Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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I’ve been told that D.C. natives can be a bit territorial.

And I have to admit, I’m a guilty party. But when you were born and bred in such a powerful city, you can’t help but be a little overprotective. We can’t have just anyone setting up shop where our ancestors planted roots, worked tirelessly to provide for their families, and sent their kids off to college or into the workforce, only to have their grandchildren displaced at the height of the city’s economic growth. 

But with age, I’m also realizing that D.C. and its people are not a monolith. The city is a cauldron of cultures. People settle here daily, whether to pursue work, school, love, or a cosmopolitan lifestyle. They bring new perspectives, valuable ideas, and innovative solutions that make the city even more alluring. As transplants pour into D.C., the city and its natives pour into them. And at our best, we create communities that overflow with dynamic possibilities. 

As we approach Valentine’s Day, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of love for my city. From childhood adventures on the banks of the Anacostia to paddle boat rides with family on the Potomac, my memories of D.C. carry far and wide. And I know others’ do too. That’s why I asked some folks—some who you may know and others who you should get to know—what the District has meant to them. As you read these love letters to D.C., meditate on who or what brought you here and how you can show this city and its people some love. —Christina Sturdivant Sani

From the day I first moved here in 1952, I knew there was something special about you.

Your streets felt different from other cities, and I still appreciate seeing the natural beauty of trees and sky instead of long, cold shadows cast by heartless skyscrapers. Your buildings have always had character, with architecture that reflects ancient as well as modern times. Your great monuments and wondrous museums live and breathe a vibrant history that connects us to the past in ways that help us build a better, brighter future. Your communities are quaint and charming, radiating with the warmth of growing families and wonderful people who reflect the deep beauty of harmony in diversity. Ben and I raised our boys in one of these communities, and we created beautiful, lifelong memories.

D.C., I love your energy. How many summer afternoons have I spent with friends and family enjoying the warm summer breezes of Rock Creek Park while listening to singing birds as water rushed over the rocks in the stream? How many nights have I watched talented performers at the Howard Theatre, Bohemian Caverns, Warner Theatre, Constitution Hall, or the Kennedy Center after being wined and dined in one of your fabulous local restaurants?  Throughout the years, your cherry blossoms kept blooming each spring, and your music filled the streets every summer. On Sundays, many of us gathered for prayer in your multitude of churches, and our days only became brighter. You have everything I need and anything I could possibly want, D.C., and I love you for that. 

Yes, I’ve experienced your challenges as well. I remember segregation, and I remember the sorrow of Dr. King’s tragic assassination. I lived through the anger and fear of those times, yet we overcame them together. It wasn’t easy, but we rose from the dust and reinvented ourselves with a stronger sense of community that embraced your rich diversity like never before. We grew beyond the tragedy, and lived to see much of Dr. King’s dream become our reality. We even welcomed President Barack Obama, both in the White House and when he visited us at Ben’s!

With all that I love about you, the best part has always been your people. When Ben and I opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958, we only wanted to serve our D.C. community. How could I imagine that I would receive so much more than I could ever give? The people of D.C. have given me so much love, laughter, and great conversation over the years! I’ve met politicians and celebrities, workers and students, locals and guests from around the world. Each individual is special in his or her own way, and my heart is filled daily with the beautiful warmth of everyone I meet in my wonderful city, my home, my Washington, D.C.

Love you always. —Virginia Ali, owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl

When I first arrived in D.C. in 1977, I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted.

At 23, I was coming from Detroit where my homies had given my career a start fit for a moving picture screen. But it wasn’t long before the Chocolate City adopted me as its own and took me to #1 ratings just like the Motor City. That doubt I had in ’77 has now turned into a 44-year run of a movie that at times seems fictional.

The love D.C. gave me opened the door to a television career that took me to national and international fame that I couldn’t have imagined. I had a TV show in Detroit when I was 19, but it was so bad my mother wouldn’t watch it. Video Soul on BET was a whole different level and my mom did watch this one in Detroit while her mom watched in Alabama.

I have been blessed to meet presidents from Carter to Obama, mayors from Barry to Bowser, and celebrities from Michael Jackson to Mick Jagger. But I have also been blessed to meet so many people who weren’t famous. They were janitors, school teachers, bus drivers, police officers, and waiters who had engaging eyes and smiles that blessed me with encouragement and hope. Like LeBron and Kobe, they were also known by one name, like Leroy and P-Funk.

