City Lights
Photo by Darrow Montgomery; Go-Go show, 1990

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In 1981, Alona Wartosfky was restless. A freshman at George Washington University with a penchant for punk, Wartofsky spent her time outside of class attending sweaty concerts and thumbing through albums at record stores. She was in a record shop in Bethesda when she recalls spotting an alt-weekly with Jello Biafra from Dead Kennedys on the cover. Advice from a high school journalism teacher rang through her head: “You have to create internships, create opportunities for yourself. Don’t just sit around and wait for people to ask you to do stuff.”

So when Wartofsky got home, she took a deep breath, and dialed the paper’s number. Then-City Paper editor Michael Mariotte picked up. That phone call landed Wartofsky a part-time gig at City Paper. Between 1981 and 1994, Wartofsky went from filing photos to overseeing an award-winning arts section, with a five-year run as City Lights editor from 1984 to 1989. She still freelances regularly for the paper, focusing on D.C.’s go-go culture.

In the summer of 2019, I was restless, too. Between my sophomore and junior years of college, I’d racked up more internship rejection letters than my bruised ego could keep track of. So I cold-emailed my local alt-weekly, and attached a cheesy cover letter that boasted the D.C. outline tattoo I have on my ankle as proof of my undying love for my city. Then-editor Alexa Mills and managing editor Caroline Jones took a chance on me. Two and a half years later, I joined the paper full-time as City Lights editor.

Decades separate Wartofsky’s stint as City Lights editor and mine. She put the section together on an electric typewriter; I type and edit picks on my MacBook Pro. But as I’ve pored over digitized City Paper archives over the past month, I’ve found consistency and commonality throughout 41 years of City Lights. Critics’ picks on plays at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, previews of film festivals at the AFI Silver Theatre, listings of 9:30 Club shows, and endorsements of offbeat events like a sex toy extravaganza (1998) or an awkward sex storytelling event (2022) have always found a home in City Lights, which has been tucked into the back of the book since City Paper’s first issue. Certainly, the section has morphed around each editor’s unique tastes—whether that’s an affinity for nonfiction book talks at Politics and Prose (looking at you, Jones) or Latin American indie-poppers (yours truly). But its beating heart has always been the same: a desire to enhance the lives and expand the minds of D.C. residents with an eclectic, comprehensive curation of the city’s cultural offerings.

After three months overseeing the section, my time is up. City Lights, like the rest of the paper, will no longer be in print after today, and there may not ever be another editor devoted solely to its curation. So to send us off, here’s a glimpse into what City Lights pulled off, in the words of 10 former editors and assistants.

“It Taught Me How to Write”

Mike Kanin had not yet gone to college when he was hired at City Paper in 1999 as a receptionist. His first bylines in the paper were City Lights picks, and he was hired to edit the section in 2000. “It was like going to college,” he says of his four years with the paper. “And when I did go to college, I was so prepared because of what I’d learned at City Paper.”

Early in his tenure, Kanin pitched a review of a Dirty Three record to then-arts editor Brad McKee, but his draft never saw the light of day. “McKee sat me down in his office, closed the door, and said, ‘One day, you will thank me for this.’” Kanin recalls. “And he fucking ripped it apart. And it never ran. But I think that was probably the most instructive piece of journalism I ever did, because it helped teach me how to be a writer. To his point, I absolutely think about that all the time. And for me, in a nutshell, that’s what City Paper was. It taught me how to write, taught me how to think, taught me how to be critical.”

Before Kanin, Leonard Roberge oversaw the section. Kanin credits Roberge, along with many other City Paper staffers, with teaching him how to write. Roberge credits Dan Searing, editor before him, with loosening up his writing. “I came from this art history background. And the first few things I wrote were fairly dry,” Roberge says. “Picks were kind of like writing exercises—fun, fun writing.”

Mike Riggs oversaw City Lights from 2008 to 2010, but one of his proudest—and most unnerving—writing moments came from a food story he stumbled into. At the time, staffers were writing 50 word “capsule reviews” of restaurants. Riggs gave a shawarma place on Columbia Road NW an unflattering mini-review, alleging a “boring meal” of dry chicken. The restaurant’s owner was hurt, and insisted Riggs visit the restaurant again. Riggs ended up spending a few hours with the owner and his wife, and ate a sandwich “entirely superior” to the first. He then wrote a feature about the entire saga.

“I knew deep down, ‘This is inappropriate. This is not how restaurant reviews work. That’s why [then-food editor] Tim Carman never posts pictures of his face online.’ And I went back anyway,” Riggs says. “I told Carman that I’d done it, and he was livid. And I was like, ‘Will you please just read it? And he was like, ‘Fine. But I’m so upset that you did this.’ He reads it, and then he gets back to me. And I’m seriously expecting him to be like, ‘You’re trash, and shouldn’t even be a journalist.’ And he was like, ‘This is fantastic. And we have to put it in the paper.’ And he went and told [then-editor] Erik Wemple. I got my food first food feature by violating all the cardinal rules.”

Tina Plottel joined City Paper as an editorial assistant in 1993, working closely with the City Lights editor on listings for a handful of years. “Some of the best writing, honestly, were the picks,” she says. “If you matched a writer with an event right, then it would be the best thing you’d read all week, because it would be funny, and maybe a little irreverent.” 

That’s what City Paper is good at, says Kanin. “What City Paper was able to do was get the best out of me, right? And that’s what it did. It got the best out of people.”

