City Paper is not for tourists
Editor’s Note: The following story was originally published in Washington City Paper on Dec. 26, 1997. It attests to the timelessness of D.C.’s own brand of urban parochialism.
I’m lost. Standing outside the Safeway on Columbia Road, I check my mini-ADC 3rd edition map of Metro Washington, D.C. It states in clear sky-blue all-cap lettering that I’m in a neighborhood called Lanier Heights. Not so, say trusty Safeway shoppers. “Just forget Lanier Heights, really,” argues Shawn Odle. “It’s kind of in Mount Pleasant. But it’s technically Adams Morgan. Technically, I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s bullshit.”
I head to Safeway’s customer service desk. Working the tinseled-up counter, manager Michael Banks fields my question and then defers to a co-worker named Calvin. “You ever hear of Lanier Heights?” he shouts to Calvin. All I get is a blank stare and lips curled in disgust. Calvin suggests we’re in Kalorama Triangle. “If you find out where you are, let me know,” he says.
That’s a hearty request. How do you expect a tourist to find his way around when lifelong locals can’t? “I technically live in Adams Morgan, Lanier Heights, and Kalorama,” says Peter Schott, who is president of the Kalorama Citizens Association. “I think it’s the real estate people who changed the neighborhoods.”
Whether the blame lies with real estate types, politicians, or activists, the bottom line is the same: The District of Columbia is the most fractured chunk of property this side of Banja Luka. Take the puny area around the Columbia Road Safeway. On a 10-minute stroll you can tour the lovely D.C. neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Lanier Heights, Reed-Cooke, and three Kaloramas: Kalorama Heights, Kalorama Triangle, and Sheridan-Kalorama.
Some folks say the District will never recover from its malaise until it ousts Mayor Barry. Others that it needs to ditch its welfare mentality. Perhaps a better first step would be to tell residents where they live. It’s time for a moratorium on neighborhoods.
Eckington seems like a pretty happy neighborhood. Sandwiched between Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue NE, it consists of turn-of-the-century row houses dressed up in pinks, bright reds, peaches, mint greens, sky blues, and yellows. Front yards are kept so prim you would think Martha Stewart was the developer. Residents label their flowers and line their porches with Astroturf.
But underneath the cheerful visage is a community mired in an identity crisis.
Julian King, 42, lives on V Street NE, the very epicenter of Eckington, according to my state-of-the-art map. But King is afflicted with neighborhood denial, insisting he lives in Edgewood, which by all indications is on the other side of Rhode Island Avenue. “Every month I get an Edgewood newsletter,” he protests. He even got an Edgewood Civic Association Christmas card urging him to be more active “in our community.” The non-Eckington community, that is.
Wandering into the heart of Edgewood, I bump into Don, who says the neighborhood is either Brentwood Heights or Lincoln Heights. Another local, Paulette Crawford, believes her neighborhood is simply Channing Street. Edgewood is on the other side of 4th Street, she says.
Whatever. Thank God the Edgewooders have King’s allegiance, because they’re losing other boosters to radical splinter groups.
At some point, Edgewood resident Hallie Burton decided she no longer identified with all those folks who lived three, four, five blocks away. She and her neighbors on Bryant Street NE had unique concerns and problems that set them apart. So she created something called the Stronghold Concerned Citizens Group and made herself president. The group takes its name not from a Michigan Militia handbook but a football team manned by her neighbors.
Stronghold may sound like a make-believe neighborhood to an outsider, but the locals know where the boundaries lie. Robert Johnson, 42, says he got jumped walking from Bloomingdale to his aunt’s house in Stronghold. Three boys from Stronghold questioned why he was on their side of the street. “They kicked me in the face and beat me,” he says, adding that the fight happened three months ago. “I went home to get a baseball bat, and when I went back, they were gone.” They probably fled to another neighborhood.
The people of Mount Pleasant are every bit as territorial. Last year, Washington City Paper published a story on the brutal killing of a Vietnamese immigrant child. The story focused on the grief of the child’s parents and the reaction of the Vietnamese community in Mount Pleasant.
The story prompted a backlash from Mount Pleasant activists—not over the depiction of Vietnamese immigrants or the ability of the city to accommodate them. Their beef was a bit more basic than that. Elinor Hart, a Mount Pleasant resident, wrote that the “hearts of all Mount Pleasant residents…go out to” the aggrieved, with one caveat: “[N]one of the events described in the story happened in Mount Pleasant.” Hart continued, “[The] murder, the funeral procession through the streets, and the vigil all happened in Columbia Heights.” She was right: 16th Street separates Mount Pleasant from Columbia Heights and all its social ills.
Georgetowners don’t share Hart’s plight—their contiguous neighborhoods are by and large peaceful and safe. But that doesn’t take away their incentive to distance themselves from all those slobs in Burleith, a neighborhood separated from Georgetown by…well, absolutely nothing. Burleith, remember, is the place where Georgetown University students occupy rows and rows of group houses and leave their front lawns poorly manicured. While Burleithians are happy to pass themselves off as Georgetowners—and often do—they can’t get far enough away from Glover Park, the middle-class neighborhood of drab brick homes on their northern frontier.
In all fairness, though, Georgetown, Burleith, and Glover Park have enough critical mass to call themselves neighborhoods. After all, each boasts thousands of residents and hundreds of active community types. By those standards, though, Turkey Thicket doesn’t qualify.
Yes, there is a D.C. neighborhood called Turkey Thicket. It’s located off Michigan Avenue NE, near Catholic University, in an area known to most as Brookland. Just a few square blocks in area, the neighborhood has no turkeys, no thicket, and few residents. Yet it has managed to fabricate the trappings of a bona fide neighborhood: a citizens’ association, committed boosters, and a fluffy neighborhood profile in the Washington Post.
The more neighborhoods, the better, says James Hannaham of Southeast’s Hillcrest Community Civic Association. “The smaller they are, the more effective they are,” he says.
Sure, they may be more effective at protecting their property values, but they don’t get much respect from the mapmakers. How else can you explain why my map positions North Michigan Park south of Michigan Park? “I can’t speak for the mapmakers,” says Dino Drudi, past president of Michigan Park Citizens Association. “Who knows where they got the information? I’ve seen over a dozen map errors. Let’s face it: This is a forgotten backwater.”