My career has now touched seven different decades, six of them in D.C. While Detroit is home and always will be, I could not have picked a better place to be my home away from home. I love you, D.C., and I’m eternally grateful that God placed me here with you to go-go on this leg of my journey. —Donnie Simpson, radio/television personality

I’ll never forget bartending in Adams Morgan when the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, came into my bar.

He didn’t drink, so I asked if I could make him a non-alcoholic drink and he graciously accepted. There wasn’t one iota of “rock star” in his demeanor apart from the effortless style he exuded. Or the time at The Passenger in Shaw—my brother’s bar—when local punk icon John Stabb from Government Issue was hanging out. Stabb also didn’t drink—when I offered him a shot, he chose a shot of water instead and cheered along with us. Though both Brown and Stabb have passed away, they loom large over the legacy of the District as a place of musical innovation and unpretentious critical acclamation.

I’ve always thought D.C. is unassumingly cool, and moments like those cemented that for me. We have these amazing music icons and they’ve remained rooted in the communities and priorities of the city rather than rushing off to Los Angeles or New York City to be a generic cast for stardom. Washington, D.C. music icons are our icons, and though they’ve influenced the rest of the world, they’re still here. 

There are plenty of people who think D.C. isn’t cool. But they’re generally referencing the black-pant, brown-shoed lobbyists, staffers, and politicians. And perhaps they’ve missed the point: Those people are from everywhere else. That’s not my Washington, D.C. Mine has throbbing rhythms blaring from corner stores and passing cars during the summer, and is a place that I used to leap off the stage and land amid screaming, moshing kids in gritty clubs like the Safari Club. It’s a place where politics is the cover story, but life is teeming underneath. 

I fell in love with the city. Not just because I came from a family of Washingtonians that came from a family of Washingtonians. I realized what it means to be a Washingtonian, a real Washingtonian, not just someone interning here for a year. It means that we absolutely, 100 percent don’t give a shit about being something we’re not. We’re doing our own thing and, if that’s under the radar, so be it. 

When I opened my cocktail bar, there was only one name that would do: the Columbia Room. Named after the District of Columbia, I wanted it to be clear we’re rooted in our city. In 2017, we won “Best American Cocktail Bar” from Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards. It’s a wonderful accolade, but after the glow wore off, the people who kept showing up and the people we aspire to be were, quite simply, the people we aspired to be all along: Washingtonians. —Derek Brown, owner of the Columbia Room

Oh, Washington, D.C. Like any 20-year relationship, I’ve seen many sides to you.

And by now I know your secrets: how to avoid the crowds and stick to hidden gems like the Anacostia Community Museum and the Frederick Douglass house. DPR is the gold star government agency with its street parties and free pools: Banneker in the summer, Wilson in the winter.

I don’t need a car, I don’t need traffic. The MBT is my fast lane. The rent is still too high, but everything else is free: concerts at the Millennium Stage, the Malcolm X Park drum circle on Sundays, the Arboretum and the trails in Rock Creek Park.

When Washington is filled to the brim with tourists, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is just my speed. There’s never a line for boat rentals in Bladensburg because the masses are on the Potomac in Georgetown. I am indebted to the native peoples who grounded us in this place and named our rivers: Thank you Piscataway, Anacostans, and Pamunkey.

We long-time District residents and you native Washingtonians didn’t need gentrification or a news scandal to know that go-go is our music or that the intersection of Florida and Georgia is the best spot in town. 

I love to meet our elders who grew up in D.C. The stories they tell about the gardens and food being grown in our neighborhoods make me aspire to bring us back to our former glory. Be proud of our mayor for life, the late, great Marion Barry, who had the vision to pass the first farm and food security bill in 1986 and finally has a statue on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. 

But the best part about you is that ‘they’ don’t know you. The ones who watch the news every day but only see the Capitol building have no idea how lush and green our city is. If they think our cuisine can be summed up by the offerings in the Dirksen cafeteria, they have no idea. 

