Now in D.C., the New York City experience

A Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates the Big Apple - a city for which the nation's capital has mixed feelings.

Summers in this city are a time of insecurity. As the heat arrives and Congress leaves town - gone this week and all of August - a sort of existential angst descends. What is a capital without lawmakers?

What is the point of putting up with 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity if we can't even legislate?

And as if that's not enough of an identity crisis, this year the city is dealing with invaders from the North. For the rest of this week, the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is taking up space on the National Mall to celebrate the folk traditions of ... New York City.

Suddenly between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, there is a 16-ton New York City subway car, an impromptu bagel bakery, and a graffiti artist. A makeshift New York City street facade has been plopped down on the grass, complete with real concrete sidewalk. There's a crosswalk spray-painted on the lawn.

The Folklife Festival, now in its 25th year, always looks at one American region - past examples include the Mississippi Delta and the Southwest - and this time it's showcasing that other city 230 miles north of here.

Through the presentation, the festival aims to provide "a national platform to refute the tourists' refrain, 'I love to visit New York, but I couldn't live there,' " according to curator Nancy Groce.

All of which leaves Washington in an odd position, celebrating a city with which it has long had an uneasy tension.

The District suffers from something of a little brother syndrome with the Big Apple. Life is easier and slower in Washington. But New York is undoubtedly bigger, cooler, and arguably more important. As devolving power to the states has become more popular and stock ownership has become more common, the CNBC stock ticker has become the real "can't miss" news - even here.

Even though the festival isn't focusing solely on New York (there are also sections devoted to Bermuda and "the Building Arts") the New York area is getting the most attention - much of it from the large contingent of transplanted New Yorkers, who are relishing the opportunity to eat a real knish on the Mall.

Former Gothamites

"About 60 percent of the people who come in here are ex-New Yorkers," says Torin Reid, a New York subway conductor, who is sitting in the Mall's imported subway car sharing his stories with visitors.

Throughout the site, one sees and hears former Gothamites like Debbie Bloom, who now lives in suburban Washington. "The subway cars and signs are nice and very familiar feeling," she says. "I'm happy to live in Washington, but I miss New York."

And though there is something slightly off-putting about the idea of folk life in New York City, the crowd seems to enjoy the show. The presenters - actual New Yorkers - relish explaining their crafts.

It's standing room only at the "deli tent," where Kam-Chung Chan demonstrates the fine art of creating Shanghai soup dumplings. Over at the Wall Street tent, people listen intently as Joseph Cicchetti, a trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange, dispenses some folk wisdom. "The market is going to come back," he tells a visitor, "but when it comes back, it may not be where it was." There are nods of approval.

A window decorator's view

Meanwhile, over at the Art of Window Display tent, Monica Williamson is decorating a faux store window for visitors. "We're part of New York City that's important to the fabric of the city, but not usually understood," she says, hanging a mannequin torso with fishing line. "We're masters of illusion."

Even if they hate to admit it, lifelong Washingtonians seem to enjoy the show as well. "This is the best Folk Life Festival I've ever been to, and I've been to them all," says Barbara Berman. Her husband, Harold Berman, concurs.

But that doesn't mean they're packing their bags just yet. "Well, personally, I think it's a great place to go, but you better have a lot of money," Dr. Berman says, apparently having visited the concession stand where $3 bagels and $8 corned beef sandwiches were the rule.

"Yes," his wife adds. "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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