I first came close to Alexander Shepherd many years ago when I researched a presentation on city maps I was to give at the Library of Congress. I was amazed at the painstaking detail, captured in various maps, in converting Washington from a Civil War casualty into a modern city. As an inveterate walker of Washington's streets and boulevards, I get another view of Shepherd. I delight in my own "reaction shots" of a visitor's embrace of the National Capital, the awe of a tourist looking skyward to the Washington Monument, the reverence of the school child at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the enchantment of the convention attendee taking in the Mall for the first time.
And then there's the quizzical look of the sightseer viewing the bronze statue of Alexander Shepherd in front of the Wilson Building in downtown Washington DC. The look tells you everything you need to know about what the average American doesn't know about the establishment of the Washington, D.C. of today.
I'm often asked about the statue. Who was Shepherd? Why was he important? What impact did he have? He only served a relatively short time, and yet was of enough consequence to earn a statue on Pennsylvania Avenue! Fortunately, I can now confidently refer inquirers to this wonderful biography of Shepherd by my friend John Richardson.
Shepherd's story, told in this book with skill and confidence, is at once the story of a great American character, with all his great achievements -- bold, visionary, pragmatic, entrepreneurial; and notable flaws – racially insensitive, ethically myopic, and not infrequently, completely unrealistic. After all, how many political figures retire to Mexico to single-handedly establish a silver mining operation, using state of the art technology?
And it's also the story of a great and complex American city's recovery from the Civil War, growth in the Industrial age, and implementation of one of the world's greatest urban plans. In short, it's how Washington became a city.
A larger than life figure in an impossibly difficult situation, Shepherd made things happen, and Richardson tells us how. In a way, Shepherd was the ultimate homebuilder, building the Washington that today is the home for the world's largest diplomatic corps, the home of the federal government, and the home to District citizens and residents.
At a time when Washington struggles to get the basics done, at a point where risk avoidance is all too prevalent, and in an era when confidence in government is at an historic low point, it's good to know that there's another story. We can turn challenge into opportunity, economic despair into hope. Shepherd did all this, and John Richardson shows us how.
Mayor of Washington, D.C., 1999-2007