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If you know what it’s like to find yourself at the table or on the couch chatting with someone you find utterly fascinating, then you have some idea of our collective delight in producing this week’s paper. Settle in, because there’s a lot of great stuff to read here.
Our fourth annual People Issue is City Paper’s effort to introduce you to some of the city’s most interesting folks, some of whom we already know, others we wanted to get to know on your behalf. We called them up, asked them to meet us for a conversation, and simply recorded what they said. They were also kind enough to sit for photos with our staff photographer Darrow Montgomery, whose portraits offer another layer of insight into the personalities who animate the following pages.
The interviews have been edited for space and clarity, but we tried to keep all the most enchanting pearls. We’ve got an 84-year-old who fronts a local house band, a marijuana edibles entrepreneur, a drag queen, a (hot) transportation bureaucrat, a used bookstore owner who keeps his treasures in a secondhand bank vault, and so much more. —Liz Garrigan
All photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Aaron Saunders is the CEO of Clearly Innovative, a small software development company that also runs its own tech and entrepreneurship education program, called Luma Lab. The mayor’s office has tapped Luma Lab to operate a forthcoming startup incubator in a partnership between the city and Howard University. —Zach Rausnitz
How did your company get so involved in education and volunteer work?
About five years ago, Clearly Innovative did a hackathon over in Anacostia focused on black and brown kids who just don’t get a lot of exposure to this type of opportunity. We had this event, it was successful, and then it ended—and there was nothing else. At that point, it was my mission to say, “What can I do?”
An opportunity came to teach a program at Howard University Middle School of Math and Science. We taught them some stuff about entrepreneurship, lean startup, user interface design, requirements gathering, and a little bit of mobile development. We did that for two years. Then someone said, “Why don’t you guys run a summer camp?” So we ran a summer camp. And then we got picked up by Boys & Girls Clubs. Then we were like, alright, maybe this education thing is something.
Last year, we won a Mission Main Street grant for $100,000, and at that point we were like, alright, the education stuff is getting pretty serious. Our initial plan was to try to find a space, because space is one of the biggest issues. We’d go into public schools and say, “We can run a program for you. We have a funder who will fund the program for you. All you need to do is give us space and give us students. It doesn’t cost you a dime.” And schools still pushed back. They wouldn’t take our money. I think they just felt like it was going to make their lives more complicated than they needed to be. Then the mayor’s opportunity hit the street, to run the incubator on Georgia Avenue.
Are you the type who started tinkering with computers and code at a young age?
I started programming in the sixth grade. I’m 53, so it was a while ago. It was on a Commodore PET. The computer had been sitting in the corner of the school library. I got picked on during lunch, so I stopped going out for recess, and I would sit in the library. One day I just asked the librarian, “Are you going to do anything with that?” They said, “We don’t know what to do. You’re welcome to open it if you’d like to.” That’s how I got into programming. I opened it up, read the manual, figured out how to turn it on, and taught myself BASIC. I wrote a small program.
There wasn’t a lot of opportunity then, but my father was an electronic technician, and he bought me a Timex Sinclair. It was like a little flat box with a keyboard and a small processor, and you plugged it into your TV. It was kind of a hobby, because back then, people weren’t like, “Oh, I’m going to get a job at a software company.”
Even at the point where I got to college, I still wasn’t thinking about computer science. I went to college pre-med and then bombed pre-med. Then I thought, let me try computer science, let me just take this class. I did well, and it stuck.
Is D.C.’s tech scene distinct from other cities?
Yes, without a doubt. It’s challenging to get individuals to take the risk to work at smaller, more entrepreneurial companies, because it’s expensive to live here, and it’s easy get a job with a big government agency or consulting firm and get paid a lot of money and do nothing. There’s a lot of people I meet at meetup groups getting paid really well who really don’t know how to write software, but they’re at technology companies. There’s so much coddling around them that you can be successful without really being that good at it. And that just doesn’t fly in a lot of other areas.
When Anna Nasty performs, you pay attention. This is not because it’s common courtesy to give a performer your undivided attention, but because their performances demand your attention. Whether it’s with the crime-rock quartet Chain and the Gang or, more notably, as a solo performer under the moniker Olivia Neutron-John, Anna is one of D.C.’s more confrontational and transcendental performers. —Matt Cohen
How long have you lived in D.C.?
Three years now.
Do you feel like it’s home?
Yeah, it immediately felt like home. It’s kind of why I stayed. I was visiting my friend and I ended up staying. I loved it right away.
What do you like most about D.C.? What don’t you like about it?
Can I be totally honest? I think D.C. has the best food. I love food in D.C. It knocks everything out, like I have the best pizza here. The best Japanese food, Chinese food, Indian food—you name it. Everything is the best.
Things I don’t like … nothing intense comes to mind. I hate that there’s not enough spaces for musicians to do their thing. Because that’s always been a real struggle. We don’t really have any, like, mid-level places to play anymore. It’s either houses or Black Cat. There’s no in between.
What are the origins of Olivia Neutron-John?
You know you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that question in an interview. Which is crazy, because I think it’s a good question, so thank you.
Anyway, I had this keyboard for a really long time. Much longer than the project has been around. And I didn’t really understand how to play it, because I’m not a trained piano player. If you put me in front of a piano, I couldn’t play you anything. So it sat around, and I didn’t know how to use it. I just found that it had a cool drum machine and had these space sounds that sounded really cool. I had a concussion, actually, and I was kind of bedridden for a while. I didn’t think that I was ever going to be the same, and the only thing that made sense was playing my keyboard. And, yeah, I just kinda laid around in bed and played keyboard, which is why I called it “bedroom pop,” like as a joke. But I’ve never been able to explain the joke, because no one’s asked me why. It literally is, or was, bedroom pop, because I was laying in bed with a hole in my head.
You’ve described your music in the past as “post-bro.” Do you still think of your music that way?
Yeah, I’m the leader in post-bro music.
Are there more followers now?
I think people are into the idea of post-bro. It’s something I’m trying to implement. It’s just the idea that we shouldn’t strive to be in a post-feminist society. Like a lot of focus is on, “Oh, we’re going to get over the issue. We’re going to be a post-feminist society. We’re going to be a post-race society.”
But that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t happen. We need to focus our energy on ending bad attitudes and bad behavior, racist behaviors. Instead of saying we don’t need feminism anymore, what we don’t need is this bad attitude anymore. You know what I mean? The focus should be shifted.
What role do you think musicians and artists can play in the next four years as we usher in a new presidency?
Well, our president-elect is obviously an awful person … but the reality is that this is something that a lot of people have been dealing with far beyond Trump. And it’s something that we would deal with under any president-elect.
I mean, look at where we are now with Standing Rock: Obama is completely silent. People praise Obama. I guess I’m just not into presidents. My attitude right now is that we’re going to be doing the same thing that we’ve always been doing for each other: sharing our experiences, and creating, and growing past pain, and growing past struggle. You know what I mean? It’s something that’s always been there, and if anything it’s just going to be stronger than ever now.
Arlene Wagner is your Jewish mother away from your Jewish mother, even if you don’t have one. While her son Jonathan Taub masterminds what goes between the bread at Bub & Pop’s, it’s Wagner who runs the business and doles out free smiles and hugs. The smiles are still coming, but staying positive is a challenge after the year Wagner’s endured. She lost three family members, including her son Peter Taub, an Air Force staff sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan. —Laura Hayes
What was the dream when you opened Bub & Pops in 2013? Did you think you’d be so successful? You have lines out the door for lunch every day.
Consciously, I never thought about the word success. I just thought about Jonathan and I doing the very best that we could in the endeavor. I didn’t have the intelligence at that time to think about will it or won’t it fail.
What’s it like being in business with your son?
Anybody that works with family would probably agree with this. I believe that every family has dysfunction in it. If not, we would not be here on planet earth. Some days are very loving and very caring, and some days are not. I realize too how many places around us between M Street and 18th and 19th Streets have not made it. Some have closed up in three months or six months. The people that we took this place over from, I don’t think they were in business for more than three months. Maybe because you’re family, there’s more of a sense of working together and knowing the issues that can take a business down, we are loyal to each other.
How have you been able to keep working through everything you have gone through in the past year?
In some ways it’s a plus, in some ways it’s a minus. When I get in here, I have to be very focused at what I’m doing. Obviously everyone knows about Pete, but then I lost my sister in March after a very short diagnosis. My first cousin’s child Melanie was set to go to college the next day and got hit. Her and a friend died in that accident. … In some ways, it’s been a saving grace to be here and be focused, and people are really nice. Guys that have been coming back from Afghanistan actually come in to say hi even if they didn’t know Pete. The Air Force has been more supportive than I would have ever imagined. But there are days when I just really don’t want to get out of bed.
