A National Travesty.

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I was in Washington D.C. last week visiting prospective colleges with my son Sam.  This was Sam’s first trip to the D.C. area and even though we were on a bit of a barnstorming tour (5 college campuses in 4 days), we were able to squeeze in a little sightseeing as well.  Needless to say we both returned home with well-worn and somewhat tender feet.

Before catching our flight home on Sunday we made the pilgrimage to the US Capitol building, The Supreme Court and The White House.  It seemed fitting to save these institutions until our final day.  A few short blocks from The Supreme Court sits Union Station.  It is a magnificent Beaux-Arts style structure and a vibrant railway hub utilized by MARC, Amtrak and the METRO.  An efficient mass transit system is a fantastic way to commute and we traveled throughout the Baltimore and D.C.’s area via light rail or bus.

Thirty years ago, I was chosen by National Geographic’s longtime director of photography, Robert E. Gilka for one of three annual photography internships at the magazine.  Prior to photographing my first magazine assignment, Gilka had me spend several weeks learning the ropes at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in downtown Washington.  Every morning I walked eight blocks from the townhouse I shared with my two fellow interns to the Metro stop inside Union Station.  After several trips home I noticed a group of neighborhood kids playing in the fountain not more than sixty meters outside the main entrance to Union Station.  I began spending many of my late afternoons photographing the kids frolicking in the fountains crystal clear waters.  The fountain provided the kids a unique aquatic playground, a respite from soaring summer temperatures and a refuge of sorts from the dangers of the surrounding neighborhood.

One of the “fountain boys,” enjoying the spray of splashed waters outside Washington, D.C.’s Union Station in 1980. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

As Sam and I made our way to Union Station I recounted a few of my experiences from my time in D.C.   A light rain was falling as we arrived at the fountain.  Thirty years is decent span of time and I wasn’t expecting to see the sights and sounds familiar from my own past adventures, but neither did I anticipate the alarming decay now standing before us.  It was a shocking sight.  I repeatedly asked myself, “how could Washington have let this happen?”

The fountain outside Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, August 15, 2010. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010.  All Rights Reserved.

Two boys vie for camera time in the fountain outside Union Station in 1980. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Looking west towards downtown Washington, D.C. August 15, 2010. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

From the project, Fountain Boys, produced in 1980. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The fountain at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, August 15, 2010. Photograph ©Eli Reichman 2010. All Rights Reserved.

I met my friend  Dan White for lunch yesterday and related our experience to him.  Dan made a great observation on how our leaders have chosen to spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of rebuilding our own crumbling infrastructure.

What will be the ultimate costs of the current U.S. wars?  At the current rate of military spending some economists project these efforts might well bankrupt the country.  Only time will tell whether that speculation is true or false.  Equally important; has the escalated military spending provided US citizens a higher level of security and safety from the far reaches of global terrorism?  It’s true we haven’t experienced an attack on US soil since September 11th, 2001.  However; many fear it’s not a question of if, but when terrorists will strike here again.

In his 1961 farewell speech, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the country about the precipitous rise of the military-industrial complex.  His thoughts beg the question, are these trade-offs worth the continued loss of US soldiers lives and the escalating financial costs?  Are we are conducting the “war on terror,” simply to provide a safe and prosperous future for our children?

One fountain is not necessary to the survival of a city or country, but societies do build monuments to serve as important symbols for generations to come and that we may take pause to reflect on our own daily journey.  Perhaps the current state of the D.C. Union Station fountain is a harbinger of sorts.  Will we continue to turn a blind eye to our internal decay, allowing this monument to collapse or will we rededicate ourselves to rebuilding and renewing our lives here at home?  I vote for option number two.

Washington, D.C. fountain outside Union Station, August 15, 2010. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The kids enjoyed playing “king of the fountain” in 1980. Photograph ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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4 thoughts on “A National Travesty.

  1. We have 5 of those Eli Reichman prints hanging in our front hallway and each of our 3 kids has a print (we are family btw)and I LOVE them! I love the pure pleasure those kids are having in the fountain on a hot summer’s day. I remember when you went to D.C. Eli and I am so sorry that the fountain has fallen into disrepair. What a shame that so many things that were once important to this country no longer are.

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  3. As the proud owner of a print from this series (remember those great AIGA auctions from way back?) I am sad to see the decay of the site. It really is a tragedy.
    One of the differences I see from the days when we dedicated monuments like this is the contribution of America to the war effort. This war just doesn’t hurt. Unless directly affected, either by serving or knowing and loving a service person, we move along like it’s happening far, far away with little meaning. There are no victory gardens, we don’t save scrap metal, there’s no rationing, no gasoline coupons. We are fat, happy and our garbage magically disappears weekly. We spend hundreds of billions on the war effort with no tax increases to pay for it because the politicians on either side know this would be “unpopular”.
    So funds that would be used to repair our infrastructure (which, let’s be realistic has been in trouble for decades) are being funneled into a war effort that still hasn’t proven to have been necessary. And let’s not talk about the fraud and profiteering because I’d have to go lie down.

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