By Lee Foster
The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is the latest of the epic attractions that keep unfolding in Washington, D.C. The city continues to renew itself as a visitor magnet, beyond its primacy as the capital for political decisions.
The MLK Memorial
The MLK Memorial is on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
Sculptor Lei Yixin was charged with capturing the likeness, essence, and spirit of Dr. King. The centerpiece of the Memorial is the “Stone of Hope,” featuring a 30-foot sculpture of Dr. King.
The Memorial is conceived as an engaging landscape experience to convey four recurring themes of Dr. King’s life–democracy, justice, hope, and love. Natural elements such as a crescent-shaped stone wall are inscribed with excerpts from his sermons and public addresses.
America’s potential for freedom, opportunity and justice is the overall theme that suffuses the grounds.
DC’s Newer Memorials and Attractions
If you haven’t been to Washington, D.C., for awhile, there are a surprising number of newer memorials and attractions awaiting you, beyond the new MLK Memorial.
War, Native Americans, spying, women, and presidential politics are immensely interesting themes, especially when associated with Washington, D.C.
Major attractions and memorials devoted to these topics have opened in the nation’s capital in the last two decades, making Washington a more enticing travel destination than ever. Washington has an ever-changing set of alluring sights and experiences.
Getting Around by Bicycle
Getting around to see all these attractions and memorials has taken a new twist with the addition of the Capital Bikeshare (http://capitalbikeshare.com) system to the D.C. transportation picture. If a traveler thinks like a commuter, and makes 30 minute-or-less trips between docking stations, this self-serve bicycle system is superb, costing only $5 per day.
I picked up a bike near Woodley Station and rode it down the Rock Creek Parkway to Georgetown, leaving it at a docking station there. On another occasion, I picked up a bike on the Mall and traveled around. All 30-minute-or-less rides in this biking system are free, after the $5 daily fee. After 30 minutes, the cost goes up quickly, so don’t use this system for an all day bike. However, with more than 100 docking stations and 1,000 bikes in the system, I had no trouble finding a bike for each short commute.
If I wanted to rent a bike for a day, rather than use this commuter system, I would choose Bike and Roll (http://www.bikethesites.com/), about $35/day.
Here are some of the newer blockbuster Washington attractions:
The National World War II Memorial
Set at a choice location in the center of the Mall, the World War II memorial, with its fountains and pillars, honors both the European and Pacific theatres of engagement.
When the memorial opened, there was an enormous public outpouring of emotion for an era during which exerting American power in the world was not an ambivalent matter.
This evocative and dignified memorial honors the 16 million Americans who fought, the 400,000 who died, and the millions who supported the war at home. On one wall there are 4,000 stars, each representing a hundred young men who died.
World War II was a defining event of the 20th century.
A simple statement at the memorial tells the story. “Americans came to liberate, not to conquer, to restore freedom and to end tyranny.”
Many poignant comments carved into the stone make this a sobering site of reflection on the vast worldwide struggle that WWII represented.
The WWII Memorial was hurried to completion because about a thousand of these aging veterans were dying each day. It is likely that you will see veterans in wheel chairs paying their respects, pushed around the site by their families, with new generations learning about the long ago struggles of their grandparents.
The National Museum of the American Indian
Because the mandate of the museum is to portray all the original peoples of the Americas, a visitor will become acquainted here with the Mayans of Mexico as readily as the Sioux of South Dakota.
The Mitsitam Cafe at the museum features an interesting range of Indian foods from five regions in the Western Hemisphere.
Housed in a striking building where flowing curves rather than rectangular boxes define the space, the Museum is a breath of fresh architectural air in the Washington scene. The sheathing of the building with Kasota limestone also introduces a building stone seldom seen in Washington.
When you enter the building, the first impression is of exquisite canoes and kayaks, made of reeds and animal skins. Here you can engage an actual Native American docent for a guided tour of the collections.
The life ways, history, and art of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere are on display.
A resource center includes genealogy research to determine who might have Indian ancestry.
Landscaping around the structure emphasizes the native environment of the Chesapeake Bay Region, plus the hardwood forests, wetlands, and meadow lands of other Indian habitats in the Americas.
The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is the world’s first public museum to explore the craft, history, and contemporary role of espionage.
Spying has been a fact of life, of course, since the era of the Trojan horse, of course. One fascinating document on display is George Washington’s letter authorizing spying on our British adversaries.
Spying in the last hundred years, especially from World War II to the present, is the main thrust of the museum. The clandestine operations of both the KGB and the CIA are highlighted, including extensive interviews with actual spies.
The gadgets of spying are arrayed in fascinating detail, such as a lipstick pistol, a through-the-wall photo device, a James Bond-like vehicle, and listening bugs that gradually became ever more miniaturized.
The importance of spying in the outcome of world events can’t be overestimated. On display is one of the famous German Enigma devices that Hitler believed were sending secure information, but whose code was cracked, hastening the end of WWII in Europe.
Beyond gadgets, the skills of the spy craft are emphasized, including observation, analysis, surveillance, and disguise. An effort is made to involve the viewer in the museum, challenging the observer to ask, “Do I have what it takes to be a spy?” The spectrum of motivations that energize spies range from greed to patriotism to the thrill of it all.
Women in Military Service For America Memorial
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery recognizes the often unsung contributions of service women from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War. This is the first memorial to the more than 1.8 million women who have served or are serving in the U.S. armed forces. The granite and glass structure opened in the fall of 1997.
