Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tonight March 10th, CPR Secret History Project at Don Juan's!

Tonight, May 10th from 6:30-8:30, at Don Juan’s, 1660 Lamont Street, Radio CPR and
Steps at Centro d'Arte late 1980s.
the Mount Pleasant Temporium present Mount Pleasant’s Untold Stories Part II. The evening will feature stories about a range of movements and organizations that have taken root in the neighborhood over the last few decades.
Olivia Cadaval will be talking about Escuella de Rumba and Centro d’Arte, cultural organizations on 15th and Irving that used music and culture to build a strong Latino Identity and sense of community. Dora Johnson will be talking about the Community of Christ, a lay congregation that came to Mount Pleasant in the 1960s, bought La Casa on Mount Pleasant Street and have played a huge, and unsung role, in nurturing many neighborhood based organizations and projects in their space. From craft fairs, to ANC meetings, to programs for developmentally disabled people to punk shows, La Casa is a neighborhood institution made possible by a group of people who have living their values in Mount Pleasant for four decades. Learn about the community institution that made this possible. Pedro Aviles, who grew up in neighboring Adams Morgan, will be talking about the community organizing that emerged in the aftermath of the Mount Pleasant disturbances in 1991, when local immigrant activists turned their attention from the wars in Central America to civil rights in the neighborhood. Learn from Judy Byron about the Blue Skies Collective, a group of artists on Park Road. Also hear from Najiya Shanaa, the director of Neighbors Consejo from the late 1990s to mid 2000s. Neighbors Consejo was started in response to the problem of public drinking on Mount Pleasant’s commercial corridor. Under Najiya’s leadership it tripled its outreach staff and grew from a staff of three to forty. Mount Pleasant saw a dramatic decline in public drinking from 2000-2004, primarily due to the hard work of Neighbors Consejo outreach workers and tratment providers who worked tirelessly to help people suffering from addiction get into recovery. DJ Wanako and DJ Maude Ontario will be talking about Radio CPR, a neighborhood institution since the late 1990s that brings together a diverse range of music, voices and people to create radical radio with deep ties to an array of communities.
This project is part of Radio CPRs Mount Pleasant Secret History project. We have always been about creating a space for voices excluded from (or the drowned out by) prevailing narratives. With this project we hope to document some of the stories about the people behind the organizations and movements that have shaped life in the neighborhood for a great many people you seldom hear about.

Hope you can make it tonight!!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A new era for Mount Pleasant?

