The City Paper Gives Up Print

Washington City Paper newspaper box
On April Fool’s Day 2022, the Washington City Paper announced that they would no longer publish a weekly print edition.

To me, the City Paper was urban life. When I came to Washington, this alternative free weekly was one of the things that defined the city, along with the Metro and the museums, none of which were available in my Florida homeland.

The City Paper of the 1990s had it all! In its black and white pages, you could find the latest Marion Barry scandals, record reviews, an events calendar and pages of classified ads for apartments, yard sales and adult services.

Plus, amazing long-form journalism by writers such as Eddie Dean, who profiled overlooked corners of the city, like taxi drivers in Anacostia. He wrote about the gritty, pre-gentrification city and the people who lived there. These were fascinating, novelistic portrayals of DC beyond the monuments and they had a huge influence on my own writing.

Inspired by the City Paper

In 2017, I won the City Paper Fiction Competition with my short story, Victory Party, which is about the election night 2016 in DC. I got to see my work in print, online and had a reading at Kramerbooks – the thrill of a lifetime, all thanks to the City Paper.

A couple years later, I won the competition again, with Apartment 101, which is about three decades of life in one apartment. You can see the City Paper influence in my short story, which has lots of local detail and is about a DC far from the monuments.

Just Another Web Site

Does DC really need another hyperlocal online news outlet? Washington is already awash in digital news, with local sites including Axios DC, Greater Greater Washington, Prince of Petworth and blogs even more obscure.

What made the City Paper unique and different was that it published in print. Paper – the ultimate app for reading. While our digital devices constantly serve up distraction, words on paper demand our attention. You can’t multitask while reading a book.

Also, print has an authority that digital cannot match. On the Internet, everyone is equal. You can make your crackpot blog look as authoritative as the New York Times. But not everyone can afford to maintain a printing press and a distribution network.

I’ve seen my short stories published online before. But seeing them in print in the City Paper was qualitatively different. They were actual physical objects in the world, compared to transient pixels.

I say all of this as a person who has spent their career working in digital media. I’ve managed web sites, published email newsletters and gone viral on social media yet none of it compares to the in-your-hands reality of a newspaper, book or magazine.

After forty years in print, the City Paper has given all that up. No longer will you be able to find them in a stack at Kramerbooks or pull one out of a box on your way to the Metro. No more getting your fingers dirty with ink while engrossed in a story at Zorba’s. No more thrill of seeing your words on a printed page.

Instead, the City Paper is going to be just another web site.

 

Signs of Life in Downtown DC

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Parts of downtown Washington, DC, are a time capsule, perfectly frozen in time from the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of these places is Sweet Leaf on 15th St. It’s your typical high-end salad place – DC loves its expensive salads.

Like much of the city, it closed in March, 2020, and never reopened. They just locked up and left. The signs announcing new salad combinations, the chairs and tables, the register – everything is still inside.

Large swathes of downtown DC look similar. The white collar workers that once poured out of the Metro are working from home. Still. Most of the coffee shops, sandwich places, cleaners and bars that supported them are gone.

So few people that the Starbucks have closed! DC used to have Starbucks across the street from Starbucks but even they can’t survive.

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The city has taken to plastering empty storefronts with murals. They’re quite good but do not disguise the fact that you can be the only person walking down L St on a Tuesday morning – a very unusual occurrence for a place that once used to be the busiest in the city.

Yet, it was worse last year. Walking around Farragut North then was an apocalyptic experience, with streets so dark and empty that it was worrisome. It seemed like the world had ended but no one had told me.

I work from home but cannot sit at home all day. I like to get coffee in the morning so grab a Capital Bikeshare bike and roll down the 15th St bike lane (passing the empty Sweet Leaf).

It’s good to see humanity. There’s a guy at 15th and K who yells hello at everyone. You can hear him from blocks away. He recognizes me. Thinks my name is David. “Good morning Daaavviidd!” he shouts as I wave to him from across K Street.

I like the Peet’s Coffee near the White House. It’s sunny, on a corner and has a view of Old Executive Office Building, a flamboyant and anachronistic construct of marble columns, flags and ironwork, all done in French Empire style.

Pre-pandemic, the line at Peet’s would stretch to the door. I haven’t had to wait in line there since 2019. I bring my laptop to work from home from a coffee shop. There are few customers – maybe a uniformed Secret Service agent with his bike parked out front, a TV correspondent getting a latte before going to a press briefing or a tourist wandering in after a White House selfie.

