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In January, City Paper launched an essay contest asking D.C. natives—people who were born in the city and learned the ropes of life within its boundaries—to tell stories of their upbringing, give advice to newcomers, and share what being from D.C. means to them. As a fellow native and guest editor for the contest, I was elated to receive dozens of submissions.
They offered an opportunity to reminisce about growing up in a “Chocolate City”—where Unifest was not to be missed, Flexx and Rane let us rep our ’hoods, and Union Station was the place for sneaking into R-rated movies and being seen in the latest Shooters apparel.
I was reminded of how much our city has changed, for better and worse, and how these transformations affect people who grew up here.
D.C. native experiences span generations, racial and economic backgrounds, and interests. We have varied perspectives. Our passions lie in a myriad of places. We are not a monolith. But what we all seem to share is a fierce sense of pride, endless resilience, and immense respect for those who planted roots in this great city.
I’d like to believe that many natives also share my disdain for the term “DMV.” Note: If you grew up in Maryland or Virginia, it’s never OK to claim you’re from D.C.!
Without further ado, here are the four winning essays, plus pieces of advice to newcomers from other D.C. natives. As you read this collection of stories, I hope you, too, can reminisce, gain new perspectives, understand our struggles, and learn just why D.C. natives brag different. —Christina Sturdivant Sani
Dear D.C. Newcomers,
Take heed of these words from natives.
“Enjoy the ‘new’ while recognizing precisely what makes this place so desirable, so special, so comfortable: the vibe, the combination of ‘up North citified sensibilities’ with a down home feel.” —David Combs, who grew up in Mount Pleasant
“Don’t be surprised when you hear people call cigarettes ‘jacks.’ If you hear ‘Aye bob!,’ ‘Kill moe,’ or ‘it’s jhi like brr outside.’ Don’t ask us to repeat ourselves.” —Henry Shuldiner, who grew up in Cleveland Park
“This city had a culture outside of the defaming ‘Murder Capital’ moniker and the Mayor Barry incident. D.C. was a place with pride and a pulse. The ‘trendy’ neighborhoods used to be homes to families who survived the riots and thrived through the crack epidemic to see their children and grandchildren graduate high school against odds and go on to college or the world’s stages. Those people and their descendants deserve respect for what they built and cultivated amongst the national and local turmoil. Yet they are met with little more than constant offers to buy their homes and calls to police for suspicious activity for going about their daily lives.” —Bria Culp, who grew up in Brightwood Park and LeDroit Park
“Only here can you cross paths with so many different cultures and ethnic groups within a five block radius. That diversity has brought an influx of newcomers who we welcome with open arms as long as you respect the rules. Rule #1: It’s D.C. or Nothing! Rule #2: Chuck Brown is our superhero and every superhero has his theme music. That theme music is go-go. Rule #3: Never disrespect go-go or mumbo sauce. Rule #4: Marion Barry is mayor for life—don’t question why, just try and understand. Rule #5: Please stand to the right of the escalators on Metro, especially during rush hour. Rule #6: Respect the locals. Your new home is amazing but there are elders and families on your block who have been here for years. Rule #7: We are NOT Washington. We are D.C., Washington is where tourists hang and politicians work but D.C. is where the natives call home. Rule #8: We are cut from a different cloth!” —Kevin L. Blackmon, grew up in Marshall Heights
“The true heart of the city is the people who have been here, not the ones who drop in for a few years.” —Monica Parran, who grew up in Fort Stanton
“Never forget how much this is home to many—to people like me, my grandmother, my entire family fighting to survive in a city of those being constantly pushed out. As this city changes, I would like for the newcomers to not be afraid to join natives in pushing back and standing up. This city can be great—together.” —Markita Bryant, who grew up in Barry Farms/Parkchester, Galveston Place SE, and 16th Street SE
“We were here making lives, raising our families, and being the fabric of communities before you arrived. We don’t need your permission to be here and we care about the same things that you care about and want the same things for our children and grandchildren that you want: safe neighborhoods, good education, opportunities, and a city that serves all and not just some. Talk with us and you may just find that we are more alike than we are different.”—Jennifer White, who grew up in Petworth
“Develop alternatives to driving where possible because our roads are clogged, and take advantage of our public transportation. Read the Washington Post and Washington City Paper. Clean up after your dogs.” —John M. Howard, who grew up in Bloomingdale and 16th Street Heights (Contest Winner)
