When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
The Washington region boasts a vibrant cultural identity. But people from other cities often like to remind Washingtonians that they were “into cupcakes” before D.C., or that singing “Sweet Caroline” at baseball games was a “Boston thing” first. We explore the pieces of Washington’s cultural identity that are unique to the region, and where the area is guilty of following trends in other places.
- Tim Carman Food Writer, The Washington Post
- Blake Gopnik chief art critic, The Washington Post
- Lynn French Development consultant; former adviser on homeless policy to Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams
- Sommer Mathis News Editor, TBD.com
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Happy New Year. When was the last time you heard someone say I guess I don't get it, it must be a D.C thing? Was that person talking about go-go music or waiting in ridiculously long lines for cupcakes? But maybe you've heard people say more often that's not a D.C. thing at all, food trucks are an L.A. thing. Or we've been singing "Sweet Caroline" at Fenway Park for years. You guys are copying Boston, and you know it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITo be sure, there's an indigenous culture to the so-called DMV that goes far beyond partisan politics and monument hopping. But just how much of it is really unique to our region? And how much of it are we borrowing or stealing from other places? Joining us to explore the cultural history and future of the Washington region, Lynn French is a development consultant and a member of the working group of the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail. Lynch French, good to see you again.
MS. LYNN FRENCHThank you. It's good to see you as well.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Tim Carman. He is a food writer at The Washington Post. Tim Carman, good to see you again.
MR. TIM CARMANHey, Kojo, how are you?
NNAMDIWell, I haven't seen you since the old days of the city paper.
CARMANIt's been (laugh) weeks. (laugh)
NNAMDINice seeing you again. Sommer Mathis is news editor at TBD. Hi, Sommer. Good to see you again also.
MS. SOMMER MATHISGood to see you. Happy New Year, Kojo.
NNAMDIHappy New Year to you. And Blake Gopnik is the outgoing chief art critic at The Washington Post. He joins Newsweek in New York in about two weeks. Blake, congratulations, happy New Year, good to see you.
MR. BLAKE GOPNIKThanks, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDIOkay, you can join this conversation, if you're a long-time Washingtonian and if you -- or if you recently moved here and have comments or questions about culture and the so-called DMV, the District, Maryland and Virginia, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Lynn French, you are the only true DMV native sitting at this table. (laugh) You're a sixth generation Washingtonian who grew up in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood that has changed as much as any other in the region during the past few years. When people talk about the culture in the D.C. region, what are the things that come to mind for you?
FRENCHOkay. Before I answer your question I have to make one little correction.
FRENCHI did not grow up in Columbia Heights.
NNAMDIOh, no, you didn't grow up in Columbia Heights (unintelligible).
FRENCHI grew up at 18th & S, which people now call DuPont circle. But in those days, it was known as the Mid-City.
NNAMDIAnd now you live in Columbia Heights. (laugh)
FRENCHAnd now I live in Columbia Heights. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhen you think of culture in Washington, D.C., what comes to mind for you?
FRENCHWell, I think we have a very rich culture and things that are uniquely Washington and things that are like other places. So I was commenting earlier that I was a little insulted by The Post's referral to our local -- they now call it hand dancing, we used to call it D.C. bop...
NNAMDIWhen I got here it was called a D.C. bop.
FRENCH...when we were kids.
FRENCHAnd it's a very unique style of dancing because we add another beat in it. When I was in junior high school, we even called it the stomp because there was another step in there. And it was amazing to see that The Post claims that it's a derivative of the Lindy Hop. (laugh)
NNAMDINow, see, that's Nikita Stewart.
GOPNIKCan you believe it? That goddamn Washington Post. (laugh)
NNAMDIThat's my girl, Nikita Stewart. Leave her alone. But anyway, just on the topic of hand dancing for once second. I like to dance. I've been in D.C. for more than 40 years. I cannot hand dance. My children, who were born in D.C., they can hand dance. Apparently, it's either in the genes or in the water. (laugh) But if you're a native Washingtonian, it seems that you're born knowing how to hand dance.
FRENCHYeah. And we're also born reading The Washington Post, which was The Washington Post and Times-Herald when I was a kid. It's our hometown newspaper. We can disagree with it, but it doesn't mean that we think of it in those terms (laugh) you were referring to.
NNAMDISo you're a hand dancer too?
NNAMDIEvery Washingtonian that I know is a hand dancer. Blake, Tim...
FRENCHAnd could I just add one other thing, Kojo?
FRENCHI'm sorry. I also believe that there's a link between the basic beat of the way we hand dance and go-go, that that's why there's a unique beat to go-go...
NNAMDIThere probably is a...
FRENCH...because it's a -- there's a continuity. And if you think about Chuck Brown's age, I think that -- because it's more rhythm and blues than hip-hop.
NNAMDIWell, I call Chuck Brown homegrown earlier. Here's been here for so long. He's not originally...
NNAMDI...from Washington, D.C., but he's been here for most of his 74 years or so.
NNAMDIBlake, Tim, Sommer, you are all transplants. When you first arrived here, Blake, what were some of the things that stood out to you as things you found completely unique to this city, to this area?
