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Several years ago, I was a commuter student at Northwestern University, which lay at the end of a long, dull El train ride from the south side of Chicago to Evanston, the first of a long string of North Shore suburbs. When I had the time, I liked getting off the train early in downtown Evanston. The crowds would exit the platform down either of two facing staircases, visible to each other through a framed square of the station’s infrastructure. The effect was mirrorlike; every morning, on the opposite stair, I would see myself reflected back in any one of the hundreds of faces that make up a morning commute: business executive, store clerk, suburban-bound domestic worker, high school student with too much makeup. Fat, thin, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female.
As much as I enjoyed the “effect” of the mirror, I liked the fact of it even more. I had found something worthy of stopping and looking at in a place where no one stopped or looked. I had found something I had ownership of, even though it was a small part of one station in a vast public transportation system.
D.C. is a town of big monuments, big museums, big public spaces, big governmentinhuman and uncomfortable. Official Washington repeats its simple-minded message to tourists and foreign envoys alike: Don’t fuck with us. We’re bigger and more powerful than you. The city’s innumerable museums and overscaled monuments give our ubiquitous visitors something to do once they realize bureaucracy isn’t all that interesting.
You might take a guilty trip to the National Gallery twice
a year, but you know all this stuff isn’t here for you, and you don’t even want it to be. What kind of geek would live at
Disney World, and then spend all his spare time hanging out at Epcot Center?
To live into loveany town compels you to carve a landscape that means something out of the raw urban material around you. But in Washington, those personal monuments are crucial, because they are all that you have. The Washington that the world thinks it knows is the one we have no use for. The D.C. we know and love is hiding. It is found only after you’ve walked past it a few times, and after the tourists have gone to bed. Jandos Rothstein
22nd and Decatur Streets NW
The steep stretch of 22nd Street NW, just above Decatur Street, could have been just another tony block of Sheridan-Kalorama, home to visiting Western diplomats and the city’s vieux riche. It isn’t, though. Early this century, city planners, disciples of the City Beautiful movement, installed a classical stair garden, a refuge that slows down the most hurried pedestrian. Standing at the top of the stairs, the world below does not come to a blissful halt; the past and present do not fuse before your eyes; and yes, your breath stays with you. Instead, you see, well, 22nd Street, some nice homes, and a cookie-cutter Dupont Circle apartment building. But you will come backback to the canopy that hides this spot from the guy driving to Brookings, back to the lion’s head spitting into the pool, back to the deep granite-and-brick steps, back to a slice of solitude and quiet just beyond the tyranny of the automobile. Erik Wemple
Northwest corner of Albemarle and
42nd Streets NW
We pull up to the stoplight at 8:37 every morning on our way to school. The twin girls in the back sneak a kiss onto my cheeka safe half-block from the school where their friends might notice. I turn back and see, just between the trees to my right, Virginia. I hate Northern Virginia. To know its pasta plate of roads garnished with horizontal malls is akin to having a high bowling averageit implicates the person as someone with too much time on his hands. But it’s still a comfort to spy a surprising slice of hills rolling out toward the fuzzy interruption of Tysons on the horizon. I know by looking that I live on a hill, and that from that hill, I am able to see Someplace Else. In a city of short buildings where the sky never seems to appear, terrestrial visages will have to do. David Carr
18th and Church Streets NW
“It’s still there?” ask some elderly friends who were married at St. Thomas long before half the church was reduced to dust and supplanted by a lush, manicured green. Despite what arsonists intended back in 1970, St. Thomas is still a church. In fact, the fire left something greater in its wake: an open space to get religion in whatever way you choose. Atheists are welcome, but please, be mindful of the grass. And don’t litter. Shielded from summer by its trees, I’ve read there; after dark, I’ve simply listened to the snoring chorus of the folks who live there. A friend who’s found privacy there for a midday toke calls it the “sham ruin,” a nod to his state of mindor to the pyros whose handiwork reduced the worship hall to a vague skeleton. Hooray for decay! Dance on the grave of something that’s not really dead. Brett Anderson
Walter C. Pierce Community Park
2700 Block of Adams Mill Road NW
It’s Monday morning. Nobody’s balling on the small court on Adams Mill Road. I’m shooting foul-shots when some local heads roll through and start a game of horse. We start off shooting jumpers, and I’m alright until one dude pulls down a two-handed dunk. Not to be outdone, the rest of the crew follows suit, and then it’s my turn. The peanut gallery assembled on the nearby bleachers chimes in: “Big man, goin’ give to y’all!” I take a few steps from the foul line, then rise a couple of inches off the blacktop and barely graze the rim. I touch the ground, the ball still in my hand. In a city of pariahs, the 6-foot-4 black dude with no game wears the robes. I’m pretty intimidating standing on the sidelines, but get me on the court and the truth is revealed: The kid’s got no shot, no ups, and no handle. But I take solace in this court. Most mornings, there is no one else except me and a friend more inclined to basketball, who offers tips. When alone, I work my wretched crossover and dream of a world where I could dunk on any smack-talking hardrock. I know it could never be, but this court gives me a place where a man can freely fantasize about the luxuries of being a stereotype. Ta-Nehisi Coates