You work long hours on your feet. What inspires you and motivates you?
Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time I really enjoy the people that come into the restaurant. Sometimes I don’t get to interact with them as much as I’d like to when we get a real rush. Also, I know he’s my son, and not to sound like a Jewish mother, but his food is incredible. He has such a sense of taste and artistry. I don’t think I could put as much enthusiasm into this if we weren’t selling food that I didn’t think was really good and really high quality.
Supper at Bub’s launched this year. What’s it been like watching Jon flex those fine dining muscles again during the weekend tasting menu dinners?
It is really wonderful to be the guinea pig that gets asked, “Mom, can you taste this?” Or “Mom, what do you think?” One of my favorite things to eat is duck. So I’ve done many tastes of that duck until he got it. It’s very exciting for me to see not only because he’s my son, but seeing someone get to do something that they love, that’s a gift. Anyone who gets to work a job doing something they love knows that it’s a blessing.
As MASN’s sideline reporter, Dan Kolko has interviewed Washington Nationals players on the field during some of the team’s most memorable moments—from the aftermath of historic no-hitters to the time a triumphant Jayson Werth told his critics to “kiss my ass” on live television. —Zach Rausnitz
A classmate of yours at Einstein High School in Kensington told me you were known for acting in school plays.
Yeah, I did plays growing up. My mom directed shows. My entire childhood, elementary school, middle school, she directed plays at the schools that I was at. Then I did plays in high school as well. It was a mix of theater and sports for me growing up, which kind of combine into the job that I have now, in a sense.
Are you using those theater skills in your on-camera role?
With live television, you have to have some improvisational skills. Sports is obviously not scripted. I have to be able to think on the fly, especially when it comes to the postgame interviews that I do on the field. If they have a walk-off win, you don’t have time to script those questions.
Baseball’s culture is kind of stoic, and a lot of players aren’t very expressive on the field, but the Nats have some unconventional personalities.
I love it. Max Scherzer prides himself on being one of the most accommodating, open, thoughtful players. There have been times where we’ve wrapped up a segment and he’s said to me, “That was a good one. I want to do more like that.”
I did a segment this year called “Behind the Seams,” like the seams of a baseball, where I talked with various pitchers about their key pitch grip. Some of them are a little hesitant to divulge their secrets. Some are very welcoming to show one pitch. I asked Max if he’d show me his changeup. He said, “Hell, I’ll show you all my pitches.” So we did a 10-minute segment where a Cy Young Award winner was showing all the fans and all the youth baseball players how he grips his fastball, how he cuts it, what he’s trying to do mechanically with his arm, with his throwing motion, how he’s trying to drive the changeup. To me as a diehard baseball fan, that’s the kind of stuff I love getting into.
What’s your approach to players who aren’t so eager to do TV interviews?
Anthony Rendon is one of the more well-liked players on the team. The fan base loves him, and he’s an incredibly talented player. He doesn’t enjoy—and he would admit this—the media aspect of the job. If Anthony homers twice in a game, he knows that I’m going to be coming to him. He might roll his eyes a little bit and say, “Come on man, can’t you get somebody else?” But most of the time, he’ll do it, sometimes begrudgingly. He doesn’t like talking about himself. He really doesn’t. When you perform well, reporters want to talk to you. But a lot of guys don’t like bragging or seeming like they’re bragging. With Anthony, more so than with others, I’ll ask him one question about himself, and maybe not about how well you’ve been playing of late, maybe something more specific. Then I’ll transition to questions about the starting pitcher or something that he’ll be more willing to open up about.
So much was said and written about Vin Scully in his final year as the Dodgers broadcaster, and with the Cubs making their World Series run, a lot of memories of Harry Caray were shared. It feels like the broadcasting team is a big part of the team identity in baseball, more so than in other sports.
I would agree with that. You definitely want to feel like you have a bond with the fan base. It’s the nature of baseball—162 games. It’s a daily thing. There are a lot of people who watch on a daily basis, and they kind of welcome you into their home. I don’t think any of us take that for granted. It’s a special opportunity to be a part of team broadcast.
Born in Bogota, Colombia, Juana Medina came to the United States 16 years ago and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is now a children’s book author who also teaches animation at George Washington University. —Liz Garrigan
Tell me about your Juana and Lucas book series.
The first one was just published in September. I’m working on the second one, which will most probably be published in 2018. And hopefully I’ll be working on the third.
Is it autobiographical?
It is semi-autobiographical. The true story is, basically my mom picked me up at school, in kindergarten, and I was fuming. I grew up in Colombia. I was furious, and she asked what was going on. I told her they were gonna teach me something called the English and I didn’t want to learn it. She said, ‘Well, too bad. We’re going to Disney World and Mickey Mouse only speaks English.’ Of course, Mickey Mouse doesn’t even speak, so there’s that.
So the story was roughly modified … but it is loosely based and autobiographical.
What age is the audience?
It’s young readers so about 5 through 8, even 9 years olds. … It’s kind of peppered Spanish here and there, and my idea was for them to figure it out on their own. I just remember as a child feeling very proud like, “Oh, I know what that means.”
Based on the context, etc.?
You teach at GW, right?
I am teaching right now mostly animation courses. And it’s interesting. I think animation is not that far from children’s books. Children’s books are basically choosing a few stills that are going to express an idea. They’re an amplified storyboard in a way. So I do find it very refreshing to be able to think of storytelling and narrative with students who are just being introduced to animation and motion graphics.
When you got started in books, did you start just with illustration and move to writing too?
Correct. I had been illustrating children’s books for Colombia and Latin America for years. It was quite surreal because I would sort of send material and never see it again. And now working in the U.S. and illustrating and writing has been really interesting just because I have something tangible to show for it. So it’s been nice just to be able to be working in children’s books, and not just illustrating but writing as well.
How are you feeling after this election? Do you fear for D.C.’s immigrant community?
I do. I would be lying if I said I was surprised. I could, quite unfortunately, see it coming. And I worry—as a Latina, as an immigrant, as a gay person. I think I am in a position where I’m lucky to be able to turn this into creativity and work of value and to hopefully stay somewhat grounded by doing community work and so many things. … I worry at a personal level. I worry for our country. I’ve been living here for 16 years, so it is pretty much home. And I also worry what does this mean for our planet. So at a micro and macro level, it’s quite concerning for me.
Do you think D.C. will remain home?
I truly hope so.
Do you have any thoughts about whether our mayor has been reassuring enough about D.C. as a sanctuary city?
I think there is no effort that could be too big. There is so much work to be done in terms of tolerance and openness, and I think every effort will be welcome. Honestly, I think it’s all about stopping this or working against this notion of otherness, be it race, immigration, gender, religion, income. The income inequality in this city is also perplexing. So I think no effort can be enough in that regard from any administration, honestly, and the city could benefit a lot from pushing a little further.
Originally hailing from Sweden, Anna U Davis has spent most of her time as a working artist in D.C., exhibiting at multiple galleries and twice receiving a D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities fellowship. She works with great precision, applying thousands upon thousands of tiny collage pieces to painted backgrounds and painstakingly outlining them in black. The resulting works depict female figures in sometimes surreal scenarios and confront issues of gender and race in surprising and bold ways. —Stephanie Rudig
When did you start working with collage?
Somewhere after school. I went to UDC, and we had to take African-American art history. So in that class [the professor] had us do these collages, and I got very intrigued with what I could do with that. I left it at that. It wasn’t until after I graduated that all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, I should really try to infuse the collage.’ The seed started there, and then just happened naturally after I finished school in 2002.
So you came to D.C. from Sweden, specifically for college?
No. My husband is half Swedish, half African American, and his dad lived here, and we wanted to do something different. So that’s how I started. I wasn’t thinking necessarily of going to art school. I was doing the art, but it was more based on, “OK, we’re going here.”
So you have those family ties, and have stayed for that reason, but have you been inspired to stay here otherwise?
In the beginning, I didn’t feel like it’s this artsy town. It’s this town where you can do something, because the scene needs to be developed. You can actually do something cool here. You’re in the midst of all this politics, and everything happens here. When I first came, the art scene was in Dupont Circle. Another one was 14th street, in the same building there was a bunch of galleries. Now I think it’s only one left, the Hemphill. But they cannot stay. Which is a sad part of the city. You see that galleries can’t stay in the locations, it’s so expensive.
Aside from the issues of having space to show and being able to afford the rent, what other challenges do you see D.C. artists facing right now?