Lately, I’ve seen signs of life downtown. At Midtown Centre, where the Sweet Leaf time capsule is, Dauphine’s, a Cajun joint, opened last year – and is still open. Construction workers are busy building out a Japanese restaurant, too.

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And biking by Sweet Leaf this morning, I noticed something different. A sign.

NOW HIRING
ALL POSITIONS
PART TIME AND FULL TIME

A simple piece of paper. A sign of life after two years of emptiness. The time capsule reopening.

The days of having a coffee shop to myself are coming to an end. The days of being the only person walking down the block. The days of artwork covering empty windows.

I’ve been wrong before. I thought downtown would spring back to life last year. Maybe it will never come back. Maybe it will come back differently. But it’s definitely coming back.

We Have Not Forgotten January 6th

The Capitol is open again

January 6th has largely been forgotten.

It has disappeared in the mad crush of events of the past year. A new President, the ebbs and flows of coronavirus and the rise of inflation have all taken the place of the insurrection in the nation’s consciousness.

The work of investigators goes on, racking up indictments against hundreds of rioters. Congress is slowly and methodically investigating the organizers. And the media hasn’t forgotten.

But, for most Americans, it’s just another part of the past few years that they’re trying to forget.

Washington, DC, has not forgotten. For the citizens of the nation’s capital – like me – it’s a day seared in our memories.

I saw the rioters. They were all over the city that day, including in hotels in my neighborhood. On January 6th, I saw them bedecked in Trump gear and armed with bats, poles, clubs and pepper spray. Some were even outfitted in camouflage uniforms, complete with patches and IDs. They looked like National Guard to me. I think one part of January 6th which hasn’t been investigated was the attempt by some Trump supporters to impersonate the military.

On January 6th, I watched the mob march up to the Capitol and then march back, where they celebrated in their hotels. They were proud of what they had done. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever witnessed.

Even the next day, there was no remorse. On January 7th they were still running around DC waving Trump flags before eventually departing.

That Trump supporters were part of a riot wasn’t a surprise to anyone who lives here. During their earlier rallies, Trump supporters had brawled with people in the streets and vandalized black churches.

We knew something terrible was coming January 6th. A culmination of months of violence.

As a kid, I watched Schoolhouse Rock. I’m Just a Bill taught me how democracy worked.

Change in America, unlike other countries, occurred through the legislature. It was done by elected representatives who followed the Constitution.

But how could you believe that after January 6th?

We nearly lost democracy to an angry mob. Only the brave men and women of the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department (DC’s police force) prevented Steve Bannon from installing Donald Trump as President for Life.

The country has moved on, more concerned with gas prices and covid. The facts of January 6th are uncomfortable to examine too closely.

But the people of DC have not forgotten.

LIKES Book Signing at Metrobar

Likes for sale

When I was asked to sign copies of my book LIKES at Metrobar, the decision was an easy one: YES!

I sold my book of short stories about social media as part of their Holiday Art Fair and Book Sale on December 5th.

I’m a huge fan of this Metro-themed outside bar near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro. It’s also right on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which makes it very convenient for people who bike (like me). Since Metrobar opened, I’ve brought multiple groups of friends there, all of whom shared my enthusiasm for drinking outside next to a disused Metro car.

I’ve never sold books in person before. Prior to this, all my sales were online.

In our super-wired age, there’s the temptation to believe that everyone and everything is on Twitter or Facebook.

They aren’t. The Metrobar Art Fair and Book Sale was an opportunity to sell books in person to people outside my online social network.

There’s also something different about seeing someone with a physical object (a book) that you created. Something that is more tangible and real than pixels.

LIKES is a collection of dark and funny short stories about social media. But it’s also a beautiful physical object that you can put in a bag and take with you to read on the Metro. Or in Metrobar.

Get your copy today.

 

Downtown DC is Deserted

Soho Cafe
Where is everyone?

The Axios article is correct. Downtown DC is deserted. I live at the edge of downtown, and spend a lot of time walking and biking through it.

Recently, I went to lunch at Soho Cafe at 13th and K St NW. Pre-covid, it was one of my favorite lunch spots – I have a thing for steamtray Chinese food.