GOPNIKWell, I think something people take for granted is the free museums, which is, you know, something that you can easily think of as just the normal state of things, and it's the right state of things. It's the state of things as they should be everywhere.
GOPNIKBut it's not something that happens in most places. The idea of being able to go into one of the great museums in the world for an hour or half an hour at your lunch break is something fabulous that I think Washingtonians take for granted as just being normal.
NNAMDIYou are absolutely right. Indeed, I never even thought of it before you mentioned it there. Sommer, what did you find when you first got here that you found was different than any place else?
MATHISWell, in the music scene here, there's a real commitment to all-ages performances, which is, I think, is unique to D.C. And I -- certainly venues like the Black Cat or the 9:30 Club that are sort of world-famous. In other cities they wouldn't -- I -- my experience has been they would not make that commitment to hold all-ages shows and expose people who are under 21 or even under 18 to all sorts of music. And it goes across genres. I mean, many go...
NNAMDIOr you can go to Fort Reno across the street and (unintelligible) in the summer.
MATHISAbsolutely, in Fort Reno. Fort Reno is a great example. So I, you know, I think the music scene here has long been committed to exposing younger people, not just people who are old enough to drink, to homegrown music.
NNAMDITim, you're observations when you first got here?
CARMANWell, you know, I came from D.C. and -- or from D.C. I'm sorry. I came from Houston. And from a food scene, I -- what really stood out was that there's still a lot of grills, like diners. I mean, and not only Ben's but like Florida Avenue Grill...
CARMAN...The Waffle Shop, when that was still open. These were, like, really throwbacks to a period where you would -- it would just be very communal. I mean, you can feel it as soon as you walk into Ben's. It's just a step back into a history that you don't see. I mean, like in Houston, they would tear down everything. It's like a city of no history. And there was still some history in some of the old diners and grills in D.C., and I found that quite charming.
NNAMDIWe're discussing the evolution of culture in Washington, D.C. or in the DMV, as it's now called -- the District, Maryland and Virginia. What would you say are the unique aspects of the D.C. area's cultural identity? Call us at 800-433-8850 or join us online at kojoshow.org. You can make a comment there or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIHere is Kathy in Bethesda, Md. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHYHello, Kojo. I just wanted to wish Blake Gopnik a bon voyage to New York. We're gonna miss him terribly. He's just great. I've been reading his comments all along. It was really a sad news that he's leaving town. Good luck to you, Blake, and I'll be reading you online in Newsweek, I guess. Good luck. Bye.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kathy. Blake...
NNAMDIYou'll be hearing a lot of those, Blake, including people who say: Please don't go, Blake. Please don't go.
GOPNIKAnd a few good riddances too. I've already received a few of those, yeah.
CARMANWouldn't be doing your job if you didn't get a few of those.
NNAMDIWas there a moment, Sommer, Tim, when you discovered that D.C. had a culture that existed outside of the free museums or the monuments or The Mall or the tour mobiles, a kind of D.C. moment, if you will, that you ever had in Washington?
CARMANI don't think I had a D.C. moment, but I think from the food side, which is really the only one that I can speak with any sort of authority, you know, it's always a large question whether we have a food culture here.
NNAMDIOh, let's pursue that for a second because The New York Times ran a piece a few weeks ago that set you off about how Capitol Hill is awash with junk food joints, a piece that you felt rubbed our noses and our inferiority to New York. What were you getting at?
CARMANWell, I think it was more of a satire on this idea that any publication can come into another city and judge its food scene, its dining scene, its restaurant scene with any sort of authority. I just think it's very difficult to do. I think it's difficult to do even when you spend every waking moment thinking about food in the city. That was -- what that was about. It, you know, the Times has a very long history of coming into not only D.C. but into Chicago, San Francisco, many other towns and rendering a verdict as if it has any sort of validity, and I was trying to gently poke fun or not so gently poke fun at that.
NNAMDILynn, how have you seen D.C. since we're talking about food scene evolve over the years, because for the 54 years or so that Ben's Chili Bowl has been around, there'd been a lot of other developments in our culinary scene here in Washington?
FRENCHWell, it's interesting, but I was thinking about the diner reference. When I was -- I was born before the city was integrated. So when I was little going out didn't necessarily mean going to a restaurant, but it meant going to someone's house. There were many women who were just the most incredible cooks in the world who would have a set-up in their basement, and you go out for Sunday dinner or what have you and order there and pay and have wonderful, wonderful food. So the restaurant scene didn't happen for us until towards the end of the '50s or the beginning of the '60s.
FRENCHNow, I do feel that we've evolved into a city of really great restaurants, and what I enjoy most are neighborhood restaurants. I live in Chicago for a while in my 20s, and the thing I like about Chicago was that each neighborhood had its own restaurants, and I think that we've evolved to that somewhat here so it's really great. And in Columbia Heights, especially now that I'm retired, I can walk out and have a choice of restaurants to go to, and that's really great.
NNAMDIWhich is really your new job since you are with the working group of the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail. Blake, you spend a lot of time writing about the art scene in New York. You're leaving D.C. for the Big Apple soon. How do you feel about this idea that Tim wrote about, the cultural shadow that Gotham cast over D.C.?
