A bed at G Street Apartments, a Sanford Capital property.
A bed at G Street Apartments, a Sanford Capital property. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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City Desk is not a desk job. Never mind that I never actually had a desk in City Paper offices (they’d moved out of the space on 15th Street NW at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic before I came on board in 2021). The beat takes you from migrant safe houses and street demonstrations to CrossFit gyms and the inside of an Uber.

Talk to City Deskers from the past, and you will hear tales of a hectic, ambiguous job where you’d stay out late foraging for news of the day at community hearings. While other reporters have the luxury of chasing food scoops or political dramas, the City Desk reporter’s assignment is to cover everything and anything.

But within the broad assignment comes lots of room to carve out your own specialty. From the jump, I gravitated toward coverage of mental health and violence prevention. As the child of Dominican immigrants and a graduate of a bilingual journalism program, I was wary of pigeonholing myself into the obvious beat: reporting on Latinx and Latin American immigrant communities. I also wanted options outside my background. But my first print feature—a story on how visual storytelling workshops helped Afghan refugees heal in the D.C. area—guided me into reporting on immigrant and refugee communities on the regular.

Former City Desk reporter Bailey Vogt found a place covering the legacy of other eccentrics, such as the iconic late barber Diego D’Ambrosio, and in detailing transit screw-ups. Vogt’s regular Metro coverage in the District Line Daily newsletter transferred well to the “Metro by the Numbers” cover story where he reveled in “terrible dad jokes.” 

Andrew Giambrone found a beat of sorts in his dedicated coverage of housing and real estate development. His first cover story, “The Bard Sell”—a 2015 account of the beef between a group of Southwest residents and the Shakespeare Theatre Company—is a casserole of local voices in land use and development issues.

Giambrone leveraged that niche into becoming WCP’s Housing Complex reporter (and later Loose Lips) and, along with then-editor Alexa Mills, wrote an investigative story about a notorious slumlord that uncovered layers of mold, cockroach carcasses, and inequity within the walls of the G Street Apartments in 2017. Their reporting shed light into the unventilated units and onto Sanford Capital LLC, contributing to wins for the Office of the Attorney General against the slumlord in a 2019 settlement and its successors in 2022. 

About that first cover story, Giambrone says he saw firsthand “how resistant people are or can be to change in their neighborhood, even though it may have benefits.” It helped shape his thinking about land use and new development, and “how attached people are to their sense of home and the property that they own or manage.”

For his piece on Sanford Capital, Giambrone remembers walking through people’s homes—their most intimate spaces—to see the conditions they were living in. Photographer Darrow Montgomery’s “haunting” portraits of tenants and images of mold and stray animals in the apartment buildings brought the story to life.

“Having the print issue was like a really powerful vehicle for sharing that with the rest of the city and our readers,” he says.

“For the end of my time at City Paper, I always had … the lens of power and real estate,” Giambrone says. “In covering the Wilson Building, it’s like, who are the big players in the city, or any city really? It’s real estate interests, developers, people who own land, and people who are the job creators, because they have control over how land is used. It was a real education in how power works and who gets to make decisions and how those conversations happen.”

Former City Desk reporter Amanda Michelle Gomez can relate. She arrived at the paper in July of 2019 and wrote about gentrifying Wawas, evictions, and labor rights. And she contributed to an all-staff race around the District using different modes of transportation, journeying across town using ride-hailing apps.

“I have this idea of journalism being investigative and hard, but … [it was] a story that was fun to write, because it could only happen with City Paper,” Gomez says.

When the pandemic hit, she quickly found her specialty as the paper’s go-to COVID reporter.

She especially takes pride in her final story for the paper—a cover story on landlords who received federal pandemic relief funds despite the unhealthy conditions at Meridian Heights apartments, where mostly Spanish-speaking tenants lived. It was the first cover story to be translated into Spanish.

For Perry Stein, City Desk reporter from 2013 to 2014, coming up with unusual angles was key to her City Paper education. She recalls robust debate at weekly staff meetings, often pooling around issue ideas.

Stein’s most memorable piece was “Gym Nauseum”—a first-person exploration of D.C.’s boutique fitness craze in 2014 and the sweaty business of the CrossFit dating scene. Eight years later, now the Post’s education reporter, Stein still recalls the line “But CrossFit isn’t a place where you can escape an ex.”

The newsroom’s tradition of offbeat reporting pushed Stein to look for voices not captured in other media outlets. She recalls most other local newsrooms covering Marion Barry’s legacy when residents marched through Anacostia to commemorate the former D.C. mayor and councilmember. In search of a different angle, Stein landed on covering the bar that Barry visited and tracking down the last guy he spoke to before he died. 

Stein also sees City Paper as visionary when it came to designing diagrams and interesting visuals in its print issues. “I feel like it was almost … ahead of its time,” she says, describing a City Desk feature she worked on that charted ridiculous condo building names and differentiated by random nouns, lyrics, and names with prepositions. Scoring a cover was worth it despite knowing you’d have to buy the staff beer: “I always remember thinking, ‘We don’t get paid enough to buy beers for everyone,’ but that’s what we did,” Stein says, chuckling. 

The staff imbibing during the final steps of print production is a tradition that stayed alive up until the City Paper office closed at the start of the pandemic. It forged solidarity and bonding moments through goofiness, Gomez says.

On a more typical ride for Gomez—biking to the Washington Memorial on a Saturday afternoon, as she was wont to do during the pandemic—she saw in person the type of imagined reader that had excited her City Desk predecessors about showing up in print.

“I was biking, … I stopped … toward the end of the 15th bike path,” Gomez recalls. “And I saw this dude, and he was … fucking reading our paper, and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, this is why I do it.’”