The Magazine

Kind of My Kind of Town

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By JOSEPH LINDSLEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

All of Washington is divided into four unequal parts, and in just over two years I've lived in all of them. I acquired that distinction when I moved to an apartment complex in Southwest once occupied by a crack-smoking former mayor.

No sooner had I unpacked last March than I learned I will shortly be leaving town. Now, I find myself deliberately exploring my new neighborhood, rounding out my knowledge of the city before I move on.

Not to be sour about it, but Southwest, for my money, is the ugliest quadrant. As recently as the 1950s, it was an orderly neighborhood of African, Jewish, and Italian Americans--then urban renewal buried character under concrete. Today, it's a wasteland of high-rises, including hideous early works of I.M. Pei.

Only a few landmarks were spared. At St. Dominic's Catholic Church, built in 1875, there's a sign explaining that LBJ used to pray there in the wee hours after issuing bombing orders during Vietnam. And a few of the recent additions aren't bad: At Cantina Marina, with its outdoor tables, you feel miles away from D.C. Seated dockside eating crawdads and mosquitoes, you can watch the boats in the marina and almost imagine you're at Myrtle Beach--if only the talk wafting over from the next table weren't about deputy assistant secretaries and awful neocons.

Except when I lived in the far reaches of Northeast, separated from the office by a stretch of urban jungle, I've made a practice of walking to work. Walking puts the city in your blood--it naturalizes you. Seeking shortcuts, you discover Dickensian alleyways, find statues motorists miss (St. Jerome, Edmund Burke), and meet the panhandlers, like the one who told me, "I make more money just asking for it than I do at my day job. Nobody says no!"

The serious panhandlers are in sprawling Northwest, where the money is, along with the White House, the embassies, the Hoyas, the Wizards, the lobbyists of K Street, and establishments ranging from the classy Irish Cajun pub in Chinatown's Red Roof Inn to the Round Robin bar at the Willard Hotel, where Fifi (from Ethiopia) will serve you a mint julep the way Henry Clay used to have it. Best of all is the oasis of Rock Creek Park, a hilly swath of unspoiled green that runs the length of Northwest. Once, hiking along the high banks of the creek, I stumbled on Pulpit Rock, one of T.R.'s favorite places.

I spent a year living in Northeast's Brookland neighborhood, near the National Shrine, the seventh largest church in the world; Trinity University, Nancy Pelosi's alma mater; and a tavern called Kelly's Ellis Island, where I used to sit by a portrait of Stalin hung upside-down. Wear Kevlar if you visit at night.

One of my regular haunts in Southeast was the Eastern Market, before it was gutted by fire in April. I used to order my blueberry pancakes by saying, "I want the blues." But Southeast kept me too busy for the real blues. Once at 3 A.M. I successfully foiled a break-in by yelling and charging at the delinquent. I lived eight blocks from RFK stadium, and spent a lot of time watching the Nats. Afterward, I'd walk out of RFK and head down broad, leafy East Capitol Street toward the white dome in the distance, then turn over to Trusty's, a bar with bars on the window, where the grease-burger was first-rate.

Southeast is packed with churches--from neo-Gothic Episcopal chapels to store-fronts like Tried Stone Fire Baptized Holiness Church--and walking the simmering sidewalks on hot Sunday mornings, I'd listen for the gospel choirs. Their amens and hallelujahs, escaping through open stained-glass windows out across a neighborhood hung-over from a night of politicking or partying, sounded more rational to me than much of what goes on in this stateless city.

For the fainthearted, Washington is best viewed from afar--from a traffic jam, say, on a bridge over the Potomac, where commuters can take in the breadth of the imperial city, with the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol anchoring the skyline. James Fenimore Cooper had it right when he wrote some words I found cut in the stone of a plaza along Pennsylvania Avenue: "Washington has certainly an air of more magnificence than any other American town. It is mean in detail, but the outline has a certain grandeur about it."

Today, there are still plenty of mean details--more than enough to retire any notion of a gleaming alabaster city I once brought here. But, as I get ready to take off next month, I realize it's the details that have attached me to this place, details collected on foot, one by one. I can't believe I'm saying it, but I've actually grown to like this dirty old town.