“Whoever you are, whatever you’re looking for, you’re in the right place. Leave whatever identity baggage you bear at the door and open your mind to the unique and varied diversity and culture in D.C. Step outside of your comfort zone, challenge everything you think you know about other ethnicities, and immerse yourself immediately. There are so many identities being celebrated here each day. Find your people, find your voice, find yourself. D.C. is four quadrants, but one community. Hope to see you around!” —Dawn Smith, who grew up near New Hampshire Avenue NW and the Southwest waterfront (Contest Winner)
“It’s important for newcomers to be aware of what once was, to be conscious of the lives that shaped this city and to understand how change has layers of impact. While on the one hand it’s great to be able to ice skate at the newly renovated Wharf or have gourmet ice cream in Navy Yard, it’s also important to be cognizant of the communities that got torn down or displaced to make so many of these new luxuries a reality.” —Neena Robertson, who grew up in Uptown, Northwest
“I get offended when newcomers try to rename spots. (It is not and never will be NoMa.) If you are coming here, be prepared to accept the city and its culture as is. This means don’t move near Gallery Place and try to enforce a noise restriction. Respect the legacy that is Dunbar High School—the first black high school in the country. Not all mumbo sauce is created equal and you can’t get a half-smoke just anywhere.” —Sharnell Bryan, who grew up in Southeast
Jim Crow Washington
By John Howard
Being a native Washingtonian has meant that the city has been the site of my earliest pleasures and pain. It is where I have most often fallen down and picked myself up. D.C.’s institutions were environments in which I was formed. D.C. is the one place to which I am always happy to return.
I was born at Freedmen’s Hospital where most black babies were born in 1944 Jim Crow Washington. My mother was a fourth generation Washingtonian. My father came to the city from Ebenezer, Mississippi, during the Great Migration.
My first home was in the Eckington section of Northeast. It was formerly called Truxton Circle because of a circle that occupied what is now the intersection of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue. I was too young to remember the circle but I do remember the horse trough which sat at the end of the block.
I attended the local elementary school for blacks in the neighborhood. It was called Slater-Langston and was a combination of elementary and middle school. I never figured out whether my school was Slater or Langston.
After the first grade, my mother transferred me to Harrison School, the building of which still stands at 13th and V streets NW, harboring a charter school. It is directly across from what used to be the old Children’s Hospital.
I loved Harrison. My classes contained a mix of students—those who came from college-educated professionals, middle-class strivers, and poverty-stricken families including many from the alley dwelling homes which proliferated in the Shaw area.
The black public education system in Washington was superb despite the lack of resources that the white schools enjoyed. The Miner Normal School turned out first-rate teachers who were often prevented from entering other occupations because of the country’s racism.
May Day was special at Harrison. We had a May King and Queen and each class danced around the maypole throughout the day. But the greatest thrill came when we looked across 13th Street NW to see that every window on that side of Children’s Hospital was filled with children of all races and creeds enjoying our performances.
Social contacts with whites were rare. We knew we were not welcome most places with whites but never had to ride on the back of the bus and the libraries were open to all.
My first experience with racial prejudice occurred when my father took me to the circus. We were waiting to cross the street where a black police officer was directing traffic. A white man standing next to me yelled, “Boy, hurry up and let us cross the street.” Seeing one of Washington’s finest treated that way by a white supremacist taught me all I needed to know about white racism.
Gradually, black activists such as Mary Church Terrell helped us get served in white restaurants throughout the city. Union Station’s restaurant became open to us by a court decision interpreting the Interstate Commerce Act. The first private restaurant to open to blacks was O’Donnell’s, where my family frequently went. On weekends, lines of black and white patrons waited outside the plush seafood restaurant and I don’t remember any nefarious incidents.
My father studied law at Howard University in the ’30s and became the first black Assistant U.S. Attorney in the city. In 1950, he was appointed as the fourth black judge to the Municipal Court bench by President Truman.