Normally, it’s a buzz of activity, in which you elbow your way up to the buffet, fill a tray with food, wait in line to pay and then try to find a place to sit. Sometimes, I even had to share a table with someone else.

Yet, when I walked into Soho yesterday, one of the cafe workers was taking a nap in a chair. There were no customers, no line and I had my pick of tables.

Looking around the cafe, I thought to myself: this place won’t make it.

DC is Back?

DC is not back, despite the social media campaigns. It’s not DC’s fault, though. Spooked by Delta, the federal government is still working remotely. The thousands of feds which commuted back and forth to downtown offices have not returned.

The return of DC’s indoor mask mandate killed off meetings and conventions, too. Visitors are often surprised at the strictness of the mask mandate, which applies to everything, including hotels, nightclubs, restaurants and museums. Meeting planners have moved their events across the river to mask-free Virginia.

Some places reopened too soon. Swing’s Coffee, for example. It doesn’t open until 8 AM and even then it doesn’t seem to have enough business to support itself, with the nearby World Bank still working remotely. I meet a group of biking friends there on Fridays and we make up most of their business.

A block away is Peet’s Coffee. I love this spot, since it’s on a corner with lots of windows and a view of the Old Executive Office Building. In the morning, sometimes I see the Vice President’s motorcade go by. Pre-covid, there’d always be a line. Now, no line. It reopened months ago and I’ve never seen it busy.

There used to be multiple Peet’s locations downtown – 15th and M, 17th and L, 11th and E. Only the location near the White House remains.

I never thought I’d see Starbucks close locations but many of them closed as well. And the sandwich places downtown have mostly disappeared.

Hoteling is the Future

I work as a government contractor. Pre-covid, we did hoteling. No one had an office. Instead, when you went into headquarters, you picked out a place to sit like you would an airplane seat. I’d spend the day in a stuffy room at a long table with several dozen other people (hello super spreader event).

Luckily, I only had to go in 1-2 days a week. This arrangement had enabled the government to consolidate office space, saving millions in the process.

My agency was going to have an optional return to the office starting in October. Delta shelved those plans. Covid caused many agencies to rethink who even needed to be in the office. At the minimum, many agencies are going to hoteling models, where people work in the office for a couple days and at home for the rest of the time.

Other businesses have followed the government’s lead. Not everyone needs to be in the office all the time. And if they’re not there, why rent all that space?

But as a friend reminded me, the cars are back. The people who are coming downtown are driving, feeling safer in their own vehicles than Metro.

Van Ness Metro Station
High ceilings, high drama

Which is a shame, because Metro is beautiful. If everyone goes back to the office in force, not everyone is going to be able to drive without complete gridlock.

Ironically, DC has more traffic on the weekends. People may not feel comfortable going to the office but everyone knows you can’t get covid in a bar, right? Between the Ubers delivering people to U Street clubs and the Ubers delivering Chik-fil-A to lazy apartment dwellers, DC approaches traffic meltdown on Friday and Saturday night.

This is the End

So, how does this end?

Federal commuters will eventually return, but in much smaller numbers. Most people will work remotely at least part of the time. With fewer people working downtown, many businesses will not make it. Offices will be consolidated leaving an opportunity for the city to remake this space – into housing perhaps?

Not everyone can drive everywhere so we will need Metro to survive, as well as vibrant car alternatives like protected bike lanes and pedestrian-only streets (like the recent Open Streets Georgia Avenue).

And Uber needs to be destroyed, before this parasitic company swamps DC with cars delivering chicken sandwiches.

I’m optimistic. Cities are unique places with an energy that cannot be duplicated. The pandemic has taught us that virtual is no substitute for the real thing.

No one wants to do another Zoom meeting but have lunch in a cafe, browse a bookstore, grab a latte with a friend – yes. People want that.

And those are things you do in a city.

One Day Out of Life

Downtown DC on Wheels at the Portrait Gallery

Celebrate…

Biking up 8th Street, I heard Madonna’s song, recognizing the 80s classic instantly: Holiday. Echoing off the buildings was her call to take a holiday and celebrate one day out of life.

In front of the Portrait Gallery, the street had been closed and a temporary outdoor rolling rink constructed. It was Downtown DC on Wheels. Skaters were enjoying a mild afternoon of rolling in the shadows of the marble columns of the museum. The scene was joyous as kids learned to skate and older folks relived their youth, while a DJ played extended dance remixes.