I think that the city is becoming a cooler and cooler city, in general. It’s more hip, it’s more than politics. You wish that it can also bleed over into the artistic community. You know that the money is here to buy a lot of art, but a lot of the buyers will go to other places. I just got a new collector, which was really exciting because they told me they only collect D.C. local artists. I haven’t heard that before.
Do you think that D.C. has influenced your work?
It must have, the whole city probably. My figures are based on the interracial relationship between my husband, who’s black, and I’m white, and then I went to a predominantly black school. Of course that influenced me, for just a brief second to be where you’re the minority, which, I would always be the majority in Sweden. And I’m continuing with also being here in D.C. with the politics, and being a woman. Because I feel coming from a Northern European country, where, we’re not equal, but Sweden is different.
Much of your work is the female form. Is any of that a reaction to the different power structures you see?
Probably yes, because it’s very male dominated. You see that here, of course, because it’s the politics. So many important decisions are made here every day. And now [post-election], I don’t even know. I mean it’s like, are we gonna go back to the kitchen? Back to ancient times?
You just did a collaboration with Dacha Supper Club. How did that come about?
Two owners are collectors of my work. They commissioned me to do a big piece, the Dacha Garden with all the people in it. I slightly altered the figures for that too, to capture some of these people they wanted in it. I usually don’t do commissions, but it was a very interesting, challenging thing to do. And the biggest piece I’ve ever done, on canvas. It’s seven by 10 foot. First we were going to have just an inauguration for the piece, but I’m really good friends with one of them, so we’re like, let’s do a whole event, instead of just that one piece. Some of it was my past, and several was what I’m doing right now.
Philip Pannell has been an activist in Ward 8 for decades. As the ward confronts a changing city and its own politics after Marion Barry’s 2014 death, Pannell has a new project: a board showing unsolved murders in the District. —Will Sommer
How did you get started in activism?
When I was a teenager, I understood that if you want to make your point and try and change things, you’ve just got to be active.
Tell me about the murder project.
Living in a community where these murders are so routine, people become numb-er to it. Folks got to realize that you just can’t live in a community where folks can just kill people and get away with it, and next thing you know people not say anything. Many times it’s because they’re scared but not making any effort to bring information.
That photographic display is meant to prick the conscience of the community. And to be honest, most folks in the community don’t see these flyers anyway. They don’t. They may be on the [Metropolitan Police Department] website, but how many folks go there?
We’ve had just a tremendous reaction to it. And there’s always a chance that some folks will come forth.
What gave you this idea?
Particularly [murdered journalist] Charnice Milton. That haunts me to this day. This guy grabbed Charnice and used her as a human shield.
She was shot at a bus stop right in front of an all-night gas station across the street. There’s the Popeye’s around the corner, there’s the Mcdonald’s. Even around quarter of 10 o’clock at night, there was always a lot of folks.
But to this day—nothing. And so that really kind of spurred me into action.
Why aren’t these crimes getting solved?
People aren’t coming forth with information for various reasons. It’s understandable. People are afraid to tell the information. Another thing is that the $25,000 that the police offer I don’t think is enough to lubricate people’s tongues on this.
When the police say that you can phone your information in anonymously, there’s not practically anyone who is not sleeping who actually thinks that you can phone something in anonymously. They really feel that their number can be traced. They’re not going to go in person to the police department, and they’re not going to invite the police to come to their homes or any place.
Another thing is that there’s this code of silence in the community, this whole no snitching thing. This whole thing has really been misinterpreted by a lot of people.
The whole idea of snitching comes out of the whole criminal and correctional systems, where you have one criminal who’s going to give information on another one in order to get reduced time or to do lighter time. Somehow, that has morphed into this whole thing, you just don’t talk. People do not make the distinction between no snitching and then being a good citizen, so they don’t come forth.
It’s literally killing people. Silence is killing people in this community.
Cava Grill is headed towards world domination.That’s hyperbole, but the homegrown fast casual chain with humble beginnings has 33 open or coming-soon locations spread throughout the East Coast and California. There’s more to the craze than the addictive spicy lamb meatballs—Cava Grill has staff data scientists monitoring everything from how loud a restaurant is to how many milliseconds it takes to print out a receipt. Josh Patchus, whose resume includes stints at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and LivingSocial, is one of the first in-house data scientists in the food world. —Laura Hayes
For people who don’t know, what exactly is data science?
It depends on where you’re coming from—the government has data scientists, app companies have data scientists. Now food companies have data scientists. To me, they are people who collect, analyze, and report. That acronym comes out to CAR. If you’re a small company like Cava, you need data scientists to drive the car themselves. So it’s somebody who knows how to get data, analyze it, and present it in a good way.
Walk me through the big picture things that you’re analyzing and putting into practice?
For most of it, think about seconds. Every second is monstrous to us—whether it’s how many seconds you’re online, how much longer it takes you to order, how many seconds it takes before you get frustrated. A happy customer can come down to a matter of seconds. So if it takes you an extra 15 or 20 seconds to get through our queue, it’s going to waterfall down to the last person in line. And as you’re experiencing Cava digitally, how do those seconds matter? You don’t think about it on a day-to-day basis, but if an Amazon order takes you an extra 10 seconds, you’re probably not going to go back. It’s all these small seconds that we try to make efficient. And then, while we’re in those seconds we want them to be pleasurable. If it’s going to take time anyway, we want it to be rewarding. And then we try to look at other things. How loud is the sound? When you’re trying to order is it too close to the grill? We try to measure what would be customer pain points. Everyone we interview, one of the questions we always ask is, tell me the last time you’ve been to a Cava and name one thing that frustrated you?
So you gather most of your data through interviews?
No. That’s thought generation, and then we try to build sensors. We started with Raspberry Pis—small computers that can measure things—so what we can do is add different sensors onto the small computers and then deploy them in stores wherever we want. In the future we’ll work with partners who can build these for us, instead of me and the other data scientists sitting with the soldering iron. We try to measure the decibels, the temperature, the light, because even light affects things. We use the interviews to identify pain points. We just want to know where the pain points are. That’s where the interviews come in.
So is this data-gathering some NSA shit? Are you storing information about people?
No. If I knew that you walked by every day, and somehow I creepishly figured that out, what would I do with it? People need to think about what they’d do with the data rather than just collecting it. Yeah, there would be great marketing metrics, like what is your pass-through rate, but there are other ways to get that information. We don’t get any value out of storing data. It’s more of a risk than anything.
What’s been the biggest surprise in your research?
People will leave a review on a website and they’ll say, “best place ever, loved the chicken, loved the salad, clean, staff was friendly, if Jesus Christ himself came back I’d take him to Cava because that would be the one place I want him to eat.” Then they’ll be like, “four stars because it was a cloudy day.” I can’t control the weather. This is true anywhere, but especially in food: Customers say they want things, but they really want something else and they’re very opinionated. If an app doesn’t work, Snapchat doesn’t work, that’s a luxury. I don’t have to take pictures, I don’t have to send them to people, but I have to eat. So you have more than a business connection—it’s a personal connection—you got me, I got you. And when that breaks, it’s like your best friend let you down. I’m surprised how passionate our customers are. We make a lot of brand promises and we try to hold to them.
Over the last several years, Lenny Campello has borne witness to D.C.’s transforming art scene. He’s a practicing multimedia artist, teacher, writer, and former gallery owner. Since 2002, he’s covered and critiqued gallery openings and arts coverage in the D.C. press and all other visual art happenings on his blog Daily Campello Art News. —Stephanie Rudig
How long have you been an artist, and how long have you been a writer?
I came to the U.S. as a child. My mom and dad were refugees from Cuba. I was raised in Brooklyn, New York. I enlisted in the Navy when I was 17; I got commissioner when I was 25. I went to art school at the University of Washington in Seattle, I studied mathematics and then I got a second degree in art.
I started the business side of art also while I was in Seattle. They have a place called the Pike Place Market, where anybody can sell anything they make. So my art school assignments—soon as they were graded they were up for sale. I do a lot of writing as well, art criticism, and when I do that I always say “this is my opinion.” When you’re being judged or juried that’s just that person. Someone down the road might completely love your work.
You’ve exhibited all across the country and internationally, and you also moved around a lot in your career. What keeps you in D.C.?
What keeps me in D.C. is mostly familial. My wife is from this area, and now we have a 7-year-old. So that’s what keeps me here, and now I’ve developed so many roots here with artists. There’s artists I used to show when they were doing student shows. And now they’re teaching, they’re professors at universities. This is the longest I’ve ever been in one place. The real missing ingredient is the lack of attention [from the press].
How did Daily Campello come about? Was that born out of the frustration of not getting press coverage?
