Washington, DC: Then and Now

Photo By Andy He

By Melissa Curtin

Returning to the nation’s Capital after 15 years was like retracing the footsteps of my youth. After graduate school in Connecticut, I moved to the Washington, DC area where I spent ten years growing up and learning how to navigate the world and survive a city. Recently, my 25-year reunion had been canceled at Gettysburg College, but some of us decided to still return to DC. While I came to revisit my past, I revisited America’s history.

Upon landing, immediately memories flooded back as an old college friend in town from London picked me up in the evening and whizzed us by the Washington Monument obelisk, shrouded in surreal smoke like a Munsch painting. The west coast fires had followed me. A longstanding Washingtonian, she always took pride in showing me the Nation’s monuments and reminded me as we passed a statue of Reagan that locals call the airport just “National.” As we approached Upper Northwest, the once familiar scene of rows of historic Victorian homes looked just as I remembered with the National Cathedral glimmering like Chartres in France.

“It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions.” – Charles Dickens  

As we crossed the city to K Street I checked into the new Hotel Eaton, a second property after a Hong Kong location conceived by Katherine Lo, a filmmaker and anthropologist. A recording studio greeted me in the lobby adorned with records of black artists. Just past check-in, video art related to white privilege caught my eye while a “fugitive broadcast” ran positive black images.  Off the lobby, a “radical library” stuffed with hundreds of books focused on race and inclusive narratives while the ceiling decked with a black and white newspaper art installation represented the last 40 years of the DC music scene – from punk to gogo to hip hop to rap.

Photographs in the hall paid homage to Harriet Tubman’s birthplace by a black female photographer. Once inside my top-floor suite, I perused black music legends to put on the record player. Guests learn about systematic racism through art and inquiry all over the hotel.

The next morning, I peeped into Hotel Eaton’s hip plant-filled coffee café next to the lobby and a mid-century modern restaurant under renovation along with a social and collaborative workspace with Soho House vibes that will soon offer coffee and light bites. Also, on the first floor, a small cinema hosts film school documentaries and in the past the March on Washington and even politician AOC.

“So woke” kept popping in my head as I marveled at the black and white photographs in my room, the jazz upstairs on the rooftop lounge, a hip hop band promoting their tunes, and various organizations congregating here to make a difference. Considered the Tesla of hotels, Hotel Eaton is rethinking the entire hospitality industry with community building, activism, and awareness through various mediums setting the stage for innovation, inspiration, and impact. Hotel Eaton is truly a social and creative incubator!

After my cross-country flight, my first instinct in the morning was to walk so I used my iPhone map to direct me towards Logan Circle then Dupont Circle, once an old stomping ground in my twenties as we use to drink cocktails at the Big Hunt. Sadly, now shuttered. A plastered sign above the street reminds Washingtonians to “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.’ A black male in a tailored suit whizzes by me on a scooter, a scene so unfamiliar to me now after being in Los Angeles for 15 years. I can’t remember the last time I saw a guy in a suit anywhere. I can’t help but think that people living here are doing important work and they like to follow rules and protocols. At a 4-way crossing, rainbow stripes painted on the pavement brighten my step and remind me this is a place that celebrates inclusivity.

More evidence of fall appears in goblins and pumpkins donning steps as I admire plants from my past that I no longer see in California like honeysuckle, ivy, and red berry bushes. An old bookstore gives me hope that people still read actual books. A homeless woman follows me into Joybird, a furniture store to find a seat. I think about a time when Whole Foods and Starbucks were a big deal to come to this city.

Deep down into the metro I navigate to Northeast DC, an area I would never have visited 15 years ago because I am on a quest to sample foods at Union Market – a new epicenter for DC culinary creativity with over 40 local vendors across from Gallaudet University (a school that caters to the deaf). After a run-in with a kid who tries to steal the purse of the lady next to me on the metro, I witness 3 teens trying to break into cars as they check every door handle in a parking lot. I’m too scared to shout at them and move quickly towards my destination. The industrial Union Market District looks like a former central food shipping hub. But it takes me a while to find Union Market as I end up first at La Cosecha, a market celebrating Latin American culture. I decide to sample bites from several vendors – baked spinach and cheese empanada, a fried empanada with plantain, beans, and shredded beef, and pork and cheese pupusas with a cashew drink.

A little farther down, I find Union Market as I cross the road where countless diverse food stalls have me repeatedly circling the options. The place is packed with outdoor tables for people to devour and share food that represents America’s ethnicities. We start with some dumplings from Laoban then half a corned beef and cheese sandwich from Harvey, a meat counter. I admire South Indian Dosas, Egyptian food from Fava Pot, New Orleans cuisine from Puddin’, seafood from Fishwife, products from Almaala Farms, a Korean Taco Grill, a Mozerella Bar, and British food. On my way out, I see more men in blazers with khakis and earpieces and realize security is set up as the Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband waltzes in for lunch.

