica of the original tavern remains and serves as a popular dining facility and museum reminding visitors of New York City's pre-eminent role in the history of post-colonial America.

Frederick Law Olmsted invented the field of landscape architecture. He was an accomplished artist whose canvas was quite literally the land itself. In other words, the soil was the heart and soul of his work. His means of aesthetic expression was through the multiple mediums of lawns, trees, bushes, rocks, fountains, and scenic pathways.

Although his landscapes appear in many American cities, his two most famous creations are Manhattan's beloved Central Park and his exquisite gem, Prospect Park, in Brooklyn.

However, in the U.S. capital, his most prominent presence can be found in his design of the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Rock Creek Park and the more than 50 acres (20 hectares) of lushly landscaped and breathtakingly beautiful grounds surrounding the U.S. Capitol.

Ellington's Life Defined by Twin Cities

Without a doubt the person whose life was defined almost entirely by his association with the two sister cities is none other than the man that many consider the United States' greatest composer, Edward "Duke" Ellington.

Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in his parents' Washington home at 2139 Ward Place, which is located halfway between Dupont Circle and Washington Circle. The home was torn down in the mid-1960s and replaced by a U.S. Postal Building that bears Ellington's name in gold-painted metal script along with a handsomely carved commemorative bronze plaque which displays a profile of Ellington's face.

Ellington did not journey to New York City until the early 1920s, thus his formative years were spent here in Washington where—as a musical prodigy—he was much noticed and nurtured by the city's large and thriving black community that mostly lived in the northwest quadrant neighborhoods of Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Dupont, Washington, and Logan Circles, Ledroit Park (near Howard University), and most importantly, the Shaw neighborhood, named in honor of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who was immortalized in the award-winning film, Glory.

During his youth, Ellington, who was a very talented painter, was a proud member of the nation's largest, best educated, and most "affluent" African-American community.

Racial segregation in housing and education required blacks of all economic classes to live among themselves, and thus the "patrician-elite" professionals (mostly doctors, lawyers, architects, and teachers) and the working class and marginally employed "peasants" formed alliances of mutual respect and appreciation that proved beneficial to both groups.

Ellington blossomed in this environment, which for the most part was largely absent of the intra-racial snobbery that was so prevalent in other cities with successful black communities. He presented himself in such a well-attired, self-confident, and articulate manner that his family, friends and fans titled him "Duke."

Thus, Duke Ellington, having no formal musical training (with some tutoring he effectively taught himself how to write compositions), came of age in Washington performing in various venues that included the homes of wealthy, aristocratic-minded whites who lived in the magnificent mansions of Dupont Circle, Embassy Row, and Kalorama, to balls and parties hosted—mostly on the U Street corridor between 7th and 15th Streets—by black fraternities and sororities, and other social organizations.

In the Dupont Circle community Ellington performed in the former home of Duncan Phillips, which in 1921 became the Phillips Collection, the nation's first gallery of modern art. He also performed at the nearby home of Evelyn Walsh McLean, which is now occupied by the Indonesian Embassy.

Therefore, by the time he arrived in Harlem (which before the early 1900s had been exclusively upper class and white), his "conquest" of that community was virtually pre-ordained.

Ellington's 1927 debut at the famous Cotton Club has often been characterized as the zenith of the Harlem Renaissance, which was much more than a small group of black writers in New York. Major players in defining the Harlem Renaissance were musicians, painters, and sculptors, many of who (like Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and others) spent considerable periods of time living in Washington during that era.

Duke Ellington and Manhattan were a match made in heaven. He loved New York and the city loved him in turn. He fed himself from her bountiful table of 24-hours-a-day energy. Indeed the most creative period of his life was spent there. It is even the city where he is buried, wanting to remain forever in her loving embrace.

In conclusion, two cities which superficially seem to be so distinctly different and often in competition and at odds with one another, indeed, through the interlacing of at least three lives (and undoubtedly many, many more), are truly "relatives" in the most intimate meaning of the word.

The dastardly attacks on September 11, 2001 will be an indelible date in U.S. history—and, in their shared hour of agony on that fateful day, one more bond between two sister cities.

Professor Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University, Washington, D.C. He is a regular lecturer at the National Geographic Society and contributor to National Geographic News.

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