GOPNIKYou know, it's inevitable. New York is a giant city, and it's probably the cultural capital -- well, certainly in my field, in fine art, the cultural capital of the world. So that shadow is gonna be cast. You know, I always say to people when they complain as many, many people do about the size and scope and even quality of the D.C. art scene, I say D.C. has exactly the scene you'd expect. It's a small town. It's got a smallish art scene. It's dominated by government so that's not gonna help the art scene a whole lot. D.C. actually, I think, has probably a better art scene than you'd expect. It's better than Ottawa, for instance. I guess, that's not saying all that much.
NNAMDIWell, that's a capital too.
GOPNIKBut -- exactly. But because we have (sounds like) nukes and trillions in Washington, there's an expectation that the art scene is gonna be, you know, stunning and, you know, we'll be able to compete with New York. That's not gonna happen. But the D.C. has some very, very good artists. I guess, the one thing that worries me about D.C. culture in general -- and this speaks to what Tim was just talking about maybe as an opposition but Tim was just talking about -- is that D.C. does have a tendency to get a little defensive, and that I think is it's biggest flaw. D.C. dining, I think, does have some problems. We've got too many giant corporate restaurants that try to make money, you know, 300-seaters. D.C. -- the D.C. art scene has problems too -- too many people who are in it because it's fun, too many people wearing metaphorical or even real berets rather than getting down to make really wildly serious art. I think D.C. has to accept its limitations and try to push beyond them, and there's sometimes a tendency to gang together and say: We're D.C. We're great. And other people have to stop dissing us.
NNAMDIAnybody mentions that I wear a beret to work, I'll kill him. Here is Paul in Alexandria, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi, Kojo. I'm a permanent tourist in D.C., and I can remember as a Boy Scout taking the Lincoln Trail. I don't know if the Boy Scouts still have it, but it was walking all the way through up around 16th Street and through Malcolm X Park. And I also wanted to tell a little story about a bumper sticker that I used to -- that I had and defaced.
NNAMDITell us about the bumper sticker.
PAULOkay. Richard Viguery, after the Jimmy story at The Washington Post, a composite fabrication about the 8-year-old heroin addict...
PAUL...made up this bumper sticker that says, I don't believe The Post. And I cut out that -- I had him send me one. And I cut out the N apostrophe T, and I put it on my car. And God bless America and The Washington Post and Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. I guess that's why we're here, to take your call.
GOPNIKTears coming to my eyes.
MATHISA lot of people have that in buttons too.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. 800-433-8850. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will continue talking about Washington's cultural identity. What pieces of the D.C. area's cultural identity do you think we might be guilty of borrowing or stealing from other cities? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDITalking about Washington, D.C.'s evolving cultural identity with Sommer Mathis, news editor at TBD, Blake Gopnik is the outgoing chief art critic of The Washington Post. He's joining Newsweek in New York. Tim Carman is a food writer at The Washington Post, and Lynn French is a development consultant and a member of the working group of the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail. Sommer, you've been writing regular entries for TBD about impulse buys, snapshots of the wild, weird and wonderful things you can buy in the D.C. area. During this exercise, what have you come across that would make you think this area is culturally unique?
MATHISWell, you know, one thing I have noticed is that there aren't a preponderance of retail shops that are locally owned unfortunately. We really try to, with those -- that particular feature, highlight locally-owned businesses. And for the most part, retail, though sometimes it's also food. But, you know, we try to find kind of quirk...
NNAMDILike the fried pickle dog?
MATHISYes. ChiDogO's, we did a little feature on that.
MATHISBut, you know, one thing that I -- I was talking with some friends last night about, you know, plans for a hotel in Adams Morgan, and there are also plans for hotel on U Street. And, you know, there are you know, debate about -- you know, as long as you want about whether those tax abatements are worth it. But one thing we were talking about was -- you know, those kinds of projects are the kinds of projects that bring people to the street during the day, which is, you know, how you're gonna get more and more local retail, small business owners. You know, they need people on the street during the day, not just -- you know, nobody wants to become Adams Morgan, and that -- even Adams Morgan doesn't wanna be Adams Morgan. So, you know, the -- those hotel projects, I think, are really interesting as far as, you know, what we might see as -- from entrepreneurs opening small businesses on the major corners that are open during the day, not just restaurants, not just bars.
NNAMDIWhere else can you find a giant Italian movie poster of Billy Dee Williams?
MATHIS(laugh) I think found that over at Second Story around Dupont Circle.
NNAMDISecond Story Books...
NNAMDI...on P Street.
NNAMDIAbe Lincoln's stove pipe, hats at the gift shop at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and...
NNAMDI...cake on a stick.
MATHISCake on a stick at...
NNAMDI...on 14th Street.
MATHISYeah. Or cake pops.