The first-ever City Lights; Feb. 20, 1981; Courtesy of DC Public Library

“A Real Resource”

At some point in the ’90s, City Paper editors started an April Fools’ City Lights pick tradition. Plottel remembers writing one of the first—her fictitious event involved Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy reading original poetry (that part is real, the Spock actor really did pivot into poetry) at the University of Maryland’s observatory. Roberge recalls the paper publishing a gag pick by former City Paper editor Michael Schaffer, that claimed Crocodile Dundee would be visiting the Australian Cultural Institute.

“We would create a phone number for the April Fools’ pick that was a City Paper number, but it was just a voicemail box, so people calling for information would get this April Fools’ message,” Roberge says. “Well, we got a really angry call, because a dad has taken his kids to see Crocodile Dundee. I mean, it’s funny, but I feel bad. It was a reminder that people read the picks, people took the picks seriously. No matter how ridiculous they got, they were a real resource.”

Editor after editor echoed that sentiment in interviews—the stakes were high, because the public relied on City Lights. 

Riggs remembers getting a call from an older reader, demanding to know where the listings for his local movie theater had gone. Riggs had cut some movie listings for space reasons. The call surprised Riggs—he didn’t think anyone cared that much. “The worst errors I’ve ever made as a journalist were print errors at City Paper. And they still haunt me,” Riggs says in a tone that suggests he’s only half-kidding. “That job just gave me this incredible amount of respect for newsprint. Not about it necessarily being better, or more honest. But just, once it’s out there, it cannot be changed. So you have to work so hard to get it right.”

Roberge got the haunts, too. “We finished the paper on Thursdays, and I’d sometimes sit bolt upright in the middle of night being like, ‘Oh my god, we messed up this or that.’”

The other side of that coin is immense pride in a job well done. “In the early 2000s, people still brought City Paper to the coffee shop to figure out what was going on that weekend in D.C. So being in print was a big deal, because a lot of people were going to see it,” says Shauna Miller, who edited City Lights from 2002 to 2005. “You’d find yourself at things that you assigned, and see that people were there, and feel pretty cool about the fact that you got more eyes on something that you really believed in.”

It’s also about getting eyes on something people might never even hear about otherwise, says Sarah Marloff, who ran City Lights from 2021 until I took over in January. “It’s not just about what’s happening at the Smithsonian, or at Capital One Arena,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to go to a city, and pick up their alt-weekly, and be able to be like, ‘What am I going to find out about the city that I’m not just going to find out from googling online?’”

To Emma Sarappo, who edited City Lights from 2019 to 2021, the most valuable aspect of a print alt-weekly is its accessibility. “Being in print really mattered, not just because we were hard copy, but because we were free,” she says. “You could pick us up without paying for a phone, without paying for a computer, without paying for internet access, without taking yourself to the library. And that’s what I think was so important for so long—it was a source of news in your community, on your newsstand, on your block.”

That accessibility has had its limits. “City Paper has always been very focused on White Washington, which I think has been one of the paper’s weaknesses,” Wartofsky says. “I don’t think the listings were quite as comprehensive as people would have liked them to be, especially for some of the arts, some of the Black cultural events that were underground.”

From left to right: Matt Borlik, Aaron Leitko, Mike DeBonis, Erik Wemple, and Jason Cherkis; Courtesy of Mike Kanin

“A Great Fraternity”

Erin Engstrom’s favorite part of the City Lights editor job, which she held from 2010 to 2011, was working with freelance writers. “I learned a lot from those writers. They had such distinct writing styles,” she says. “Being able to work with them, and learn from them, was definitely the highlight of my experience.”

It’s been mine, too. That might not be a coincidence, since in the past few months, I’ve worked with some of the same people Engstrom did over a decade ago. Take Louis Jacobson, who’s been freelancing City Lights picks—primarily photography exhibit previews—since 1996, and nabbed his first City Paper byline in 1992. 

“The best thing about City Lights has been that there are writers who predated me,” says Jones, City Paper’s current editor. She oversaw City Lights between 2012 and 2017. “I inherited a list of writers who still will occasionally write a City Lights pick, but there are always people coming in and out, and trying new things.”

For Kanin, the real treasure was the friends he made along the way. “I loved being in the office, which is insane,” he says. “It all goes back to this sense of community. All of the stories that I can offer are these snapshots of moments that don’t really do justice to what it felt like to be there. The place meant so much to me. It still means so much to me.”

Roberge has one memory that crystallizes, for him, what City Paper meant to the wider community. But first, he’ll warn you that it’s cheesy. “One day, a bunch of us were taking the Metro downtown. We were all wearing City Paper T-shirts. And I swear to you, the people in our Metro car were like, ‘City Paper! Woo! Yeah! City Paper!’ It was kind of mind-blowing. [Former City Paper editor David] Carr was very dedicated to writing about the real Washington. And he used to say, all the time, ‘Make a paper people talk about.’”

Talking to Wartofsky for a City Paper cover story on go-go in 2016, former Rare Essence member Donnell Floyd said, ​​“Rare Essence is a great fraternity. And at the end of the day, no matter what our differences are, I am proud to have been part of that fraternity.” The quote comes to Wartofsky’s mind when she thinks of her time at City Paper.

“That’s how I look at City Paper. It’s not flawless, for sure, but it’s been amazing for me and my career. I was very lucky to have called Michael Mariotte that day.”