That year, we moved to the 16th Street Heights section of Northwest and were the first black family on our block. My mother told me that the real estate agent took them to see houses where he traditionally sold to blacks but my mother asked if there was something else to see. He paused and took them to the 16th Street Heights area.
When I was in the fifth grade, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, but my parents kept me at Harrison for my sixth-grade year so that I would not be subject to the hostility that might be waiting for me in the local elementary school.
I attended MacFarland Junior High School and for the first time I sat in classes with white students. I loved MacFarland, which was becoming majority black, but had a substantial white student body. There wasn’t much turmoil between the races, although the white students soon began to disappear.
I didn’t like to study and had low grades, but in the eighth grade I learned that my grades up to then didn’t matter, while the grades in the ninth grade went onto my high school record. I became a serious scholar very quickly.
I went on to Theodore Roosevelt High School. An English teacher declared that she had no sympathy for those of us who came out of the black schools and gave all of us Ds with few exceptions. Other than that teacher and the tribulations of teen years, Roosevelt was a good time in my life.
My class went on to produce doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, a general, a girl’s doo-wop group, the first female mayor of D.C., and many hardworking citizens.
Our world centered on U Street NW, then known as the Black Broadway. There were thriving businesses on every block. There was the Cortez Peters Business College, the owner of which appeared on television as the fastest typist in the world.
There was Industrial Bank, one of the most outstanding banks in our region to this day. There were the theaters that showed films we couldn’t see downtown. The Lincoln showed the mainstream dramas and comedies, the Republic showed the cowboy and police thrillers, and the Booker-T showed independent movies including many in foreign languages.
Nothing compared to the chitlin’ circuit’s Howard Theatre.
Two of my high school classmates’ fathers were managers at the theater. One Saturday morning, one of them took some of us backstage where we saw Smokey Robinson and the Miracles rehearsing dance moves. They were kids, a little bit older than us, and I remember that they were wearing white bucks which would emit white powder every time their feet would hit the floor.
There were some great restaurants; my father’s favorite was Al’s Steakhouse near 16th and U Street NW. There was even a notorious hot dog war where Ben’s Chili Bowl was trying to dethrone Anne the Hotdog Queen. Hot dogs and half-smokes were going at cheap prices. Clearly Ben’s won the war and still stands today. Another old-time survivor is Lee’s florist on U Street NW.
After graduating from Tufts University, my first job was as an elementary school teacher in the District. I failed miserably. I enrolled at Catholic University’s library school and became an academic librarian and after completing Catholic’s law school became a reference librarian in the Library of Congress’ law library.
Once I passed the bar exam, I signed up at Superior Court as a court appointed attorney. My first office was on 5th Street NW, one building from my father’s law office when he first started out.
I represented misdemeanor and felony clients, people facing civil commitments to Saint Elizabeths hospital, and others who wanted to commit relatives to the hospital. I most enjoyed my work advocating for developmentally disabled clients, who were all wards of the city. I had a real feel for that work, as my older brother was mentally disabled.
I worked diligently at these tasks for 35 years before retiring in 2017, but that’s another story.
Voiceless in D.C.
By Lillie Lainoff
For many D.C. natives, our first experience with government is an elementary school field trip to Capitol Hill. The heart of American government just a bus ride away. We stared up at imposing monuments, the Senate buildings, the White House. Learned about democracy and voting. How our voices would mean something, how when we turned 18 we’d have control over who spoke for us.
Traveling back to school, face pressed to the window, I imagined a day in the agonizingly distant future when I’d walk into a little booth, check off a box, and return through the curtain, transformed into “a voter.” A butterfly, emerging from an 18-year-old chrysalis. I wanted to be someone whose voice mattered enough that people listened. A voice that, when combined with others, could change history.
What our teachers didn’t tell us as we stood in Lincoln’s formidable shadow was that our voices would only be heard if we left.
Washington, D.C. is a federal district under the jurisdiction of Congress. Not a state, nor part of a state; we’re just a cracked diamond territory that floats between Virginia and Maryland. Despite having a greater population than Vermont and Wyoming, we don’t have voting representation in Congress. We have a delegate who can urge, even sponsor legislation—but her vote does not count. Shadow representatives for a city that lies in the shadow of Capitol Hill. We elect our city government, yes, but that shadow is omnipresent. Our budget, our laws, they’re all subject to the whims of Congress.