NNAMDIAll unique to Washington. Here is Marcia in Washington. Marcia, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
MARCIAI am calling to say one of the unique things in the city is Children's Studio School, which, for 33 years, has been engaging highly developed architects, visual and performing artists as complete teachers of children as young as three. And at night, the families, adults, everyone in the city comes to do drumming, improv and hand dancing. And I was gonna call you because you mentioned hand dancing, but then I heard that Blake was leaving. And I wanted to say that he was the only one in the city who discovered Children's Studio School's bathtub garden. And finally, we got a notice today, that after 30 -- 13 years in our building, 33 years of our life, that we have to be out of our building in three days. And we need help, so this all was serendipitous. And good end, I hope better.
NNAMDIMarcia, I am so glad you called and gave that information because I'm assuming that most people, including Bobby Blake, did not know that at this point. And one of -- you are indeed one of the unique things about Washington, D.C. yourself, you and what you do. So thank you very much for calling and good luck to you.
MARCIAShould we give our number?
NNAMDIPlease do. Go ahead.
MARCIAThank you, Kojo. 387-6148. And press 112 if no one answers, leave a message.
NNAMDIAnd wait a minute, how long have you had that number, 387-6148?
MARCIAA long time after we had 387-5880.
NNAMDIYeah. That number stuck in my head.
MARCIAThat was the one you had.
NNAMDIYes. That number is stuck in my head. Thank you very much, Marcia.
MARCIAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDICare to comment at all, Blake?
GOPNIKI came across their fabulous bath tub garden when I was writing a story about the most radical design I could find in the country and went all over looking for it. And then, you know, days before deadline, I came across this amazing garden that they built made of used bath tubs. And there was something really smart and elegant and obviously, environmentally friendly about it. And I -- I actually build it as one of the best things I'd seen.
NNAMDIThank you again, Marcia. And once again, good luck. We got this email from Daryl who says, "I wanna to give a shout out to Lynn French since she and I were the tallest two girls at John Burroughs Elementary School in northeast D.C. in the sixth grade during the year I won't say. Some of the most enjoyable parts of my teenage years and 20s was spent hand dancing at D.C. house parties and high school dances." You know exactly who that is, don't you? Okay, well we won't reveal the ages of the individuals involved here. A city's local politics can play a big part in shaping the culture and attitude of the place. I wanna play something that goes back to 1938 here in Washington D.C. Here goes Huddie Ledbetter better known as Lead Belly.
NNAMDILead Belly sang that in 1938 because he couldn't find accommodation when he came to Washington D.C. as a black man. The city has clearly changed a great deal since then. We have a black mayor of the city and usually a majority black city council, but D.C.'s local political culture is still relatively a pretty young thing. We've only been electing a local government since the 1970s. We don't have representation on Capitol Hill. How do you think this has all affected the cultural face of the city, Lynn? And how has the culture of the city indeed, affected this? There have been complaints for years that we are not angry enough, enraged enough about our lack of voting rights. We don't rise up. We don't demonstrate against it. What is it? Are we still, in some respects, a bourgeois town?
FRENCHWell, I think we are a colony. The summer that I graduated from high school, which was same summers the March on Washington reeling a little more here. I met Malcolm at school incidentally at a demonstration who said to me, why do you all accept your colonial status? And I had never -- I'm 16 years old, I'd never heard anybody say that. It's something that people just accepted. I think that we should be agitating more. I don't know that we have the power alone to do it, but I think we need to be reaching out to get support from across the country. When you talk to people from other places, they don't even realize our status. And the impact it has on politics in addition to not giving us true self determination here is that people are just stuck running for the same office over and over again because there's no moving up and moving out. You can't go beyond being mayor.
NNAMDISommer, somebody who came from some place else...
NNAMDI...is that surprising to you that people in the District seem to accept that status?
MATHISWell, I think it just goes back to some of what Blake was saying about, you know, there's sort of an inferiority complex in the city. And I do think that the lack of voting rights really has a big deal -- has a big -- a lot of great deal to do with that. You know, it's a real shame. And I think Lynn is absolutely right on the money about, you know, there's no governor's office. There's no senator, you know, that's run for so -- I -- you know, the --maybe the kinds of candidates that we get for citywide office aren't what they could be because there's no place to go. And, you know, all of that, I think, plays into why Washingtonians are a little bit defensive about our city compared to New York or Los Angeles or other large cities (unintelligible) in the U.S.
NNAMDIWe have a caller, Anne in Washington, who wants to talk about precisely that. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEI just wanted to say there are a lot of Washingtonians who are very fed up with being colonist of the rest of the United States. And we are working very hard for statehood which is the only way to really get your rights under our constitution. And I hope you all noted how strong our new mayor came out, for statehood and for ending our colonial status. And we -- I would just like to invite all the rest of the people of the District of Columbia to join us and all those around the country who believe that self determination is a right of all American citizens to contact their senators and congressmen and urge them to support D.C. statehood.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Anne. And we move on now to Scott in Tacoma Park, Md. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTYes. I kinda was wondering -- you were talking about your impression of Washington and how it's different from other cities. Well, I came here in 1975 and the first thing really noticed that struck me was -- it really does have a kind of small town feel to it. And I think, it took me a while to figure out what it was and I think it's because of the height rules and restrictions. There was no...
SCOTTIt's not a big city. It doesn't have the feel of a big city even though I think it really is.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Blake?
