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Dan Silverman crouches down and pushes his face up to the mail slot. In the middle of the afternoon, on Barracks Row’s busy strip, the District’s most prominent local blogger looks like a burglar casing his next target.
Silverman, better known as the Prince of Petworth, wants a scoop. Much of his blog is made up of mildly interesting pictures—an endless stream of odd lawn statues, unusually designed doors, and the cars he dubs “sweet city rides.” But that’s not what he’s looking for in this mail slot. A break here will juice his blog’s traffic and infuriate his rivals.
A peek into new restaurant Pineapple and Pearls—the follow-up to Barracks Row sensation Rose’s Luxury—is just the sort of news Silverman thirsts for. But the restaurant’s windows are still papered over, and Silverman knows he won’t get this exclusive handed to him by a publicist.
Hence the mail slot snooping.
“You always dream for a rip in the paper,” he says.
Silverman will spend much of this Sunday in January with his hands cupped around his eyes, peering into restaurant windows. Some of the tidbits he gleans today will feed his blog, PoPville, a feverishly updated flow of District news and not-news that he’s developed from a Petworth neighborhood blog into a citywide phenomenon.
Much of the site’s material comes from Silverman’s weekly walks through the District. Along the way, the wiry 41-year-old scampers across streets for better photographs, risking the occasional twisted ankle and near-misses with drivers.
Silverman’s up-close method of reporting turns awkward on Florida Avenue NW, where he clambers down to the basement level of a house that he’s pretty sure will soon be a bar. A baffled man on the ground floor opens a door and peers down at Silverman. Instead of calling the police, though, he offers him a tiny scoop: The bar will open in March.
“Don’t you fucking say anything,” Silverman tells me. “That’s mine.”
The 12-mile meandering course, from Van Ness to Navy Yard, is punishing—my legs will ache for days. But doing these weekly walks for nearly a decade has turned Silverman into the District’s most cheerfully profane tour guide.
We pass an ugly new condo. “Now this thing,” Silverman asks me. “What the fuck?”
We can’t find a coffee shop he wants to photograph, and Silverman refuses to look up the address on either of our phones. “Where the fuck is it?” he says.
We walk by a creepy statue in Mount Pleasant that initially just earns a passing “weird” from Silverman. But then he pauses, jogs back, and pulls up his camera: “What the fuck is that?”
As PoPville’s 10th anniversary approaches in November, Silverman’s site draws a couple of million pageviews a month, along with what’s apparently a sizable annual salary for him. But that success hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the District’s most reviled media personalities. If anything, the popularity makes it worse. Among journalists—whose reactions to Silverman can range from professional distaste to sour grapes—his name has become a punchline.
In the past year, Silverman has been blasted by everyone from blog commenters to a punk band and a sitting D.C. councilmember. The list of his alleged misdeeds is long: His bigoted readers, dopey tipsters, and his own reluctance to hew to basic journalistic standards are chief among the complaints. Last year, Silverman was the target of both a song and a sticker campaign.
Officially, he doesn’t mind the critics. He loves talking about them. Why not? Silverman makes a living on his walks, and many of his foes won’t even put their real names to their gripes.
As Silverman presses on, this time towards a new beer garden, he says that he’ll never quit this job.
“You better enjoy what you’re doing, otherwise you’re a lunatic,” Silverman says. “And I’m not saying I’m not a lunatic.”
It’s a Thursday a few weeks after the 12-mile walk, and the Prince of Petworth is running low on ideas.
Filling the blog on a Monday or Tuesday can just take a few hours, thanks to all of the doorknobs and murals Silverman photographed over the weekend. Towards the end of the week, though, he scrambles to put distance between himself and his self-imposed deadlines, which call for roughly two posts every hour during the day.
From a coffeehouse table in Adams Morgan, Silverman tries to get a hold on his world. He’s scrolling through the many tips he’ll receive today—a complaint about D.C.’s tax office that will make a good afternoon discussion post, then an ominous picture of rust on the Memorial Bridge. Silverman grins—he’ll tag this one “quality of life.”
