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.