GOPNIKYeah. I mean it's interesting. I was listening to the previous caller and to the conversation a minute ago. And there is a strange kind of -- the effect to not being able to vote has a strange effect on Washingtonians, I think, because it makes Washingtonians, I think, feel as though they're in smaller town than they are, and creates this strange break between the world's biggest government and everything good about that. I mean, there are more smart people and in for that matter fairly well-heeled people in town than in most cities. And there's a weird sense that I found Washingtonians resisting claiming their -- the ownership of the capital of, if you like, the free world, whatever you wanna call it. So it's very strange that even the museums, in some sense, are neglected. The great federal museums aren't seen as part of D.C. And that happens again and again. I think the way forward for Washington weirdly, for its art scene anyways, is to embrace the brilliant people who work in government, to embrace the capital status that they've got, to realize that that, in a sense, is Washington's greatness and not to wanna be a small town, to wanna be a capital city.
NNAMDIThat is fascinating. Scott, thank you very much for your call. Have you noticed anything about the size of the buildings having any relationship to the small town feel of the city, or as Blake and others have been implying to our kind of sense of inferiority here in Washington, Tim?
CARMANI think what happens with the buildings in D.C., particularly from the restaurant point of view, is because we don't have a lot of density of population like New York does, we don't have the same kind of density of restaurants. It's like the more people you have, the more potential buying power. And that trickles down to the restaurateurs, the people who go to them, they -- it's like -- I think the difference between, like, D.C. and New York is that we don't seem to have this sort of midlevel quality of restaurants versus New York. It's like you can go to anywhere in Brooklyn or Queens, and you're gonna find these really strong, really, like, mom-and-pop oriented places that are investing in the kind of restaurant, the kind of ingredients, the kind of service, decor that is a higher quality, generally speaking, than, I think, that you'll find here in D.C. And I think part of that is just has to do with basic economics. They can afford to do that. It's an expensive proposition to run a really high-quality restaurant. I think too much of our midlevel restaurants are kind of coasting by on cisco level products.
CARMANAnd I think that that is a reflection of just a lack of buildup in this town. I mean, a lack of density, a lack -- I mean, I think you're starting to see some of that changing, like in -- everyone is talking about NoMa now. NoMa this, NoMa that. You've seen a lot of these condo developments.
NNAMDINorth of Massachusetts Avenue.
CARMANRight. And there's a lot of retail going on on the ground level floor, and some of them, not all of them are local restaurants. And I think this is one of the big problems. If you talk to restaurateurs, these developers, they don't want -- they don't necessarily want local restaurants, because they charge -- they're charging such a high per square, you know -- high per square footage charge that the local restaurant tourists, they look -- they crunch the numbers and they see they can't make it work. So they turn to the chains. They turn to the larger groups that can actually make those numbers work. So there needs to be more of a, I think, working out of some of the financials of these big condo developments to allow more of the local restaurants in to develop that culture that we, I think, we're all looking for.
FRENCHYou know, I kind of agree on one little bit or another. I don't -- I think that the beauty of Washington is -- I think that we're in one of the prettiest cities in the world, maybe...
FRENCH...Paris competes with us, but I don't have a problem with the scale. I don't -- we aren't -- we just aren't a New York size city. And I think that we should revel in what we have. Growing up here, the museums were very much a part of life for us, because it was a place we could go when we couldn't go to a restaurant or what have you. But in terms of the scale of the city, it’s beautiful. And in terms of our row houses, people come here from New York and refer to them as brownstones. And I always enjoyed telling them, we don't have brownstones here. (laugh) When they started developing the inner part of the core of the city here and building row houses, the people who made the brickyards got together and said, we're gonna undersell the people who wanna bring in brownstones from New York. (laugh)
FRENCHAnd actually, the bricks that we have in Washington were made originally by slaves, and later by free people of color who worked in these brickyards, and people who really understand them can tell you a story by the pattern in a brick. It's almost like living in a Kente cloth, because we have this rich tapestry of bricks. So I don't see anything wrong with the scale of the city.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Janet in Silver Spring, Md. Janet, your turn.
JANETHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a big fan. I just have sort of a funny comment to make. Many years ago, I was in the airport in Los Angeles talking to a friend of mine. And the guy in front of me turned around and said to me, you must be from D.C., I can tell by your accent. And I've never really heard of D.C. native having an accent before.
NNAMDIHave you, Blake?
GOPNIKI surely noticed when I came here, other than maybe a tinge of Southerness, which I kind of noticed, but no. I haven't noticed a big one. But maybe I'm just tone deaf. I don't know.
NNAMDIWell, you've been here for 10 years, has anybody ever said, you're from Montreal. I can tell by your accent.
GOPNIKWhen I speak French, let me tell you, they say...
GOPNIKWell, at first they say, what was that you said? Could you repeat that, please?
NNAMDIYou find that also, Lynn, that people can identify you in other places?
FRENCHIt's funny, because I think among young people, there's an accent that has evolved, that people -- many of us...
FRENCH...referred to as a D.C. accent. But people who've been here for many, many years don't speak that way. And growing up, the schools really worked very hard with us about diction and how we spoke and presented ourselves. So it's kind of a divide, I think, an age divide.