I left D.C. for college, but I always seem to find my way back. D.C. is a strange, ferocious beast of a city. It is not one that never sleeps, yet it is still exhausted. It is small and wide, green and gray. It is a city of contrasts.
To be a D.C. native is a complicated thing. We have a fierce pride for our people, our place—yet, at the same time, to think about our home is to be frustrated. I suppose many people feel that way about their hometowns when they grow up. Many become disillusioned with the buildings they once thought were grand, beautiful. With the parks filled with rust-bitten playground equipment, the streets filled with men who haven’t yet learned that everything the light touches is not meant for their touch as well. Many people have hometowns that suffer income disparity, discrepancies between the quality of private and public education (I am a product of both), inaccessible public everything, and gentrification.
But D.C. is the only city regularly vilified for things that have very little, if anything, to do with the city itself. My home has become shorthand for Congress, which means it’s also shorthand for all of America’s problems. It is the swamp crawling with corruption as thick as mosquito ponds in July.
Despite my complicated feelings that surround my home and all it represents, I still feel obligated to defend it. In new, unfamiliar places, I’ve developed a strategy of recounting facts about D.C.—a refrain to stave off the pervasive outrage it stokes in non-natives. How only one in 10 jobs in the D.C. area are related to the federal government. How we are one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the entire country. And always, without fail: how we are so much more than Congress. So much more than a handful of expensive white buildings filled with rich white men on a hill.
What I never say, but is always on my mind, is how much I resent my home for not allowing us a voice. Of course, being voiceless in America is so common you’d think it was actually still part of the Constitution, but being voiceless in D.C. provides another, extra layer of bitter irony. No matter how much outrage swells over voter disenfranchisement, no matter how many laws are passed to prevent voter rolls from being purged and protect marginalized Americans at the polls, the more than 700,000 people who call D.C. home still won’t have true representation in Congress. And perhaps the greatest irony of all: Over half of these 700,000 are people voting rights legislation is specifically designed to protect.
In these conversations, I don’t even have time to describe the sound of different languages being spoken all at once. There’s no time to mention the food, the music, the smell of cherry blossoms. My defense takes up so much breath it leaves me gasping. And, eventually, the very act of defense starts to wear away at all this good. When the rest of the country labels you broken, a symbol of all that is wrong with America, it is hard to remember that the defense of D.C. is not all that D.C. is.
I have not yet learned how to reconcile my love and resentment for this place. I am not sure I ever will. Home and disenfranchisement sound wrong together. Two words that shouldn’t belong in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence. But perhaps that’s the point. I’m not the one who gets to decide the spaces those words inhabit. As much as D.C. belongs to us in our hearts, we have no real ownership of our home. It belongs to everyone in America except us, the people who actually live here.
Unseen In My Own Home
By Eboni-Rose Thompson
When I was a kid, I wondered why the only movies based in D.C. were political. They all seemed to be set at the White House. I could never understand why D.C. was only seen as the nation’s capital when I just saw it as home. Now as an adult, I often hear people start conversations by asking “What do you do?” It’s often followed by some version of, “I hate when people start with that, but this is D.C.”
But for thousands of us, we aren’t here because we came to go to a university or work on Capitol Hill, for a think tank or campaign. For D.C. natives, we are here because this is home.
Being a D.C. native is a constant exercise in helping others see past our collective invisibility.
I first became aware of my own invisibility when I started a job at a national organization based in D.C. My manager welcomed me during a morning gathering with my new colleagues over a breakfast spread. I was introduced, and they gave a quick overview of my resume—where I went to school, places I’d worked, a quick fun fact. My new colleagues nodded and smiled. Then one asked, “Where are you from? “
I immediately and happily answered, “I’m from D.C.” She responded with confusion, saying,“No one is from D.C.”
Those words cut me. They weren’t malicious, but they hurt. My face must have betrayed my thoughts, because the next thing I heard her say was, “Well I’ve never met anyone from D.C.”
On my way into the office earlier that morning, I took a moment to stop at the CVS on the corner. I was pleasantly surprised to run into a familiar face—a high school classmate was the cashier and we caught up briefly.