A Cabaret at don jaime's
In February 2011, DC’s ABC Board terminated the so called “Voluntary Agreement” between Don Jaime’s and Haydees Restaurant and the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA). You can read the decisions here and here.
This news of the terminations came within days of the opening of the Mount Pleasant Temporium, a “pop up shop” featuring local artisans and performers.  Initiated by Mount Pleasant Mainstreet, this project brought together SpeakeasyDC, Hello Craft, Radio CPR, Partners for Livable Communities, the DC Office of Planning, and several neighborhood-based community groups to build a venue for arts, culture and successful retail in the neighborhood.
It's fitting that the events coincided. The energy and community organizing behind the Mount Pleasant Temporium’s approach to the neighborhood embodies the exact opposite approach taken by the MPNA, who’ve spent years trying to keep Mount Pleasant’s restaurants from being venues for music and culture through the liquor licensing protest process. MPNA’s main argument has been that late night music and dancing is not “appropriate” in the neighborhood and up until recently the city’s ABC Board allowed them, on that basis, to impose restrictions on all Mount Pleasant Street’s licensees. Not only did MPNA’s VAs restrict live music and dancing, they dictate where many restaurants can seat patrons based on whether they order food or not.
That’s why, in addition to the terminations, the last month of energy behind the Mount Pleasant Temporium has been such a breath of fresh air, representing just the kind of approach our community needs to take on the road to recovery. Instead of a small group of people standing up and saying “this is what we don’t want and damn the rest of you if you disagree with us,” the organizers behind the Temporium stood up and said “this is what we do want, and can have, so let’s just get together and make it happen.”
And this time, instead of the city stepping in to encode the fears of a small group of activists into the law, they provided the funding to bring the hopes of an energetic group of community builders to fruition. The result, supported by a grant from DC’s Office of Planning,  has been an exciting and dynamic month long project that demonstrates what’s possible on one of the city’s most unique commercial strips when artists, residents and small business owners work together. They’ve shown just how powerful organizing around a vision fueled by hopes of what a neighborhood can be compared to what’s dominated the neighborhood for way too long: activism fueled by the fears of a few over what it could become - ie “Another Adams Morgan,” a phrase that alternately makes me yawn and makes me want to scream)
Standing at the Mount Pleasant Temporium on opening night, I remembered my inauguration into the neighborhood’s liquor license wars when Marx Café first opened on Mount Pleasant Street eleven years ago. The owners knew of the MPNA’s anti live music stance and tried to find some middle ground. Believing that going before the public at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting to demonstrate their willingness to compromise would enable them to offer at least some entertainment, Marx Café signed a VA that would have allowed them to host live music events that would end by 11PM twelve nights a year. They agreed to give surrounding neighbors written notice two weeks before each monthly event and keep musicians from performing “above conversational level.” Even though many in the community thought these restrictions a bit much, many believed that supporting the ANC VA would finally allow some live music, albeit limited, back into the neighborhood’s restaurants.
They were wrong. Even twelve nights a year of live music that had to stop by 11PM, played no louder than conversational level, was too much for the MPNA.  They vowed to fight Marx Café’s license application until they agreed not to offer any live music at all. The owners caved.
In the aftermath I wrote on a listserve to myself as much as anyone:
It is important for those of us saddened by this latest chapter not to play the MPNA’s game, finding ourselves so overwhelmed by what we are against that we lose sight of what we support. There are hundreds of neighbors working to create spaces for culture and music – opening up their homes and church halls to bring people, ideas and communities together in new and exciting ways. We should keep building on these efforts and let the MPNA seethe away in the bitter little box it has built for itself.
I hope that the success of the Temporium and the termination of the MPNA’s VAs means the end of one era in Mount Pleasant and the beginning of a new one, where the focus is on community building rather than fear mongering and the “youre either with us or against us” activism that’s been so destructive to this great neighborhood.  The Mount Pleasant Temporium is ending next week, and a new shop, Nana, owned by a local family, will open in the space it has occupied. Hopefully, the excitement generated by the Mount Pleasant Temporium, the capacity built and the networks strengthened by it, will spawn more investment and community involvement in the neighborhood’s revitalization.
And at the risk of getting overwhelmed by what I am against - the city's broken liquor licensing process - I still strongly believe the City Council needs to reform the current liquor licensing process. Yes we need strong laws, robust enforcement and proactive programs to manage and minimize the impact of nightlife and hospitality businesses on residents living in mixed use neighborhoods. But deputizing private citizens to make laws on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis is terrible policy and bad urban planning. It has not only harmed economic development and discouraged investment,  it’s absorbed communities in counter productive battles that get stakeholders no closer to actually solving problems and resolving real issues. Worse it draws time, energy and political will away from the kind of community capacity building leadership that our neighborhoods really need if we are to weather the city’s current financial and political crises.
So here’s to a new era in Mount Pleasant! I can’t wait to shop at Nana and I can’t wait for the next open mic night at Haydees.  I’m so glad to have been part of the Mount Pleasant Temporium and looking forward to rolling up my sleeves to work on more such efforts. It’s time to do some healing. But its also time for the CIty Council to take some action on the broken liquor licensing process and grapple with the real harm it does to community economic development in our neighborhoods. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sesame Street Mount Pleasant Street Redux