Rock Creek Cemetery
Section Eye, Lot 36
I started visiting Jimmie Trimble’s grave after reading Gore Vidal’s memoir of the first half of his life. Vidal and the dead boy, I learned, had been classmates at St. Albans. Swimming in the Potomac and sunning themselves on its banks, the two had also been fumbling lovers. Trimble, a baseball star, was killed in World War II, three years after graduation, and Vidal50 years laterstill writes about the loss of his potential other half. With the noise from North Capitol Street behind me and a beech tree against my back, Trimble’s gravesmall, three feet wide, sunk deep into the groundreminds me of my first crush in high school. Now six years older than Trimble when he died, I see it better. Trimble’s marker, humbly shared with another man, hints at the union he never found in life. The kind, I tell myself, worth waiting for. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Martin Luther King Memorial Library
“God is in the details,” said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and He’s most certainly in the room Mies built here. It’s an obscure part of the library, at the farthest end of the hall from the elevators on the second floor. So few people, it seems, pay attention to this divine building, much less to this room, that I have come to regard it as a confidence between Mies and me. I feel as if I’m on vacation up by the stables in Rock Creek Park, and I feel suddenly rich when I’m at Tysons Galleria, but the perfect, plain proportions of this room provide a retreat into innocence. Not only mine, but that of the city that nearly killed itself over King’s death. Kids come in with science projects or history papers to finish, and retired guys look for stuff to read. But in the late afternoon, hardly anybody goes back here. The rush-hour sun reflects off the buildings to the east through the glass bordered in black metal, washing the walls, floors, and tables with minor notes of ambience. The stacks are quiet, the books are old, and life, for some reason, feels simple and good, if not just. Bradford McKee
Malcolm X Park
When the afternoon sun sets the golden-stoned castle aglow, the field inside Malcolm X Park is a haven for African-Brazilian capoeira, Puerto-Rican bomba, a percussion face-off, and an occasional show of political solidarity. At night, helicopters swarm above, police flash floodlights, and people lurk in and out of the darkness. Fed up with College Park, I take to driving for 30 minutes and lugging my heavy knapsack up the cobbled walkway to launch Operation Study. Up the bank of grass,
I stake out a spot at the side of a pool, pretty clear of company except for the occasional dog who decides to jump into the pool and paddle across it toward me. Bracing my back against a wall, the traffic of 16th Street becomes white noise. The water spilling from above, trained by rushes reminiscent of the Nile, collects down below and laps the edge tauntingly, daring to immerse the notes that I was pretending to be reading. Ayesha Morris
13th and Clifton Streets SE
At night, marble Washington rises like a white diorama below the hilltop corner. The shining city dwarfs our little lives in its imperial relief. By day, on the other hand, the Capitol seems scarcely bigger than the tenements of Shaw, and the Washington Monument barely rises above the spires and office towers of downtown. Now, the languid corner is more fascinating then the grandeur in the background, amplifying my hometown’s contradictions. On the heights behind me lies faded row-house Victoriana, apartments built for a middle class that left; down the slope ahead, Logan Circle’s gentrification marches inexorably nearer. But whenever I reach the corner and soar above the citymarble ahead, brick behind, eerie future in front, and the mundane present all aroundgravity holds me in place for just a second, teetering. Michael Schaffer
Plywood Wall Ad
Your Pizza Home
332 H Street NE
Sometimes a sign is all you need to feel at home. Back when I was living near Third and H Streets NE, the only place around to get a cooked meal was a corner joint called Your Pizza Home, tucked in the first floor of a brick building that burned in the riots. What endeared me to the place wasn’t the food, which was shoved under dirty Plexiglas with little fanfare; it was a hand-painted picture of a sub sandwich on the boarded-up storefront. The three-foot-long image worked a mighty spell on me. Depending on my appetite, it seemed either as enticing as a double Wimpy burger hot off the grill or as revolting as a stale loaf splayed with puke-toned slime. Whatever sub you ordered always managed to resemble this tribute to the two basic food groups: grains and glop. I ate there seldom, but the icon always beckoned, promising the Platonic ideal of a meal, if not the real thing. Your Pizza Home has long since shut down, but the portrait remains as a mute beacon, stranded above broken men who lean on the window’s sunlit ledge, men who’ve forsaken their daily bread for other sustenance. When passing through the neighborhood, I always give the sign a hungry glance, to pay my respects to the pangs of yesteryear. Eddie Dean
East Building, National Gallery of Art
