Living in Ghost World: Washington, DC

Editor’s Note: Pop Past draws from our rich archives. This essay, originally titled “Ghost World” was published in 2004 as part of our special feature, These Times/This Place

My girlfriend and I moved to Washington, DC on a 100-degree day in the summer of 2002. We hired three Russian guys from Coney Island to lug our stuff from a roomy brownstone in Brooklyn to a cramped one-bedroom in Dupont Circle, a fashionable neighborhood in the Northwest section of the city. Standing across from the Cairo, the tallest edifice in all of DC, my five-story building already seemed diminished before we had set foot in it. Inside, things were worse. The water from the kitchen faucet reeked of rust; the bathroom sink did not drain; the bedroom door was too short for its frame. Adding a dollop of comic relief to the sorry sight was the hilariously inflated name affixed to the awning: Claridge House.

The pompousness of giving a dignified name to a rat hole is perfectly in keeping with the city’s fashion. The buildings around us bandied about boastful marquees, never mind whether they had been earned. The Chastleton, the Shelbourne, the Roosevelt, the Waterford: these buildings with their august labels demanded attention. Was life inside them better than what we knew in the Claridge House? Or did their proud awnings hide the same dismal interiors, pleasant facades that concealed the rot within?

Photo by John Cochran

Perhaps puffing up one’s self is a natural reaction in a city like this. The thing with DC — humid, ugly DC — is that nobody chooses to live here. The people who move here do so for specific reasons: a job, an internship, law school. Living here is just something that you have to do to get to where you eventually want to go. DC is different from New York in that way. New York, to many, is the destination itself, with the rest of the details to be figured out later. Moving to the nation’s capital with no careerist intentions, as I did, is begging to be cast adrift, relegated to the margins as the rest of the city continues on its hectic pace as you while the days away on the mudsill.

City Limits

An eastward wave of gentrification swept through Dupont Circle a decade or so ago, led by the gay community, which transformed the neighborhood into a livable locus of yuppie complacency. Today, it is a thriving oasis of bars, restaurants and coffee shops, few of them noteworthy in any way. The shining embodiment of the neighborhood’s upward trajectory, the Cairo is a remnant of a seemingly unreachable past. Looking out my window, the Cairo stands aloof, staring above and beyond our building, toward downtown where more important, more glamorous buildings mingle amongst each other. It was not always thus. Built in 1894, the Cairo had by the ’70s deteriorated into a way station to hell. Hookers, junkies and drifters roamed the halls, as did stray dogs and rats. Its Art Deco face afflicted by a rash of broken windows; the climbing mound of garbage in the basement marked time’s uncaring passage. For a building that had once been a luxury hotel, a destination for socialites and hobnobbers, the decline seemed unfathomable; perhaps as unlikely as its revival and sanitized stability today.

Such a history seems anomalous in today’s DC. Not because of the changes that have occurred in the neighborhood over which the Cairo presides. Rather, the story of the building and the resurrection of the neighborhood seem to rest in some crepuscular limbo: not quite dead, but certainly bereft of that vitality that is required for history to survive. There is no one here to pass stories down to, no communities to commemorate shared experiences. Everyone leaves, sooner rather than later, and each departure chips away at the collective memory. The irony of Washington, DC, repository of the nation’s history, is that it is has no sense of its own past.

Ironically, it certainly doesn’t feel that way walking down Q Street to the Metro. Lining the street are gorgeous brownstones that reek of authenticity, of authoritative oldness. Through their wide windows one can spy a panoply of the nation’s capital, a very narrow and privileged panoply. The occupants are invariably young, white, beautiful, well dressed, and possess degrees from prestigious universities. I occasionally sit next to them in the coffee shop on the corner of Q and 17th. In the sunlit terrace, I try to read and drink coffee, but the seats are close to one another, and their talk drifts my way. They chat with nonchalant loudness about bills that they’re working on, meetings with editors, or fundraisers that they went to last weekend. They may not have power, but they know someone who does, and that is almost enough to justify living in this malarial bog.

The coffee shop is a haven for eavesdroppers. The wisps of conversation that come my way sustain a pathetic need to establish contact with the rarefied realm my neighbors inhabit. I very rarely get to glimpse power myself. Proximity to power has hardly changed my powerless state. The only excuse I have is that I didn’t come seeking it, but rather came here with a relocating girlfriend. But ambition is an infectious thing, and I now find myself wishing to become one of them, even though I was fine before, when I was on the outside of DC, looking in.