And if they think we live to vote in presidential elections even though we’re not even a state? On primary day, I think I’ll hear the carousel at the zoo calling my name—the flamingo is my favorite. —Gail Taylor, owner/operator of Three Part Harmony Farm

A City With Leaves

I know and remember you

You know me 

As a kid, loving your trees 

As a kid, running 

And cutting your grass

As a kid, walking your streets

Dreaming in your pools

As a kid, spraying your walls

As a kid, visiting your churches

As a kid, growing up 

In your violence

As a kid, finding my place 

In this place

I leave, I return

You’re still here

I leave, I return

You’re still here

I changed

You changed

I grow

You grow 

I know you

—BK Adams

“I LOVE YOU B@#%@!” is yelled outside my window on a typical Friday night.

I live across the street from the gay bar JR’s in Dupont Circle. It is packed and there are a lot of feelings. I keep my windows open to enjoy the cacophony, and the expletive smacks me in the face with its energy, affection, and contradiction.

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D.C. is filled with contradictions. Those contradictions are at times inexplicable but always thrilling and completely magnetic to me. I can see how the public stoicism of our monuments stands in great contrast to the rich emotional lives of our communities. Communities like the Indigenous community, whose families have resided in this region despite extraordinary hardship since before the founding of our country, and whom I am getting to know through the friendship of the brilliant historian and curator Dr. Gabrielle Tayac and her equally exceptional son, Sebi Medina-Tayac.

Or like our arts community, which can be quite intimidating to a newcomer with its wealth of talent and heavyweight leadership, and yet has been nothing but welcoming, generous, and open to me. Like Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, who flies to Cairo to have tea with Mrs. Anwar Sadat and win a prestigious award from the Egyptian Minister of Culture and still responds to me within a few hours if I ever find myself in need of her advice. She has been in my corner from the moment I got to this town, and I am incredibly grateful for her.

And no one more so exemplified that generosity of spirit than the beloved Victor Shargai, a former actor turned leading patron of the arts who passed away a little over a month ago. Victor valued the care and feeding of the arts in D.C. in invaluable and foundational ways. He didn’t view art as a commodity to be consumed, but as a community to be nourished. And he loved hearing about the melodramatic breakups and the impromptu sing-alongs happening right outside my window.

D.C. may be a “government town,” but there are so many people who have made their lives here who make it so much more than that … declarations of love, expletives, and all. —Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

I came to D.C. to intern for my hometown congressman the summer after my freshman year in college.

It was love at first sight as my taxi sped down the GW Parkway on its way to my summer dorm in Foggy Bottom. The only thing I’d ever wanted to do was work on the Hill—so much so that I finished my political science major halfway through sophomore year. There was no need to find myself: I knew exactly where I belonged.

That summer exceeded my expectations. I was able to work on campaign finance legislation and had the time of my life playing Congressional softball on the Mall on Thursday nights. Watching the Capitol illuminate as the sun set, and then diving into a plate of wings at Cap Lounge to commemorate our inevitable defeat on the field quickly became my favorite tradition.

I came back to D.C. for another internship the next summer, and then moved here as quickly as possible after graduation. When the call came that there was a position open on my congressman’s policy staff, I called my mother immediately: “I need you to get on the next shuttle to DCA and find me the closest apartment to Kramerbooks … it’s Wednesday and I start on Monday.” Sure enough, she pulled it off, and I spent the next couple of years living in the Bristol House in Dupont. 

I worked on the Hill for the following decade, with a brief detour to New York for law school. Eventually, my bosses/heroes were defeated or retired and it was time to chart a new path. Logically, I opened a grocery store. 

On Earth Day of 2013, we opened the doors to Glen’s Garden Market in the very neighborhood where my D.C. journey began: Dupont Circle. Every day since, we’ve worked to nourish our neighbors while growing local, small, sustainable food businesses along with our own. Over the past seven years, we’ve given 89 budding food entrepreneurs their start in retail. 

My feelings of awe and gratitude at the site of the Capitol dome have been replaced by my feelings of inclusion and community as I walk onto our bustling patio to find neighbors relaxing in each other’s company while they enjoy the bounty of our region. At a time when Congress has forced incremental change in the absence of large-scale legislative action, this small but mighty grocery store has given me hope that our community can come together to respect our environment: one sandwich, pint or jar of jam at a time. —Danielle Vogel, owner of Glen’s Garden Market

Darling District, it was the summer of 1995 when we first met.