Yes, it was. If you go to the very first blog, it says it in there, I’m starting this simply because I’m sick and tired of the lack of attention.
How do you balance your time between being a practicing artist and managing the blog and staying plugged into the art scene?
And being a father. So it’s difficult, but I’m really, really good at managing time and setting priorities. I don’t agonize over things when it comes to the writing part. Maybe that’s Navy training. You drive a ship. If you have to correct your rudder you correct it, but you don’t stand still. Probably what’s suffered the most is the production of artwork. In an ideal world, I’d be out there for 18 hours a day doing stuff.
Do you think the D.C. art scene is on an upward trajectory?
I think our art scene is very strong, very vibrant. It’s one of the best for artist opportunities. I tell artists: Part of your job as an artist is go to openings, network, talk to people, find out what’s going on. I ask artists to tell me a little about themselves. I want to know what their ancestry is. And they say, “My parents came from Poland.” And I say, “How about calling the culture minister of the Polish embassy and see if they’re interested in hosting an exhibition?” You know how many times that’s worked?
Unfortunately, because we’re the nation’s capital, museum curators think of themselves as national museums. But even universities do that. George Washington is the most expensive university in the country, and there was almost a revolt from the alumni when they found out the money they had donated for the new gallery was focusing on all these outside artists, rather than the local ones, or ones affiliated with GW.
When you start adding the embassies, and the universities, and the nonprofit arts spaces, there’s a lot of wall space. And this area, there’s a lot of high talent artists.
At 78, Harvey Fry has had many careers. He’s read newspaper clippings to congressmen; driven a taxi; painted in New York; started the first demand-response delivery service in the city; and placed bets on NFL games. But now, as one of Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s whiskey advisors, he gets to mix business with his life’s study. You can find the whiskey collector in his seat at the far end of the bar eager to answer imbibers’ questions. Or at least some of them. —Laura Hayes
Where did you first meet Jack Rose Dining Saloon owner Bill Thomas and how did you wind up a fixture at his bar?
I’d get in the cab and go and sit in front of the zoo and haul people for an hour or two on a Saturday or Sunday. One time I picked Bill up and he went to Bourbon Glover Park. I was into whiskey and I didn’t know it existed. I found out about it through him. That was the first meeting. I didn’t see him again for five or six years. In 2006, I had a relationship with the guy who owned The Wine Specialist on Washington Circle. One of my protégés, Matt Ostrowski, was the manager there. At that point, it was the biggest whiskey store in the District of Columbia. We were standing there tasting some whiskies, and Bill walked in with a bunch of Willetts. It developed from there. We found out somewhat later that he was thinking about doing this place, and I was interested in it since I had a big whiskey collection at that point. What can you do with it? I’ve got more whiskey than all my descendants could drink into 3020.
So how often are you at Jack Rose and what do you do there?
The only day I agree to be here is Saturday or if there’s something going on. Earlier on, I had to be here more because you have this huge amount of whiskey up there and your biggest fear is who is going to translate it to the customers. We know what’s in those bottles because we bought them and we tasted them, but nobody else does. Servers and bartenders back then, they’d come here and know a little about North American whiskey, but they knew very little about Scotch and certainly not single malts. Essentially, we’ve grown a whole lot. The people have grown with us. My main job is to occasionally supply whiskey that I get independently to Jack Rose just like Bill does and advise what whiskey to get. Before I’d come in and probably talk to 100 people from 5 p.m. until whenever I went home. Now I only talk to people who know me or know of me and want me to advise them or help them pick whiskeys. I’m sort of like the mascot—having someone like me that looks the part and talks the part contributes atmosphere. Basically I’m here for appearances and to make sure the supply is as good as it can be. If we just left it to the distributors, we’d get a fraction of what we get up there.
When people do come up and chat with you, what is the most common question that you get?
“What is your favorite whiskey?” It’s the stupidest question. I love talking to people who are knowledgeable and really into learning and always have been—whiskey’s my life—but you get so many of these people who just don’t care. They look at you and they say, “Here’s the old whiskey guy.” It’s a thing to draw attention to themselves more than anything, and they don’t have any real questions. It’s not that much fun because you have to find ways to communicate in a way that will not offend them and at the same time make them happy that they’re here.
I won’t ask about your favorite whiskey then.
That’s like asking Old Mother Hubbard to choose between her children. To be honest, I have favorites like everyone else does. Last year it was Octomore 6.3, but I’ve probably tasted a thousand whiskeys since then. Because I have to taste so many, I don’t really get to sit with any of them for any period of time. I’d rather answer my favorite distilleries. My favorite distillery is Springbank, then Bruichladdich, Talisker, Highland Park, and Laphroaig.
Serge Seiden started his career in D.C. theater as an usher at Studio Theatre. After graduating from Studio’s conservatory, the director and teacher spent 25 years in various roles at the organization, becoming its producing artistic director in 2004. In 2015, Seiden cofounded Mosaic Theater Company of D.C., which presents socially relevant work by diverse playwrights. —Caroline Jones
Why do you think D.C. is a city where a company like Mosaic, that focuses on social justice themes, can grow?
It’s yet to be seen if it will, but I do think there’s a couple things coming together to make it possible. One is that D.C.’s talent pool of theater artists is huge and really experienced. There’s a lot of work for people and some great training programs.
Two, I think that there’s a lot of interest from funders now in this concept of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. The first big grant that we got certainly has those ideas at its core and we’ve recently received a grant from the Weisberg Family Foundation, which is specifically for developing methods for increasing diversity in theater at all levels, not just programming and casting, but at the design, directing, and staffing levels and at leadership. It’s also something that interests individual donors. People are eager to attempt to heal some of the damage that’s around us all the time.
How have you seen the D.C. theater scene change?
When I first got here, there were only like six theaters and if you wanted to work as a union member, you had to live in New York. But that started to change in the ’90s and through the 2000s very rapidly. Similarly, when there was a lot of funding, there were these wonderful donors who invested in infrastructure.
At the same time—this is going to sound so dry—there’s a union contract change that happened in the late ’80s that enabled small companies to hire Equity members at a very reasonable rate so people could start to make a little bit of a living in acting. D.C. is also the city with the highest percentage of people with advanced degrees and that group of people tends to like to go to the theater every once in awhile. There’s a market here for theater and an incredible range, from the high art of the Shakespeare Theatre and Kennedy Center down to Fringe, and there’s people to support it. Even for a new company like Mosaic, we’re getting people used to coming to Northeast.
Do you think politics being a profession in D.C. helps advance the work Mosaic is able to do?
I do. I think there are a lot of people from all ethnic backgrounds who are looking for a way to have catharsis through theater and I think people feel good when they come to a place that is not a monoculture. The good thing about Mosaic is almost all the shows we do have post-show discussions, where we have expert panelists who ask challenging questions of the audience. For I Shall Not Hate last year, the solo show from Israel, you had political discussions afterwards that are necessary and difficult and the same thing has happened with shows like When January Feels Like Summer, a kind of feel-good play about finding love in unexpected places that also challenged people from an identity-politics point of view.
Do you have a favorite play set in D.C.?
In all the years of doing season planning at Studio and now at Mosaic, we always hesitated to do plays that were set in the city because it’s almost harder for people to suspend their disbelief when everything is very present.
I did like the play about Antonin Scalia that Ed Gero starred in two years ago at Arena. One thing that’s interesting about doing plays here is that you get interesting people coming, so when we did Bad Jews two years ago, Ruth Bader Ginsberg came to see the show and then she invited us to go to her chambers so we went and saw the Supreme Court in action. That was a real thrill.
If you’ve spent any amount of time around D.C.’s gay or punk scenes or have visited Comet Ping Pong, you know Josh Vogelsong—or, better yet, Donna Slash, Josh’s drag queen alter ego. For a decade, Josh has been at the center of D.C.’s underground gay community with the ever popular Gay Bash DC parties. And for the last year, Donna has made waves in the local punk scene fronting the queercore quartet Homosuperior. —Matt Cohen
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What is the origin of Donna Slash?
It’s not that deep. It’s not like she’s a character I created. She’s just me in drag. I grew up in a really small, conservative town in Texas. It was a dry county. It was really bleak. My mom would drive me an hour-and-a-half to Austin every weekend and just let me go through the video stores and Waterloo Records and stuff like that. So that’s where I discovered Divine and all things John Waters and Gregg Araki. So it’s very, like, ’90s arthouse meets ’70s cult cinema. Teen angst mixed with midnight movies. I’ve always kind of been collecting things—wigs, pieces of jewelry, all kinds of stuff—that I knew eventually I could use to create this thing.
