The Inaugural Blog

In Washington, D.C., January 20 is usually reserved for the inauguration of presidents. But since we’re still mid-way through an administration, I decided this would be a fitting date to inaugurate this blog instead.
I’ve lived and worked in the District of Columbia – also known simply as the District by its residents – for the past decade.
Capitol during day
The east front of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill.
While my full-time work has always involved journalism in one fashion or another, I’ve also had a weekend job that amuses my friends and sometimes surprises my colleagues.
Since 2001, I’ve been moonlighting as a Washington tour guide.
It started as a good way to make some spending money when I was just one of many thousand lowly-paid interns living in the District.
But several years – and several jobs – later, I still give tours almost every weekend. I’ve asked myself why, and this is the answer that I came up with: I love telling this city’s story.
Washington is a study in contradictions.  It’s the  capital of our republic, but its residents don’t have a full vote in Congress (which is why our license plates say “Taxation Without Representation.”)

DC Vote License Plate

It’s a transient town that also has communities with deep roots. It’s a center of extreme wealth, but also lives with the legacy of segregation and extreme poverty.

 John F. Kennedy summed up D.C.’s dual nature nicely, declaring that it had all the charm of the North and the efficiency of the South. This oft-repeated quote is a dependable cheap laugh on a tour, but there is a ring of truth in it. Visitors and residents alike are constantly complaining about what this artificially created city does or doesn’t have.What the District does have in abundance is history.

What other city can you visit where you’re constantly treading the same ground as almost all of the nation’s great history makers? From Thomas Jefferson to Frederick Douglass, from Abraham Lincoln to Duke Ellington, from Teddy Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr. – they’ve all visited or lived here at one time or another.

The meticulously laid-out streets, avenues, and neighborhoods also hold personal history for the generations of regular people who have called this city home. Without a doubt, Washington is America’s pre-eminent historic district.

Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
The Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. (Photo: Heather Mason)

But history can be a hard thing to convey in such a transient kind of place. True Washingtonians are an increasingly rare breed. Millions more come and go each year, drawn by work or politics, to protest or to rally, or for museums and memorials on vacations or obligatory school trips.

Washington Monument at night.
The Washington Monument at night. (Photo: Heather Mason)

Even for those of us who stay, we’re often oblivious to the history beneath our feet. Much of it has disappeared as the city has rebuilt and reinvented itself over the years. But much of it is still there if you know where to look, and we add our own layers each and every day.

I hope this blog conveys a little bit of that history for visitors and residents alike.

We’ll rummage through old photographs of familiar and vanished places, explore the city’s countless memorials and statues, and traipse through neighborhoods in all four of its quadrants.

We’ll learn about the people who’ve lived and died here, their triumphs and their scandals, and we’ll sort through fiction and often-stranger fact.

It should be a fun ride.

And just like on my tours, I welcome your question, comments, and (hopefully rare) corrections.

9 thoughts on “The Inaugural Blog

  1. Great inaugural blog! I’m really looking forward to your perspective on the city and learning a bit more about the place I am now calling home.

  2. As a visitor from the UK I would say that a trip to DC has a profound affect. Not only the history and the buildings but also the culture. Who can forget the visit to the gay line dancing club!

    The city is simply beautiful and the people who live and work there are very friendly. I think the thing that I really enjoyed was how accessible everything is. I understand that the visitors centre under Congress is/was controversial because of the cost. That is not for me to comment on but from a visitors perspective it really made the Capitol building accessible.

    I was surprised by how organised everything is, most UK cities have grown “organically” (which I think is the polite way of saying “unplanned”).

    Thanks for setting up this blog, I am looking forward to seeing the pics and reading the articles. I would be quite interested to read an article on some of the more residential areas of the city

    • Justin! Thanks for checking out the blog. I hope it brings back some good memories of your and Heidi’s visit (including the gay country western line dancing club – more visitors should go there!). Accessibility is one of the great things about the city – foreign visitors on my tours are always shocked how close you can get to the White House., for example. DC used to be even more accessible, particularly the Capitol. I think that’s going to be even tougher after the tragedy in Arizona, but accessibility is always part of the debate in securing the public buildings in DC. In my next few blogs I’m going to talk about how Washington was planned and laid out (by a Frenchman). And I’m definitely going to do blogs on the neighborhoods – one of my favorite topics in the clty. Keep the suggestions coming…and come back to visit!

    • Yes, I thought you would notice the fantastic photos, along with appropriate photo credits. Next week I’m going to write a comparison between Pretoria and DC (some interesting parallels), with a nice shout-out to your blog, which will be added to the blog roll…

  3. What a great blog. Would like to see it more widely disseminated not “hidden”. I think everyone would be interested. It reads beautifully – why not put in book form. The material is invaluable to those who want to get a deeper view of history from someone who writes so well. It is a pleasure – keep up the great work.

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