Covid killed loitering in D.C.—or so I worried. My personal dark winter was dominated not by illness, but by the epiphenomenon, the response to the illness, which made a downtown that had been perfect for walking all day into an inhospitable city under siege. With lifting restrictions and sunshine has come a fresh glimpse of the Washington I love second best, after the great state.
Loitering and being a loiterer, as I mean it, is something just short of the French flâneur, a more American mode of enjoying a place than their aimless wandering in search of affect and literary observations. Sure, there is always the opportunity for people watching, and hence reflecting on the times and tides of mass society, humanity as a eusocial hive creature both at work and in consumptive leisure—whether touring or eating and drinking. And of course architecture and built spaces have their affects on us, whether we are conscious of them or not. But there is also a suggestion in loitering of waiting, waiting for something unknown to happen, some definite end to the indefinite stroll simply not yet revealed. Not a purpose, exactly, but a destiny that will be made manifest.
It is a use of time, this loitering. Not killing it, nothing so violent, but filling time, satisfying its wants. A Saturday stretching unbroken until a dinner in the evening, a Sunday afternoon following church, these are hours that call for something. And we, being body and soul, animals that at the very least think that we think, can hardly claim to be resting well if we remain just as stationary and fixated at play as we do in the labors of a digital economy. I loiter when, at 10 in the morning, I begin a walk from Cherrydale in suburban Virginia with some idea of arriving a little early to a party near Catholic University in northeast D.C., only about seven miles away. That’s a crisp two hour hike, but loitering? No straight lines here or direct routes, the day will take us places, and we have hours yet to go. I can read on five different benches in five different parks, grab a picnic in a grocery store, and visit some of the nation’s great monuments and museums. It is loitering, too, when up and down and back and forth from H Street N.E. to Navy Yard, I cover Capitol Hill with my footsteps after church, stopping for coffee here, a stroll through the U.S. Botanic Garden there, a conversation and a beer with a friend on a porch.
Political responses to Covid-19 killed all that for almost two years. Stores and shops were closed. Parks were given over to the sort of homeless that would like their privacy, not the Diogenes-like cosmopolitans who make the open spaces of urban life their living room. Masks were required everywhere, one more layer between you and serendipitous society. For a while, proof of vaccination was demanded, too. People, habituated by restriction to remaining home, did, seeing people only under the most deliberate of circumstances. Menus in dining and drinking establishments that reopened—were not permanently shut down—became digitized, and payment, contactless. All this added up to so much more friction to existence in the city, a narrowing of freedoms and a covering up of figurative and literal byways and detours. You were tolerated in some places and welcome nowhere. Go and be on your way.
With its many parks and public works, its museums and restricted building heights, its reasonably reliable rail system, Washington, D.C., might be America’s most European city. The Mall can almost rival the imperial splendor of Vienna. The polymathic critic George Steiner suggested that Europe, as a shared culture and idea, was made up of cafés. Steiner expanded on this thought, which captures the imagination immediately and possesses the ring of truth, a couple times, in a short work, “The Idea of Europe,” and in an interview with the Paris Review in 1995. Cafés, as Steiner described them, invite a productive lingering, to “spend the day reading the world’s newspapers, playing chess and writing.” In an atmosphere where a cup of coffee or a glass of wine secures you a space for as long as you wish, a place for thought and conversation, “the intellectual life really blazes.” This is as opposed to the English pub or the American bar, different creatures, for recovery, community, and socialization, places of the body and perhaps the soul more than the mind.
Cafés, too, are something D.C. did well before Covid—café life as distinct from coffee itself, which in D.C. is still only good, not excellent. In some sense, loitering, at least as I do it, treats this whole imperial city as one 68-square-mile café. With the cherry blossoms this year, and the sun peaking out from behind the clouds again, some part of that enormous coffee shop has reopened and I am itching to take a walk.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.