The owner of a new restaurant emails to ask Silverman for a plug. Normally, he’d be happy to do it, but there’s something wrong. Instead of emailing Silverman details about his business, the restaurateur has only sent Silverman a link to a Washington Post article about it.
“Well, send me the fucking information,” Silverman says. “Don’t send me the Washington Post story.”
Early in today’s lineup, Silverman plans to run a rumor about a Cuban restaurant closing from a tipster whose last story for him turned out to be wrong. On the other hand, the tipster’s previous 11 tips before that were good.
This time, the tip will prove to be accurate. Silverman moves immediately to the next potential post: a press release about the Metro system.
“This is somewhere I’m just going to click,” Silverman says, cutting the air with his hand and making a rip! noise to illustrate his hungry cursor. “Click the whole thing.”
Given how many of Silverman’s posts amount to pasted press releases, running PoPville looks like the easiest job in journalism. But Silverman says it involves a level of curation that his detractors don’t consider.
“You’ve got to decide which press releases, which hook to go with the press release,” Silverman says. Plus, he points out, he also has to choose a picture.
The question of what makes a story a PoPville story can be hard to grasp. After examining tens of thousands of Silverman’s posts, I can tell you this: For every dozen tame and predictable posts, there’s a weird one. Silverman will post press releases or pictures of doors, and then he’ll write a story about a possum escorted out of a liquor store; or an “Afternoon Animal Fix” post that replaces the usual dogs and cats with a raccoon.
Silverman’s weird posts sometimes turn so meta, they can seem like a cry for help. In one, he listed 23 bars and restaurants with no discernable common thread between them. For one of his many blog posts about a scam—grifters apparently plague PoPville’s readership—Silverman illustrated the picture with a green sprout emerging from an onion. The scam had nothing to do with onions.
The off-kilter quality of Silverman’s blogging has proven nearly impossible to replicate. When Silverman handed the site over to a guest blogger during his honeymoon, he lost 40 percent of his readers. These days, he’s sure he knows what PoPville needs.
“The muscle is very much in shape,” Silverman says of his editorial vision.
Silverman claims that the most successful posts are the ones he least expects to take off. He imagines, for example, that a picture of a dog urinating on a bike outside might do incredible traffic. He gestures through the coffee shop window at 18th Street NW at where just such a dog might lift its leg on just such a bike. But there’s a catch.
“You can’t do 10 posts of a dog peeing on a bicycle, because then it would be boring,” he says.
And yet, the posts that actually take off are often what you’d expect from Silverman’s yuppie audience. February’s top stories included items on Michelle Obama going to a spin cycle class and a complaint about rude valets.
Much of Silverman’s traffic comes from crime stories, which means that the District’s recent murder spike left him with no shortage of material. In Silverman’s experience, stories about crimes that are unusual, either in their details or in their location, draw the most traffic. That’s especially true if the crime takes place during the day.
“It’s just horrifying, and it gets really viral,” Silverman says.
In February, PoPville registered roughly 500,000 unique visitors and two million pageviews, according to traffic monitoring website Clicky. That’s typical for PoPville’s monthly figures, Silverman says, and it puts his one-man operation on par with the traffic earned by some local TV station websites.
The average PoPville reader last month spent more than four minutes on the site per visit. That’s a healthy measurement of reader engagement for a blog where many of the stories are only one or two sentences long. All that time doesn’t come cheap, though: Silverman says he spends $1,500 a month on hosting alone.
All those eyes mean money for him, whether it’s in display ads or the related real estate search attached to the site. Even after splitting his revenue with the Brooklyn-based company that handles his ad sales, Silverman says he’s been able to equal the salary he earned at the homeland security consultant job he left in 2009 when he took PoPville full-time. That suggests that Silverman makes at least somewhere in the high five-figures, according to Glassdoor.com figures for Silverman’s former company, BAE Systems.
Now the errant restaurateur emails back. He’s sorry, his last email was in bad taste, and he’ll give Silverman the information he wants.
Another post for the Prince.
