At the heart of an empire, Winston Aldworth encounters two sides of the American dream.

America's capital city, fittingly, looks best by the dawn's early light. With my body clock still on New Zealand time, I woke bright-eyed and bushy tailed in a Washington DC hotel room at 3.30am. By 4.30am - with a phone call to home finished and meaningless work emails sent into the ether - I'd strapped on my running shoes and hit the pitch-black streets.

Like the streets of so many US cities, you feel like you know Washington DC because you've seen it all so many times before on television and the big screen. There's the Kennedy Center, where House of Cards reporter Zoe Barnes first caught the eye of Frank Underwood, and there's the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool where Forrest Gump was reunited with Jenny. Looking down on the famous stretch of water is the great man himself, Abraham Lincoln - 30m of marble magnificence (replaced by chimpanzee General Thade in the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes).

The grand boulevards are bordered by the marbled walls of buildings that were always intended to be the heart of an empire. Washington DC's founders got their columns from the Greeks and their ambitions from the Romans. Around the central city - from the roads approaching the White House to the grandly titled Constitution Avenue leading to Capitol Hill - outdoor advertisements are banned and there are no skyscrapers. The effect is profound. Everything is on a human scale, we're not dwarfed by towers of glass (and, happily, the commercial businesses those towers attract have all gone elsewhere), yet the town has an ancient-world sense of grandeur.

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By the time the sun cut the gloom, I was puffing for breath at the foot of the Washington Monument, a towering tribute to the nation's founder, George Washington, in whose honour the city was named.

"I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery," said Washington, a man who owned 123 slaves at the time of his death.

Still, the city that bears his name is gorgeous. This is what town planners and architects have in mind when they sit down at the drawing board.

The grand ambition of the buildings, from the Pentagon (a weird small city within itself), to the Washington Monument (at 169m, the tallest structure in the world when completed in 1888) to the brand new Museum of African-American History and Culture (MOAAHC) makes this a city apart. And the buildings tell the story of America - from the noble principles that inspired the proud beckon of Washington's pillar to the more questioning Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.

Dr King's memorial is a five-minute walk from Lincoln's - he stands, arms folded and looking pissed off - half-carved and still emerging from a giant slab of granite. The job of carving this memorial is unfinished, because the civil rights mission it represents is still incomplete.

How incomplete? Well back at the recently opened MOAAHC, anonymous visitors have left nooses - one inside an exhibition, the other hanging from a nearby tree. Reminders of the lynchings that stained America's recent past. Reminders of the work still to be done.

MOAAHC is an intense experience. Visitors start their journey in the basement, symbolic of the African slaves' journey across the Atlantic in the hull of a ship. If you think you'll be depressed by the sight of iron shackles used to bind an adult slave to the ship's floor for a journey of six to eight weeks, wait until you see the child-sized shackles next to them.
Many among the human cargo, shackled in the darkness below decks, would die before the journey's end.

The grim tale of America's exploitation of African people is told in the lower floors, from
slavery through to the civil rights struggles. The upper floors are a celebration of African American achievement and culture.

It's the stories from the lower floors that stay with you. Tickets to this grim show are among the hottest in town. It's free, but there's a waiting list of up to six months. As Waitangi is for Kiwis, this museum is a must-see for Americans.

The contrast between the proud ambition of Washington DC's glorious boulevards, monuments and white-marbled buildings with the grim reality of the nation's progress told inside MOAAHC is jarring. Many of the roads are beautiful, but America's journey - from an economy built on slave labour to a society where all people truly are created equal - is unfinished.

GETTING THERE

flies daily from Auckland to Dulles Airport, Washington DC, via Los Angeles, with Economy Class return tickets on sale from $1663.33 on flights July 18-August 6 or October 7-November 30.

DETAILS

For information and to make a (hopeful) ticket booking at the National Museum of African American History
and Culture, go to nmaahc.si.edu.

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