Bo knows Mount Pleasant.
An apartment at 1724 Newton St. NW, to be precise. That’s where Bo Diddley spent the summer of 1962, historian Mara Cherkasky determined, and to confirm it, she buttonholed the legendary bluesman at a concert last year. “I got permission to go backstage…I went and took a picture of the house,” she says. “He remembered that.”
And so, in her new photo history of the neighborhood, Images of America: Mount Pleasant, Diddley’s former digs get prominent billing—filling in a significant hole in the musician’s history and helping to tell the story of one of the District’s tightest-knit and most beautiful neighborhoods.
The project started back in 2003 when Cherkasky, a 13-year Mount Pleasant resident, helped put together a “Heritage Trail” through the neighborhood. Once work on the trail was coming to an end, a friend suggested that Cherkasky contact Arcadia Publishing, a South Carolinanbased publisher of local history works, converting her research into a more portable form. Arcadia, whose sepia-toned covers are ubiquitous on the history racks of many bookstores, was immediately interested. “I e-mailed on a Friday,” says Cherkasky, who’s now an associate historian for nonprofit Cultural Tourism DC. “They got back to me on Monday and said, ‘When can you get a proposal in?’ ”
The main challenge in Arcadia’s format, Cherkasky says, is telling the neighborhood’s stories through pictures as much as words. Each chapter begins with a few hundred words of introduction, then moves on to pages of photos with short captions. The problem, she says, comes when you have a great story without a picture or a great picture without a story. “It was not as free as I was thinking it would be.”
For instance, Cherkasky spent years searching for a photo of President Coolidge dedicating a statue in a park near Mount Pleasant and Harvard Streets NW. She’d all but given up. “We went over to [the D.C. Public Library] to look at some new collections,” she says, “and there it was.” Cherkasky wasn’t as lucky when it came to Maureen Reagan, daughter of Ronald by first wife Jane Wyman, who settled in the neighborhood in the ’50s and eventually married a D.C. cop who patrolled the corner of 16th and Irving Streets NW. Rumored wedding photos never turned up, but Cherkasky shoehorned the tale into a picture of Trolley’s Restaurant (now Marx Cafe), where the couple were regulars back when it was known as the Loop.
Many of the photos came from the usual suspects when it comes to Washington history: the Washington Historical Society, the D.C. Public Library, and the National Archives. But many more photographs came from current and former neighborhood residents, whom Cherkasky recruited through word of mouth. “I told everyone I knew,” she says, “then they’d say, ‘OK, my orthodontist’s wife grew up in Mount Pleasant.’ ” One group that was particularly helpful was Friends of Mount Pleasant, an informal association of former neighborhood residents, largely folks who spent their childhoods there in the 1950s.
At least one neighborhood establishment, Pfeiffer’s Hardware, will be stocking Cherkasky’s book alongside tomes about home repair and rodent removal. Unfortunately, she won’t be long in the neighborhood to enjoy her celebrity; she’s moving to a house in Petworth this month—and, no, don’t expect her to write a book on that neighborhood any time soon: “I’m going to be busy pointing up bricks and stuff like that.” But, she says, “I’ll still be hanging around.”
Cherkasky discusses and signs copies of her work at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 5, at Pfeiffer’s Hardware, 3219 Mount Pleasant St. NW. Free. (202) 462-1431.