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At a community meeting last October, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau turned critical. This time, Nadeau wasn’t going after a rival politician or a wayward government agency; her target was the Prince of Petworth. Fed up with constituents telling her about the crime fears that she saw driven by Silverman, Nadeau told them to read rival blog Borderstan instead.
“The trouble with PoPville is that he’s not reporting,” Nadeau said. “He’s simply posting things that come along.”
A tipster soon sent the Prince a recording of the meeting. This, Silverman thought, is awesome. He published the recording on PoPville and declared it “the best endorsement.”
Silverman never intended to be a “crackerjack crime reporter,” he wrote, he just wanted to provide a “platform” for his readers. Hey, sometimes he even had the pictures of bullet holes to prove that there had been a shooting. If Nadeau had a problem with that, Silverman says, that was on her.
“You’re ridiculous, you’re antiquated,” Silverman says now about the councilmember. “This is 2016.”
Despite his insistence that he doesn’t want the responsibility that traditionally comes with being a reporter, Silverman has already eclipsed the District’s “crackerjack crime reporters”—or at least the ones who haven’t been laid off—as the primary source of news for a subset of young professionals new to the District. As it turns out, this is also the population that probably knows the least about the city.
Silverman’s self-made rules of journalism can be summed up in one word: “scuttlebutt.” He picked up the naval slang at one of his defense-industry jobs. On PoPville, scuttlebutt is news—often related to a restaurant or bar—that Silverman has received a tip about, but hasn’t necessarily bothered to check.
Even the greenest reporters know to call people to get their side before writing a story about them. Silverman’s scuttlebutt standards, on the other hand, aren’t as rigorous. The accuracy rate for scuttlebutt varies. These days, Silverman pegs it at about 80 percent.
At the very least, his commitment to scuttlebutt results in exciting stories. In 2008, Silverman relayed a tip that police were investigating a 30-member crew of the Los Angeles–based Bloods gang who had been spotted flashing gang signs and wearing colors in Adams Morgan.
The establishment of a Bloods set in the District’s traditional nightlife center was big news—until the story bombed. Police told Silverman that they were only investigating a handful of visiting gang affiliates. Silverman deleted the post, replacing it with a statement saying he didn’t mean to spread a rumor—but that he also wouldn’t sit on information from a good source.
Silverman responded to the Bloods debacle by appointing an ombudsman for the site: himself.
Silverman suspects that his passion for scuttlebutt has inspired pranksters. Once, he got an email claiming that Cleveland Park’s historic Uptown Theater was going to close. The tipster, Silverman suspects, was actually just trying to embarrass him with bogus scuttlebutt.
“Am I a fucking idiot?” Silverman says. “That I’ll check.”
But he doesn’t always check. A PoPville scoop that popular Korean barbeque restaurant Honey Pig planned to open on H Street NE, for example, was quashed when another reporter made a single phone call to the restaurant’s other location. If Silverman had made a call himself before writing the post, he could have saved his site the mistake. On the other hand, he would have had one fewer post for the day.
Plus, Silverman just doesn’t like using the phone.
“I had a regular job,” Silverman says.
While Silverman sometimes emails businesses before featuring their scuttlebutt, he says he’s often loathe to get in touch with restaurants or their publicists. If they know he’s on to a story, he worries, they’ll rush the scoop to another outlet instead. Pressed by other reporters on Twitter about why he ran a tip instead of making a phone call, Silverman defended himself: “It’s 2016 man c’mon!”
Missy Frederick, the editor of the D.C. branch of national food site Eater, treats Silverman’s scuttlebutt like she would any tip in her inbox: They’re clues, but they need to be verified elsewhere. Still, Frederick thinks that District restaurant reporters could acknowledge more how many stories they get from Silverman, whose traditional reporting experience is limited to a stint as a reporter in the Washington office of Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
“I’m glad he’s around,” Frederick writes in an email. But she’ll verify what he writes, just to be sure.
We’re getting closer to the afternoon, when Silverman likes to run a question or story from a reader that will get his commenters talking. Some days, the question is downright insipid—a question from the sort of person longtime PoPville commenter “Monkeyrotica” describes as “some clueless idiot bastard who can’t even dress himself.”