Qualified women who voluntarily register have a slide show display of their photo, name, and military record in the computerized database. Deceased service women can be registered by their families.
An interesting aspect of the memorial is that a visual record of a randomly selected woman is projected on a large screen at all times, so the story of service becomes known to others. The aim is to capture history and the personal stories of the individual women, told in their own words. This record of service can be accessed by any citizen and by scholars for all time. Each registrant is invited to record her most memorable moments when serving as well as the data of name, rank, photo, etc. Women can go back to their record and augment it whenever they wish.
Many photos and artifacts of women in the service are gathered in a Hall of Honor celebrating those who have served with particular distinction or achievement. Overall, the facility is meant to be a living memorial rather than a static wall or statue.
Lorraine Dieterie, a volunteer from Michigan, showed me the facility.
“So many times women who register tell us, ‘But I didn’t do anything important,’ ” she said. “This memorial shows them that someone cares, that what they did was important.”
The design is a half-arc near the entrance to Arlington Cemetery. On the roof of the building the words of notable military women are etched in glass. The sun projects these thoughts on a granite wall while crossing the sky each day.
The FDR Memorial
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial celebrates the president who led this country through the Depression. The memorial has an open-air design that flows through four distinctively designed galleries. Each section interprets different phases of his Presidency through murals, waterfalls, and larger-than-life statues of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The FDR Memorial, which opened in 1997, amounts to a touching, highly-personalized recollection of the inspirational messages that Franklin Delano Roosevelt embodied.
Etched on red granite in several outdoor “rooms” are the uplifting and inclusive thoughts of this articulate man. His most famous quote may be, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Many of his other utterances in these meditative alcoves reflect the cohesiveness that our 32nd president projected.
A large statue of Roosevelt, with his dog Fala, suggests the gregariousness of this likable man.
A wall of small sculpted squares shows his many programs, especially from his First 100 Days, benefiting a dispirited America. Sculptures of a bread line of men, of the rural poor, and of a man listening to a reassuring fireside chat remind a modern visitor what it was like in the 1930s, when 30 percent of the workforce was out of work.
This outdoor monument borders the Tidal Basin, with the Washington Monument visible across the water.
The quiet dignity of the monument evokes a reflective, meditative feeling, heightened by memorable quotes and a vision of hope and compassion in troubled times.
The Vietnam War Memorial
The Vietnam Memorial is the most ambivalent of the memorials, a kind of negative space, carved out of the ground rather than set on top of it. This was not a glorious war inspiring statuary as uplifting as the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. No, there is a small bronze of three soldiers, called The Three Soldiers, and another Women’s Memorial, depicting women nurses, but mainly there are just the 58,195 names carved in the polished, black, granite slabs, indicating the personal tragedies that were the result of this stalemated conflict, which never had its Victory Day. The Vietnam Memorial attempts to separate the humanity of those who served from the issue of U.S. policy in the war.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial
On the Mall the Korean War Veterans Memorial serves as a counterpoint to the nearby Vietnam War Memorial. The memory of those who served in Korea is immortalized in 19 stainless steel, armed figures advancing across rough terrain. Faces of unidentified military personnel etched on a black granite wall mix eerily with the mirrored images of the patrolling soldiers.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial, which opened in 1995, shows combat troops advancing alertly across a field. Their vacant faces have a shell-shocked look, suggesting the horrors of war. Their windblown ponchos recall the harsh weather.
These 19 figures are reflected on a black marble slab, bringing the total troop number to 38, the parallel area in Korea where the fighting took place.
The polished marble wall also displays the nameless faces of actual support people who contributed to the combat effort.
Unlike the Vietnam War Memorial, which sought to list every name, the Korean War Veterans Memorial attempts to portray thousands with each face. The U.S. had 1.5 million Korean War vets.
The Korean “police action,” a U.N. effort, lasted from 1950-1953 and took the lives of 53,000 Americans, roughly similar in tragic dimension to the 58,000 death-toll of the Vietnam War.
The motto of the monument can be read on the granite wall: Freedom is not Free.
The presence of the Women in Military Service for America attraction in Arlington, immediately adjacent to Washington, plus the excellent regional subway system, makes Arlington as congenial a choice as Washington for a base of operations.
Arlington’s Crystal City has numerous chain hotels, some less costly than those in Washington, D.C. The Clarendon, VA, district boasts over 25 ethnic restaurants, such as a Vietnamese favorite, Nam Viet, where a tasty meal is also affordable.
This northern Virginia area of Prince William County offers some excellent nature hikes if you need an antidote to memorial viewing.
Close in, you can make a 1.3-mile forested walk and bird-watching excursion around Theodore Roosevelt Island. If you rent a car, you could hike in Prince William National Forest and also visit Manassas, the first battlefield of the Civil War.
With these newer attractions, Washington continues to re-establish itself as a tourism destination, which is why more than 20 million visitors arrive each year. Included in the Washington mix is one of the most-visited museums in the world, the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian and its sibling, the Udvar Hazy Air and Space Museum near the Dulles airport.
Washington, D.C’s Newer Monuments: If You Go
For Washington, D.C., information, contact the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corporation, www.washington.org.
Some Memorials are administered by the National Park Service. See ww.nps.gov/nacc.
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is managed by a foundation of the same name. See www.womensmemorial.org/.