When I heard those very matter-of-fact responses back at the office—“no one is from D.C.” and “I’ve never met anyone from D.C.”—I couldn’t help but think that she must have needed something and gone into that CVS before, stopped in one of the many Starbucks that cover downtown or grabbed lunch from Chipotle.
What crystallized for me in that moment was that to non-natives, newcomers, and visitors, we are invisible.
There’s a common story ascribed to D.C. as a city of transplants like my colleagues and college classmates who followed some amazing opportunity to the nation’s capital and somehow ended up working off of K Street NW where it’s so convenient to take the bus to everyday.
There’s also an all too common story of my childhood friends and neighbors that’s less visible but happening alongside those stories. They never felt like there was a lot of opportunity, but they somehow found a job (with benefits) and also ride the bus to work everyday.
As someone who works in education and youth development, I can’t help but think about my own path. I don’t think I’m particularly special and can’t justify what would make me an exception. I think about what allows me to cross from the D.C. I have always considered home—where it’s expected that I can count how many generations my family has been here— into the national D.C., where it’s expected you’ll be able to count all the places you’re thinking about going next.
Class is inextricably linked to race and educational attainment, and in D.C. we have both the highs and lows. We live in a city with a poverty rate 4 percentage points higher than the national average of 15 percent. Yet, its median income is over $73,000, which is much higher than the national median of $55,000. D.C. also consistently ranks as one of the most educated cities in the United States. In the last census, data showed the District as having the highest percentage of degree holders in the country, with 42 percent of adults holding a bachelor’s degree and 19 percent of adults having achieved a master’s, professional, or doctorate degree. That’s roughly twice the national average for advanced degrees. At the same time, D.C. has a high school graduation rate of 68.5 percent, much lower than the national average of 84.1 percent.
These disparities show how D.C. is a place of relentless opportunity for some and a place where opportunity seems fleeting, at best, for others.
From here, the question we should ask is not how can both of those points of view be right. We should ask why we allow these dual realities to exist.
A Richly Diverse Upbringing
By Dawn Smith
In December 1968, a scared 18-year-old girl called the 16-year-old boy she’d been dating with a life-changing message: “I’m at Washington Hospital Center, and I just had your baby.”
Fifty years later, here I am. That young mother walked away, and my story commenced on 16th Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest, under the care of my paternal grandmother.
For me, being a D.C. native means maintaining self-pride, while truly valuing all diversity. I’m proud to claim a city that is a cauldron of cultures, ethnicities, food, and identities—each unthreatened by the next.
The picture of strength and resilience, my grandmother migrated from South Carolina after losing both her parents. She said D.C. was a big city with southern charm.
Grandma started out doing domestic work for a wealthy family in Chevy Chase. She left for work in the predawn hours and returned after sunset. I cherished weekends when she didn’t work and we ran errands like to Miss Peggy’s dry cleaners. Whether we had items for her or not, we stopped to say hello, and she always had a treat for me.
Saturday nights were full of life. Grandma and I watched from the window as hipsters paraded up and down the block donning well shaped afros adorned with feathered fedoras cocked to the side. My uncles spent all day picking double-knit bell bottoms, butterfly collared shirts, and platform shoes to later wear at the Foxtrappe nightclub. My older cousins headed to the skating rink on Kalorama Road NW.
Sometimes Grandma and I stayed up until we heard the clamor of cousins “cackling,” as she called it, up the stairs of our four-story walk-up. By then, people started to filter back into our neighborhood with Little Tavern or Ben’s Chili Bowl bags, sitting on the stoop “joning” until the wee hours.
On Sundays after church, Grandma would sometimes take me to a “picture show” at the Booker-T movie theater. She walked fast and my Boyce and Lewis brogans made it hard to keep up. I whined and she’d say D.C. had everything we needed, but we had to move with a sense of purpose to get it.
Shortly after landing a better job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, we got subsidized housing in a high-rise building in Southwest. That section of town looked a lot different than our old neighborhood. Singed, boarded storefronts were replaced by patches of grass, green trees, and the Waterside Mall.