Later in the day, my mom meets me as she took the train from Connecticut to join me for some food ventures. For dinner, we walk from Hotel Eaton to Succotash Prime, known for its smoked meats. In an opulent historic high ceiling-ed bank with wall murals and balconies, we are seated in a cozy booth as the restaurant fills quickly and a hundred people find their way upstairs for a party. As we watch the stream of conservative outfits, the menu dishes up southern comfort food in an elevated way reminding me where we are in the world – smack dab between the north and the south.

We share the family-style extravaganza starting with a fried green tomato salad, shrimp and grits, smoked ribeye, and chicken and waffles. We have to take a break with the watermelon and toasted peanuts before continuing our feast with mac and cheese with Old Bay and chocolate bourbon pecan pie. We can barely walk out as we are stuffed to the gills but I send my mom back to the hotel as I meet an old DC friend at the newly renovated Martin Luther King Memorial Library’s rooftop terrace for a Fair Chance Butterfly Bash fundraiser. After cocktails and wine, we peruse an entire floor dedicated to DC cultural history in this impressive architectural space. From Mayor Marion Barry to DC’s music scene, it is a well-archived look at the area’s past.

Before bed, I check out Allegory, a literary-inspired speakeasy bar in Hotel Eaton’s lobby. Besides the diversity of revelers sipping cocktails, most intriguing is the Alice in Wonderland-themed wall mural painting with Ruby Bridges inserted making the viewer see or wonder what she must have felt that day as she approaches a cast of creepy/kooky characters. In another panel, she becomes all-powerful as she slays dragons.

The next morning my mom and I do not head to the popular Holocaust Museum, the National Museum of African History and Culture, or the National Museum of the American Indian. If we had more time, these would definitely make a worthwhile return visit along with the National Air and Space Museum, the Spy Museum, and even the Smithsonian. However, we cross the street from Hotel Eaton to the new Planet Word Museum housed in the historic Franklin School. As we enter, a Speaking Willow tree outside detects motion and whispers hundreds of different languages.

Inside, this free immersive interactive language experience quenches my love of fun words and writing. In a couple of hours, we learn about languages around the world from interactive videos, the history of our language, word evolution, and how music and advertising use words. In the gorgeous library space with color-coded books, books miraculously come to video life with voice commands and a secret poetry corner can be found behind a door. In one room visitors can interact with a large screen to visually paint words and make the words come to life.

Below the museum, we dine at Immigrant Food +, where meals are ordered online and donations can be made to immigrant-related causes at the same time while one screen makes diners aware of local events related to immigration and immigration policies. My mom and I split a Cubano and The Kamala Harris Bowl (or Madam VP’s Heritage Bowl) with coconut-milk curried chicken, chickpeas, potatoes, pineapples, plantains, and a hint of spicy peppers served over turmeric rice and baby spinach. We tamper our ordering as we need to save room for a special 14-course dinner at Xiquet. Later in the day, we Uber to upper Georgetown to this new Michelin star earner bringing the flavors of Valencia, Spain to DC ignited by a wood-fired kitchen. The 3-level culinary symphony begins on the first-floor bar where guests’ palettes are whet with granita and oysters. Upstairs, fine white linen tablecloths await with sea cucumber delicacies, thinly sliced grilled octopus with caviar and white asparagus soup with smoked English peas – all presented as a piece of art. We watch through the glass walls as Chef Danny Lledo maneuvers the fiery flamed kitchen.

The evening feels like a parody or comedy of sorts as waiters walk in unison with earpieces to place each course in front of us at exactly the same moment. My mom exclaims, “Precise!” to this food dance. Memorable dishes continue to flow like Senia rice prepared paella-style with plankton and sea grapes topped with uni from Maine, oxtail with truffles and foie, wagyu from Virginia, and desserts galore crafted like mini sculptures. A wind-down finale sends us into a coma with an after-dinner drink and sugary concoctions in a wooden box on the second level but we leave appreciating the special care that went into this fine dining.

Leaving my mom again to catch up with old college friends, I Uber to longstanding local favorite Clyde’s of Galleria (also behind the Old Ebbitt Grill downtown) to realize we are all getting old as everyone at the table has a parent with dementia except me. A final stop for some shared wine at D.C. Chop House reminds me of America’s diversity as I realize I am a minority here.

The next morning my goal is to walk towards the District Wharf, a fairly new mixed-use development on the Southwest Waterfront where my mom and I plan to catch the Water Taxi from the pier down the Potomac River to Georgetown. We check into Hotel George, a Kimpton hotel in Capitol Hill, our second home for the next few nights right near the Capitol, Union Station, and the National Mall. I can’t help but think of the country’s recent chaos surrounding the Capitol.

It may be a bit ambitious but I gently nudge my 76-year-old mother to walk at least 4 miles towards the wharf from the hotel. We meander through the National Mall park where monuments and memorials honor American forefathers and heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. We cruise by the Capitol and its Reflecting Pool, the Peace Monument, and end up admiring the grounds around the National Gallery of Sculpture Garden. By the National Gallery of Art with its 6-acre sculpture garden, the National Archives (with the original handwritten copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), and the National Museum of Natural History (with its dinosaurs and 45.5 blue Hope Diamond), we view the National Monument in the distance poking tall like a pencil on the great lawn, a place where people have always gathered to have their voices heard. We hear the American History Museum holds the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem as well as the original Kermit the Frog Muppet and Julia Child’s kitchen. We make it to the International Spy Museum before I need to call an Uber.