Silverman imagines the kind of post that would set off his readers.
“‘Hey, I saw this guy lying in a pile of puke, what would you do?’” he says. “Well, fucking call the police.”
He isn’t far off. Even though these questions make up a small percentage of the posts on the site in a day (and Silverman posts up to 25 times on a prolific day), they stand a good chance of becoming some of Silverman’s most infamous—and amusing—work.
Silverman isn’t above running questions that are easily resolved or even entirely wrong in their premise. Last year, PoPville played host to a reader fuming that a pizzeria wouldn’t make him slices of chicken bacon ranch-style pizza. After bickering with the employees, he stormed out, with no pizza to show for his efforts.
“I think I won that round,” the reader wrote.
Another tipster suggested that a silhouette of the District on a bus ad was offensive because it didn’t include the predominantly black Wards 7 and 8. In fact, though, the map clearly did include all of the city’s eight wards. “Is this offensive?” asked Silverman’s headline.
Silverman explains the kind of day that can make him post something like the erroneous bus ad complaint, which will inevitably inspire snarky tweets about the site reaching “peak PoPville.”
“I don’t really have a lot of material,” Silverman says. “OK, have fun, have at it.”
PoPville’s usual array of questions took a dark turn last August, when a reader wrote in to ask what happened to a woman she had seen sprawled out on the pavement in Shaw. After calling 911, the writer said, she just kept walking instead of stopping to help the potentially injured woman. One tweet summed up the tone of the online response: “What. The Fuck.”
The post prompted Washingtonian to declare PoPville “D.C.’s Urban Confessional Booth,” a label that Silverman admits has some truth to it. But he still thinks the emailer was a good person. She did call the police, after all.
“All these people who were like, ‘You fucking piece of shit,’ or whatever,” Silverman says. “I mean, calm down.”
Commenter Monkeyrotica suspects that Silverman runs dumb questions deliberately, to both rile up his readers and make them feel better about their own lives.
“Sometimes, that’s what the readership wants,” the commenter writes in an email. “The opportunity to rant in a controlled environment about the usual fears, desires, and misery.”
One night in April 2007, Silverman headed to a Petworth bar. The blog wasn’t even a year old, and he needed to find more neighborhood residents to profile. He approached a man and woman, asking if they’d heard of the Prince of Petworth.
“You are the one who carries a gun in his pocket,” the woman said.
The blog had gotten Silverman into trouble again, and not for the last time. His attempts to photograph graffiti and potentially stolen flea market electronics would earn him threats on the street (and, in the case of the graffiti incident, later inspire a play). This time, the problem was a post from months earlier.
After a rash of crime in Petworth, Silverman had told his readers that he carried “a little bit of protection and I don’t mean the Trojan kind.” The unnamed weapon, he wrote in a baffling blog post, inspired a police officer in the Metro system to ask him if he was an off-duty cop. When Silverman said he wasn’t, the officer told him that he could be arrested for carrying the weapon. Instead, he told Silverman to cover it with his shirt.
The implication was that the neighborhood’s new blogging booster was packing heat. Silverman clarifies now that he only meant that he carried a stickball bat in his pocket, which, honestly, is somehow even stranger.
After the confusion at the bar, Silverman explained himself to Petworth in—what else?—a blog post. The headline: “I’m really not that bad.”
This was definitely not “the beautiful life,” the vague concept Silverman set out to chronicle when he launched Prince of Petworth six months earlier. At the time, the Long Island native was already three years into living in the neighborhood and had been a District resident for nearly 10.
Just what makes up “the beautiful life” for Silverman, like so much that he does, isn’t quite clear. It seems to be mainly good things coming out of strange situations. After a bird pooped on Silverman’s head, for example, he thanked the women who brushed it out for contributing to the beautiful life.
