Travel Report: Washington DC Nostalgia.
- Washington DC Nostalgia.
May 2007 & May 2009. Once upon a time, in what often feels like a galaxy far far away, my friend Henry lived and worked in Washington DC. I’d known Henry since our days living in the Belgian city of Leuven, where we used to meet up to watch live football. That’s soccer, for any American friends reading.
When Henry relocated to The US capital I knew it would be just a matter of time before I visited. And so it proved. In fact, I managed to squeeze in two trips in two years thanks to Henry letting me crash at his place.
He lived in a fancy apartment block called The Envoy right across the road from Meridian Hill Park. The location was awesome, bang in the city’s trendy Adams Morgan neighbourhood. The White House, meanwhile, was a straight thirty minute walk from The Envoy’s main entrance, all the way down 16th Street.
One of the first things I did was check out Meridian Hill Park, better known to many Washingtonians as Malcom X Park. Looking back, I’m gutted that this (above) is the only photo I took in the park. After all, it has a huge historical and cultural significance.
Washington DC Nostalgia.
Built as a public park between 1912 and 1940, the land once hosted a house belonging to President John Quincy Adams. It also served as a camp for The Union troops during The Civil War.
Its Malcolm X nickname relates to the political activist Angela Davis, who gave a 1969 speech in the park. In it, she urged the city’s African American community to rally and transform the place into a hub of black activism. As a result, The Black Panther Party went on to hold press conferences in the park well into the late 1970s.
The Adams Morgan neighbourhood, which lies to the west of the park, is a delightful area home to historic townhouses and a trendy cafe, restaurant and bar scene. Its name references two segregated elementary schools of the 1950s.
First, you’ve got John Quincy Adams, now simply Adams Elementary School. There was also the all-black and now closed Thomas P. Morgan School on 19th Street.
After desegregation in 1954 the two schools came together to form the Adams-Morgan Better Neighborhood Conference. The group worked tirelessly over the decades to encourage cultural harmony and diversity.
For drinks, I loved the laid-back vibe at Madam’s Organ, a blues and bluegrass bar with a “soul food” menu, rooftop deck and billiards room. Moreover, visitors to the city come simply to see and photograph Madam Mural, the bar’s raunchy burlesque mascot.
It was very cool to grab a coffee-to-go one morning and mutter to myself: “Let’s take a stroll down to The White House”. And that’s exactly what I did, embarking on the unwaveringly straight route down the leafy sidewalk on 16th Street. This is Washington D.C.’s Historic District, home to countless gorgeous 19th century buildings.
I marvelled at the sheer number of churches I came across, many of which looked like regular houses. Without the church signs, you’d never know.
Completed in 1915, architect John Russell Pope took inspiration from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Ancient Greece. Today it houses rotating historical exhibitions, in addition to a permanent display on the Scottish poet and freemason Robert Burns.
I took my first views of The White House from Pennsylvania Avenue, which faces the main entrance. While I could hardly describe it as crowded that day, there were all kinds of people competing for my attention as I stood admiring its neoclassical facade.
Washington DC Nostalgia.
“Hey buddy, would you lend me your autograph? I’m running for president”. The man who’d strode over to me had a southern drawl.
Dressed in a faded jacket, stars and stripes tie and grubby sneakers, he wore a large cardboard box over his head. “Me for president by amendment” it read. The poor guy didn’t have many signatures, hence I scribbled something down for him. “Thank you Mr. Stanley Bowles” he cried, before marching off.
Then there was Concepción Picciotto, one of America’s most famous protestors. Affectionately known to locals as Connie, or Conchita, I was staggered to learn that she’d been camped outside The White House for over 26 years!
That’s the longest continuous act of political protest in US history. Furthermore, she actually lived in the makeshift peace camp from which she protested against nuclear arms.
Born in the Spanish city of Vigo in 1936, Connie came to America in 1960 seeking a better life. For nearly twenty years she lived in New York City, where she worked as a receptionist for the Spanish government commercial attaché.
Suffering from depression due to the breakdown of her marriage and estrangement from her daughter, she relocated to the nation’s capital in the early 1980s. Here, she began protesting with the activist William Thomas, who started the White House Peace vigil.
She subsequently became one of the most recognisable faces in the city. Those who mocked Connie invariably received a mouthful of her infamous verbal venom. Others, like me, got a little peace rock from a box in her tent.
She has been interviewed hundreds of times over the decades and even crops up in Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Indeed there was a local TV crew on hand to chat with her the afternoon I visited. Concepción Picciotto passed away in January 2016 after 35 years of protesting outside The White House. She was 80 years old.
Looking back, I wish I hadn’t made the mistake of asking a nearby police officer if President Bush was in residence that day. The square-jawed, crew cut man, built like a brick wall, seemed unnecessarily obnoxious in his reply.
“Why are you asking this sir?”
“Don’tcha watch the news sir?”
“What is your business in the city sir?“
“What is your current address sir?”
He was still talking when I wandered off. It was only then that I caught sight of a distant sniper on The White House roof. Pushing my camera’s zoom to the limit, I just about picked him out with this blurry shot.
The White House had put me in the mood to see more of the city’s most iconic structures. One excellent way of ticking a bunch off that’s easy on the legs is the Monuments by Moonlight Tour.
The two and a half hour adventure starts every evening from Union Station at 19:30pm. All you have to do is show your ticket (ideally pre-booked) and jump aboard the traditional, open-air trolley.
I loved the tour so much I did it on both my visits to Washington DC. Naturally, you get to stop by The Capitol Building to admire its distinctive neoclassical dome.
The guide gives some cool historical info, focusing on little known trivia. I particularly liked the story of Philip Reid, a master craftsmen and former slave who played an important role in installing the Statue of Freedom that sits atop the dome.