Okay, I'm going to try this again, this blogging thing. Just so I can stop myself from procrastinating on this endeavor I've dug up another little ode to Mount Pleasant that I wrote awhile ago. I'm in love with Mount Pleasant again because getting involved in the Mount Pleasant Temporium got me re-involved with my beloved Radio CPR crew. The other very exciting thing which I will write something new about is that after nearly seven years of hellacious struggle, DC's ABC Board agreed to terminate Haydees Voluntary Agreement with the MPNA. Here's the ruling. Stay tuned....
Thanks to all of you who've encouraged me to blog and especially to the group of ladies who made this mutual pact: This February, do something that really really scares you.

Okay so here's my piece about two streets I love: Sesame Street Mount Pleasant Street...

I used to take my kids to Heller's and then we’d sit in Lamont Park and watch the pigeons fly in formation from one building to another. Then the kids would finish their cookies and start running around on the stage and I’d think about why I love Mount Pleasant street so much.

A lot of people are irked by the moniker “a Village in the City” but I really get it. I love the way the main street is situated not as a pass-through from one place to another, but as a destination for people to go about the business of life. “I’m going to the high street,” my husband says on Sunday mornings. I love how people live out their daily lives and ordinary routines on the street. They go get their hair cut. They go to the dentist. They do their laundry and grocery shopping. They wire money and ship packages home. They buy cakes and balloons for their celebrations. They sit on stoops. They run into their friends, their teachers, kids they taught in elementary school. Oh and now they can go to open mic nights and see their friends bands play at Haydees! It’s like an edgy version of Mayberry – or better yet, Sesame Street – the 1970s pre-Elmo Sesame Street.

My favorite scenes in Sesame Street were the ones on the street – Mr. Hooper’s store, Oscar grousing, kids sitting on the stoop with Gordon. I was entranced by this world – the world of “the street” constructed as a safe and accepting place. I could tell that a lot of the kids depicted on the show had less stuff then me, that their homes were smaller, that their streets were dirtier and that their days were populated by odd and sometimes rather unpleasant characters. But there was a sense of acceptance and ease totally absent in my world, on my tree lined street, in my tiny private school. And unlike me, none of these kids seemed afraid. They were allowed to walk their urban streets, to sit on stoops, to go to Mr. Hooper’s store alone.

This image of being a liberated kid in the city lodged into my consciousness and counteracted all the other 1970s media imagery bombarding me that constructed urban life as something fearful and violent and uncaring.

And now, raising my own children here, I try not to get too nostalgic for my own idealized longings or too overtaken by urban platitudes about street smart kids. I love that they want to walk to the corner store by themselves but I walk behind them at a distance, let them feel that sense of liberation I so longed for but with me close behind. "Pretend not to know me," I say and they race off ahead of me laughing and proud to a store where the shopkeeper knows them.

Monday, April 06, 2009

There have been so many songs written in Mount Pleasant basements, banged out in basement practice spaces and documented in home recording studios; equipment unloaded into group houses after playing a show on 14th street, in Baltimore or New York City; Band members coming home to some house on Irving Street, or Kenyon or 19th bleary eyed and jet lagged from a European tour.

And there have been so many musicans from around the world who've stayed with their friends in Mount Pleasant after their DC gigs because the neighborhood has long been part of a worldwide network of independent musicians - some of whom literally changed the face of pop music as well as how we receive it. Its always been so ironic that at the same time Mount Pleasant was part of this burgeoning hotbed of musical innovation, a group of residents banned live music from all of the neighborhoods bars and restaurants.

Justin Moyer a DC stalwart (and mount pleasanter) from great bands like El Guapo, Antelope and Edie Sedgewick is one of those people committed not only to creating great music but in creating the spaces to perform it. He's also traveled the world playing indie spaces - squats, hole in the wall bars, group house basements, church halls. When his friend Tizio Sgarbi, from the rural Italian countryside wrote to say he was touring to the states and stopping in DC, Justin wanted to make sure he'd have a great show - a "non club show". Tizio had set up so many shows in Italy for Justin's various projects so he wanted to return the favor. And for the first time in ten years, Justin could set up a show in a restaurant in his own neighborhood.

