Subjects like Biology, Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry, fascinate us. We spend a majority of our lives in academia learning about these topics, trying to uncover all of the underlying truths, hoping to someday finally understand the world we live in. However, there are other subjects we completely disregard. Architecture and infrastructure, for example, are things we don’t necessarily think about. In her essay, “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation Through Physical Design of the Built Environment,” Sarah Schindler argues how the built environment is used to segregate and exclude a certain demographic: poor people and people of color. While most attribute architecture and infrastructure to merely shaping a place’s physical structure, Schindler argues that the built environment shapes the relationships and exclusions of the people who reside it. Like Schindler, I believe the built environment affects our everyday lives in ways we can’t even imagine. In my opinion, if we took more time to explore and analyze our surroundings, we’d have a better understanding of society and of ourselves. Therefore, in this essay I will explore the rhetoric of Lafayette Square Park in attempt to uncover the socio economic disparity in America.
Originally built as pleasure grounds for the most powerful man on the plant, Lafayette Square Park now serves as a tourist attraction, a place of rest for government workers, a place to read and think for the locals, and a home to the homeless.
On October 11th, 2016, I visited Lafayette Square. Below is an exterior description of the Park:
60-degree weather, blue skies, the smell of autumn in the air, a picturesque view of the White House, tourists on Segways, lovers holding hands, I find myself in the middle of Lafayette Square Park. It is past lunch time and the park is as busy as can be. Lafayette Park is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, directly across from the White House. To get to the park, I walked past the Renwick Gallery where I bumped into both tourists and locals. In fact, the entire area surrounding the park is filled with both tourists and locals.
It is not difficult to distinguish between the two. The tourists are shamelessly gawking at the eminent white building a few meters away; with a selfie-stick in hand, their sole purpose is to capture that so-called Instagram worthy shot. The locals, on the other hand, sit on benches in the park; some read, others are engaged in conversation, and others, like myself, people watch and take in the park’s beauty.
History and Architecture of the Park
Lafayette Square was designed by Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791 as part of the 88-acre President’s Park. The park was originally designed as pleasure grounds surrounding the White House. It was not until 1804, when Thomas Jefferson had Pennsylvania Avenue cut through the park’s grounds separating the land from the White House, that the park became open to the public. In 1824, the first sidewalks were laid out. At the time, the park served numerous purposes including the following: a market, a zoo, a graveyard, and encampments. In 1824, however, the park was officially named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette who payed a visit to the United States that same year. Former President of the United States Andrew Jackson Downing also had plans in regards to the park in 1851 (“Lafayette Square-DC”).
However, aside from his bronze equestrian statue erected in 1853, Jackson’s plans had to be set aside due to the Civil War. Today, Jackson’s statue serves as the epicenter of the park. The statue is surrounded by trees, a fountain, and benches. Furthermore, at each corner of the park, there are statues built in honor of former soldiers who fought with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War: “Major General Marquis de Lafayette and Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau of France, Brigadier General Thaddeus Kosciszko of Poland, and Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben of Prussia” (“Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C.”). The fact that these statues were build in such an eminent an historically rich place, truly shows the importance of these war heroes to American History. Sadly, however, today, the statues have become nothing more than photo opportunities for tourists who don’t even know whose statue they are posing with.
During the Kennedy administration, there were plans of demolishing many buildings surrounding the park in order to build new executive and court buildings. However, former first lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, took it upon herself to save Lafayette Square. She hired John Carl Warnecke and Associates to preserve the history and character of the buildings and the park (“Lafayette Square Park –D.C.”). Because of Kennedy’s intervention to save the park, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was passed, and in 1970, Lafayette Square was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
As I sit on a bench in the park, I cannot help but feel awestruck at how much history a single square of land holds. Today, people stroll around the park admiring its natural beauty, yet some are completely oblivious to the fact that this same park is known for being a place where drugs were sold and homeless rest. At a glance, the park seems inviting and an obvious tourist attraction; however, little do the tourists know that this same park has been a topic of controversy for decades.
