The nation’s capital is currently in the grips of a debate over who is responsible for a recent controversial article published in the pages of the Washington Post. Titled “Anonymous,” the piece is described by some as a well-written love letter to the city, while others insist it is little more than a well-crafted hatchet job.
Regardless of your perspective, it’s clear that the piece has caused quite a stir. Several days after publication, the Post was forced to issue two separate retractions, with the author of the piece, Mary Katharine Ham, later issuing a mea culpa statement to clarify her motives.
The Controversial Article
The article in question, which was published on February 19, is an opinion piece authored by Mary Katharine Ham. In it, she takes a critical look at the city and identifies several problems, both ancient and modern, that she believes the city needs to overcome.
While it’s undoubtedly true that many of the faults highlighted by Ham are a source of frustration for many Washingtonians, it’s also clear that she means every word of what she writes. Indeed, one of the primary motivations for the piece was to call attention to what she sees as a crisis of trust in the city.
Ham begins by taking aim at the city’s most recognizable landmark, the Jefferson Memorial. One of the nation’s three great founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, is perhaps best known for his role in the creation of the United States, though he was also an accomplished architect who designed the magnificent edifice that is now a symbol of the city.
A self-proclaimed “secular saint,” Ham blames Jefferson, and by extension the federal government and Washington, D.C., for what she sees as the city’s misguided attempts to shoehorn itself into the 21st century by preserving its historic buildings and establishing a memorial to one of America’s most beloved founders.
“I was wary of what the Jefferson Memorial would become,” she writes. “And I wasn’t alone.”
While many regard the monument to Jefferson as a prime example of his visionary design and craftsmanship, Ham argues that it’s actually a symbol of the kind of segregation that Jefferson, a slaveowner, would have supported. As she sees it, preserving this structure and others like it is part of a national effort to sanitize and romanticize an era when people of color were denied access to the city’s most prominent buildings.
“People of color were not given access to these historical buildings because of who they were but because of the color of their skin,” Ham writes. “Slavery wasn’t entirely dissolved until well into the 20th century.”
The piece goes on to criticize the federal government’s efforts to gentrify the historically black Anacostia neighborhood. One of the primary motivations behind the gentrification of this historically black neighborhood, which was once home to author Langston Hughes and boxer Joe Louis, was to establish a greater connection to the city’s past and generate a better sense of community among its residents.
“Somehow gentrification happened and the federal government decided it was a good idea to bring more history and community to the mostly black Anacostia,” Ham writes. “I do support some increased connection to the past, but not at the expense of existing Anacostia residents.”
Continuing her critique of the city, Ham takes aim at its architecture. She describes the buildings devoted to commerce, law, and diplomacy as “grand monuments to capitalism,” arguing that they were erected in the early 20th century during what she refers to as the “Roosevelt Era,” just to name a few. While it’s true that many of these buildings have stood the test of time, Ham argues that they were erected during a period when city design was largely focused on monumental architecture, which she describes as a “self-congratulatory style obsessed with demonstrating one’s power.”
Instead of celebrating the city’s past, she says these structures, along with others like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, created a “monotone urban landscape” that fails to capture the imagination of the city’s youth. Additionally, Ham takes issue with the design of the new Kennedy Center, arguing that it fails to live up to the creative vision of the late architect I.M. Pei. She also takes aim at its location, which she describes as “hideous” and “ill-planned.”
The Reactions To The Article
The reaction to the article has been largely positive, with many commentators hailing it as a long-overdue call to arms for those who live in the city. Several days after publication, the Post was forced to issue two separate retractions.
The first, which was published on February 21, retracted the piece in its entirety, though it remains unclear as to why. According to the Post, it had initially accepted the piece for publication but later deemed it to be “inconsistent with our ethical standards and the standards of our professional journalists.”
A second retraction, which was published on February 26, addressed a quote from the piece that had been attributed to former New York City mayor and now HUD secretary Calvin Robertson. In it, Robertson is quoted as saying, “There is no question that crime will rise,” adding, “I hate to say that. But it’s true.”
Apparently, the Post had attributed this quote, which had appeared in a 2007 New York Times article about drug use in the city’s public housing projects, to Robertson, even though he had never uttered these words.
The quote had been misattributed to Robertson because the New York Times mistakenly thought he was the head of the federal housing department when, in fact, he was the city’s housing secretary. Though the HUD secretary had, in fact, said those words, he had never met Robertson and would have no idea who he was talking about.
Robertson, who had served as the city’s mayor from 1978 to 1994, had no comment on the retraction.
The Author’s Response
Shortly after it was first published, “Anonymous” received a mixed response from those who read it. Some praised its acuity while others decried it as the work of a disgruntled insider who had finally had enough of the city. For her part, Mary Katharine Ham took issue with those who she described as taking the article “out of context or twisting my words,” and went on to clarify her motives in an interview with the Post. As she explained it, she had hoped her piece would serve as a wake-up call to the city and prompt much-needed conversations about the problems that confront it.
“If I could encourage people to talk about this issue I’d feel that my mission here would be fulfilled,” she said. “If I could get people thinking and talking about this topic, maybe we could turn things around. But, at this point, it isn’t about me. It’s about the issues.”
Despite the controversy surrounding “Anonymous,” it’s clear that the author had put a considerable amount of work into it, as evidenced by the depth of her research and the fact that many of the issues she raises are valid critiques that have been repeated by others over the years. For instance, David Marcus, a senior scholar at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the Post, had previously written a column for the paper in January 2018, titled, “We Can’t Afford to Ignore the Overlooked Neighborhoods,” that also took aim at many of the same problems that “Anonymous” identifies. (Ham had, in fact, cited Marcus’ column in her piece.)
Additionally, Marcus had, in 2017, published an article for the Washington Post titled, “The City That Wants to Give You The Town Square Feeling. Can It?” in which he also takes a critical look at the city and argues that it needs to be more selective about which features it preserves, while the rest are abandoned or replaced. Like Ham, Marcus also argues that the government, in particular, needs to be held accountable for the problems that he highlights.
Though it’s true that some of the issues faced by the city are more than a little bit troubling, there is also a considerable amount of goodwill that exists between its residents and the paper, which is one of the largest newspapers in the country and has, for more than a century, been a prominent voice for the city’s civic and political leaders.