Prince of Petworth used to be much more personal, cataloging Silverman’s oddball interactions on the street and how many gunshots he heard that night. But he soon started developing what are now recognizable PoPville trademarks, like “Good Deal or Not?”, the regular series of real estate posts that gamifies one of the District’s hottest topics.
Silverman also started cataloging doors and porches early in the blog’s run. It wasn’t a set of steps in front of a house, but “a good stoop for stoopin’.” A pair of deck chairs could rank as the “best spot for a morning cup of coffee or mojito.” Not everyone was impressed—an early reader wrote to tell Silverman he only followed the blog to see how ugly the picks could get.
These days, Silverman doesn’t come off like a dope. But his wide-eyed enthusiasm for Petworth could read as comically naive in the early years of the blog, like he was a tourist who got lost on his way to a The Wire–themed bus tour.
Among Silverman’s early posts are complaints that his neighbors are spending their money buying expensive cars, his hope that urine-filled bottles scattered around the neighborhood were really full of beer, and a blog post called “Am I A Racist?” Silverman was confused by an iron grate door with a protective metal circle around the lock—a ubiquitous sight in many District neighborhoods—that prevents the deadbolt from being opened from the outside. “What the Helen of Troy is this?” Silverman asked his readers.
Soon, he says, neighborhood drug dealers knew how to direct Silverman’s friends to “the crazy white boy’s” house. When he saw a man he suspected was a pimp, he compared the experience to “seeing a celebrity in a weird way.”
“Holy cow, that is a pimp,” Silverman marvelled.
For former local blogger Dave Stroup, Silverman’s writing can be a caricature of a clueless white gentrifier.
“He’s like a walking example of what people criticize often,” Stroup says. “We’re going to point out all these things that are obvious to people who have been here for a while, but may seem like a novelty.”
As a white man in a predominantly black neighborhood, Silverman stood out. This is where the blog name gets awkward.
“It took a lot of gall for a white guy to move into Petworth and anoint himself its royalty,” writes “Walter,” an anonymous blogger who once cataloged and ranked his favorite ways to mock Silverman on the humor site Stuck in D.C.
As a white man blogging in Petworth, Silverman became an expert on the expanding, ill-defined areas of the District that white newcomers collectively considered safe enough to be worth the cheap rent. By 2008, Silverman refused to take any more questions on which neighborhoods were safe enough.
Silverman loves telling stories about Petworth bonhomie—an elderly black man warning him that new white residents were going to push both him and Silverman out, for example, or someone telling him to put “glide in your stride.” But the complications behind Silverman’s role in the neighborhood became more explicit in a heated 2012 panel on gentrification.
“It’s not your Petworth, Dan,” a black woman in the audience told Silverman. “It’s mine.”
“It’s really our Petworth,” Silverman said.
Silverman doesn’t have to worry about his place in Petworth anymore. He changed his blog’s name to PoPville in 2012, a precursor to the move he made himself last year. In July 2015, Silverman and his wife bought a house in Van Ness after their 4th Street NW home was zoned out of a desirable elementary school.
Silverman’s new house was made possible with help from the real estate changes he chronicled on his blog. After buying his Petworth home in 2003 for $206,900, he was able to sell it 12 years later for $700,000.
Silverman’s move west of Rock Creek Park, to the traditionally white side of the old border between white and black D.C., wasn’t missed by his critics. What should his new title be: Viscount of Van Ness? The Tsar of Tenleytown?
“That he ultimately moved to Van Ness for a better school district is just icing,” Walter jokes.
For his critics, Silverman’s move again highlighted PoPville’s focus on the District’s whiter neighborhoods. Searching “Southeast” on PoPville will bring up lots about Asian Chipotle-concept Shophouse—and not a lot about actual neighborhoods in Southeast D.C. Notably, Silverman had never been to Anacostia until 2009, three years after he started blogging.
In fairness to Silverman, the city’s poorest wards are comparatively lacking in the kind of posts that he relies on: new restaurants and stores to blog about. In 2015, an Urban Institute study found that Wards 7 and 8 lagged behind in the District’s decade-long boom in restaurants and stores. Conversely, Wards 2, 5, and 6—all of which have neighborhoods heavily covered by Silverman—were at the center of the increase.