Below I have attached three time-lapse videos of Lafayette Square Park:
In her essay, “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation Through Physical Design of the Built Environment,” Sarah Schindler argues that the built environment shapes human behavior and interactions; therefore, by analyzing the built environment, we can learn things about the society we live in. In like manner, I have attempted to uncover the socio economic injustice in America portrayed in Lafayette Square Park.
For decades the park has been notorious for serving as a place of rest to the homeless. In her article, “Tapestry Of Space: Domestic Architecture and Underground Communities In Margaret Morton’s Photography Of A Forgotten New York,” Irina Nersessova redefines homelessness. To most people, a bench, a tunnel, or a street might mean nothing more than that; however, to some people those spaces are their home. According to Nersessova, homelessness does not mean not having a home because homeless make the streets and spaces around the city their home. Instead, homelessness is the lack of a stable home (26). In D.C., over 11,000 homeless people roam the streets each day. Several of these homeless people have found shelter in the benches and under the shade of the trees at Lafayette Square Park. However, even though these people are basically living in the White House’s backyard, instead of trying to solve the issue of homelessness in the park, the government has issued security sweeps to get rid of the homeless in order to grant tourists and visitors of the park a “pleasant view.”
As I make my way around Lafayette Square Park, it is inevitable for me to notice the myriads of tourists that flood the square.
Granted, the imposing White House, which attracts over 100,000 people each month, is only a few meters away (Eisen).
Some of these tourists also find solace in the natural beauty that encompasses Lafayette Square Park. However, the buildings that surround the area are not as tourist friendly. In other words, the majority of them do not allow regular people to go in. For example, even though several thousands of tourists gawk at the facade of the White House on a daily basis, the historic building’s interior remains a mystery to most. It is the same way for most of the buildings that surround the iconic home of America’s President. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the US Department of Treasury, and the Blair House are not open to the general public.
If one wishes to tour these historic buildings one must make reservations in advance through one’s Congressional offices. The same is true for the rest of the historic houses that surround the park. Perhaps they restrict access because these buildings house some of the most powerful and influential people in the nation, and some of the most important decisions are made behind these walls. However, even though this entire area is surrounded by eminent citizens and curious tourists, I am left awestruck as I notice all of the homeless people that flood the square once the sun begins to set.
It is ironic, that just a few feet away from the President’s home, and among tourists, locals, and government workers, one runs into so many homeless people.
While it may seem shocking to me, a foreigner, the topic of homelessness at Lafayette Square Park is nothing new. In fact, this social issue has been around since the very creation of the park. Famously, numerous politicians have addressed the issue of homelessness in Lafayette Square. Secretary of State, John Kerry, during the Democratic National Convention, opened his speech by mentioning the topic of homelessness in Lafayette Square in order to address the issue of poverty in the nation: “What does it mean when people are huddled in blankets in the cold, sleeping in Lafayette Park on the doorstep of the White House itself…?” (Godfrey). In my opinion, the fact that so many homeless people reside a few meters away from the most patriotic house of all, clearly portrays America’s socioeconomic inequality.
However, Sarah Godfrey, in her article, “Abandon Quip,” argues that Lafayette Square is no longer a “home for the homeless,” and that the idea of homelessness just a few steps from the White House has become nothing more than a political trope. In her article, she also mentions how the number of homeless people in Lafayette Square has been reduced. While some may agree, according to Scott McNeilly, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, there is less visible homelessness in the park because of security sweeps or construction, not because there has been a reduction in numbers. Instead of helping its neighbors, people who need food, shelter, and clothes, the government has decided that maintaining the area’s prestige is far more important.
In his article, “Nearly Naked Outside the White House: How Nature Boy Became a Washington Fixture,”John W. Cox writes a memoir on a very interesting character, “Nature Boy.” Elijah Alexander is a Vietnam War veteran who spends most days sitting under a tree’s shade at Lafayette Square. According to Cox, his disheveled appearance, no shoes or shirt, dreadlocks that reach his waist, and a five teeth smile has turned him into “cherished fixture for federal workers, a tour stop for sightseeing groups and a giggle-inducing curiosity for flocks of schoolchildren.”
