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I meet Kim Roberts on a Wednesday afternoon on U Street NW. Our exact location: right next to the Metro between 12th and 13th streets NW, across from Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theatre with a Starbucks and an &pizza looming behind us. The spot quite literally reflects the tension in the District between long standing black businesses and residents, and the younger, primarily non-black shops and people who have steadily arrived and caused physical and cultural displacement over the past few decades. Clipboard in hand, Roberts kicks off our Harlem Renaissance walking tour of the neighborhood.
Roberts is an award-winning poet, editor, and literary historian who’s lived in D.C. for 35 years. She’s the author of five books of poetry: The Wishbone Galaxy, The Kimnama, Animal Magnetism, Fortune’s Favor: Scott in the Antarctic, and The Scientific Method. She’s also the author of A Literary Guide to Washington DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston, a pocket-sized guidebook featuring four literary-themed walking tours and profiles on significant authors with ties to the city, released last year. “When it comes to writers we think of as sort of changing literature, it’s surprising how many of them have lived here,” she says.
Our tour begins with a discussion of the Harlem Renaissance’s nomenclature. “The name came long after the 1920s had passed, and is misleading, because the movement took place in several cities simultaneously, not just New York,” says Roberts. “You could even argue that it was born in D.C.” She directs my attention across the street to the swirling details above the iconic Ben’s sign, which I’d never noticed before. “It used to be a theater,” she says.
As we walk, Roberts paints a picture of what the neighborhood would’ve looked like in the 1920s. At the time, U Street NW was the place to be for D.C.’s well established black middle class, filled to the brim with black-owned clubs, bars, and restaurants. T Street NW was a little less fancy, and a younger crowd, drawn to the street’s many pool halls, frequented it. Although she occasionally glances at her clipboard to fact-check herself, Roberts gives most of the tour from memory, and her knowledge about and passion for the subject matter is clear.
After stopping at a few notable locations—the Whitelaw Apartment building, which was formerly the city’s only first class hotel for black visitors, and the former residences of Harlem Renaissance figures Jean Toomer, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington—we arrive at a two-story brick house with dark blue details on the corner of 15th and S streets NW. It’s the former residence of Georgia Douglas Johnson, a poet central to the Harlem Renaissance. With a gleam in her eye, Roberts tells me about the Saturday night intellectual salons Douglas Johnson would host for local creatives. Cake and wine, much sought after in the Prohibition era, were staples, and Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston were regulars. “This house was arguably the most important extant location for the Harlem Renaissance,” Roberts says.
Roberts has expert knowledge of the former residences of literary figures in D.C., like the Douglas Johnson house. Upon her arrival to the city, she immediately started researching the topic, primarily focusing on the homes of Walt Whitman, one of her favorite authors. She and fellow poet and friend Dan Vera developed a hobby of going to the former addresses of writers to see if the buildings were still standing. “You could say I’ve been writing this book for a really long time,” Roberts says of A Literary Guide to Washington DC, “but I didn’t know that it was a book.”
Roberts started turning her escapades into actual walking tours about 20 years ago. She would write down her routes and notes and give them to local schools and nonprofits. In 2010, she and Vera launched DC Writers’ Homes, an online database that displays the former houses of authors in the D.C. area on a map. Not too long after, she got to work on the book.
She gives a few tours a year to groups that reach out to her, but doesn’t regularly offer them to the public. “I’m not a tour guide,” she says. “The book is really meant for people to do self-guided tours.” In addition to the Harlem Renaissance tour, the book contains walking tours on the Civil War, the Post-Reconstruction era, and the Gilded Age. All tours start and end at a Metro stop.
These days, Roberts can be found working from home on her next book, an anthology of early D.C. poets that is yet to be titled. The University of Virginia Press is set to publish the book in 2021, but her deadline for wrapping it up is this October. What will she be doing in 2020? DC Writers’ Homes will be due for an update, and she’ll find something else to fill her time. She likes a big, meaty project: “I can’t imagine that I’ll just sit there and twiddle my thumbs,” she says.
Her books and website are her way of trying to reclaim the city’s literary history, and in her view, it’s a history for which D.C. doesn’t take enough credit. She partially attributes D.C.’s lack of a reputation as a true literary and arts city to its overwhelming reputation as a government town. But, she says, anyone who’s lived here knows D.C. is much more than that.
The silver lining to the District’s lack of artsy status, Roberts says, is that the arts community is extremely generous. “I’ve lived in other cities and it’s much more competitive than it is here,” she says. “I can tell you, in particular with the writing community, writers support other writers here.” The strong community is part of the reason Roberts plans to stay in her Park View home. “I own my house here. I have no intention of leaving.”
We make our way from the Douglas Johnson house to 14th Street, and as we walk down the bustling row back to U Street, we discuss how rapidly the area has changed in our time here. “Unfortunately, with all this new development, a lot of older buildings are being torn down,” says Roberts. “It kind of breaks my heart.” Looking for a place to get some coffee and chat further, we land at Busboys and Poets—fitting, both as an homage to Hughes and as a controversial establishment caught between trying to push a progressive agenda and preserve black D.C.’s culture and representing the city’s ongoing gentrification.
Over iced coffee and sparkling water, Roberts tells me about her poems, her favorite spots in the city (the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia ranks highly), and how being a literary historian has impacted her life. Roberts’ work remains firmly grounded in place, and for her, D.C. will always be a special place. “I’ll just be wandering around the city, and almost every neighborhood you go to there’s some association with some writer,” she says. “It changes how you see a place. For me, it changed my relationship to the city.”