You’ve got a foot in the D.C. music scene with Homosuperior and a foot in the gay scene with Donna Slash and Gay Bash DC. What’s it like to navigate both?
Well, with all of this stuff, especially in D.C., it’s been easier because there isn’t anything else like it, so I’m not being compared to anything. I’ve been hosting these parties for 10 years, and it’s only in the last couple of years that Gay/Bash has become a thing. There aren’t really these scenes. I’m just trying to create that.
Why do you think it’s only become a thing in the past couple of years?
RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show’s been on—it’s going into its ninth season now—and some of our past queens have been on it. But yeah, [because of the show] drag became a much bigger thing; the younger generations are very much into all things queer. Cobalt has the very pagaent-y, very serious drag. But these kids want to come to our show because a lot of the queens are young and they’re throwing fake blood around. One of them came out with two dildos as a bra. It’s wild. I encourage that. I’m kind of an asshole and some drag queens don’t like me, but I’ve turned down a lot who want to perform because I know they’re just going to do some Britney song.
It’s like trying to be transgressive in an already transgressive scene.
A scene that’s getting more transgressive. I’m also the old bitter queen now because I’m over 30 and they’re all like 21 or 20. They’re all so young, and I have no idea what they’re talking about. That’s why I had to stop DJing. I’ll do a niche party where it’s like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or something and I get to play ’80s goth, because that’s what they want to hear. That I can do. But, like, I’ll try to play that on a Friday night and they all surround the DJ booth and they want Beyoncé and they’ve got it on their phone. And I’m like, “I can’t do this.” Sometimes I will jump on at the end of the night when everyone’s hammered because that’s when you can play The Cranberries or something and everyone’s just like “YASSSS” or they’re just so drunk that it doesn’t matter. You can just play Hole and it doesn’t matter. So that’s when I shine: At 2 in the morning when everyone’s wasted.
So things are going to change in the next four years in D.C. How are you preparing for that?
Honestly, the first thing on my mind is that I should buy more wig glue because I feel like people are going to try and snatch my wig off on the street. I mean, it’s going to be rough. There are carloads of people driving around harassing people walking on the street. I don’t want to be irresponsible, but I also just really want to encourage people to start carrying weapons. Especially for inauguration. That’s going to be such a bad time. We didn’t even think about it at Comet, but most Trump fans are also Guy Fieri fans, so Comet’s just going to be—and with this Pizza Gate shit that won’t go away…
Christ, I know.
It won’t go away! I had to make all my accounts private, and I’m still getting 12 to 15 follower requests a day.
I can’t believe the Pizza Gate thing has gone this far.
At first, we were laughing about it. We’d be answering the phone, and just mocking these people. For a couple days, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, with people just screaming and threatening us. I found all these threatening comments on the Donna Instagram, because I hadn’t checked in on it in a couple days, and it was just people saying. “I’m going to smash your teeth in, slit your throat…” all this kind of stuff. And I’m just like, “Oh, my God.”
Starting with a rack in an antiques mall in 1992, Riverby Books owner Paul Cymrot and his father Steve ultimately grew their used-book business to two shops, one in Fredericksburg, the other on Capitol Hill. When Steve tragically died after being struck by a truck in 2014, the beloved D.C. store closed. It reopened a year later. —Liz Garrigan
So you guys reopened last year, right, after your father’s death?
We shut down for almost a full year before we could figure out any way to go forward. We were still floundering, my mom and I, and trying to figure out what to do when a former employee came to us and said, “This place made me happy and I hate to see the lights off.” She volunteered basically to take it over, to manage it and run it, and that’s the only way we could have done it because it had to be someone who knew the store and us.
It sounds like a dream job.
It’s really fun. The hunting for books and looking for books. Every time I open a box, the adrenaline rush is still there. You don’t know what you’re going to find or whose it was.
Do you occasionally have one big sell, a $500 book or something?
Enough that it seems like a real thing every day. They’re in the store. We’ve got a book signed by Jackie Kennedy that somebody’s buying on an installment plan right now. There’s stuff around. We’ve got books from the early 16th century if somebody wants it.
The early 16th century?
Yeah, the 1520s, I think, is the earliest thing we’ve got right now. And they’re in Latin and beautiful in their really dense way. But just as a physical object, the thought that you can buy something man-made from 1520 just still blows my mind. If you wanted a piece of artwork, a piece of furniture from that era, it would be prohibitively expensive. And yet a nearly 500-year-old book is $200 or $300. Unfortunately, the store’s just not big enough to put everything out where people can see it.
Where do you put what you don’t have room for?
We’ve got a vault. A local bank went out of business, and we bought their vault—six combination units all in one giant metal thing.
Where is the vault?
I can’t tell you where the vault is! That’s the whole purpose of having a vault. … For a long time, I would put signed stuff in it because those are unique. I’ve got a signed Virginia Woolf. I’ve got eight or 10 letters written by Mark Twain. And then I began to suffer from the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket syndrome. I began to feel that if I was putting all my good stuff in the vault, suddenly it was becoming much too vulnerable. So then I’ve started with the-thieves-aren’t-going-to-know-what’s-a-valuable-book strategy, which means putting a $5,000 book on the shelf right next to a $20 book in a room with 20,000 books.
You’ve done that?
Yeah, yeah, that’s my current system.
There is a $5,000 book in your store right now?
Yeah. My current system is, if the person knows which is a $5,000 book, then they’re likely to be my kind of person anyway and I don’t have to worry about them.
How much was the book signed by Jackie Kennedy?
We put that out the week we reopened thinking, this will fly off the shelves. We have it priced at $750—sold now, as I understand it.
How are you feeling about indie bookstores and their survival?
When my dad and I started, we did all kinds of calculations as to what it would take for a used bookstore to survive, and the result from all of them was that it wouldn’t and couldn’t work and that you had to sell a book every two-and-a-half-minutes eight hours a day every day to break even. But luckily, that hasn’t altogether been the case. I’m not going to get rich doing this, unless the next box I open is really, really the one I’ve been waiting for. But as a lifestyle I don’t know how to beat it. I love it. The most common conversation I have with a journalist is when a newsroom somewhere … thinks they should do a story about the return of the independent bookstore.
And you’re like, “dude, I’ve been here since 1992.”
I kind of do that, yes. … We seem to be immune to the economy because our sales are $5 and $10. It’s dirt cheap, and it’s a place and a lifestyle that luckily these neighborhoods—downtown Fredericksburg, Capitol Hill—can support. … If it were purely a matter of money, I think the Internet could drive all the little bookstores out of business, but it could probably drive all the hardware stores and grocery stores out of business too. There’s a point at which the experience of picking out a book is worth what somebody might call the inconvenience of going to a bookstore.
Late in 2015, Kevin Merida left his position as the Washington Post’s managing editor—and as one of the leading candidates as the paper’s next editor—to run The Undefeated, a famously troubled ESPN website originally created as a vehicle for self-aggrandizing TV hot taker Jason Whitlock. In May, after nearly three years of development, the website Whitlock once dubbed “Black Grantland” launched with Merida in charge instead. —Will Sommer
You were at the Post and were a great candidate for editor there. The Undefeated, on the other hand, had a long history of being “in development.” Why did you decide to leave?
We created some great things at the Post. I always thought that if there was a chance, if I were going to leave the Post—and I wasn’t planning to leave—and do something different, it might be either I’m going to go off and write books, or lead a digital startup, then I might do that. That would be something that excited me—or at least intrigued me.
I had done a lot of things at the Post, and here was a chance to step out. I just thought, “Hey, let me go jump out here and take that leap.”
By the time I left, I wasn’t an insignificant figure there. I actually felt responsible because, as one of the two managing editors, I felt responsible and I had lots of relationships and I knew it would disappoint people for me to leave. I had built my professional life there. It was not easy at all. But once I got over here, it was exhilarating.
Before you got there, it hadn’t launched. How did you turn that around?
You go piece by piece. You have to build it.
Then, once you build it, then you have to kind of like define it. What is The Undefeated? And start practicing, testing out your identity. Who are we, what are we going to become, what kind of work are we going to do? What does it mean to have an Undefeated story?
What’s the difference between an Undefeated story and anywhere else?
Some of it is sensibility, right? Are you going to bring some swagger to a thing, or take advantage of a moment?
I think there are lots of moments for us that tested us. One of those was [Muhammad] Ali dying. I think if you looked at our coverage of Ali, the dimensions that we captured—we didn’t just glorify him. We dealt with him in the context of the broader history of social activism, we talked about how Ali wasn’t always the smartest guy thinking through issues.
How did you get ESPN to base The Undefeated here? It’s rare for a new media company to launch in D.C.
