Taking the politics out of Washington

By D. Chris Draughn
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

A tall schooner of beer sits in front of commuter Jeff Mabe. The 35-year-old lifts the glass as he surveys the Roman centurions standing guard above the massive room, takes a sip and looks out over his fellow commuters rushing to catch trains.

“This is a small consolation for missing my train,” Mabe said. “It’s actually very relaxing up here. When my brother and his wife visited me from Minnesota, I brought them here for lunch. They were skeptical about going to lunch in a train station, but they loved it.”

Union Station's Center Café. Photo by D. Chris Draughn

Union Station’s Center Café.
Photo by D. Chris Draughn

Mabe is sitting on a barstool in Union Station’s Center Café. The café is on a platform about halfway above the huge room with vaulted ceilings, where customers sit almost at eye-level with the statues that line the main entrance hall of the station.

Washington, D.C., is a unique city with lots to offer beyond the main tourist attractions at the Smithsonian and National Mall. Finding the places that the locals know about can be difficult in a big city, but in the District, one can find them.

Danielle Davis, communications director for Destination DC, said that her organization wants people to be able to find DC’s hidden gems.

“We put the information out for everyone to find,” Davis said. “Our website, DC Cool focuses on the eclectic, from our vibrant music scene to our fantastic dining and many festivals.”

“We want all who are looking for something special to be able to find it,” Davis said.

To find DC’s unique style and culture requires stepping beyond the boundaries of the National Mall and detaching from the national aspect of the city.

Adam Lewis, director of communications for the DC Historical Society, said that too many people view Washington from the lens of national politics.

“DC is 68 square miles of city with a history and story of its own,” Lewis said. “Sometimes our local history and culture is overlooked because this is the seat of national politics.”

The District’s Civil War history can be glimpsed at places like Fort Stevens and Fort Reno. Also, there is a rich African-American history that predates New York City’s storied Harlem neighborhood by decades.

The recently restored Howard Theater is older than the Apollo Theater by 24 years, and the Frederick Douglass House is but a fraction of African-American history to explore in DC.

There is something else that is special about the Frederick Douglass House; it is one of the best places to take in a view of downtown Washington from its hillside location above the Anacostia River.

Herman Thomas, 63, lives nearby and enjoys walking the grounds at Frederick Douglass House.

“Just look at that! You can’t beat that view of the city because we are on a high spot,” Thomas said.

On the Potomac side of the city, take a stroll behind the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and enjoy panoramic views of the river and Georgetown. The Center’s willow lined exterior is a great place to escape the summer sun and buzz of traffic in the city.

Cha Banerjee, a tourist from India, was behind the Kennedy Center on a late summer afternoon taking pictures of his daughters beside a fountain under the willows.

“So peaceful here,” Banerjee said, “We’ve got the place to ourselves. Where are all the people? Perhaps they are all on the freeway.” He pointed to the nearby Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge.

Across the Potomac River from the Kennedy Center is Theodore Roosevelt Island, a perfect spot for nature enthusiasts and joggers who want to get away from the traffic.

Jason Beakes, founder of Active Nature, a kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding school, had just finished loading his paddle board onto his SUV after enjoying a few hours in the Potomac.

“Theodore Roosevelt Island is really special,” Beakes said, “except for the memorial, they haven’t built anything on it. I love bringing my students out here.”

From the footbridge leading to the island, the view upstream is of the arched structural supports of the Key Bridge with the buildings of Georgetown University in the background. It is picturesque and reminiscent of an old European town.

In the middle of the island is a large concrete pavilion and a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt. The pavilion is usually deserted except for the occasional jogger that trots past.

Deborah Manning, who works in nearby Rosslyn, Virginia, said she enjoys reading novels in the quiet pavilion.

“When the weather is nice, I come here to read after work for an hour or so, to let the traffic ease up,” Manning said. “This beats sitting in beltway traffic.”

A walk through the wooded trails treats the visitor to numerous species of woodland birds. Portions of the trail go through the marsh where it is possible to see great blue heron stalking fish in the shallow waters.

However, buildings and architecture are one of Washington’s draws. If you are looking for some of the history behind the monuments and buildings in the District a trip to the National Building Museum is a must.

Located in Judiciary Square, the National Building Museum is one of the least visited museums in the city.  On the weekends, all the government workers are off and walking to Judiciary Square is a relaxing stroll.

The building that the museum occupies is a marvel in its own right. The great hall of the building features enormous 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns, and a 1,200-foot terra cotta frieze.

DC native Stephen Kelly visits the museum often and says he is an architecture buff, but confesses that he brings his toddler along to burn off energy in the great hall.

“This is a great place to bring the kids, especially in the winter,” Kelly said. “All this wide open space for them to run around in is nice.”

The museum features exhibits that tell the story of engineering and architecture. New exhibitions are frequently rotated so there is usually something new to see.

Currently, photographer Colin Winterbottom’s Scaling Washington exhibit features spectacular large-scale images of the restoration of the Washington Monument and Washington National Cathedral after the 2011 East Coast earthquake.

Back at Union Station’s Center Café, bartender Miguel Moscol comes over to collect money for a round of beers. He sees that Jeff Mabe is looking at the scaffolding covering the east section of the hall and explains that workers will be finished giving the place a facelift in a couple of months.

“We got earthquake damage here too,” Moscol said. “But this is a great place to work because we get all types stopping by for a drink—commuters, tourists, and even a celebrity once in a while.”

“Now that it is election year, you’ll even see politicians coming through to shake hands. They want to be your buddy when they need a vote,” Moscol said.

Politicians and politics are just as much a part of the landscape as the monuments and the National Mall, but there is so much more to Washington than that.




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