In Southwest, I could walk to the waterfront. The Potomac River seemed to do a rhythmic runway walk along the railed cement walls. I loved walking to school with friends, then pooling coins for penny-candy at High’s on the way home.
We spent weekends jumping neatly trimmed bushes and climbing massive trees. Our frolicking and unrestricted voices garnered glares from the middle-class residents whose balconies overlooked manicured grasses.
During the summer, we traveled in packs on bikes or skates following the glazed-pebble sidewalk to the Wharf. We stood in doorways where guys steamed crabs until someone finally offered a freebie. Some days, we split into two or three groups, at as many doorways. With steaming crabs in hand, we made a mini-feast.
Sometimes, instead of begging for crabs, we begged the young, crew-cut MPs guarding Fort McNair for entry to the bowling alley, where we shared shoes, balls, and 40-cent hamburgers.
Other summer destinations included the National Zoo, Hains Point, and the National Mall.
The days were long and hot, and ended when the streetlights came on.
We did our shopping downtown. Although I complained, Grandma always made me wear my Sunday’s best calico skirt when our trip included Woodward & Lothrop. I preferred shopping at Lerner’s or Kinney’s, but my grandmother wanted to be seen strutting in Woodies.
When she needed something really special, we went to the other side of downtown and shopped at Garfinckel’s or Hahn’s. There weren’t as many stores over there, but on a good day we would stop at Reeves Restaurant for lemon meringue pie. Grandma knew the doorman, so he got us in and told the lady at the counter to give us the biggest slice they had.
In fifth grade, my teacher, Ms. Kelly, invited me to come along when she hosted her grandkids from out of town. With Ms. Kelly’s blond-haired grandkids, I spent the day museum hopping, carousel riding, and paddle-boating. We sat in the warm sun on the National Mall (back then people could get in the Reflecting Pool) and had a real picnic while playing tag. This was my official introduction to the Smithsonian museums, in which I marveled at the marble walls, red carpets, and gold accents of the majestic hallways.
By high school, I’d fallen in love with go-go music. I loved hanging at the Coliseum or Masonic Temple, cranking E.U. or Trouble Funk. By then, I could also ride the bus alone and admire Cool “Disco” Dan’s tag in obtrusive places.
I loved high school and all that came with it: my first boyfriend, my Miss Notre Dame crown, and my would-be lifelong best friend, Rebecca.
Becca was one of two white girls in my school. She was loud and carefree in a way I didn’t recognize. She said whatever she was thinking, broke all the rules, and loved life.
Becca’s part of town was unfamiliar to me. I tried not to gawk when I first visited her huge house in Brookland. Her tree-lined street had detached houses on both sides, with big backyards behind. When I referred to it as Brooklyn, she proudly corrected me, then took me to Colonel Brooks’ Tavern where her sister worked as a waitress.
Brookland had picture window storefronts seemingly untouched by the D.C. riots. On a nice day, we’d walk to the National Cathedral and sit on the steps watching people come and go. We even named some of the gargoyles after the mean girls at school.
During the Christmas season, one man led Becca’s entire neighborhood to go caroling together. It was a different experience for me.
We loved hanging out in Georgetown, and frequenting Swensen’s ice cream shop. Access to Metro meant we could also enjoy movies at the Foundry 7 or Union Station and recruit groups of friends to bring toilet paper and raincoats for the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
With Becca’s affinity for dressing like Madonna, and me in my red Chucks, we were a colorful pair, garnering attention everywhere we went.
Our families had lots of questions about our mixed-race friendship, but we laughed and decided they would have to get used to it. The strength of our bond seemingly overpowered everything wrong in the world.
After high school, I started college at Temple University in Philadelphia and Becca moved to California. With D.C. memories in tow, we set out to conquer the world. Though I found fun in Philadelphia, and later, excitement in New York, the beauty, history, culture, and spirit of D.C. remains unmatched by any other city.
One fall day in Philadelphia, I sat on a bench outside, enjoying a hot pretzel, wondering where I should go next. It was a gorgeous day, and the weather was perfect. There, on the steps of Philly’s famed art museum, I knew it was time to come home.
Like Grandma’s my hero, D.C. is my home.
Hear these essayists and resident suppliers of advice speak at Solid State Books, 600 H St. NE, on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.