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This Was London

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library
“Open City: London, 1500-1700,” now on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, carefully investigates the city during a “critical moment” in its history, one in which the town’s population exploded from 50,000 to 500,000 and England itself became a naval superpower, according to exhibit curator Kathleen Lynch.

This is the story of a nations capital and a burgeoning global power. 

Over two short centuries, this city grew from the population of a sleepy suburban town to the seat of the worlds most powerful empire. This city survived fire, and she grew. She survived plagues and sickness that destroyed her inhabitants. This city survived economic and religious unrest, but, still, she grew up and out, and she grew strong. 

Over 200 years, the citys unbridled urban and suburban sprawl and her economic development shot out from all sides, circling the capitals center like the skirts of a whirling urban-planning dervish. 

This is Londons story from the 16th century to the end of the 17th century, a critical and dramatic period in her history. By the end of this time, the Catholic Church had been displaced by the Church of England and a bill of rights that limited the power of the monarchy and parliament had been agreed to. At this same time, England had established herself as the worlds major colonizer, a naval superpower and a destination for immigrants from around the world. Like today, the influx of migrants during this period carried extraordinary social and economic consequences for the city.

Emerging Empire

Open City: London, 1500-1700, now on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, carefully investigates the city in this period. 

It is a critical moment in Londons history, exhibit curator Kathleen Lynch says. When it has grown from a medieval town mostly contained within walls to, by the end of the period, [a place where] the population exploded tenfold. 

During this time, Lynch says, Londons population went from 50,000 inhabitants to 500,000.

London [went] from being the capital of England England being this small island on the outskirts of Europe to, by 1700, being the seat of an emerging empire and an emerging naval power. 

The exhibit examines this critical period through studying the changes in three critical public spaces: the church, the theater and the markets. 

We are trying to take a close-up look at whats happening how does it feel in the city when you get down to the parish church [level]? What are some of the forces that are butting up against each other, and how is change happening in that particular locale? Lynch continues. 

In between these close-up views of a changing city, the exhibit is punctuated by maps of London that force the viewer to put the extraordinary population boom, urban sprawl and social change into perspective. 

One intricate and surprisingly moving map was drawn just after the Great Fire of 1666. The map, begun just two days after the disaster, shows the devastation that gripped London. Two-thirds of the city was burned to the ground over two days, peoples livelihoods were decimated, and tens of thousands of Londoners were displaced. 

The map of the destruction is highly detailed and charmingly so. Every street is delineated and each house is drawn, so you get a sense of the real life of the city. Its not just a street map.

Less than 20 years after the Great Fire, a rebuilt London had expanded into a capital of wealth and power on the world stage. 

Center of Attention

The timing of the show dovetails nicely with Londons current moment at the forefront of public attention. 

Beginning with the spectacle of the 2011 royal wedding, Queen Elizabeth IIs jubilee earlier this year and culminating with the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, much of the world has been exposed to views of Londons streets, palaces and waterways. 

So the timing of the exhibit, which looks at the citys history through an examination of public spaces, is pretty close to perfect.

Londons history is, of course, a microcosm for England during a period of dramatic change. Less obviously, perhaps, it is an interesting examination of one great capital city, London, through the lens of another great capital city, Washington. 

The parallels between this period of Londons history and the past 200 years of Americas history generally, and the Districts history specifically, are striking. 

In some ways, Londons history as a destination for people from all over England and the empire is the mirror image of Washingtons reality. 

Lynch says immigration and people coming into London are among the focal points of the exhibit. The crowded streets and the competing classes left Londoners struggling to come to terms with the influx of residents. 

We cant handle the indigent. We cant handle the people that dont belong to us, Lynch says many Londoners complained. We have responsibility parish by parish, in that time to take care of our own, but who are these people?

In Washington, of course, this reality is flipped. D.C.s migrant workers are the lawmakers, staffers, diplomats and consultants who work in our city for a time or season before moving on. Instead of an influx of poor, our most constant stream of immigrants come from the educated and the powerful classes. Some of them contribute and weave themselves into the landscape of this capital city; others even help to govern the capital. But generally, they use resources, make decisions, then leave.

One cant help consider how the history of the mother countrys capital pushes against our own, complicating our identity both as Washingtonians and Americans. 

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