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Boss Shepherd and The Power to Shape D.C.

Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, the man who built Washington into a modern city, was the Mayor BlackBerry of his time, a dynamo who believed in governing through constant action. Shepherd, unlike Adrian Fenty, was the unelected chief of the public works department and later governor of the Territory of Columbia from 1873 to 1874, but even without a direct mandate from Washingtonians, Shepherd acted as if he'd been ordained to reshape the city, no matter the cost.

In a stunning, three-year whirlwind of spending and construction, Shepherd presided over the building of 260 miles of streets, 183 miles of sewers, and similarly dazzling lengths of water and gas mains and sidewalks, as well as ornamental touches, such as public fountains. For the better part of Shepherd's reign, the city was a torn-up mess, a massive construction site. (Yes, it sometimes felt that way during Tony Williams' two terms as mayor, but the Boss's work was on a different scale entirely.)

Historian John Richardson, a retired intelligence officer who is writing a biography of Shepherd, presented a paper on the Boss's life and work the other day at the annual Washington Studies Conference, a great series of talks and seminars on the District's past sponsored by the Historical Society of Washington. Richardson told the story of a politician-developer-builder whose impact on the city dwarfed that of contemporary figures such as Doug Jemal, Marion Barry and Tony Williams. Richardson credits Shepherd with "an orgy of development" that turned Washington almost overnight from a backwater with a tiny commercial tax base, a federal government that took huge swaths of land off the tax rolls, and subservient relationship with Congress (sound familiar?) into a modern city.

Richardson compares Shepherd to Robert Moses, the builder who transformed New York City and its suburbs in the mid-20th century, though Moses' reign lasted far longer and his impact was felt well beyond the city's borders. Shepherd was guilty of "overweening hubris," the historian says, but to a remarkable degree, we still live in the city he built. (Keep that in mind the next time the water main on your street breaks and the paper reports that the infrastructure dates back to...the 1870s.)

Richardson seems skeptical of the lore that portrays the Boss as a crook, a bull who did what he wanted to do and enriched his friends with little regard for the people. In fact, the truth, as is often the case, is a bit grayer. Yes, the congressional investigations that went after Shepherd, resulting in his departure for Mexico, found that some of the Boss's cronies did awfully well during his orgy of spending. Some things never change. And yes, the Boss so badly ruined the city's finances that Congress ended its experiment in allowing the District some control over its own affairs. So we have the Boss to blame for a century without even a sliver of home rule--and that's a legacy that's hard to portray very happily. But it's also true, Richardson notes, that it was the Boss who earlier had created the Citizens Reform Movement that persuaded Congress to create the territorial government that gave city residents a say in their own governance.

For many years, the city seemed ashamed of Shepherd--his statue spent years out of public view, tucked away near the sewage treatment plant in Southeast. But the Boss is now back in a place of prominence, outside the Wilson Building, where Shepherd stands as a reminder that while politicians don't always do things on the up and up, those who come to office with bold vision can push through the bureaucracy and the naysayers and really get things done. The Boss stands as a symbol of hubris and excess, yes, but also of the value of oversized personalities who live to achieve.

By Marc Fisher |  November 20, 2007; 7:06 AM ET
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Comments

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Very interesting, thanks for the history lesson.

Posted by: WFY | November 20, 2007 7:47 AM

One thing that differentiates that era from now is that Shepherd fled the country to avoid prison, and today's criminal pols just stay here ... and continue to do very well for themselves (and can even get elected to City Council.)

Posted by: gitarre | November 20, 2007 8:54 AM

In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that Gov. Shepherd never faced the threat of jail; the commenter perhaps confused Shepherd with "Boss" Tweed of New York, who was a criminal and served time. Shepherd's problem was hubris and insufficient appreciation of public accountability in carrying out the improvements program.

Posted by: jpr | November 20, 2007 10:02 AM

I beleive he also ran a somewhat bizzare strip club near the SS MD - DC border.

Posted by: johng1 | November 20, 2007 10:36 AM

It's unfortunate that one of Boss Shepard's greatest buildings, the Franklin School, is still being used as a homeless shelter. Shelters are necessary, but this is an inapproriate use for a beautiful and historical building. The Council recently scotched a plan to rent out the building as a hotel (which could provide funds for other shelters by the way). I'm not sure that was the best plan anyway, but it's current use should be phased out soon.

Whatever is done there should incorporate Franklin Park as a whole and try to increase usage of the park somewhat in the mold of Bryant Park in NYC.

Posted by: Anon | November 20, 2007 10:46 AM

no, Boss Shepherd did NOT run the now defunct strip club on Georgia Ave. It bore that name because it was located adjacent to the community of Shepherd Park, where the Boss had his summer home.

An additional reason sometimes cited for his being forced from office is that he reportedly was very progressive on civil rights matters, something not at all popular with the reconstructionist congress of his day.

On a side note, I've heard that he is still considered a folk hero in the mining community in Mexico to which he fled (and where he made a fortune). Through his efforts that small town became the first place in the country, outside Mexico City, to have both electricity and phone service. Kids there are still named after him, I am told.

Posted by: eo mcmars | November 20, 2007 10:57 AM

:) no, Boss Shepherd did NOT run the now defunct strip club on Georgia Ave. It bore that name because it was located adjacent to the community of Shepherd Park, where the Boss had his summer home. :)

Thanks for the correction (lol)!

Posted by: johng1 | November 20, 2007 11:39 AM

I'm happy to have beautiful buildings serve the poor as well as the rich sometimes.

I see no reason the Franklin School shouldn't stay exactly what is.

Posted by: reader | November 20, 2007 1:22 PM

Franklin School: My understanding is that the building is mostly vacant. Has anyone thought of turning it into a full service home? The Prince George Hotel is a very successful model: http://www.commonground.org/?page_id=5
http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/fea/20050912/202/1565

Posted by: Ronnie | November 20, 2007 2:22 PM

I don't understand Marc Fisher's seeming appreciation of history in this case (and other postings), and then he disparages the value of history and historic preservation in other cases. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the inconsistency except when he has a personal interest in the subject matter.

Posted by: anon | November 20, 2007 2:49 PM

"I see no reason the Franklin School shouldn't stay exactly what is."

Well the DC Preservation League disagrees with you.

www.dcpreservation.org/endangered_2007.html

As Ronnie pointed out, the school is mostly empty, and as long as part of it is being used as a shelter the rest of it will remain fallow.

And as long as Franklin Square is taken over by homeless people who leave trash everywhere, it will suffer as a city park.

The downtown shelters intentionally concentrate the homeless so that they will be "more visable" and thus lead people to donate more money to the shelter industry. Hopefully with Fenty's plan to offer permanent housing to the chronically homeless, we can move away from this model.

Posted by: Anon | November 20, 2007 2:56 PM

Thanks for the good story about Boss Shepherd. I wrote a term paper back in my high schools days (long ago now!) on the Boss, and in my working years I came to realize that not a lot of people knew of Boss Shepherd.

Posted by: NoVa Reader | November 22, 2007 7:18 PM

Thanks for the good story about Boss Shepherd. I wrote a term paper back in my high schools days (long ago now!) on the Boss, and in my working years I came to realize that not a lot of people knew of Boss Shepherd.

Posted by: NoVa Reader | November 22, 2007 7:18 PM

Thanks for the good story about Boss Shepherd. I wrote a term paper back in my high schools days (long ago now!) on the Boss, and in my working years I came to realize that not a lot of people knew of Boss Shepherd.

Posted by: NoVa Reader | November 22, 2007 7:18 PM

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