There are singular moments in our lives that irreversibly change our culture and leave a permanent impact upon our nation. The entry of America into World War I was one of those moments. A society that remained isolated from the troubles of the world entered the fray as a colossus and took the role of the most important country in the world. America has recently seen a similar, if more subtle change in our culture: Office rents in Washington D.C. are now poised to exceed those in New York City.
In most countries, the nation’s capital is the center of life. London, Paris, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Tokyo are prime examples. The centers of finance, culture and government in their respective countries are typically
located in one remarkable capital, and the population in its vicinity often comprises a quarter to a third of the nation.
The United States historically has been different. For over 200 years, New York has been our center of finance as well as most of our culture. Chicago, home to thousands of manufacturing, agricultural, and transportation enterprises, has always been known as the “Second City.” Los Angeles became the movie and television capital – thereby completing a trio of world-renowned cities globally recognized as what represents America. Washington D.C. was where our national government was housed.
Most Americans don’t realize that until World War II, Washington was a sleepy little town. David Brinkley, perhaps our greatest television journalist, wrote about this in his fascinating triumph of history, Washington Goes to War. Brinkley detailed how Washington, despite being the capital of the most important country in the world, remained an unsophisticated small town, even after the growth of the federal government brought on by the New Deal.
The city was not prepared for the invasion of staff necessary to manage the war effort. Because men had been drafted into the armed services, the women of the country poured into the nation’s capital to provide the needed help. That millions of women were joining America’s workforce for the first time was itself a monumental change in our society.
Unfortunately, there was not enough housing to accommodate the huge influx of employees, and the government had to build what amounted to barracks to house them. Woman slept four to a room and in shifts. Trailer parks were constructed for additional temporary housing. The critical element here is that even during the Roosevelt Era and World War II, the government envisioned its expansion and the need for hastily-built housing as temporary.