Like “Nature Boy,” there are several others who need help. And if the government refuses to address this social issue, there are other ways we can all help. For example, donating money to charities like Salvation Army, which provides food and clothing to the homeless, or purchasing the Street Sense Newspaper, a newspaper written by homeless people in order to raise awareness about homelessness, or simply granting an honest hello and a smile, makes a difference in these people’s lives.
Biased Exposed: Digital Document Description
In the twenty-first century, what we can physically see and visit is not the only thing that exists. An entire new world and society exists behind a screen and few buttons. Therefore, while analyzing Lafayette Square in order to expose the socioeconomic injustice in America, I must also analyze this location through the Internet’s lense. I chose to analyze a government website because I was curious if the website would address the topic of homelessness in the Park, or if it would, like the government itself, mask the reality and cater to the elite. One look at the tag line, and my suspicion is confirmed:
Granted, the park is indeed picturesque; however, it has also been the home for a large population of D.C.’s homeless, and a drug dealing battle zone.
The content on the website is divided into four sections in the following order: History, Architecture, Significant Events, and Building Facts. This layout, in my opinion, gives the website a sort of academic aesthetic, and the inclusion of subtitles allows the reader to know what to expect.
Under the “History” subtitle, the website provides a couple of paragraphs recounting the park’s history. Going back to the tag line, this section focuses on the historic houses and buildings surrounding the park.
It also mentions the fact that it was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who saved the houses from being demolished and who fought for their preservation. However, as I am reading this section, I can’t help but notice that the website barely mentions the actual park’s history. Could it be because the history of the park is not one the government wishes to preserve? Before it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, the park served numerous purposes including the following: a zoo, a graveyard, a slave market, and a place for war encampments. In fact, even after it was designated a National Historic Landmark, the park has been a topic of controversy regarding the social issues of homelessness and drug trafficking. The fact that this section fails to mention all of the homeless people that have lived for decades in this park, further proves that this website is biased and that the government does not want to tarnish the park’s reputation of being a reputed and historically rich location.
The “Architecture” section follows. This section goes into depth about the architecture of the buildings that surround the park. The website mentions the Jackson Place complex, which consist of six historic nineteenth-century rowhouses that line the square, the Madison Place, the five-story Cosmos Club, and the Benjamin O. Tayloe House. While the information provided about the architecture of the surrounding buildings of the park, once again, the website overlooks the architecture of the park itself.
The Website’s third section is subtitled “Significant Events.” In contrast to the other two areas, this area is formatted differently. Instead of lengthy paragraphs, this section consists of a time line. The time line dates from 1800 to 1970. In my opinion, this section of the website most effectively grabs and maintains the reader’s attention. The use of short and concise phrases to describe the events that take place works particularly well because even though it is informative, it does not bore the reader.
Finally, the last section on the website is titled “Building Facts.” In this section, the reader is presented with a handful of facts about the Square and its surroundings. Among the list of facts, the location, landmark status, landscape design, and dates can be found. This section is particularly helpful and informative to someone who wants a brief run through of the Square and its history. Once again, I think the formatting of this section is far more efficient than the formatting of the sections “History” and “Architecture” because the information is presented in a direct and concise way.
The last thing on the website is a link to download a poster of Lafayette Square. When I clicked on the link, I was surprised that the image that appeared was only of the Blair House. While the Blair House is a historic building, so are the rest of the buildings that surround the park and so is the park itself. Below the large image of the Blair House, there is the tagline of the website once again, and a row of smaller photographs of the park, and other buildings in the square.
Evidently, this website was created with a certain audience in mind. The fact that the website fails to mention the social issue of homelessness that has for decades been a topic of controversy in the park, further proves that the government does not wish to address this issue. Instead, its goal is to cater to tourists, and high-income earning people that can afford to travel to the Nation’s capital, and perhaps even stay at one of the many luxurious hotels that surround the park.
After analyzing Lafayette Square Park’s exterior, interior, and digital document, I can assert that the Nation’s socio economic injustice is clearly portrayed in this park. Not only is it clear that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is as present as ever in America, but also the fact that the government is doing nothing to help solve it.
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