At The Wharf, we pass sailboats lined on the riverfront and a mile-long stretch of newly built restaurants, retail, and entertainment venues. The Wharf is home to the nation’s longest continually operating open-air fish market featuring four piers. The Water Taxi with City Cruises (cityexperiences.com) gives us a new perspective of Washington as we pass officers’ homes, Arlington National Cemetery, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a living memorial to the assassinated 35th president. Military planes power above us while the American flag waves and the dismal grey scenery showcases glum but stunning cloudy skies reminding me why I moved to California. It’s day 4 and I haven’t seen the sun.

After a 45-minute cruise, my mom and I pass the Georgetown waterfront fountains and climb up a steep cobblestone hill by the Georgetown canals. We share a hot lobster roll that far exceeds my expectations at Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls while the guy at the table next to us passes out in a chair in the middle of the day. After walking all over the busy streets, the fall leaves show their colors, and we sit down for an outdoor early dinner on the sidewalk at Il Canale, an Italian restaurant. I think this is the same spot Paper Moon use to exist, but inside a wood-fired pizza oven from Napoli serves crisp pizza. I watch the guy next to us devour an entire pie while my mom orders eggplant parmigiana and we rest our sore feet. We clink glasses with Aperol Spritz before ordering some of the best homemade pasta of my life with seafood marinara sauce and mushroom truffle ravioli. Inside Il Canale, photographs don the walls of all of the dignitaries and celebrities who have dined here like Emmanuel Macron’s wife, the Trumps, and many more important politicians.

After a drawn-out early dinner, I check out Wolfgang Puck’s CUT bar lounge and rooftop in the Rosewood Hotel nearby before making my way back down to the waterfront pathway to find the Exorcism Steps and the area where I use to kayak and bike right under the bridge connected to the Maryland Crescent Trail. After a quick meet-up with old college friends at Tony and Joe’s, a Georgetown waterfront staple, it’s time to savor the last few hours with my mom before I escort her to the meticulously restored grand vaulted gilded Union Station the next morning. Now studded with shops and restaurants, this was the largest railroad station in the world when it opened in 1907.

Before kissing my mom goodbye, she encourages me to check out the Smithsonian National Postal Museum right next store to the train station. At first, it seems like not the best idea but I pop in since it is free and soon found myself immersed and entranced for several hours with the history of stamps and the mail system in the US. It is a dizzying array of fascinating interactive information in the historic City Post Office building and I even mail some of their free postcards and take home some free collector stamps from around the world.

The last night on my own I explore another former stomping ground of my twenties – Adams Morgan, a culturally diverse neighborhood buzzing at night with music venues, artisan cafés, vintage clothing shops, eclectic food, and now outdoor street dining. I discover another amazing local independent bookstore and smile at all the action still going on in and out of these brick row houses, once a place we drank, danced, and kissed. Club Heaven and Hell seemed to be dark and shuttered while Madam’s Organ Blues Bar was still welcoming patrons with a bouncer. I found myself inside a neoclassical 20th-century church, now the Line Hotel, with 60-foot vaulted ceilings and packed with people imbibing. Across the way, I beeline for some creamy chocolate overpriced gelato at Pitango Gelato off Columbia Road.

Before heading back to Capitol Hill, I check out the sophisticated Riggs Hotel in the former “Bank of Presidents” in the Penn Quarter because travel writer friends told me about this hot cocktail bar there called Silver Lyan, the first in the US stemming from Hong Kong. In the historic bank vault, I sidle up to the one seat available at the bar because reservations are required. Silver Lyan’s menu pays homage to the spices, flavors, and traditions that make up America’s diverse cultural heritage. In the dimly lit space, I sip an American invented cocktail of the bartender’s choice while admiring glowing trophy cases filled with all-female gold sports trophies.

Before my flight, I speed walk in the morning by the U.S. Capitol thinking about the mob attack that transpired just ten months prior and notice many STOP barricades around the area. Passing by old haunts from my past like Capitol Lounge, a sign outside quotes George Washington stating, “It is vital than man never misses lunch.” I stop to gawk at colorful row homes in various architectural styles sandwiches together with mini manicured yards. Capitol Hill Books is maybe the 5th bookstore I’ve seen around town giving me confidence that America still reads real books. Eastern Market is quite similar to how it was 15 years ago but now I see it through different eyes and realize the many African influences felt at this outdoor weekend market of local artists and crafters. Inside the great hall, indoor merchants sell produce, meats, poultry, flowers, baked goods, cheeses, and more. As I look around, I notice a cultural blending of races and ethnicities, something I wasn’t as aware of when living here. Washington, DC felt like the real America.

While I was here to look back at my own life and revisit my past, visiting DC had me delving into our nation’s history to remind me of America’s greatness and the diversity of experience in this great capital city.