Eugene Puryear, a Ward 8 resident active in the Black Lives Matter movement, says PoPville’s comments feature some ugly sentiments about black residents. It’s often a place, Puryear says, for people who want to push out low-income people and swap them for richer ones.
Still, Puryear concedes that it would be hard for Silverman to cover the entire District while still keeping his focus on a handful of neighborhoods. Instead, he hopes the blog will inspire other people to cover Wards 7 and 8.
Silverman acknowledges that he’s criticized for focusing too much on gentrifying areas. Like any passionately hated person, he enjoys the contradictions among his detractors: Some readers say his “Props to the Cops” feature makes him a mouthpiece for the police department; others say he’s a front for Black Lives Matter.
“You can hate me for many, many reasons,” Silverman says.
In 2012, the District was introduced to Silverman’s satirical foil: the Titan of Trinidad.
The anonymous writer of Titan of Trinidad—or “ToTville”—reimagined Silverman as a bumbling naif. Instead of highlighting porches, the Titan of Trinidad touted the “broken window latch of the day,” inadvertently pointing robbers towards easy scores at the same time. After being confused by residents of Trinidad wearing court-ordered ankle monitors, he asked why they were wearing cell phones on their legs.
When Silverman botched the reporting on the H Street Korean barbeque restaurant, his doppelganger declared him “the Sultan of Scuttlebutt.” Silverman concedes that the now-defunct blog’s mirror image of him could be funny.
“Like, I know what ‘funny’ is,” Silverman says. “I’m not an idiot.”
Not all of Silverman’s critics are so playful. In 2015, members of local punk band Jack on Fire printed black and white stickers with Silverman’s face. The caption: “The Duke of Douche.” Band member Jason Mogavero put the stickers in yuppie meccas like Shaw beer garden Dacha, where he knew PoPville readers would see them.
Like many of Silverman’s critics, Mogavero blames Silverman for a heavy-handed but selective approach to moderating comments. In Mogavero’s telling, Silverman is quick to delete comments critical of his blog or development. On the other hand, comments calling people “animals” manage to stay up. For his part, Silverman claims that he only reads between five to 10 percent of the comments on his site.
Feeling bad about the stickers, some of Silverman’s readers bought him gift cards. Soon, they were delighting over the picture of him on the sticker. One wrote in a comment thread that they had no idea Silverman was so good looking.
Mogavero’s response: “What a bunch of weirdos.”
He followed up the stickers with a song about Silverman, “Gotta Get That Silver, Man.” The song positions Silverman as a front for the development interests that would rather see the District blanketed in high-priced condos. One lyric twists Silverman’s slogan against him: “Welcome to the beautiful life/but only if you can pay the price.”
Like a rapper or Donald Trump, the Prince claims to embrace the haters. Sure, Silverman would prefer the song was about, say, his baseball hat collection, but he’d rather Mogavero make the stickers and songs than not. For Silverman, Mogavero’s needling is proof that PoPville is still relevant.
But even a prince has his limits.
“If I met this person face-to-face, there’s no doubt I would want to punch him,” Silverman says.
On our walk, Silverman told me he never thought about quitting PoPville. Weeks later, though, he’s reconsidered. Now he says he sometimes thinks about wrapping up PoPville.
“There are certainly moments of frustration,” Silverman says.
But then he remembers that his job is “the dream.” Someone out there gets something out of each of his posts, Silverman says. And while that may be a stretch for something like the “chicken bacon ranch” post, it’s not for others. As Silverman filled up his blog in Adams Morgan, commenters in his first post of the day were cheering each other up over failed relationships and dismal jobs.
For those commenters, and many of Silverman’s hundreds of thousands of readers each month, PoPville isn’t hard to understand at all. It’s them—along with the millions of pageviews and dollars that flow from them—that helps Silverman deal with the critics.
Silverman has one reaction to the ongoing tweets and blog posts about him.
“You’re doing a post that I’m an idiot?” Silverman says. “Who’s the idiot?”