Saturday, April 20, 2013

Q&A with authors Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey

Jane Freundel Levey
Bob Levey
Jane Freundel Levey and Bob Levey are the authors of Washington Album: A Pictorial History of the Nation's Capitol. Jane Freundel Levey, a public historian, is director of heritage and community programs for Cultural Tourism DC, and served as editor of Washington History magazine. Bob Levey, who also has written two other books, worked for The Washington Post for 36 years, including 23 years writing the column "Bob Levey's Washington."

Q: What are the biggest "myths" about Washington, D.C., history that you found to be untrue?

JFL: a. D.C. was built on a swamp.
b. Benjamin Banneker designed the city.
c. Buildings cannot be taller than the Capitol.

BL: That there isn’t any pure D.C. cultural history and there never has been. There ALWAYS has been.

Q: Why did you decide to write a history of D.C., and how was it to work together on a project?

JFL: Bob was working at the Post, where he had been covering the city for many years. I was (and am) a historian specializing in the history of Washington, D.C. The book editor at the Post, Noel Epstein, knew us both well and approached us to do a “popular” history of D.C. to commemorate Congress’s arrival in Washington in 1800. The book was delivered in time for the 200th anniversary of Congress’s arrival. It was great to work on this together. Bob found it weird to have to rewrite, but he came around. We agreed easily on the topics and photo choices. He wrote the text, and I wrote the captions. I did most of the research; Susan Breitkopf supplied some of it, as did Suzannah Gonzalez and Lynn Ryzewicz.

BL: Jane is far too gentle here. We are about as diametrically opposed as two people could be in our basic orientation toward doing a book. I wanted it to be just a longer newspaper column…. write it, tweak it, don’t fret over it, call it done, pour another coffee, move on to the next mountain. Jane wanted (and still wants!) to research, research, research.

Q: What surprised you the most that you discovered in the course of your research?

JFL: I think it was the indifference of the citizens of the United States to the aspirations that George Washington and other early leaders had for their nation’s capital. But that indifference helps explain why we still don’t have voting rights as well as why D.C. was so slow to develop in the 19th century.

BL: That D.C. was so slow to become a real city, with basics like sewers, paved streets, streetcars that went more than a few miles.

Q: If you were to write an update, what would you choose to include from the past decade of D.C. history?

JFL: If I were going to write an update, I’d want to add even more to the older history! But for the past decade I would highlight the demographic changes that have ended the African American dominance of the city as well as the enormous reinvestment in the oldest sections and the long-awaited restoration of the 1968 riot corridors.

BL: I’d like to add lots of material about the late 1940s and 1950s, a period when D.C. underwent immense racial change (and blockbusting). From the last decade, I’d include the (re)emergence of U Street, the surge of big-time professional sports (Nationals, Wizards, Caps) and the ferment over the D.C. public schools (under one of my least favorite humans, Michelle Rhee).

Q: Are you working on another book?

JFL: Not yet. I have a project based on my master’s thesis that I’d love to see through . . . one day!

BL: Jane and I have discussed a book about blockbusting in D.C., but no action or traction yet.

Interview with Deborah Kalb

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