First of all, I was here. So it starts with that. I thought D.C. was perfect. In one sense because so much happens in D.C. It’s really an underrated city. I think it has great symbolism to people because they’re the capital of the world.
You come here to lobby the government, you come here to protest the government. If you have a cause that’s important enough, that reaches a level of importance in society—and that includes the sports issue of steroids and concussions—it’s going to make its way to Capitol Hill hearings.
There’s a reason every sports team comes to the White House.
The codename for this site for a while was “Black Grantland,” after the Bill Simmons site. What do you make of that?
I think it’s just stupid.
Jake and Pum Lefebure founded their firm Design Army from their kitchen table in 2003. They now occupy a studio in the H Street corridor and boast prestigious industry awards. Their projects include photo shoots of The Washington Ballet company at D.C. landmarks, a whimsical “whodunnit” video for Georgetown Optician, and a line of election-inspired special edition chocolates for Harper Macaw. —Stephanie Rudig
A lot of companies in your position would just keep their big national clients, but you guys are still doing a lot of work with businesses in D.C.
Jake: Over the years we’ve definitely been more selective in the folks we work with. But we always still put the creative first. If it’s something I think the staff is really going to want to work on, then we’ll pursue it. If we wanted to have our own mass fortune empire, we’d just do associations and trade conferences and healthcare out the wazoo. But we prefer high risk clients.
Pum: I think it’s important to be in a market like Washington, D.C. that is changing all the time. It’s nice to be a player in a city, to actually change the landscape. We have big clients, like the Academy Awards, Bloomingdales, Bank of America, Disney. But then it’s also important to have a local client as well, because that’s when we get to work with chocolate company Harper Macaw, or Jrink, the local juice company. Or Green Hat Gin, or D/CITY. I wouldn’t say D.C. is a big market like New York or Los Angeles, but it’s a pretty good solid market.
D.C. is more and more becoming a city of creatives. How do you see yourselves fitting into that, and what do you see in the future for D.C. as a creative capital?
Jake: If you want to define creative, there’s just a lot of different industries of creatives in D.C. You know, arts, entertainment. Obviously there’s some other very talented design agencies and creative agencies in town. We may not have the money of New York or some other places, but D.C. always has the power.
Pum: I don’t think that. I think clients in D.C. have just as much money. New York is probably cheaper, if anything, because there are more choices there. It’s really good to be big fish in a small pond. They consider us to be not a Washington, D.C. design firm, but a national design firm located in Washington D.C. And the reason that we are not in New York or L.A. is they just seem to go with the trends. We’re much more about conceptual, and finding the right solution for the client in our own unique voice. Not being in a big city has helped that.
What in D.C. do you think needs to be better designed?
Pum: Signage. I see so many beautiful buildings in Washington that are beautifully designed, but the signage and the logo and typography mess it all up. In New York you go around and there’s big playbills, big posters. You have so much limitation in D.C. to put anything big up. The city feels very sterile, it doesn’t feel as exciting as it should be. And everything is just so clean. I like a little bit of a little mess in order to make things gritty. That’s why I still like H Street, because there’s this mix of new development, as well as someone who’s been here for the last 50, 60 years.
We as creative people have a responsibility to make anything great. Despite the size of the client, the size of the city, we have done so many great things for smaller clients as well as bigger clients. I think D.C. can be more progressive, it will be interesting to see with the new administration how that will change.
Jake: We’ll just build a wall across North Capitol and close off H Street so it stays cool.
D.C. Department of Transportation director Leif Dormsjo has made the D.C. streetcar a reality and also sits on Metro’s board. Appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2015, he oversees the construction of new bike lanes and the daily work of neighborhood transportation planning. —Andrew Giambrone
What was your attack strategy for the streetcar?
For starters, I needed to get an independent assessment of where the project was, so I relied on a group of experts from the American Public Transportation Association who came in and did a deep-dive peer review. I also changed the project-management structure … [and] I got much more directly involved in the schedule, task management, and risk mitigation.
I was frankly surprised by how distressed the project was. That’s why I couldn’t say with confidence whether or not it could go forward. By February of last year, the streetcar had literally caught on fire, the fleet of six vehicles had been so poorly maintained and operated that only one of the vehicles was functional, the railcars could not align evenly with the platforms because the platforms had been installed improperly, the operators were not adequately trained and supervised so they were having a series of fender benders on the alignment during their simulated service, and we had no real schedule that outlined the steps required to get to an opening. Nor did we have the support of the fire department, which is a regulator of the service.
I’m not necessarily sure if you could describe a worse situation to have been in. But over a year from February of 2015 to 2016, the team of people that I pulled together here resolved every single one of those issues. They took the project to a new standard for what should be done to get ready to open a streetcar service. We’re applying that approach to how we reconstruct streets and alleys and sidewalks, where our productivity relative to years past is three, four times what it has been.
What have been DDOT’s priorities this year and what are you going to focus on next?
I would say the two projects we spent a lot of time on in the last year would be the I-395 Air Rights project and the South Capitol Street Bridge project.
The big project we’ve been working on kind of quietly behind the scenes, but which will be much more front and center next year, is all the work to get the Frederick Douglass Bridge—the South Capitol Street Bridge—through the design phase and award a builder. … It’s going to be a $400 to $500 million project and reshape the whole southern corridor of the city in a very positive way.
One of the fun things about working at DDOT is you can be involved in what you would call in this industry a “megaproject,” but on the same day you can help contribute to a community development project—as local as you can get in terms of improving people’s sidewalks and storefront areas and the lighting, bike amenities, things like that.
Do you see a path forward for Metro?
I’m certainly more optimistic about Metro’s future than I was when I came onto the board in March 2015, mainly because I think we’ve hired a solid general manager, [Paul Wiedefeld], who has strengthened the upper management ranks with qualified professionals. The composition of the board has changed, so I think we’re experiencing the benefits of fresh eyes from a policy perspective. The board has moved away from what I felt to be reckless expansionism to a focus on just basic day-to-day operational excellence.
Who is Leif Dormsjo the D.C. resident?
There’s not a tremendous amount of time for other things. I like to get out and see the city. Last week I had an opportunity to ride my bike on the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, a new extension we have to Maryland. I do like taking advantage of our trails. I’m a runner, so I run around Capitol Hill quite a bit. … To the extent that my wife and I get out of town, most of the time we’ll go hiking.
Southeast D.C. rapper Lightshow is the leader of a new generation of hungry, young MCs rising in the nation’s capital. A charismatic and confident lyricist, Lightshow dominates live performances with an easygoing charm and undeniable talent. After creating a significant buzz locally, he grabbed national attention in 2013 when Complex named him one of the “Top 25 Rappers to Watch.” Since then, Lightshow has released a steady stream of brilliant hip-hop music, most recently his crowning work Life Sentence 3. —Sidney Thomas
How do you feel about the gentrification happening in many D.C. neighborhoods?
I think change creates tolerance and understanding, and that can be OK, but there’s a good side and bad side to it. I may be desensitized to the situation because they knocked my neighborhood, 10th Place, down so long ago. We were one of the first neighborhoods that they knocked down, and they just started rebuilding it—it’s been over 10 years ago.
When you say “knocked down,” what do you mean?
I mean they came in and knocked down our buildings. We used to have affordable housing units—Trenton Terrace Apartments—and they were demolished, and we had to disperse. If your parents didn’t own a house around there, you had to find somewhere else to live. I was very angry about it back then. Owning property is one of my main goals now because I witnessed what can happen. I want to own businesses and have multiple sources of income. In music we get money from shows, merchandise, royalties, so it all adds up.
A few artists, like Chance The Rapper, say they will never sign with a major label. Is it your goal to get the major label contract, or are you good remaining independent?
I think it’s fun learning the ins and out of the music business. I love the hustle and bustle. I love learning about splits and understanding how profits are distributed. But everyone doesn’t feel that way. Some people just want to make music and create and leave those details up to other people. I like to know and see how my dollars are coming in. …It’s just different strokes for different folks. But if something that made sense dropped in my lap, I wouldn’t have a problem partnering with a record label.
D.C. radio stations seem to be playing more music from local artists.
It can be an important way to get your music heard and reach your fans. And just like anything else in the music game, you have to do your homework. You have learn how it works. You have options. That’s why Chance can stay independent forever. He may not get as much radio money, but he’s content because he’s doing what he wants to do and he doesn’t have to jump through hoops for anyone. But I appreciate WKYS, WPGC, and every station that plays my music. Do I wish they would play me more? Hell yeah! But I don’t cry or complain about it. It’s up to me to figure out what I can improve on to get more airplay.
Of all the songs you have made throughout your career, which one was the most personal?
