Raised in Potomac, where I attended private school and then a public school whose parking lot doubled as a BMW showroom (my 1990 Honda Civic fit right in), everyone I knew growing up was “going somewhere.” Something like ninety-eight percent of my classmates went on to four-year colleges—an impressive achievement, according to the Montgomery County School Board; many hoping to be doctors and lawyers like their parents, or investors like their neighbors….
And at just a thirty minute drive down the GW Parkway, DC was our “big city.” As kids, my brothers and I ate snow cones at the zoo and rode the merry-go-round on the National Mall. Older, I snuck into Fur nightclub the summer before I turned eighteen; tried hookah at the Prince Café in Georgetown over a college Spring Break; and had my first twenty-first birthday shot at Tom Tom in Adams Morgan.
So when I first moved back home after college, my thought was: capital of the free world? NBD. Yes, “everyone is so smart and motivated and worldly”—gush the newbies; but so is everyone else, if only in their own way. The faceless white stone buildings housing our nation’s treasures, our most powerful leaders—not especially impactful to someone who did not, at the time, know the names of her state senators (well, the one besides Barbara Mikulski— she’s been there for ages). And anyone who whispered a single positive word about the Metro system… clearly wasn’t that worldly after all. (Really, WMATA, have you considered investing in light bulbs?)
But by June 2010, a year out of college, eight months into a temp job, and zero success at landing a new one anywhere else, I was ready to claim my independence, as imperfect as it might be. For weeks, I religiously monitored listserves and Craigslist housing ads for a room in DC. And though the red line had been my yellow brick road to Washington for years, fate sent me along the yellow Metro rail to Columbia Heights.
It was love at first sight. The single pine tree on my street—that one’s mine, guarding my house (poorly, I guess, but that’s another story…). My bank, grocery store, the Circulator, the 50 buses, the S buses, the 42 and 43 buses are all just blocks way, just like the best thrift store in town (a secret I’m keeping for now!), mouthwatering pupusas (bean and cheese is my favorite), and the restaurant that took my Pho virginity (don’t worry, the love affair continues).
The intersection of 14th and Irving hums with the energy of an eclectic crowd. Every once in a while a group of activists (extremists?) flashing posters crowds the corner, preaching; but much more often, artists line the sidewalks, showcasing their colorful paintings; tiny kids jump and squeal their way through the solar-powered fountain on Park; and near the DCUSA complex or heading west toward Mount Pleasant, women sell sweet, freshly cut mangos—two dollars a bag—drizzled in exotic seasonings. I’m too embarrassed to practice my Spanish with them, but we figure it out.
Then, riding the bus (or my Bikeshare bike) down 14th: a small park where men argue over chess; a skateboard shop selling Tom’s shoes right next to an El Salvadorian restaurant whose menu is strictly in Spanish. Cutting across is Meridian Hill Park, where every Sunday a mob of strangers drum to a collective beat. Headed east again, U Street: countless Ethiopian restaurants, world-famous chili, street musicians drumming on shopping carts and trash cans, and every third weekend of the month, a “Get Sweaty” funk dance party.
I can’t believe this is DC, I sometimes reflect. K Street, Congress, Capitol Hill…It’s the pulse of the nation, for sure; but it has a heart of its own, too. And it has breathed a certain life into me, affording me opportunities in the way of learning—about politics and art and urban development and community; and writing—about murals and architecture and theater and fundraisers; and living—in a place home to a melting pot of histories and cultures. DC surprised me, and that’s why I love it.
All photos by the author.