Bob Corn (Tizio's songwriting vehicle) plays mesmerizing, sparse and gorgeous songs - the kind of songs that make you think of lying in the grass or staring at a river. Francesca from Comaneci will also perform beautiful acoustic music that's folk music with an edge. Traces of Bonfire Madigan, a little Cat Power a little Blonde Redhead. And for a change of pace - Gestures - some of whose members live in Mount Pleasant will play their brand of horn based noise punk.

They play at Haydees - ground zero of the ten year ban on music in restaurants in Mount Pleasant. Finally liberated after a grueling years long battle - Haydees can finally host local musicians and their friends from around the world. This show is another example of why its important and worth it to fight for our cultural spaces and for a neighborhoods where artists and musicians are respected and valued.

For a sample of their music check out comaneci and here's Bob Corn and Gestures...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cabaret Emergency

Mariachis walking down Mount Pleasant StreetThe first time I went into Don Juan’s, sometime in 1997, I couldn't believe I was even stepping inside. It just wasn't a place I'd ever imagine going. It was only a few blocks from my house and I walked past it almost every day. Its windows were tinted and it always seemed to be filled with men, men who'd look at you when you walked in; who wore cowboy hats and big belt buckles. They sat together at tables, while waitresses in low cut tops glided around, serving burritos and soup and drinks. It was a for real Cantina, with for real regulars.

My friend Athena took me there. She and I were going there to visit Alberto, Don Juan’s owner, to ask if we could have a cabaret at his place with local musicians. Athena was his neighbor, having lived down the block from the place for over a decade. We wanted to put on a show, a real Mount Pleasant show with music and poetry and politics. Don Juan Restaurant seemed like a perfect place.

Alberto came to join us at our table. Athena asked him what he thought of the idea of hosting the cabaret and he said “sure“ and we chose a date. Then a trio of mariachis came in the door and Alberto called them over and asked them to play some songs for us. It was one of those traveling moments -those moments that transcend the particulars, that get a special lighting treatment in your memory. Surrounded by the music, the neon light and smell of smoke and fried beef, I felt transported. When I pushed the door open, I was surprised to find myself standing on Mount Pleasant Street and not some dusty village in a far away country.A 1997 flyer in Vietnamese for Cabaret del Barrio

A few weeks later, we had the first Cabaret Del Barrio at Don Juan Restaurant on a rainy September night. We had Salvadoran and Vietnamese poets, a soul singer, a blues singer, a punk band and a comedian. Our crowd of Mount Pleasant hipsters, old timers, poets and aging hippies sat at tables amongst Don Juan’s regulars, mostly male, mostly Salvadoran who hung out at Don Juan’s after getting off work from construction jobs, cleaning downtown offices, working in restaurant kitchens. By the end of the night, nearly everyone was smiling.

The memory of that night still remains a touchstone for me because something happened in that room that I rarely get to experience. I’ve lived in “diverse” DC neighborhoods for most of my adult life but except for a few church services and protest rallies here and there, it's pretty rare that I’m in truly integrated spaces where people from all walks of my neighborhood’s life are actually communing. That’s a thing that music can do, music performed in little hole in the walls, raw and unpolished. It can bring people with hugely different experiences and reference points to some shared plane of being, if only for a few moments.

We planned a follow up. The second Cabaret del Barrio included an equally eclectic bunch of performers. We flyered the neighborhood with leaflets in three languages, Vietnamese, Spanish and English. We invited all of our friends. We borrowed a sound system. We confirmed the performers.

Cabaret Emergency
But on the morning of the event, Athena got a phone call from one of her neighbors who belonged to the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA) a civic group dedicated they say, to “improving quality of life” in the neighborhood.

