Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis

By Elfenbein, Jessica | The Journal of Southern History, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis


Elfenbein, Jessica, The Journal of Southern History


Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis. By Carl Abbott. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1999. Pp. xviii, 252. Paper, $19.95, ISBN 0-8078-4805-0; cloth, $39.95, ISBN 0-8078-2478-X.)

Carl Abbott's Political Terrain is a good complement to two strands of recent scholarship. The first contains in-depth historical studies of aspects of Washington, D.C., and is represented by scholars like Howard Gillette and Alan Lessoff. The second strand encompasses a growing body of regional studies, and features work by scholars like David Rusk and Abbott himself. Abbott's stated goal is to answer the "innocuous question ... `Where's Washington?' and `How does it fit into America's regional mosaic?"' (p. xiv). But this book, which he calls an "essay in urban history" (p. 5), is by no means an exhaustive or encyclopedic history of Washington, D.C. Abbott instead attempts to analyze changes in the city's identity as it evolved from a local into a regional, national, and, finally, an international center. According to Abbott, the capital city "has remained essentially national at the same time that it has taken on international roles" (p. 156).

Washington's experience, to a great extent, is anomalous: the federal presence renders much of the city's history peculiar and idiosyncratic. Despite that limitation, Abbott believes that Washington can provide "a valuable arena for analyzing the tensions between local or regional allegiances and global change" (p. 5). I think it is likely that readers will remain unconvinced of that assertion even after finishing Abbott's nicely crafted book. Abbott also offers some insights into Washington's schizophrenic personality--split between southern and northern loyalties--with long-enduring attachments, strongest in the black community, to the South but with countervailing commercial and intellectual ties to the North. …

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