“Smile” from Life Sentence 1, because I talked about growing up with my dad being incarcerated and how that affected me, how that shaped me into who I am today. I also talked about my grandmother and our relationship because I wanted to do something cool for her and give her something she will always remember.
Were there any rappers around 10th Place that inspired you?
There was a group called the Real Live Gangsters that lived on 10th Place and they were a big influence on me. Chez, Slugg, and OG Steve were the main rappers. They would teach me morals and principles—especially because my father wasn’t around. Unfortunately, I think most of them are locked up right now.
In 2012, you were the victim of a shooting. Did that incident change you personally or artistically?
It changed the way I look at life. I’m much more appreciative of life now. I understand fully that it can be taken away from me at any time. I tell my friends that I love them, I tell my family I love them and make sure I cherish all the moments we spend together. I just cherish life more. … I tried to not let it change me musically. It’s nothing to glorify. Sometimes I talk about it in my lyrics because it’s part of my life, but there’s nothing cool about getting shot.
Jessica Raven directs Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a community organization working against sexual assault and harassment. Raven, 27, is a committed warrior in the fight to end gender-based violence. A New York native and former staffer at Bread for the City, she’s also a mom. Her energetic toddler Max is already learning about social justice. —Andrew Giambrone
When did you move to D.C. and what were you doing at the time?
I moved here in 2012. Within the first six months I was working at Bread for the City in communications. I had the opportunity to work with people from all walks of life to share their stories, bring attention to the issues facing our city’s most vulnerable residents, and occasionally also tweet Nelly lyrics in the name of fundraising. Then I worked at [anti-human-trafficking organization] Polaris and became a mom.
You’re pretty outspoken about being a mom, even on social media.
My son Max is two and a half. He’s very verbal. I try to incorporate a lot of my social justice work into my parenting. So, for example, I developed flash cards. When I ask him what starts with “B,” he says “Black Lives Matter.” When I ask him what starts with “H,” he says “Housing is a human right.” So he’s very intelligent. We live in Bloomingdale.
When did you officially become part of Collective Action for Safe Spaces?
I joined CASS’ board in August 2014, in response to my experiences with street harassment. I’ve always experienced street harassment, especially being from New York, but I started to experience it when I was pregnant. At six months, I had a man on the street say to me, “Do you want to make another one later?” And then shortly after my son was born, I had another man yell at me from a truck, “Do you think he wants a twin brother?”
This isn’t acceptable behavior. And I don’t want my children to experience it. [CASS] is best known for the ads on the Metro that say, “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment.”
What other initiatives are you focused on?
We recognize that street harassment is about power and control. We’re addressing that through our Safe Bars program in partnership with Defend Yourself, where we train bar staff on how to respond to sexual harassment, to intervene to prevent it from escalating to assault. We’ve been able to train 18 local bars since May.
We encourage bar staff to share their experiences with sexual harassment. We try to lift up the expertise that bar staff already has, and help them share those skills and strategies.
One strategy is going up to the person who is being targeted and saying “Are you OK?” That lets the person who’s being harassed know that they’re supported and lets the person who’s doing the harassing know that people are watching and that the behavior is not going to be tolerated in that space.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a man who was dancing up way too close to a woman. She put her hands up and it was very clear that she didn’t want him dancing on her. And so I put my hand in between them and said, “Hey, it doesn’t look like she’s interested.” Just something really simple but direct that calls out the behavior.
What is a “safe space” to you personally and to CASS as an organization?
It means that everyone—regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, gender presentation, race, religious identity, class, housing status—is treated with respect and is able to move safely through public spaces.
What other issues are you personally passionate about?
I think, obviously, addressing racism … and I don’t think that’s separate from addressing street harassment. The people who are most severely and most frequently targeted are women of color and especially trans women of color. And homelessness. It’s not something we talk about enough in terms of sexual violence, but the fact is that your housing status makes you more vulnerable to sexual assault.
I show up to all of the rallies. I’m known as the woman who always brings her toddler to rallies.
Sgt. Matthew Mahl became chair of D.C.’s Fraternal Order of Police in April. He represents almost 3,500 members, serving as a voice on policing policy and contract negotiations. Mahl recently lambasted Mayor Muriel Bowser for releasing body-worn camera video that captured the aftermath of a fatal officer-involved shooting. —Andrew Giambrone
Are there any major incidents you recall that shape how you think about being FOP chairman?
There are a few crimes that I truly remember. One was on 14th Street NW up toward Spring Road. We got a call for a stabbing. Everyone was intoxicated. They were coming out of one of the bars. And someone literally took a folding hunting knife and stabbed this guy in the top of the head. Everyone’s on the ground. … I remember just the handle of the knife sticking out of this guy’s head. And I’m going, “Oh my God.” I had never seen this before. Fire and EMS get there. People were going, “Wow, the guy’s still moving around and talking and nothing’s really happening.” I remember they put a little Styrofoam cup on the top of the handle and were like, “Let’s go to the hospital.” That’s one.
Have you seen the way MPD does public relations change in your time?
Absolutely. It used to be really closed tight. But in this day and age, with the 24-hour news cycle, it truly never stops.
The most recent big public statement you made was about Mayor Bowser releasing body-worn camera footage in the Terrence Sterling killing. You really didn’t mince words.
Sometimes there’s Matt Mahl the police officer/police sergeant, and there’s Matt Mahl the head of the union who has 3,500 members that I have to be accountable for and responsible to. My statement was my statement.
[“[We] would like to take this opportunity to strongly condemn, in the most vehement terms, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision… [Her] release [of] the names of officers involved in the incident is reckless to the extreme. This decision places these officers in danger of misguided retaliation fueled by a false media narrative, and is a completely unacceptable action. The lives of our members are not pawns in some political game, to be thrown to anti-police special interest groups in the pursuit of an unlikely re-election bid for a flawed administration.”]
I got a lot of support and I got a lot of pushback. But I knew that I had struck a nerve and honestly I think that’s good. If we strike a nerve maybe we can actually talk about some of these things.
We’re headed into 2017. What are your priorities as chairman?
My priority right now—it’s number one on the list, anyone knows it—is we gotta get ready for contract negotiations. We’re less than a year out now from our current contract expiring. … So it tells you how far behind we really are. I think sometimes the communities forget that our officers have to have a good quality of life. Our workforce is down.
What’s the total count?
Members eligible to be in the union, there are 3,400 and. It fluctuates honestly.
Could I see an extra 50 officers in every district? Yeah, I could. It reduces that workload, it reduces the stress on your officers, it reduces the mistakes that your officers make. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I need 3,800 officers or I need 4,000 officers. I can say we could use some more officers.
Why did you get into public service?
I grew up in a family of Marines. I wasn’t a fan of someone yelling at me and telling me what to do, so I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was a volunteer fireman and an EMT and paramedic. Then at like 20 years old I was like, ‘I want to be a cop.’
My grandfather was a nightwatchman in New York in the early 1900s, so whether I got it from him I don’t know. But I’m the only police officer in the family. It’s one of those things where as soon as I realized what it was, I was like, ‘This is the job for me.’
DC Taste Buds co-founder Anna Leis brings not just a food sensibility to the new marijuana edibles company she is launching with fellow food truck veteran Victoria Harris and CakeLove founder and chef Warren Brown. As a breast cancer patient, she is also the audience for the kind of medicinal marijuana products the company, DC Taste Buds, will produce. —Liz Garrigan
Are you guys officially launched?
We are in the process of a rollout.
Tell me what people can expect product wise.
We can definitely give you a little bit of a taste. I don’t think it’s a big secret who the three of us are and what we do. Our first product is going to be a product that a lot of people know and love, very similar to the CakeLove in a Jar. We think it’s a great way to introduce our line.
And when will people be able to buy your products?
Well, this is D.C., so it depends on the lovely people at the Department of Health and the lovely people at the regulatory agencies because they don’t really know what to do with us yet. So that’s kind of where we are. We’re navigating the gray area of legally developing edibles in D.C.
How does this work? What’s legal?
Legally, what you can do is you can give it away, you can smoke it in your house, you can have a certain amount of it for recreational use, and the only thing that is legal is the medicinal use of cannabis—here you can buy at the dispensaries and stuff like that. And that’s where our products will come in. It will be for medicinal use only.
Don’t some edibles companies have you buy something else and then they give the pot away somehow?
But that’s not legal.
Right. But don’t they do that?
Yes, until they get shut down. But we don’t want to be in that group of people. We want to set an example. If there’s going to be a new industry for D.C., we want to do the best job possible … and make sure that we’re a really good example for the rest of D.C. entrepreneurs that are getting into the cannabis industry. A lot of these people might be recreational and looking for a route to go medicinal, but they haven’t discovered it yet.
