Contributors: Rachel Fritz, Emily Grenell, Alex Jenson, and
**See if you can find the hidden emoji in every photo!**
Like any city, Washington D.C. has rules. Some are codified, some are heavily endorsed by patterns of behavior. No food or drink on the Metro, resist the urge to jaywalk and only cross when the “walk” sign is illuminated, don’t wear a backpack in cramped bookstores with narrow doorways aisles, and never, ever cross in front of someone’s photo at the White House. With secret service and D.C. police patroling every corner, most of the people lining the streets of Washington abide by these expectations. In fact, we were the only people on the Silver Line with a coffee in hand at 9:30 in the morning on a Sunday. We came to this city to become immersed in a culture radically unlike our own in Des Moines, Iowa. We came here to blend in among congressional staffers, Secret Service Agents, judges, professors, and clerks. Early on in our journey today, we learned that the best way to become a native is to leave the beaten path set before us, and fight (some) rules to find your way.
As a tourist will tell you, maps save lives in cities like Washington. For most, the grid of streets and avenues is unfamiliar and can be a bit daunting. By the end of the day, we nearly figured out “the grid” with relative ease. While we did follow our assignment to the end and visited a number of incredible and historic sites, it was those places we found along the way, hidden on sidestreets and omited from the map, that made the day worthwhile for all of us.
We quickly learned to expect the unexpected. When you find yourself in the center of Chinatown, you might expect to find some authentic restaurants and a warm, colorful atmosphere filled with music and light. One may not (as we did not) expect a historic sight to be blended so seamlessly into the husks of the neighborhood. One might not expect that the place where conspirators like John Wilkes Booth plotted to assassinate one of the greatest Presidents in American history to be transformed into a karaoke bar. But it was. (Note: The trivial comodification of history in this city is certainly a remarkable pattern that I observed today, which I hope to explore in greater depth at a later time – K).
Most of us knew when traveling to DC yesterday that a government shutdown was happening. We realized that federal employees weren’t being paid and certain buildings would not be open. However, as we explored the city today, we noticed that the shutdown did not really affect the busy lives of D.C. natives. The most disenfranchised groups during the shutdown have proven to be tourists and furloughed federal workers. For example, the shutdown limited our accessibility to some of the sites that we were required to visit today. This included Graft by Roxy Paine, a famous steel tree-like sculpture in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, as well as access to the Smithsonian “Castle.” We were forced to view these sites from outside, and in some cases, behind walls, metal bars, and fencing. It was disappointing to be deprived of the chance to explore these sites. However, the shutdown really didn’t seem to affect the locals’ plans for the day, because (as you might imagine) they live in this city so going to sites that are highly populated with tourists (the National Mall in particular) isn’t on their to-do list. These locals are still able to go to their local coffee shop or favorite store on the corner, therefore not affecting their daily routines. Even when the government is inactive, the locals seem to find comfort knowing that capitalism still thrives on every street corner.
While exploring the city, we ran across two bookstores that starkly contrasted one another, but both left a lasting impression on us. When we got off the Red Line at Eastern Market, we stumbled upon Capitol Hill Books, a gorgeously claustrophobic privately-owned bookstore. Entering the building was a bit overwhelming at first; It seemed like a bookstore straight out of a movie. This little store was exploding with books from every corner of the store, all the way to the very top of the ceiling. The space between bookcases were so narrow that only one person could fit through at a time, and customers were asked to leave large bags and backpacks at the cash register. This bookstore was nothing like we had seen before. The individuals who worked in it left a similar impression on us.
The clerk we met at Capitol Hill Books was happy to engage with us. Amidst these precarious spires of books, he sat in a 4×4 space, greeting folks at the door, checking people out, and lending a helpful hand to lost tourists. He was friendly and good humored. He even joked about how the bookstore managed its stacks of books, and informed us that they hosted events with free wine and craft beer on a biweekly basis. When we needed to use the restroom there, the man at the counter gave us directions by telling us it was in the same room as the foreign language books. He proceeded by telling us we can learn a new language while doing “our business” in there. Right before we left, we chatted again with the man at the counter about the Eastern Market and any places he would recommend to check out. Of course, he told us we came to the “right shop” (his) when visiting. This bookstore had a lively personality that I am not quite sure we would find anywhere else.