Designed by the architect Henry Bacon and built between 1914 and 1922, this is where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Washington DC Nostalgia.
On that first tour the place was flooded with visitors. However, during my second visit our trolley stopped at a much quieter moment. Thus my friends and I were able to stroll between its fluted Doric columns in peace.
Inside, there is no escaping the sense of history when you come face to face with Abe himself. This giant seated sculpture, made by Daniel Chester French in collaboration with the famed Piccirilli Brothers, was cut from Georgia White Marble. It comes accompanied by inscriptions of two great Lincoln speeches, The Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech.
Our guide was giving us all kinds of historical facts and figures about it. But all I could think about was James Stewart appealing to the sculpture for inspiration in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A scene brilliantly parodied in the 1991 episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.
Again it was a movie that sprang to mind. The scene in which Robin Wright comes wading through the water towards Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. “Fooooooorrest!”
Washington DC Nostalgia.
Collectively known as The Column, these larger than life figures represent members of The Marine Corps, U.S. Army and Air Force.
Eventually, at the end of the evening, the trolley rumbles to a stop in front of the amazing Marine Corps Memorial. To get there we had to cross state lines into Virginia over Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.
The statue, unveiled in 1954, recreates the iconic 1945 photograph of six marines raising a U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi at the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
The Austrian born American sculptor Felix de Weldon made the monument in just under forty eight hours based on a copy of the photo.
It is one of just a few statues in the country that contains a flag that must stay raised 24 hours a day. The tradition dates back to a proclamation made by John F. Kennedy in 1961.
The Marine Corps Memorial.
If you’re on the history trail in Washington D.C., one can’t leave out a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Described as “The United States’ most hallowed ground”, this is the final resting place of 300.000 US veterans.
It contains the graves of fallen Americans from the Revolutionary War in the 1770s, right through to the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Founded in 1866, the cemetery sprang up on the site of Arlington House and its sprawling hillside grounds. Once home, among other notable Americans, to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Besides war heroes, a number of the country’s most celebrated sportsmen, actors, politicians and patriots rest at Arlington. Following a bit of exploring, I came across headstones for heavyweight world champion boxer Joe Louis, the astronaut John Glenn and the actor Lee Marvin.
What’s more, it was a special moment to stand before John F. Kennedy’s grave marker. He was interred at Arlington in November 1963 just days after his assassination in Texas.
Nearby, one can see the markers of his brother Bobby Kennedy and wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. An inscription of his famous 1961 inaugural address, featuring the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you…”, hung heavy in the silence that afternoon as I stood lost in my thoughts.
Washington DC Nostalgia.
Before leaving, we managed to catch the daily Changing of the Guard ritual. The guard in question stands watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, a white marble sarcophagus dedicated to unidentified casualties of wars dating back to World War I.
After such an onslaught of history, it was fun to lighten the mood with an afternoon of baseball at Nationals Park. Despite largely failing to understand the sport and its complex rules and tactics, I really wanted to tick off this quintessential American experience.
My buddies and I enjoyed our afternoon at Nationals Park, home to The Washington Nationals, who were playing The Philadelphia Phillies in a Major League pre-season friendly. The stadium has a capacity of 41000 and I’d say the place was around three thirds full that day.
Sheepishly, I admit to having little idea of what was happening on the field. Instead, I simply drank in the atmosphere.
I savoured an excellent hot dog and listened in on the snippets of conversation around us. A father and son scribbling statistics down on their little white forms. A young couple bemoaning the cost of their car insurance.
Elsewhere, there was a fun moment when a ball flew high into the crowd, caught by a teenager some rows behind us. But my favourite part of the afternoon was an event that took place during a break in play.
They called it the Dead Presidents Race. It involved a number of fans competing in a 100 metre sprint dressed in oversized president costumes and masks. The whole thing seemed staged, WWF style, with Lincoln wininng and Nixon falling flat on his face, much to the crowd’s delight. Very silly, but nevertheless entertaining.
One afternoon I took a walk to the historic neighbourhood of Georgetown in northwest DC. It is home to cobblestone streets, eighteenth century townhouses and of course Georgetown University, one of the finest educational institutions in The U.S.
I’d come in order to track down the iconic building from The Exorcist, one of my favourite movies. Located at 3600 Prospect Street, director William Friedkin filmed exterior shots of this redbrick structure, which served as the ill-fated MacNeil family home.
Washington DC Nostalgia.
In the movie twelve year old Regan MacNeil becomes possessed by a demonic entity called Pazuzu. As such, the interior of the house needed to be a complex stage fitted with moving walls, refrigeration and other visual trickery. That side of the shoot unfolded at Ceco Studios in New York City.
Still, it was very cool to walk around the side of the house and see, in a manner, Regan’s bedroom window, behind which the horrors of her possession unfolded. Best of all, the path that runs along the side of the building leads to the so-called Exorcist Steps.
This is where poor old Father Karras goes tumbling towards his death in an act of self sacrifice after Pazuzu takes hold of him. Throwing himself out of Regan’s window, he plummets to his demise in one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema.
Of course I just had to recreate the scene. Yes, it meant lying down in the grit of M Street at the bottom of the steps. But sometimes a travel blogger’s got to do what a travel blogger’s got to do.
The Exorcist Steps.
Finally, I’ll leave you with my favourite diner in Adams Morgan. Wherever you go in the US, you’ll need a solid breakfast joint to get the day off to a good start. In that respect, The Diner definitely makes up for its unimaginative name with excellent food, rousing coffee and all-round cheerful service.
From their giant burgers, old fashioned milkshakes and all day breakfasts, you can’t go wrong no matter what you order. Personally, I’d go for the pancakes with maple syrup and streaky bacon. A perfect dose of Washington DC Nosh-talgia.
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
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