NNAMDISpeaking of divide, there was a lot of talk about divide as a result of the recent mayoral election, a racial divide in the city. And Vincent Gray in his inauguration address, talked about bringing the city together as one city. Here's an e-mail we got from somebody who says, "I am a white, come here some years ago. And I moved in to a low-income African-American neighborhood. And I was surprised to find that strangers would say hello to me on the street. (laugh) Not something I experienced when I lived the west of the park. Of course, I fell in love with my neighborhood immediately, and learn to say hello to people I see on the street regardless of whether I know them. Is this a D.C. thing or this is -- is this a black thing that happens in other cities? Whatever it is, I love it." From my standpoint, it's a Southern thing...
MATHISYeah, it's a Southern thing.
NNAMDIBecause when I lived in Brooklyn, no black people said hello to me (laugh) on the street. Now, the minute I step off the train in D.C. or the bus since when I came here, everybody started saying hello to me. It's more of a southern thing, isn't it?
FRENCHI think so. Though, the years, the seven years I lived in Chicago people did it, but back then in the '60s, everybody I knew in Chicago was from Mississippi.
NNAMDIYeah. That's true, so there's been something -- during the mayoral race, people talked a lot also about the cultural split between the parts of the city with long-time residents and the so-called transient parts of the city. How do you think this aspect of our culture shapes the city's identities, Sommer?
MATHISWell, you know, I was just actually having this conversation with someone yesterday. I think it was much more of a generational divide perhaps than a racial one or a class one, although there are points at which those things all converge. But you know, I think Vince Gray, now being mayor, we're seeing is we're gonna have, you know, an older mayor than we had before, and that may kind of color the priorities of that administration. But you know, when I was interviewing outgoing DDOT Director Gabe Klein, who's, you know, now no longer there, you know, he really brought this up, a lot of the sort of backlash to the bike lanes and the bike share and the streetcar and all of it.
NNAMDIStreetcars, dock parks...
MATHISIt seemed like -- it seemed to him and I think he was -- he think he was onto something here that there are -- that that was more of a generational thing than anything else, that it was the older people who have been living in the city for a long time who didn't like, you know, removing parking spaces and that the younger people of all races living in the city were, you know, extremely interested in being able to bike around.
NNAMDIIt's a little bit of all of the above, actually.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line, we'll try to get to your calls. The lines are filled, so if you'd like to reach us, go to our website kojoshow.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversations about Washington D.C.'s evolving cultural identity. We're talking with Lynn French. She is a development consultant and a member of the working group of the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail. Tim Carman is a food writer at The Washington Post. Sommer Mathis is news editor at TBD. And Blake Gopnik is the outgoing chief art critic of The Washington Post. He joins Newsweek in New York in just about two weeks. Back to the telephone, here is Tasha in Washington D.C. Tasha, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
TASHAI wanted to mention in Kalorama roller skating rink, which is actually a national roller skating rink...s
TASHA...right off 16th Street as a unique D.C. kind of thing, a kind of skating developed at that rink, a fast outside-skate style, and it kind of absorbed the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia area, and now the national roller skating scene that's called the DMV style. So...
TASHA...not only do we develop something, but it's managed to outlast the life of the roller skating rink, which is now, I think, a Harris Teeter (word?).
NNAMDIIt certainly is. Tasha, do you remember that there was also amateur boxing staged at that roller skating rink from time to time...
TASHAThere were other types of events (unintelligible)...
NNAMDI...it was where I saw an 11-year-old boxer named Ray Leonard first fight there...
NNAMDI...at that very venue long time ago. Tasha, thank you very much for your call. Speaking earlier of people who are seen as transient, if someone were to ask you an -- it means everybody except Lynn French...
NNAMDI...would you identify yourself as a Washingtonian, and at what point did you feel comfortable saying that I couldn't help notice that the late Billy Taylor, who died recently, the great Dunbar graduate and jazz pianist and everything else, even though he's been living in New York for years, still considers himself a Washingtonian. Is there a point at which you felt that you are a Washingtonian?
MATHISWell, I certainly feel like I've committed to living here, if that's what you mean. I don't have any plans to go anywhere else at this point and I've bounced around to a bunch of different cities, you know. Before I landed here, I grew up mostly in Tucson. I lived in Phoenix. I lived in L.A. for about five years before I moved here. I lived in Vancouver. But for whatever reason, D.C. feels more like home than almost all those places. So I'm -- but as far as how long you have to be here before you can claim that, that's a tough call. You know, I go to enough neighborhood association meetings and ceased to know that I haven't been -- I've only been here six years, and that's not long enough for many of my neighbors. And, you know, I don't know if it's 10 years. I don't know if it's 15, 20 years. I'm not sure what it is.
NNAMDIWord to the wise...
NNAMDI...you claim it. Anytime you feel like it, you just claim it. How about you, Blake?
GOPNIKWell, the thing about D.C. that I'm really gonna miss is just how livable it is. I mean, we mentioned this a few minutes ago. But people don't realize -- I was shocked, when I came here, to find out that it's a truly beautiful city. The walk from where I live, on Logan Circle to Dupont Circle up to Kalorama, all sorts of directions, is really a fabulous walk. It's a tremendously pleasant place just to lead your life.
