Comment: Washington, New York—Bonded by History

Edward C. Smith
American University
October 5, 2001

Washington and New York are the two cities that define the United States of America's character, writes historian Edward C. Smith. Outwardly so different, they nonetheless have much in common and have shared many experiences and personalities in their intertwined history. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 has bound them to one another more tightly.

On September 11, 2001, Washington, D.C. and New York City were attacked by terrorists flying hijacked airliners transformed into deadly missiles of mass destruction. The two cities were chosen because—more so than any other cities in the country—they define the character of the United States. As a capitalist, democratic republican society, the U.S. effectively has two capitals, one the engine room of its economy, the other the seat of its government.

Aside from being the two most visited cities in the nation, perhaps even the world, each center is a secularly sanctified cultural icon.

For most cultural urbanologists, to have someone suggest that New York City and Washington, D.C. are siblings is like comparing a fully mature tiger to a domestic cat. Yes, the tiger and the cat are both felines, but opponents to the comparison could say realistically that is all they have in common.

New York a "Man-Made Miracle"

In many ways, New York City is incomparable. To the surprise of many, it is an exceptionally well managed, magnificent man-made miracle which more than merits its esteemed reputation of being the United States' "premier city." With ten million inhabitants, New York is the most populated city in the U.S., while Washington has fewer than 600,000 residents, making it a big "village" by comparison.

The scale of New York's space is enormous. Its network of 722 miles (1,161 kilometers) of subway track, for instance, is nearly three times the distance between Washington and New York. Brooklyn alone, if it were separated from the other four boroughs of the city (which consolidated in 1898), would constitute the nation's fourth largest urban community, meaning that only the remaining four boroughs combined, Chicago, and Los Angeles would be larger.

New York City possesses some of the tallest buildings in the world while a rigidly enforced federal law limits Washington's buildings to twelve floors, ensuring that the iconic dome of the Capitol can be seen from any vantage point. As a consequence of this restriction, Washington's " skyline" is the sky itself, which on humidity-free, clear days can be quite overpowering.

Nonetheless, in spite of their many differences, the two cities do share much in common.

For example, no one would deny that they are the two most powerful cities in the world.

Not since the golden age of the Roman Empire (which is echoed in the classical design of many of the city's buildings) has there been a political capital like Washington. And of course, mostly through the presence of Wall Street, New York has long dominated the world's economic activities.

Three Prominent Americans Shared the Connection

Continued on Next Page >>




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