Inside the Beltway

September 21, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE: Take a walk through the nation’s capital. Look deep into Washington’s many faces. You will find a real city; a city where young ladies line up for cherry blossom fests; a city where a giddy young woman gets married at the tidal basin; a city where a big fireman takes a moment to play with a tiny kitten.

This was the city three Life Magazine photographers-David Burnett, Frank Fournier, and Tomas Muscionico-found when they fanned out across the city to see within a mile of the White House. What they discovered was different worlds living within this closed circle. Some were painfully obvious. Others were more painful than obvious.

They found history that sometimes, it seems, only the tourists care about. Inside its marble palaces, the janitor works, and the young mother nurses a child while Dad goes over endless piles of paper. This is the Washington we see most often on the news, official Washington, city of power, where Presidents and prime ministers stroll, where packs of media watchdogs grip their laptops, where people make money, real money, cut it, sort it, and ship it out.

To the newcomer, this city seems not quite authentic, less of a big city than a big college town full of lawyers, and professors, and other tweedy post-graduates, the chattering classes. But there’s another city here, the city that locals call “the district.” The rowdy decadence of its nocturnal streets smacks its lips at the quiet formality and gentility carried on in-doors in this city of house parties. There are no factories here, but that only makes Washington look like what other cities are becoming-havens for the very old and the very young, the very rich and the very poor, and not much in-between. Middle America comes in to see the monuments, then heads back out to the suburbs again. Some parts of Washington can be places of great violence and fear and resentment. Juxtaposed cheek by jowl, with breathtaking affluence and framing it all, a delicate serenity like down here among the monuments, where a disabled veteran serenely casts his fishing line into the waters of the Potomac, or a homeless man cuddles up on the cold marble of a memorial to war. Sharing this city of movers and shakers are the moved and shaken.

Even here, a town once thought to be recession- proof, the unemployment lines run long. The faces in the waiting room looking for work offer a cruel portrait of post-industrial America searching for a new identity now that its factories are gone. Here in Washington’s hot zone on the mall between the Capitol and the White House, you don’t see the world that struggles along only a few blocks away behind these pristine palaces. It’s easy to pretend that world doesn’t exist, but it does. All the joy and pain, hope and fear and success and failure that can be found in American lives can be found right here by those who take the time to take a walk.

I’m Clarence Page.