We also visited a more popular bookstore in DuPont Circle that we could hardly leave once we entered it. Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, a far less cluttered, and more formalized shop than Capitol Hill Books, had an interesting backstory with the Clinton scandal. According to our guide, the shop’s previous owner fought Kenneth Starr when he tried to subpoena which books Monica Lewinsky had bought from this store for the Clinton trial. So of course, my group asked the lady at the cash register to point us in the direction of books related to Clinton and Monica. There we came across Contempt by Kenneth Starr himself, which explained all the information he knew during the investigation. This shop hits the casual passerby with a a hip and cozy atmosphere before they walk in, and features a cafe in the back. To most individuals, this is probably just a cute little bookstore on a circle, however, it holds so much history for people that are interested in the Clinton Scandal. To an average passerby, likely someone unfamiliar with Veep and House of Cards, the historical significance of Kramerbooks would likely easily slip through the sidewalk cracks.
One of the most surprising discoveries on our trip today, other than the niche destinations we found, were the colorful figures that make up the city. From the cool intellectual at the Capitol Hill Books, a variety of homeless folks asking for some spare change, to the cynical salesman at Kramerbooks. All of the folks we met paint a picture of a complex people in a complex city. The first individual we met was manning the purchase desk of Kramerbooks. I asked him which books were the most popular in the store, and he immediately began to deflect. He described my question as “loaded” and did the best he could to convince me that there was no preference for any sort of book at the bookstore. He seemed hesitant to show bias or personal preferences for particular genres, which seemed logical but a bit peculiar in a store overwhelmingly dominated by political commentary. It made us wonder more about how the locals who aren’t engaged in Washington D.C.’s political arena engage with the energetic political world around them.
One of the most moving points in our journey was the memorial to the Japanese Americans who fought and died for the US during WWII, despite the persecution that they suffered at home. It is truly a lesson in patriotism. These men fought and died for a country whose president had deprived them of liberty and property without due process of law. The willingness of these men to sacrifice for their country should be an example to us all. The memorial itself is centered around a gilded statue of Japanese cranes. Behind them are carved the names of various internment camps and how many individuals they held. In the sides of the memorial, the names of fallen soldiers are carved, and quotes about the soldiers are written alongside them. While my views are my own, my favorite was from Mike Masaoka, a staff sergeant in the war, and civil rights advocate afterward. “I am proud that I am an American of Japanese ancestry. I believe in this nation’s institutions, ideals, and traditions. I glory in her heritage. I boast of her history. I trust in her future.” I would be inspired by this no matter the speaker, but from someone who dealt with the worst federal discrimination in living memory, these words have special worth.
The memorials scattered throughout the city are meant to be emblematic of great American triumphs and tribulations. Even if the monuments, such as the Japanese American Patriotism Memorial, didn’t exist, the city breathes with it’s own living emblems of historical patterns playing out in the present. Chief among these is noticeable and pervasive income inequality. D.C. is a city with an average household income of about $75,000, which is $15,000 above the national average. Despite this, or maybe because of this, it is impossible to ignore the homeless population.
D.C. has seen dramatic increases in cost of living in recent years. It is not difficult to imagine how easy it would be to become homeless when faced with rent hikes and high cost of living, while working at minimum wage, or facing unemployment.
This epidemic is juxtaposed by the luxury lifestyles led by many in D.C.. Today alone, I counted roughly 45 Teslas around the city, that range from $70,000 to $130,000, similar to the popular Audi and Mercedes lines. The large number of luxury vehicles seen in the city illustrates that the city of D.C., like many large cities, is a study in contrasts, particularly regarding wealth.
On a lighter note, we managed to walk about 8 miles around the city today, and yet were never more than a few blocks away from a Starbucks. D.C. is powered by coffee shops!