GOPNIKAnd I think that may be why more young people are staying and demanding cycle lanes. I mean, I think the transients may be coming to an end. There's always gonna be some transients, but I think there are gonna be more and more people staying here because the amenities are here.
GOPNIKAnd it's -- I mean, I don't understand why D.C. hasn't been able to sell itself as a truly beautiful city, one of the most beautiful cities in North America. It just -- it doesn't happen. Everyone thinks of the mall, which is, admittedly, absolutely beautiful. But, you know, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, all the downtown neighborhoods are as beautiful as anything could be, and somehow that news hasn't gone out.
NNAMDITim Carman, do you claim to be a Washingtonian, or do you still identify with the place where you were born?
CARMANWell, I think -- I have a bit of a contradiction in that area. There are many parts of D.C. that I've embraced, including the beauty of it. I agree with what everyone has said here. I think it is a beautiful town, particularly compared to Houston, which is, you know, one never-ending strip mall. But I think the -- for me, it's like -- one thing we haven't talked about is like the sports culture. I'm a sports fan. And I have really had a hard time adopting sort of some of the sports teams here. And I think...
CARMAN...part of that has to do with the ownership. It's really hard to embrace Dan Snyder.
NNAMDIHate the owner of the team.
CARMANYes. So I still cling to my old teams.
NNAMDIWell, for me, it was -- when I really realized that I was making a home in Washington after my children were born here, and I realized, at that point, that they were Washingtonians, and that made me a Washingtonian. And so I've claimed it ever since, Sommer, and defy anyone to tell me that I am not.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Don, who says, "I'm enjoying the current show on culture in the D.C. area. I, however, take exception with the idea that the District of Maryland and Virginia have a common culture. That is one big difference to our Metropolitan area. I live in a neighborhood less than 10 miles from the White House. Our culture here has nothing to do with downtown D.C."
NNAMDIAnd this we got from Lisa in Takoma Park. "One thing that I'm not sure makes D.C. better or worse, just different from other older cities on the East Coast, a lot of our ethnic neighborhoods are most vibrant in the suburbs. It's no secret among foodies, for sure. If you wanna eat great Chinese food, you go to the suburbs in Montgomery County. If you wanna eat Salvadorian food, you can come to my neighborhood, in Takoma Park. In other cities, you can find these ethnic pockets in the inner core of the city." That is an important distinction and, in a way, refutes what our early e-mailer has been saying because people do go in pursuit of those foods all over the region, do they not, Tim Carman?
CARMANWe have a really strong ethnic food culture, and that -- I think that's almost points out like this classist approach to what people think of as good eating. You know, when people judge a city's restaurant scene, they typically, I think, look at the more sophisticated places. You know, is it a white table cloth service? Do they have a four-star chef? Whereas if you take the larger picture, I think D.C., from really different cultural perspectives, has some really fine cuisine, whether it's Chinese or Salvadoran or Ethiopian, Vietnamese, of course. I mean all of this.
CARMANAnd I think even a bigger point would be that we're, as a city, getting to the point we're starting to develop these cuisines so that you're seeing them come out of the suburbs and actually into the city. And other, like, French-trained-style chefs are starting to adopt these and make them their own, which I think is a sign of development of particular cuisines.
NNAMDIA lot of callers wanna get in on this. Here is Laura in Owings, Md. Laura, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURAOh, hello. Thanks. I just wanted to comment that although I've lived around D.C. for the last 35 years, I really didn't think of myself as being influenced by D.C. culture. But when I go home to California, they all say, oh, you've changed so much. You're such a Washingtonian. And I think it's because whenever I hear somebody make any kind of generalized assertion, I immediately say, well, who did the study on that, you know? And they tease me about the language of acronyms. Have you checked on the CBO's website or have you -- and they're all scratching their heads, saying, the what? The who?
LAURASo, you see, it does get to you, eventually, whether you're (laugh) .
NNAMDIYou can run, but you can't hide, Laura.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here's Rachel in Silver Spring, Md. Rachel, your turn.
RACHELYeah. I wanted to follow up on the D.C. accent concept. My great grandparents moved to D.C. in the 1880s. And all of my father's generation in '83 and all of the ones I knew in the preceding generation from him, they all had what most people would now consider sort of a -- maybe Virginia -- Southern Virginia accent. And to me, that's what I always thought people from D.C. sounded like because all the people I knew from their generation -- black, white, whoever -- had this Southern accent. And since I've been an adult, my friends have often asked me, where did you get it from? Are you from West Virginia? Where did you grow up? But it's...
NNAMDIHe grew up right here in Washington, D.C.
RACHELYes. And that's what they all sound like of that older group, right?
NNAMDIHow come you don't sound like that, Rachel?
RACHELWell, because although I was born in the city...
NNAMDIStrayed away from gene pool.
RACHEL...I was born in the city, but I lived mostly in the suburbs, but most of my teachers did not come from D.C. They were all, you know, those transients people that we talk about.