I was a young woman of 18, fresh out of a North Carolina high school, invited to spend the summer taking a math course at Howard University. As I don’t even recall applying for that program, I like to believe some unseen hand must have intervened and blessed me with free housing, a meal plan and a chance to get a fake ID in the back of a Georgetown shop. A true love story for the ages! 

That first drive up Georgia Avenue NW was like heading into my future. Me, in the passenger seat of my father’s sedan, vibrating with excitement and anticipation. My father navigated D.C. traffic while taking in the sights of a pre-gentrified Shaw. As his anxiety grew, so did his enticements (bribes) for me to change my mind and return home. Few things could come between a teenage girl and a new car, but the idea of a summer in D.C. did just that. 

My love affair with the District really began with my love affair for good R&B music. One of my favorite music groups at the time, Shai, went to Howard—or so it appeared in their music videos—so Howard and D.C. was where I wanted to be. 

That summer in the District was not only the best time of my life, it became the demarcation line of my life as a student of an institution and becoming a student of the world. I soon learned the difference between “Washington, D.C.” and “The District”—the former is a place on a map, the latter is a place in our hearts. Life as a D.C. resident (not to be confused with a native Washingtonian, I know better) taught me so much about myself and my place in the world. I stared wide-eyed at your magnificence, I laughed at your quirks, I roared with pride at the little “big moments” like taking the train by myself and getting off on the right side of Metro Center. 

That summer was also the first time I heard warnings of traveling east of the river, something I would spend over a decade trying to change. The city taught me how to live, how to love, but most importantly how to fight. And over the years as I evolved from Nikki Peele to The Advoc8te and back again to Nikki Peele, I’ve come to realize it’s as much about where you live as how you live. And those of us who live in D.C. are made of some strong stuff. 

So while I look at you now through the eyes of a woman in her forties, I’m still just as excited about you as that young woman of 18. So if I ever fall in love again I hope it will be with a place that taught me just as much as you. —Nikki Peele, blogger, Congress Heights on the Rise

In March 2013, I first met you upon arriving back in the country from Australia. You had big shoes to fill coming from a country where life happens at the beach. But I sit here today and can honestly say there is no place I’d rather be.

For starters, your reach is wide. The metropolitan D.C. area is vast and fast-paced. In a few minutes, I can escape the hustle and bustle of the tech, health, finance, and political industries and experience the outdoor beauty that you have to offer. That remains one of my favorite parts about you: your outdoors. 

Soccer is the vehicle by which I arrived, and fortunately for me, most days are already spent outside, but the C&O Canal bike path, George Washington Memorial Parkway during the fall, full spectrum sunsets in the summer, kayaking and hammocking on and near the Potomac River, picnicking at the National Mall surrounded by cherry blossoms, shopping at markets, coffee and brunch at the outside patio at Little Red Fox, or an afternoon Del’s Shandy at The Salt Line have been my favorite ways to spend time with you. 

While most people say they grew up where they were born, it’s more accurate to say I grew up right here. And although it hasn’t been without its challenges, whether due to losses on the field, injuries, heartbreaks, or flat tires on the Beltway, you have unequivocally become home.

As I stumbled along the way to becoming who I am today, you were with me the whole way, introducing me to people who have effectively changed, shaped, and ultimately improved my life. There have been powerful, charismatic, and loyal teammates who I have had the pleasure of sharing the field with and dedicated owners Bill Lynch and Steve Baldwin, men who recognize that women are worthy of more than we are given. 

In a career that provides more of a revolving door than a safe haven, my roots feel strongest here. I’m grateful that we crossed paths with one another, hopeful to share many more years with you, but with the equal desire to strive for the constant better that’s always on the horizon. —Tori Huster, Washington Spirit player

As a kid growing up in D.C., Mayor Barry’s Employment Program changed my life.

From 10th grade to 12th grade when I was at Wilson High School, I was given environmental jobs. At one point, I worked for the EPA and the Executive Office of the President. This propelled me into wanting to study meteorology and graphic design in college. Shouts to Mayor Barry!