“Look,” he told her, “Members of the MPNA saw your event posted an a listserv. They say Don Juan’s shouldn’t be having live music. They are going call the authorities and use it to fight the place’s liquor license. I just wanted to warn you.”

The event was a mere eight hours away. We didn’t know quite what to do. Cancel? Go ahead but risk trouble for Alberto and his wife? Move the event to another restaurant? But that was impossible because the MPNA had used the liquor license process to prevent every restaurant on the street from hosting events like ours....What to do?

Then our friend Amanda called. “We can have it at La Casa.” she said. “Let’s not risk Alberto’s license.”

La Casa is a building owned by “Community of Christ,” a group that settled in Mount Pleasant in the late 1960s to start a lay lead congregation. Amanda’s family was active in the group and when she told them of our predicament, they opened their doors to us.

So Amanda and I spent the day preparing the space while Athena called the performers to tell them about the location change . We borrowed round tables from another church. We got table cloths from friends. We hung Christmas tree lights around the space and tried to make it look as festive as possible.

Athena made flyers explaining what had happened. And, around show time, her kids, Elvis and Cleo, stood at the entrance of Don Juan’s handing them out and directing people to La Casa.
At our displaced cabaret, it was harder to attract people from outside each performer’s circle of friends. It didn’t feel as risky or improbable as that first one. No one had to cross a threshold into a space that made them uncomfortable. There were no regulars, leaning against the bar, thinking to themselves “what are these gringos doing here anyway?” There was no end of the night, where people had moved past that initial discomfort to find themselves on this different plane, somehow connected.
Soon, like all the other restaurants on Mount Pleasant Street, Don Juan stopped being able to have mariachis or cabarets or any live music at all. The owner finally gave into the MPNA’s demands and signed an agreement to have "no live music". In exchange, MPNA withdrew their protest against the restaurant’s liquor license.

Meanwhile, my friends and I started putting on shows at La Casa on a regular basis. We at first borrowed and then built a stage. We got our own little sound system. We’d string up Christmas Tree lights and clear out all the church furniture. Sometimes we handed over the front room to an art curator who created a little gallery for local artists. La Casa emerged as a live music venue on Mount Pleasant Street, hosting bands from Chicago, New York and San Francisco along with ones from closer to home. After the break up of his band Fugazi, Ian MacKaye started a new group called the Evens. When it came time for a debut, Ian and his bandmate and wife, Amy, chose La Casa for their first show.

It's so funny that la Casa, this humble little carpeted space with a hand made stage that had to be dragged up from the basement for every show, became part of DC music scene lore – site of some really transcendent musical moments and pretty epic shows. I can remember this one time, doing the door at La Casa while this band I really love played and it was like the whole space had levitated, the music and the vibe were just so great and beautiful.

I love the music people perform for each other in small improbable rooms. Unfamous people playing songs they wrote in their bedrooms or banged out in some basement practice space. And I love it when some raw musical moment fills a space so that it’s almost like floating and when its over, you walk out of the club, or hole in the wall bar, or church basement and you think “where am I?” Like the night I walked out of Don Juan’s when the group of mariachis serenaded our table.

Flash Forward
But when I walk out of Don Juan’s I am not in some dusty mythical place. I am across the street from a park where homeless people congregate, next to a bus stop. I am in Washington DC. I am facing Mount Pleasant row houses.

And in these houses live occupants with wildly different stories about Don Juan’s and what it means to them. The house directly across the street from Don Juan’s is split into apartments where two families live; one with young children, the other whose children grew up there and are now in college. Both families say Alberto is a good neighbor, they’ve never heard loud music from the place and not once had a problem. They say that the booming music they sometimes hear comes from car stereos or people playing boom boxes in the park. It has nothing to do with Don Juan’s. Their windows face the restaurant and are closer to it then anyone else.