RACHELSo I think I escaped the accent also because my mother was raised in Baltimore, so I got the combination thing. But when I'm in other places -- when I went to school in Massachusetts, everybody said to me you must come from the South. Oh, huh? (laugh) They were...
NNAMDIRachel, thank you very much for your call. One more. Here's Ron in Silver Spring, Md. Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RONJust wanted to echo what your guests have already said about how -- what a pretty city this is. Thanks in large part to Mr. L'Enfant and of -- for what he planted over 200 years ago, the Rock Creek Park, the mall and all the beautiful neighborhoods. It's rare to find a city that has that much beauty. I especially appreciate it because I grew up in Chicago and green was hard to find. And it's very green and very beautiful in the spring time here.
NNAMDILynn French, L'Enfant designed it and then he left and who finished it?
NNAMDIBenjamin Banneker completed (laugh) the design of the city. Thank you very much for your call, Ron. But it brings me back to you, Blake Gopnik. What do you expect are gonna be the two or three things about Washington, D.C. that you're going to miss most after you have moved to New York?
GOPNIKI'm desperately thinking of non-cliche things to say. (laugh) I wish I could -- the waitresses at Florida Avenue Grill, I'll miss a whole lot and their biscuits for that matter. The mall is a truly amazing space. I love going down there when almost no one is there, which is most of the time. I mean, after 6:00, you're gonna have some quiet time on the mall. There's just nothing more beautiful. It's a kind of sculpture more than a real urban space. It saddens me that it's not used by D.C., that there's no housing near enough for it to be a real park, but it is a beautiful thing. The Washington Monument is one of the greatest works of art in the world, so I'm gonna miss that.
NNAMDILynn, if you were to give to a tour of the D.C. area today and you wanted to show off the places that for you make D.C. unique, where would you take your guest?
FRENCHWell, I always show people the mall. And it's interesting you say night, because to me, the best tour to take out-of-towners on is hop in the car, which probably soon the bike lanes will squeeze me out of and take them through...
NNAMDIYou had to get that in, didn't you?
MATHISGet on the circulator.
FRENCH...and take them through that area at night where everything's lit up and you can really see the beauty of it. But then I also like to show people the neighborhoods. I think Logan Circle is gorgeous. Where I grew up in Midcity, out towards Frederick Douglass' house in Anacostia. You name it. Any part of the city is beautiful and has -- I can't...
NNAMDITake them over to Anacostia and give them that view of the city from there.
NNAMDIIt's absolutely beautiful.
FRENCHOn the 4th of July, you can stand on the grounds of St. Elizabeth's and simultaneously see the fireworks at the Washington Monument and in Alexandria. It's just beautiful.
NNAMDITim, if you get your wish and Michelin finally releases a guide (laugh) in D.C., what do you expect will be the most attractive things that they'll write about?
CARMANYou mean, like, what would be the starred restaurants?
CARMANI'm gonna get myself in trouble here. (laugh)
GOPNIKBen's Chili Bowl, right? You're got to say Ben's Chili Bowl.
CARMANYou know, the Michelin critics, they're really tough, and they have a particularly French standard. So I think...
NNAMDIWhere would you take the (word?) ?
CARMANI think Michel Richard Citronelle would, of course, be on the list. After that, it's -- it'll be interesting. I mean, I think like a Restaurant Eve over in Old Town would probably be on it, and that Little Washington, which D.C. always seems to claim as its own, would probably be on it. Komi -- I'd be -- what I'd be curious about is whether I think one of the great restaurants of the town would be on it, it would be Rasika, which is Indian-based cuisine.
CARMANThat would be -- I'd be curious to see if that would make the list.
NNAMDIWe'll give Mary in Springfield, Va. the final word. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. You only have about 30 seconds.
MARYI'm calling to talk about a unique jazz venue on Friday nights in Southwest around the corner from Arena Stage. Westminster Presbyterian Church has had, as its mission, for 12 years to preserve the history of jazz in Washington, D.C. Every Friday night, 6 to 9 pm, $5 at the door. It's fabulous.
NNAMDIFive dollars, you can get dinner, you can listen to jazz, meet a great, meet great people...
MARY...the best -- no alcohol, the best jazz musicians in the region.
NNAMDIYou're absolutely right.
NNAMDISo thank you very much for your call. Blake Gopnik, good luck to you.
GOPNIKThank you very much.
NNAMDIBlake Gopnik is the outgoing chief art critic at The Washington Post. Sommer Mathis, thank you for joining us.
MATHISThanks for having me.
NNAMDISommer is the news editor at TBD. Tim Carman, good to see you.
CARMANGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDITim Carman is a food writer of The Washington Post. Lynn French, as always, the pleasure is mine.
NNAMDILynn French is the development consultant and the member of the working group of the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Gunmen launched an attack in Mali's capital on Friday. We explore the conditions that continue to fuel extremism in West Africa and the challenges of combating them.
We learn about a historic cottage in D.C.'s Petworth neighborhood, on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. While he wasn't the only President to stay there, it bears Lincoln's name and it's estimated he spent about a quarter of his presidency in residence there.
A new Washington Post poll named crime as the biggest problem facing Washington, D.C.-a 12 percent increase from 2011.