And I thought: who would want to destroy this beautiful city?

The day before, the Capitol rioters had returned, staging a rally to free their January 6 co-conspirators. This time, the Capitol Police were prepared and the rioters were heavily outnumbered. The rally was an embarrassing bust.

It was a beautiful weekend, too, featuring the kind of sunny and mild days that DC gets in September before summer comes to an end. Soon, the leaves will be gone from the trees, the sun will set before 5 PM and we’ll be in mid-winter dreariness.

Why waste your time enslaved to a conspiracy theory? Imagine spending a beautiful weekend in DC – not to see the monuments or visit the museums – but to wave signs and shout slogans from a failed political campaign.

I don’t feel sorry for the demonstrators. They made their choice.

I am with the people rolling around the rink to Madonna’s Holiday, who know that it is better to pursue joy than surrender your mind to conspiracy.

One day out of life…

 

Lafayette Square Op-Ed Published in Washington Post

White House behind many fences
Lafayette Square locked up behind a fence

Lafayette Square is open again, but it’s different now – that’s the title of my op-ed in the Washington Post.

I spent years walking through Lafayette Square on my way to work. This historic park was a constant in my life when all else changed. With the statue of Andrew Jackson in the middle of it, the square had a timeless quality.

I assumed Lafayette Square would be there forever. But after Trump had demonstrators violently cleared from the park, he put a fence around it.

Tyranny can take everything from you – even a park.

That’s the lesson of my op-ed.

I wrote about the park to share the local perspective. For the 700,000+ people who live in DC (like me), the parks and monuments are more than just tourist attractions. They are part of our lives.

Lafayette Square wasn’t history to me – it was a shortcut and a green respite from the busy city. I thought the park was sacred and inviolable. 2020 taught me that our institutions can be destroyed if not defended.

This isn’t the first op-ed I’ve had in the Post. See my articles for more.

Last Days of the Pandemic

Get your free COVID-19 vaccine here

In these last days of the pandemic, I have a certain wistfulness about what we will lose with the return of “normal” life.

“It’s the first time we’ve been out in a year,” a couple told me excitedly as we waited to get into happy hour at the Heurich House Garden.

I’ve been going to the garden since they opened in February. It’s a nice outdoor space within walking distance of my home. During the winter months, they served mulled wine (something I never thought I’d like) with enough alcohol content to keep me warm for a while. I’d meet friends there and we’d talk, until our extremities began to freeze.

The pandemic is coming to an end in Washington, DC. Vaccines are freely available and incentives (such as free beer) are now being offered to get them.

Hard to believe that just two months ago, I was talking with my friends in the garden about the difficulty of obtaining a vaccine. Now, we’ve all been vaccinated.

I am deeply thankful for this amazing development that was only possible due to big government and American ingenuity.

In 2020, DC was so empty that I could run in the street. Now, the drivers are back and running in the street would be a death sentence. Literally – traffic deaths have risen dramatically, despite Mayor Bowser mouthing Vision Zero platitudes.

fancy outdoor tables at Le Diplomate

We learned how to eat outside in any weather. 14th St is lined with outdoor tables on the street, protected from traffic and sheltered from the weather. Some are quite elaborate, like the cozy little rooms at Le Diplomate.

Outdoor drinking in DC has become ubiquitous, even infamous. Logan Circle Park is known locally as Club Logan. On the weekends, the grass is packed with picnickers sipping to-go drinks from the bars on 14th St.

While the neighborhoods are rocking, not much is going on downtown. With the federal government teleworking, south of K Street is deserted. Most of the coffee shops and restaurants are closed. The city is trying to lure  people back with things like the outdoor office in Farragut Square.

This outdoor office idea is great

The General Services Administration, where I work, was already teleworking a majority of the time, pre-pandemic. No one had assigned desks; everyone had laptops. Hoteling, they called it. Nothing really changed for us when the pandemic hit.

GSA is not alone. Many organizations have discovered that they can work successfully online. Office space will be shed – what’s the point of leasing square footage downtown for people who aren’t there? Maybe you need a DC address or place for meetings but you don’t require a whole floor on K Street.

For many businesses, the question will be not when everyone goes back to the office but who actually needs to be there.

I thought that the last days of the pandemic would end with a bang. A celebration as people discarded their masks and resumed life.