After working until 3 a.m., I frequently found myself walking to my apartment near the D.C. jail. Halfway, I would stop to rest in an obscure corner of the National Gallery, a notch facing the Mall, upon a waist-high platform, next to a six-story wall of glass. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that three in the afternoon is a magical timetoo late to start anything, too early to start anything else. Night has an equivalent moment: 4 a.m., too late to hurry to bed, and too early to belong to the next day, when lostness couples with enlightenment at the cycle of days. Chris Peterson
Around the corner from Shirlington’s ersatz Main Street, with its upscale ethnic eateries, singles bars, and six-screen multiplex, lurks a cheerless garden cast in shadow most of the day. The enclosure is accessible through an archway attached to an office building. On the left stands a parking garage, on the right the Magnetic Resonance Institute, and straight ahead a “decorative” brick wall obscuring a freeway ramp. The beds in the garden hold browning, dwarfish trees, and, at the moment, an assortment of homely plants: pansies and marigolds framed by clumps of coleus and coarse monkey grass. At twilight, this place provides a suitably forlorn setting for contemplating melancholy matters: the desecration of nature, the vulnerability of the body, the evanescence of the things we love. Joel E. Siegel
U Street-Cardozo Metro Station
The Green Line is one of Metrorail’s slowest and least reliable, and typically, everybody bolts for home once they get off the train at the U Street-Cardozo stop. Often, though, I find myself stopping to look at the mural inside the station, which hits me like a sweet reward after a long journey. The vibrant reds, blues, and golds of Community Rhythms, painted by Alfred J. Smith and art students from Howard University, stage an endless summer street fair. The clashing colors and lines strike up a rhythmic cacophony of jazz, Dixieland, blues, and guaguanco. People dance in the street, capoeiristas turn and kick, while down the block, some early-risers practice tai chi. Photos and images cut out of magazines are pasted into the painting à la Romare Bearden: Oprah, Spike, and Denzel peer out of apartment windows. My favorite figure is a dancing woman in a blue dress and very red heels, who’d be equally at home in either a William H. Johnson painting or on the cover of a Marvin Gaye album. This mural, the awkward effort of many hands, wasn’t created for pointed study. It’s a product of the street, meant for transient regard by neighbors bustling past day after day. Nonetheless, I prefer to stop and soak it up as if it were a warm spot of sunlight.
Covenant House Washington
3400 Martin Luther King Ave. SE
From the outside, there is nothing spectacular about Covenant House Washington. Yet once I face this nondescript, multicolored building, a smile strolls across my face quietly. The center stands amid urban decay in a community victimized by political rhetoric, and works with kids and their parents in what has become a laboratory for social pathologies. Yet it is my mecca, a place to witness the marvels of the human spirit, the indomitability of hope. I am here for the people: Vincent, Marion, Sister Rosetta, Louise, Marie, Davena, Jamaal, Lejuan, Fredricia, and others in the Covenant House family. I am here to watch young teen mothers, former high school dropouts, onetime juvenile delinquents, homeless and near-homeless youths whip the hell out of disbelieversthose who would discard them, call them permanent underclass, deem them incapable of any meaningful contribution to society. I am here to watch lovely roses grow in weeded fields. Once I have taken in their sweet scent, I store the memory of it all neatly away. On desolate days, when I can find little solace, I retrieve it from my heart’s pocket. Jonetta Rose Barras
Between Hopkins and 28th Streets NW
At Disneyland, they call it “backstage,” the industrious underworld that manufactures the main event’s illusion of effortlessness. Backstages have their own charm, their own humble shapes, low skylines, and grace notes. Georgetown and Dupont Circle get all the attention, but the real drama, small but sweet, occurs on the stretch of P Street that connects them. “Welcome to our secret garden,” reads a sign on a gate between unmajestic town houses on Georgetown’s edge. The secret is that you’re welcome, not as a tourist but as a guest. A little further down sits a duet of crumbling buildings, one square and peeling, the other festooned with ancient furbelows, spooky and Southern in their decay. The P Street Bridge arches over a green slice of Rock Creek Park and gives way to a stretch of sleek modern buildings cohabiting with lumpy stone ones. Hustlers languish in front of the bars, and traveling acts alight from limousines into the hotel. A magical blue light emerges from the discreet awning of Obelisk on a second floor. A corner costume shop spies the street from its corner window: Backstage, it’s called. What happens in the wings may be small in scale but is no less true for that. Arion Berger
2400 Block of N Street NW
In the dusty elbow of land surrounding Francis Junior High School stood a set of playground swings of the highest quality: the kind that last, with rusty metal chains that wear grooves into y
our hands, and rubber seats that cradle your butt. Someone had graffitied the word “sneak” onto each seat. Feet had worn away the grass beneath them, where your first few swipes kicked up clouds of smoke, until you got so high that you didn’t touch the ground anymore. Best of all, there was never a line: In the summer, the kids were all corralled in the pool. The rest of the year, they’re locked away in school, except during recess, when the place erupts in shrieks that disappear just as quickly. Then it was all mine until after dark, when the men of P Street Beach began to lurk on the margins, the rats darted out from the bushes, and even the guys playing soccer on the field packed up their babies and shin guards and went home. Amanda Ripley