But their neighbors across the street complain bitterly about Don Juan’s, saying the place nearly drummed them out of their home. The husband testifies before the Alcohol board, telling them, under oath, that he will “be toast” if Don Juans is allowed to have karaoke, nevermind actual "live music". He will put his house on the market he declares, if Don Juan's has any entertainment at all. To me, he declares, “that man cares nothing about my quality of life.”

His neighbor, who moved with her family just a few years ago says she feels intimidated just walking past Don Juan. She says that its very presence threatens her family’s safety. And though she has never met Alberto or his wife Rosa she composes long tirades on the neighborhood listserv about what an eyesore it is, about its terrible clientele, about how bad it is for families. Others, posting anonymously join in. One writes that anyone who’s fed their children food at Don Juan’s should get them checked for diseases.

Another neighbor who raised her children on the street says she feels safer walking home from work late at night, knowing that Don Juan’s is there. She says that there have been times when it's late and she feels unsettled and she’s ducked into the carry out and asked the owner or a staff person to walk her home, and they do. Another neighbor who has lived behind Don Juan's for thirty years, says he has never had a problem with noise or trash from the place. He tells of being laid up after surgery and looking out his window to see Alberto and his son's shoveling his walk after a blizzard.

Navigating this dizzying thicket of contradictory stories, I find myself washed up on those same shores where I found myself in 1997 when the concept of “neighborhood” took on new meaning, when it was no longer possible to think of Mount Pleasant Street as a backdrop; when I began thinking about it as a living, breathing and very flawed organism.

I think of my grafittied street sign, the one marked up to read “there is more than ONE WAY to live a day” and how it stands as a beacon – an articulation that directly challenges the stated mission of the MPNA “Quality of Live in Mount Pleasant.” The marked up street sign repudiates the whole notion that quality of life is something fixed, a concept whose parameters are generally agreed upon. Embracing the reality of urban life – the reality of dissensus within a confined area – encountering difference on a daily basis and figuring out how to co-exist with your neighbors despite those ones you find most inscrutable or maddening – without judgment. It’s an every day challenge.

to be continued.....

Friday, January 02, 2009

Trying the "try me"

Once while walking my dog on Mount Pleasant Street a very drunk man lunged at me, grabbed my wrist and asked me if I liked him. Then he tugged on my dog’s leash and tried to pull him away from me. A group of young men leaned against the side of Sportsman’s Liquor store and watched, their expressions ranging from laconic to amused. No one helped. I pulled hard on the leash and jerked it out of the man’s hand. He stumbled away and I headed home.

I was vaguely aware that for some, the street represented everything derelict and dismaying about the neighborhood, and city life in general. Its Salvadoran saloons and papusarias; its sidewalks dotted with splotches of blackened bubble gum; its men sitting on stoops and leaning against iron railings in front of apartment buildings or lingering with cups of coffee and sometimes steel reserves in crumpled paper bags outside 7-11. But for me, it was just a street that got me from one place to another. It symbolized nothing. It just was.

Then I met Amanda. Unlike most of my friends, who arrived in Mount Pleasant from other parts of the city or suburbs to live in cheap group houses, Amanda had actually grown up in the neighborhood. She was also a huge lover of cities. She loved walking around and taking in the vibe and grooving on the contradictions and noticing little details. Amanda is a punk rock flaneur.

I’d walk around the neighborhood with her and it was like she’d peeled off some layer from the street, and I was seeing it in this whole new way, much more vividly. I began to think of Mount Pleasant Street as a destination, a place to walk within and not just through. One night Amanda and I decided to make a radio documentary about the street. We wanted to make a tape that captured that feel. We sat in my kitchen and quickly devised a few questions for some random “man on the street” interviews. We bought some cassettes and loaded them into Amanda’s Morantz tape recorder and headed over to Mount Pleasant Street at midnight on a cool April night. Everything was lit in pink and orange from neon signs and street lamps. Some people walked home from late night shifts and some sat on benches in Lamont Park. A group of men leaned on a trash can outside Sambar Market talking and laughing. The sounds of a mariachi band poured out of one of the restaurants, swelling and receding whenever the door opened and closed.