Instead, everyone is cautiously exploring the world once again, like the couple I met in the garden. They will discover an America that has changed utterly.

After the Pandemic: What Matters Now?

yoga on a foggy morning in DC

A friend asked me if I’m writing anything.

During the pandemic, I wrote LIKES, a book of short stories about social media.

But now I’m writing nothing.

My books have always been very topical. I write about the times. LIKES is about about social media obsession, THE SWAMP concerns DC during the Obama years and MURDER ON U STREET is a story about gentrification.

Yet, I cannot write about the coronavirus or the other traumas of the past year, like the January 6th assault on the Capitol. My fiction reworks reality, reframing it and pouring it into the mold of dark comedy. But 2020 was too deadly and chaotic to turn into anything coherent.

With vaccines and seasonality, coronavirus in America is ebbing. DC is springing back to life, full of people once again, the empty streets of last year now just a memory.

During the pandemic, every choice you made had meaning. Even the simplest ones. I felt accomplished just biking to 350 Bakery for a scone. Riding a bike kept me healthy while spending my money locally kept people employed.

Now that era is over and the American consumption machine is roaring back to life. Storefronts are no longer dark and brunchgoers fill 14th Street again.

On Saturday, I was at the Lincoln Memorial. The steps were crowded with people, a yoga class was going on, joggers were going by. It was beautiful to see.

And yet, seeing normal life resume made me feel: too soon.

Two weeks after I got vaccinated, I went to a bar. Something I had been looking forward to for months. With antibodies in my veins, I could drink beer and eat wings again. I could sit at a table and talk to other humans.

Yet, it was not as satisfying as those early-morning bike trips to 350 Bakery. I’d take bikeshare, buy a scone and then walk home.

Life during the pandemic gave me purpose, imbuing even the simplest of actions with meaning.

Normal life is returning. In America, that means a frenzy of buying and selling. Our nation is gearing up to spend once again.

I’m not writing because I can’t answer the question: what matters now?

Behind the Photo: Rahul Dubey

Rahul Dubey. The Hero of Swann St. He opened his home to keep protesters safe from violent police

I have a photo of Rahul Dubey in the Swann Street Report from the ACLU, which covers the mass arrest of protesters in DC. Here’s the story behind it.

June 1, 2020, was a very dark day in Washington’s history. The night before, protests against the death of George Floyd had grown violent. Windows were smashed downtown and drug stores hit by gangs of pill thieves.

Trump decided he had to do something. That something was a PR stunt.

Protesters were violently cleared from Lafayette Park so that Trump could have a photo-op with a Bible. The Park Police and other agencies beat and tear-gassed people protesting police violence, just in time for the national news.

But that was just the start of the rampage. In addition to the police, armed troops were let loose upon the city. From my apartment a mile from the White House, I watched Black Hawk helicopters thunder at rooftop height. From the seventh floor, I was at eye-level with the pilots.

With a curfew in place, most of the protesters went home. Some carried on and were joined by others outraged by what had happened in Lafayette Park. I slipped out of my apartment and filmed as they marched up 14th St.

protesters on 14th St

The Metropolitan Police Department got ahead of them, blocked off streets and redirected the protesters until they were trapped on the 1400 block of Swann St NW.

I know the street well, having lived at 15th and Swann for years. My short story, Apartment 101, which won the Washington City Paper contest, was set there. Swann Street is a narrow, one-way street lined with gingko trees that turn gold in the fall.

On the night of June 1, I read alarming tweets from the block as kids were “kettled” by the MPD. The city had been sued for using this tactic and had to pay out millions in settlements. But now they were kettling people again.

As the young protesters were squeezed together, sprayed with pepper spray and arrested, a hero emerged: Rahul Dubuy, who opened his home to protesters, giving them shelter.

I still live in the neighborhood and was outraged that such violence could happen here. The next morning, I hopped on Capital Bikeshare to see for myself. On Swann Street, there was little sign of the chaos from the night before. Rahul was standing out front with a few of the teens that he had sheltered from the police.

I introduced myself and said what had happened was terrible. I then asked if I could get a picture, wanting to memorialize this hero. It’s an iPhone shot and shows how comfortable Rahul is with the people that he had just had met hours earlier. He not only opened his home to them, he kept them safe with the police pounding on his door.

That’s a remarkable act of courage, demonstrating a faith in humanity that was rare in 2020, which is why he is a hero.