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Living in a Symbolic City
Spooky Walmart picture by Flickr user Koonisutra.

Spooky Walmart picture by Flickr user Koonisutra.

This is one of the only times I’ve ever seen Walmart look like they’re going to lose a battle. Democratic Governor Tim Kaine and Republican Speaker William Howell have come together, along with both candidates in the 2009 governor’s race, to argue that there shouldn’t be a Walmart in view of the Wilderness battleground. For the non-Civil War buffs, the Battle of the Wilderness was the first battle between Generals Grant and Lee and around 30,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.

I think that this story makes clear the difficulties of building better infrastructure in the D.C. region. On top of all the other forces pushing against urbanism and sustainability, you have to navigate the symbolic minefield that is our monumental city. To my eye, this seems like a no-brainer. It’s one of thousands of Walmarts and battlegrounds where that many people died should remain sacred. Obviously Virginia politicians agree. But to many locals, it’s a simple question of improving the place they live, bringing in jobs and giving them a shorter drive to the store.

I think that we who live in D.C. need  to be very aware, much more aware than we are day-to-day, that for the majority of Americans, and for a significant portion of new arrivals to D.C., the city isn’t the place we live. It’s the place where our Nation is. It is, to reverse the Magnetic Fields’ lyrics, not “the place my baby lives, that’s all” but “the grand old seat of precious freedom and democracy.” To these people, many of whom live in the District and many more of whom have control over the District, waiving the height restriction would be exactly as offensive as building a Walmart at the Wilderness. Improving mobility in the majority of the city doesn’t matter nearly as much as the ability to dump people at the Mall. And so on.

I know these sentiments exist, but it’s always difficult to put myself in the position of those espousing them. It just seems wrong. But by thinking about the reaction to that Walmart, I think that I can at least walk a bit in their shoes.

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