Every year, thousands come to DC, drawn to the heat and light of the nation’s business. The people who move here willingly are very good at selling themselves, at promoting their vision of the world and their self-interest, which frequently mean the same thing. It’s not cynicism that pervades the city, however, but naiveté. For everyone who comes here buys into the pomp, eats it up with a silver spoon. It’s a strangely blinkered outlook for a place that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism. More than anything else, my biggest shock upon moving here was realizing that the most powerful city in the world was also the most parochial of hamlets.

You expect epiphanies to abound in the nation’s capital. Bitter shots of unreality, followed by chasers of resignation, are what you get, instead. Watching a news conference being broadcast from the White House, I realize that the event is taking place a brisk 15-minute walk away from my drab abode. From my door I need only walk south on 16th St., pass posh hotels and ostentatious lobbying headquarters, and I’m at the White House’s front gates. This used to feel cool, but the novelty has since worn off. All that remains is the disheartening realization that such nearness means nothing, to me or to them.

Photo of the Cairo building from

Occasionally, the grandeur of the city can still overwhelm. Strolling past the White House, going further downtown, I eventually find myself at the Mall, a grand public space teeming with Americans from every corner of the country; an astounding democratic vision brought to life. On one such jaunt with an out-of-town friend, we ended up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I found myself unexpectedly touched by the parade of immigrants and tourists that had come to pay tribute. As an immigrant myself, brought to this country by my parents, I couldn’t help but be moved by the tacit communion being made across the decades as we read the words inscribed on the wall. Our very presence was affirmation of his audacious claim: All men are created equal. Lincoln’s words, and our hushed reading of them, offered the moving reminder that, sometimes, things do mean what they mean.

But considering my privileged location, such wonders are disappointingly infrequent. Another bit of history rests just north of my place. Strolling up Connecticut Avenue, the main hub that radiates from Dupont Circle, I approach the Washington Hilton, also known as the “Hinckley Hilton”, where John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan in 1981 and inadvertently revived Reagan’s presidency. Like many other buildings in DC, the Hilton is monumental and historic, but it is also drab and faceless. Every spring, it plays host to the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the culminating event of the capital’s party season. Journalists schmooze with actors, Republicans backslap with Democrats; it’s the ultimate insider’s event, Exhibit A of the Naderite case that the parties and the media are all part of one large studio that manufactures this nation’s political drama.

Such events emblematize what Washington is really all about. Invisibility is the worst fate that can befall one in this city. At bars, clubs and parties, a game of feigned geniality and smooth evasion plays itself out. People stop for chats, token attempts at communication. Even as they speak, their eyes wander the room, looking past you, where more important, more glamorous minglers might be milling about.

The District Sleeps Alone

“We are choked with news, and starved of history,” historian Will Durant once observed. Never has this seemed truer than here and now, in Washington, DC. The city has shrunk, become a mere receptacle for innuendo and ego. Everyday the relentless and ambitious come here to do their bit for History. In the process, they abandon history. The nation’s capital has become a mere pit stop for careerists. The result is a city that is slowly being drained of its sense of the past, a tabula rasa where monuments and memorials stand but where the smaller stories that add up to a communal memory are no longer being shared, are slowly being lost in the flux of its itinerant residents. To say that such communities no longer exist is to share the city’s myopia, of course. For there are places in the city, large swathes of invisible neighborhoods, where people have settled and produced generation after generation of residents who have stayed and built and worked here. Stuck in a city of tourists and transients, ignored and state-less, I wonder what they think of that fleeting demographic, the ones who drop in for a year or two and leave?

Do you remember the opening passage of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), a glorious montage of New York, backed by Gershwin and accompanied by an effusive voiceover: “New York was his town, and it always would be”? It is impossible to imagine anyone rhapsodizing about Washington, DC in the same way. Built on the concept of impermanence — every two, four, six years, its most famous occupants leave — the city is less a home to its residents than a terminal for those who need to pass through. It is losing its memory all the time, even as it grows ever more aloof and self-absorbed. If nothing else, it has become an apt metaphor for a forgetful and disinterested country.

Photo (partial) from The DC