Going to Fort Dupont Park is a hidden gem in Southeast. The summer festivals gave me so much appreciation for jazz. My elders were on lawn chairs under the warm summer night sky and everyone on the same frequency. People brought their own meals and blankets—it was so beautiful. I once met Roy Ayers and got all my records signed by him. The love for music and togetherness is a fond memory I will never forget. So much nostalgia. 

Whenever I have wanted to create something—whether it be a store, a radio show, or a party, I have been supported by my city. As a DJ who has played around the world, I realize that if you can make a D.C. crowd dance, you can play anywhere. My sets are diverse and unpredictable and D.C. crowds have taught me to have more equity in knowing multiple genres of music. It’s no joke! —DJ Underdog

I arrived in Washington, D.C. as a young holder of a bride’s visa in April of 1972

I came to marry a man I had met in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The first thing that I saw coming from what was then known as Washington National Airport were the flowers. I could not believe the tulips in particular, which were not very well known in Brazil at the time. There was row after row of tulips in a variety of colors. The flowers of D.C. continue to be a wonder for me. Every spring, I feel like there is renewed energy and beauty in the air because of the flowers. 

Another thing that entranced me about D.C. was access to places like the Library of Congress and the National Archives. My husband was writing a book, and I helped with the research. I used to joke as a young wife that I must have been the only bride who spent her honeymoon at the Library of Congress and the National Archives! Joke apart, I cut my teeth doing research in those first months in Washington, D.C., which were very useful for my later career. 

Don’t let me start about the Smithsonian museums—what a wonder! I spent many hours with my son at the Smithsonian museums. And to think that in my later career, I would come to be a curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum—an absolute gem of a museum away from the National Mall. If you have not visited it yet, come. It is worth a trip to Southeast. 

Why do I love D.C.? Because I raised my wonderful son here. Because I created a very successful professional career here, and because it is where I plan to spend the twilight years of my life. It is my home! —Alcione Amos, curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

A Native Love: I belong to an illustrious group of people. A people of southern roots, northern sophistication, and international influences. We call ourselves D.C. natives.

We are confident and assertive. We use jargon that only we understand. We say the number street before the letter or name (First and O instead of O and First). Unfortunately, too many of our family members are scattered across the country in federal prison for breaking local laws. Upon return, many of them face barriers that at times seem insurmountable. Too many of our families have been forced to relocate. We have essentially created a “District Diaspora.” 

We don’t have a gun store and we don’t have a port, yet we have been marred by drugs and violence and we are the only individuals held accountable. That reality has given us a horrible reputation, a false narrative about who and what we are. This one-dimensional, monolithic stereotype does not fairly contextualize us. 

We are so much more. We are mayors, councilmembers, teachers, first responders, police officers, artists, professors, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, activists, advocates, sanitation workers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, athletes, authors, researchers, and scientists. 

We love government jobs, and careers at Metro. We love Pop Warner football. We love going to the games over the Farms or down Watts. We love going to Church or Jummah. We love cookouts. We love going to the Wharf to get crabs and shrimp. We love Horace and Dickies. We love MLK Deli. We love The Spice Suite. We love The Museum and EAT.  We love ANC meetings, libraries, and community events. We miss Georgia Ave Day and Unifest. We love transplants that love us back, like Marion Barry and Chuck Brown. 

We need to vote more, organize more, and own more. 

We forge our own path, march to a different beat. Our beat, go-go, is percussion driven, akin to the sounds played by our ancestors. That beat is the soundtrack to survival. A beat that is symbolic of the soul of the people born in this city. A beat that crack couldn’t silence, a beat gun violence couldn’t silence. A beat hyper-policing couldn’t silence. A beat gargantuan economic disparities couldn’t silence. A beat mass incarceration couldn’t silence. A beat gentrification couldn’t silence. That beat is representative of the D.C. Native. You feel its vibrations near and far. It grabs you and pulls you toward it. It causes you to move in some way. You have to react to it, even when you try to ignore it. 

The beat and the people are synonymous.

I love that beat, cherish that beat, honor that beat. It fuels me, grounds me, inspires me, and humbles me. I shall do my best to protect it, amplify it, and preserve it at all costs.

D.C. or nothing. —Tony Lewis Jr., activist/author