Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Capital Gains

A family-friendly guide to visiting Washington, D.C.

By Kay West

MAY 1, 2000:  "All the charm of the North and efficiency of the South" is how a famously cranky New York editor of mine once described Washington, D.C. While he may have been absolutely--if not politically--correct about our nation's capital, it was almost impossible for me to make a fair assessment during the spring-break trip I just took there with my children. For one thing, it rained four of out the five days we were in town, which is enough to make anyone cranky--particularly in a city where tourists frequently end up walking from one museum/memorial/ tourist attraction to another, and then have to wait in line outside anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours.

Our trip also coincided exactly with the IMF-World Bank meetings there, which had drawn thousands of activists protesting world financial policies and global capitalization. As with their appearance in Seattle last fall, the protesters' goals were to call attention to these issues and to disrupt the meetings of the two organizations. The goal of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, according to the gruff and ubiquitous police chief Charles H. Ramsey, was to prevent a Seattle-style debacle of chaos and random violence while allowing the practice of peaceful social activism as guaranteed by the United States Constitution (on display at the National Archives Building).

Thanks to worldwide media coverage of the event, the protesters were successful in their first goal, not so successful in their second. The meetings went on as planned, with only a couple meals rearranged to avoid unpleasant confrontations.

The police force--and I do mean force--successfully achieved the first part of their goal, though reviews are mixed as for how they did it. The means to their ends included putting more than 1,500 police through crowd-control training; outfitting a large number of them in Darth Vader-like riot gear; cordoning off large sections of the city with barricades, vehicles, and masses of manpower; closing some Metro stations; raiding protesters' headquarters on the first official day of the gathering and declaring the building unsafe; rounding up, handcuffing, and detaining hundreds of demonstrators, along with several hapless tourists and working journalists; unleashing occasional bursts of tear gas, pepper spray, and well-aimed billy clubs; and eventually arresting more than 1,300 people.

As one with fond memories of youthful civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and for women's and reproductive rights, I was far more alarmed by the police than the protesters. In fact, two friends were also in town visiting, and we decided that the Sunday gathering on the Mall was the perfect place to take the kids to witness democracy in action. It was also the only sunny day of the entire trip--perfect protest weather. The huddled masses were mostly twentysomethings, though there was a fair representation of old hippies. My children were momentarily concerned that we would all be rounded up and arrested, but my friend Gay and I assured them that at our respective ages we looked harmless enough, sported no body piercing other than our ears, and would keep our tattoos under cover.

We noted a definite lack of merchandising. Though we saw several people wearing "Spank the Bank" T-shirts, we could find none for sale and had to content ourselves with "Spank the Bank" pins, which my children found quite amusing and wore the rest of the trip. There was also a tremendous amount of littering going on, particularly among a group claiming the environment as one of its causes. We wondered if they were counting on the Million Moms--the next big group of demonstrators on Chief Ramsey's crowd-control calendar--to pick up their mess, as mothers have been doing for their children for centuries.

All in all, we were more annoyed by the weather than either the police or the demonstrators. Perhaps April, with its attendant showers and unpredictable temperature swings, is not the time to visit Washington. Whatever time of year you choose to go, I do have some tips for adults accompanying children to the capital.

First, there is no need to rent a car; you'll just end up paying exorbitant rates to park it for the duration of your stay. Cabs run by zones, not meters, and the trip from the nearby Washington Reagan airport to the city is less than $20. Once in town, Washington's Metro subway system is cheap, fast, reliable, easy, efficient, and unbelievably clean. Tour books--I liked Access Washington, D.C. a lot--specify the closest Metro stop alongside the address of every tourist attraction. Your kids, especially Nashville children with no experience of public transportation, will love riding these trains.

Plan ahead. There is so much to cover in Washington, you will need a game plan. You may want to arrange each day around a single area. For example, set aside one day for adjacent Smithsonian buildings like the Museum of Natural History and Museum of American History, as well as the National Gallery; set aside another for the Supreme Court, the National Archives, and the Capitol. Many of the government institutions, such as the White House, the Capitol, and the FBI building, recommend writing to your senator or House representative and arranging for advance tickets/tour reservations. I strongly suggest following this advice. Smithsonian buildings require no such advance booking or line-waiting, but they do get extremely crowded, particularly on rainy days.

Very young children will probably not do well in Washington. My kids were not nearly as intrigued by a glimpse into the proceedings of the Supreme Court as the grown-ups were. In fact, they didn't even show much excitement at seeing the original red slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and there were times when I wondered if they had been suddenly struck by ADD. So include outdoor attractions--the Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington Cemetery--as well as kid-friendly places like the Children's Museum and the zoo to balance indoor, history-intensive ones.

Last, but certainly not least, is food. Being a tourist--or a protester--is hard work, and you'll build up a powerful hunger. Forget the cutting-edge restaurants, though Washington has plenty of those. You want something fast and easy.

Our first night in Washington, as police were seizing the demonstrators' cruelty-free rice (I am not making that up), we sat down at a table in America, a two-story restaurant in the gorgeously refurbished Union Station. America's claim to fame is that its menu offers dishes representative of every region of the country: gumbo from Louisiana, tacos from the Southwest, shellfish from New England, biscuits and gravy from the South. The food wasn't anything to write home about--wherever your home might be--but it came to the table quickly and fairly inexpensively. A sit-down, waiter-served dinner for five was less than $100. We liked Luigi's Pizzeria on 19th St. NW better. The Washington Post and Access both tout its pizza, cheap Chianti by the carafe, and casual, family-friendly, red-checked-tablecloth atmosphere. We agree.

Washington has a small Chinatown, easily accessible by Metro, with most restaurants side by side on H Street NW. After poking our heads into several, we settled on Lei Garden for a Sunday lunch of dim sum. The appetizer-type dishes that comprise dim sum--fried and steamed dumplings, pork buns, shrimp balls, pancakes, noodles, spareribs, bean rolls--are wheeled about on little carts that stop at your table for your selection. It's the perfect meal for adults and children; our leisurely-paced lunch for five was just $45. Along with a French bistro and a Cuban restaurant, let me add dim sum to the dining options I crave for Nashville.

Many government buildings and museums have cafeterias, a style of eating both familiar to children and easy for the adults trying to corral them. The Senate Cafeteria in the Capitol building is a popular choice for lunch, though we opted for the Supreme Court cafeteria, which features a sandwich and salad bar in addition to hot daily specials.

We found two food courts that were appealing for their speed and variety. The Pavilion at the Old Post Office has about six different fast-food storefronts, offering gyros, burgers, pizza, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Saved by preservationists and restored in the 1980s, The Pavilion has several small shops and a stage for free live performances. While there, take a quick elevator ride to the 315-foot clock tower, the city's second-tallest structure after the Washington Monument.

The Ronald Reagan International Trade Center is the second-largest federal building, behind only The Pentagon. The immense modern structure is tunnel-connected to the Federal Triangle stop on the Metro. Inside, Masters of the Universe, multinationalists, members of the working class, and tourists all gather at the huge food court, where you can get anything from a complete turkey dinner to buffet-style dim sum.

While I was in Washington, I retrieved a phone message from my mother on Sunday night. "Your father and I have been watching the protests on the news, and we're a little worried," she said. "I know that 25 years ago, you would have been right in the middle of it, but I'm sure as the mature mother of two small children, you're probably avoiding the whole mess." I guess she missed us on the 5 o'clock news. I was the one saying, "Hi Mom!"


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