I felt a deep sadness on Wednesday when rioters attacked the Capitol. Sadness for the country, sadness for my fellow citizens, and sadness for the city that I love.
I first visited Washington, D.C. when I was in 8th grade for the stereotypical tourist trip. I think maybe I initially wanted to adopt the aloof, unimpressed, too-cool-for-school teenager demeanor, but I just freaking loved it and quickly abandoned that charade. I loved the museums, the monuments, the history, and the light. Have you noticed how light and clean the city is compared to many other big cities? Eventually I figured out that the light comes from the wide streets, the wide sidewalks, and the height limits on buildings. But that light has never failed to strike me.
I returned when I was 18 for college. I refused to attend a university with the typical college campus. I adored that the George Washington University campus blended into the city — the possibility of disappearing into the hustle and bustle of daily life was very appealing. I still find the anonymity of the city to be delightful, but I also started to identify the smallness of the city.
You can walk from one side of the city to another relatively easily. It’s not that big and even as an eighteen year-old I felt like I could get my arms around it. I learned about the fun local restaurant spots, the secret holes-in-the-wall, the metro lines and stops to avoid, the best bus lines, and the good parks. I spent countless nights in college walking up and down the mall. The monuments and the mall are extraordinary in all seasons, but my favorite is the winter — especially in the snow. There is nothing like the silence and solitude on the paths on either side of the reflecting pool in the middle of a blizzard.
Did you know that the best time to visit the Lincoln is mid-week, in winter, at night? There are always people there, it’s a universal rule I think, but that’s when it’s quietest. Did you know that during summer nights, bats patrol the skies above the reflecting pool protecting tourists from mosquitoes? Did you know that in October, just before the first real frost, giant, truly terrifying spiders build webs across the wreaths above the pillars in the World War II monuments? You won’t see them during the day, you have to go at night. Then you won’t sleep for a week.
There is a natural comradery of D.C. locals — either born and raised, or adopted Washingtonians — especially in their shared annoyance with tourists. April — July are the worst. You can’t walk down sidewalks without having to step around groups decked out in the Washington, D.C., FBI, CIA, or American Flag sweatshirts and hats that are available for purchase on every corner. You can tell who is a local by how they use escalators. Unless you want to get yelled at, please, please walk on the left, stand on the right. Don’t block commuters trying to get to work, especially during rush hour.
And yet, there is something truly magical that so many people want to see the sights in my backyard. After many years of landing at National Airport, I learned which side of the plane to look out of to see the Washington Monument. If you are lucky enough to get the right flight plan, flying right next to the monument is nothing short of extraordinary. I get chills every time.
Driving up the GW Parkway in Virginia is one of the most beautiful drives. The views of the Capitol, the Lincoln, the Jefferson, and the Washington Monuments is the stuff postcards were designed to capture. Especially in the spring, when the dogwoods and tulips are in bloom. It almost looks fake.
I’ve left the city again and again. I get annoyed with the suffocating summers, or I start to get twitchy and want to explore someplace new. But I keep coming back. Again, and again, and again. I’ve lived here longer as an adult than anywhere else. It’s home.
I’m very aware that the city often falls short of this lofty vision. Homelessness is a constant problem, exacerbated by the increasing gentrification within the city limits. The gentrification is an issue within itself, as it displaces families, erases local history and culture, and pushes out the individuals that have lived in the city for generations. Segregation is still alive and well. The city is expensive, theater culture has been slow to develop, and the lack of statehood is wildly unfair. There is a certain swampiness of the political culture and a vibe that can be nauseating at times.
But I love that it has so much potential. These extraordinary symbols of democratic values flank the mall and stand as bookends to the city, reminding all citizens and visitors of what the country could be and should be. The opening line of the U.S. Constitution states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” This line doesn’t mean that the Union was perfect when it was created, but rather that there should be an ongoing effort to make it better. That’s what Washington, D.C. means to me.