What do people have to do to buy pot for medicinal reasons?
You have to have a medical marijuana card. And the process is not difficult at all. I think if D.C. residents knew how easy it really was to apply for a medical marijuana card, a lot more people would be doing it. Because when you’re talking about pricing, just for street prices versus regular prices for cannabis flowers as well as cannabis extractions and byproducts, the prices are comparable.
How many dispensaries are there in D.C.?
And so you guys would just have your products available at dispensaries?
Tell me how this idea was born for the three of you.
Well, I’m a cancer patient. We’ll start with that. And in trying to figure out how to deal with the side effects of medication, I got very interested in the medicinal marijuana aspect. I’ve known Vic for years through the food truck scene. I reached out to Vic and was like, “There’s a lot of people we can help. We should do something.” And Vic brought Warren into the loop and brought the three of us together, and here we are.
This is unique because this is a collaborative effort between us and the growers. See, we went into it and realized it would be a huge learning curve for us to find out all the things we needed to know about cannabis to make a great product. So we decided to work with other growers and dispensary owners who knew the product better than we did—but we knew food better than they did. And so that way we brought the best of both worlds together to use our expertise and create a product that is the best it can be.
What’s the industry like, fierce or friendly?
It’s a very hard group to crack, especially coming in—the three of us are people of color. It’s a really, really white world. …We are not the norm. We are not at all what you would find in the industry. It is not minority or women driven.
For being a pioneer of D.C.’s LGBT scene and the revitalization of Logan Circle, John Guggenmos is an understated guy. The Wyoming native moved here for grad school in 1989. He now co-owns gay establishments Trade, Number Nine, and Town Danceboutique with Chachi Boyle and Ed Bailey. He recently adopted a puppy, and is a newly-elected advisory neighborhood commissioner. —Andrew Giambrone
What do you remember about the LGBT landscape when you first moved to D.C.?
Coming from Wyoming, where bars closed at 10 p.m., the idea of going to JR’s on a Sunday felt so sinful. But, God, it felt like I had died and gone to heaven. In Wyoming, I could count the number of gay people I knew on my hand. My mom’s idea of being gay was to be in drag or to wear leather. That’s what she saw on TV.
Which businesses have been in your portfolio?
Trade opened last year. Number Nine was prior to that, and Town. Ed and I had opened Halo. … Prior to that, there was Trumpets and Cobalt and Tracks. Tracks was the first one.
Was there a moment you decided to get into hospitality and nightlife?
It was after going to other places and feeling like we were treated so poorly. When I started with Tracks, I thought it’d be a five-year run, I’ll move back to the Wyoming-Colorado area, I’ll get my PhD. But I fell in love with this city. The community was so good to me, the people were so good. We were able to do something creative.
One of the things I’m proud of is at Town or Trade or Nine, if you walk in, you don’t smell that stale-beer smell like at so many other clubs. That sense, smell, is so important. I was always cursed in early days of bad air conditioning. We have spent a lot of money on air conditioning.
You’re also a realtor for McWilliams Ballard. When did you get into real estate?
Right around the millennium. Part of it was I had known Ross McWilliams for a while. The other part was I had flipped a couple of condos, bought them, renovated them, and said, “Man, this is great.” I had fun doing it.
Do you recall a specific turning point in Logan Circle’s development?
There’s before Whole Foods and after Whole Foods. That was the bridge that moved it from the gay world to this world. A lot of people at that time said, “Nope, it’s never going to move over here.” Seventeenth felt like a street; 14th felt like a highway.
Your bars recently banned Yuengling after the company’s owner endorsed Donald Trump.
Ed, Chachi, and I had conversations about it. We have a video on Nine’s webpage of us dumping some cases out. I’m normally very respectful of someone’s political beliefs, but I find myself less so. We’re not going to support someone who just doesn’t support us.
I have to ask you about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, as the owner of gay bars.
First and foremost, it was Pride Weekend here. I barely slept when I turned on CNN. … The natural thought is, of course, that could have been D.C. We’re the nation’s capital. Town is one of the bigger clubs on the East Coast.
So there was the initial shock that it had happened. But you didn’t see the gay community hopping on the bandwagon of fear and Islamophobia. That’s because we’ve had so much practice of not condemning a whole group of people when we were oppressed.
We went over things with our staff. We took it seriously. We’re an active part of the D.C. Nightlife Association. The changes and thoughts that happened after the nightclub shooting in Paris—we already had that in mind.
What’s on your horizon?
We’re looking for another space. But I think we choose very wisely, so we’re not in a rush to do something. I have a set formula that you do need to have X amount of time between one project and the next project to make sure everything is cemented, as crazy as that sounds.
If you’re not a regular, the scene at Showtime on a Sunday evening might seem like an odd one: Dozens crammed into the divey Bloomingdale bar watching a funk band fronted by an old white woman. But to the bar’s staff and regulars, it’s just another Sunday with Granny and The Boys, the bar’s de facto house band led by 84-year-old Alice Donahue. It might seem like an odd sight, but Donahue has been playing with Granny and The Boys, formerly called Person to Person, since the late ’90s, and anyone who’s played with her can tell you: She’s the real deal. —Matt Cohen
How long have you lived in the D.C. area?
Since after World War II.
Are you from here originally?
Well, my dad was in the Coast Guard, so we were all over. But I always called Boston home. Because in my younger years, that was home to me. But I’ve been here … since about ’47 or ’48. I’ve lived in Greenbelt, Maryland for the past 59 years, in the same house.
When did you first start playing music?
When I was three years old.
What kind of music inspired you over the years?
Well, I started off playing classical, and I played by ear for about 10 years, and then someone said to my parents, “Well, you should give her lessons.” And then I started learning under teachers, and it was classical, of course.
Wow, you learned piano by ear from ages three to 13?
Even now, with [Granny and The Boys], I learn everything by ear. Because there’s no charts, and charts don’t mean anything to me. A pianist is all over, so I listen and learn. But that’s where that comes in: By playing by ear for 10 years, my ear really got trained.
Do you write all the songs for Granny and The Boys?
I’ve written some of them. Richard Lynch, the bandleader, he wrote a good deal of them. And usually on a CD we’ll have, like, a song or two from the guitarist, or the bass player. But most of the songs he writes. And the lyrics. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it.
How did this band form? How did you get hooked up with these musicians?
It was a band called Person to Person when I originally joined. And what happened was that when my husband passed away in 1996 … my daughter said to me, “Hey mom, what do you think about going to Maryland [University]?” They have a senior golden age type of thing that you can, for so much money, you can take any course that you want—either for credit or not for credit. So, I took ’em for credit because I had about a year of college before I got married. So, I was there and I met Richard—he was working at Roy Rogers in the place there. He saw me with a music book, and so we started talking and he said, “What do you think about managing my band?” And I thought, “What did you say? You have to be crazy! I don’t know a darn thing about managing a band!”
But I jumped in, managed it for about a year and a half, and then the keyboard player had problems. I would sit in for the rehearsals and try to learn because otherwise how could I manage a band if I didn’t know anything about the band? … We had a show scheduled at Farragut Square in about two weeks, paying good money. So Richard turned to me and said, “You gotta learn it.” Baptism by fire. Noon at Farragut Square, all these federal workers are walking around. And of course the word is passed through Richard that he’s got this new keyboardist, who happens to be white, who happens to be a little older than most. And, of course, they all come parading around me, looking at me like “Is she really playing, or is she pushing buttons?” You know, I get that to this day.
People don’t necessarily believe I’m really playing that instrument. Even at the bar, I’ve had people stand up right over my shoulders to make sure I’m not pushing a button.
No, I can see why people would think, “Oh, she’s just a show piece. She can’t really keep up with these musicians.” I don’t let it get to me.
How did you all start performing regularly at Showtime?
Richard lives above the bar. Paul [Vivari, Showtime owner] lives above Richard. We’d rehearse the band, and people in the bar would listen. We had some people say, “Well, if you’re going to rehearse on Monday and Wednesday nights, then that’s when we’ll come to the bar.” Because they liked hearing the band rehearse. So Paul said, “Well, I guess you should just play once a month.” Then it became twice a month, and then it became every Sunday, because I think we do pull in a crowd.
How do you like performing there weekly?
It feels like a family. It is a family. People come in and they feel relaxed. We’ve had people come in with their dogs, and there’s a dish of water for them. I have to say, I have never, ever had anyone not be respectful in every sense of the word. And I’m talking about people who’ve had two and three beers, and are just young and happy and feeling good with the music. It’s a very nice atmosphere.