We approached a group of teenagers standing in Lamont Park. A girl with shiney black hair in a pony tail yelled to friends across the street while a quieter girl rolled her eyes. A tall handsome boy with dark hair, hands jammed in the pockets of his baggy jeans looked on with an amused expression. We approached the little group and again made our pitch. “Yeah you can interview us,” said the boy, “Are we going to be on the radio? “
“Well maybe – but now, we’re just…. “
Then he started interviewing us. Where are you all from? Do you like it here? Its funny because listening back his interviewing style is so much more relaxed and natural than mine. The boisterous girl said that she thought DC and the neighborhoods around Mount Pleasant seemed like a small town, quiet and even a little boring, with not much going on. “Not like New York,” she said, “Its sleepy around here, like a small town or something”
Then she and the other girl argued with each other about New York. And the boy asked whether we’d want to live there. They talked about the graffiti style up there versus down here. After awhile we steered the conversation back to the questions devised at my kitchen table. “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you here?” I asked him.
The boy looked at us. “Hmm well the worst thing – the worst thing…“ His gaze shifted.. “see if you are in a group of guys and the police see you, you’ll get stopped. They’ll start messing with you. I was on Irving street with some friends and the cops stopped us. I wasn’t doing nothing. I was just hanging out with my friends. But they said they had to search me. So they searched me right there. They made me take my pants down right there on Irving Street. Right there on the corner. It was embarrassing man, it was really embarrassing. So yeah, that’s the worst thing that happened to me in this neighborhood. The police. That’s the worst thing.”

That night lying in bed, thinking about the interviews we'd done, I felt uneasy and a little sad. I thought about the people we’d talked to: a lonely guy from Cameroon, a man from Guatamala on his way home from a cleaning job who came to Mount Pleasant as a child with his mother to escape death squads, the brassy fourteen year old yelling across the park, an older, and very high, black man who’d grown up in the neighborhood but now lived on the streets, “come on now” he had kept saying, over and over again. I thought about the boy in Lamont Park, the look on his face as he told about having to pull his pants down, right on Irving Street. He said they’d made him squat down. I felt at once enervated by the connections we’d made with these people and ashamed - like a vulture..

But I also felt excited about interviewing more people. It hadn’t been as hard as I thought it would be and I was really amazed at how readily people wanted to talk about themselves and what they thought about. So Amanda and I made a plan for the next days interviews. We decided to meet at Triangle Park, a small plaza with a bus stop at the intersection of Mount Pleasant Street and Park Road where we’d seen some flyers about a neighborhood clean up the day before. The park lies at the intersection of Park and Mount Pleasant Street across from a large apartment complex called the Argyle and a row of large detached Victorian Houses with huge front porches. When we arrived the next morning we saw, amongst piles of mulch, a group of people with gloves and rakes standing around drinking coffee. All of them were white and in their forties and fifties, a demographic completely absent from the street the night before.

About ten people spread around a small park that contained two giant concrete planters, flower beds with trees and shrubs, and a bus stop that took neighborhood kids to schools across the park and custodial workers to their nightshifts at college campuses and office buildings on the other side of town. Amanda and I scanned the crowd and decided to approach a trim woman with silvery gray hair, wire rimmed glasses and a thin attractive face. She seemed to be in charge. She agreed to the interview and listened attentively as Amanda laid out the same opening questions we’d asked in our interviews the night before.

The woman leaned on her rake and looked over at one of the large houses on the street and pointed to where she’d lived since the late 1970s. Then she paused. “Well….we’re a very neighborhoody neighborhood and we work together and there’s just a lot of good community spirit in this neighborhood.” She paused “But….I’d like to see Mount Pleasant Street improved. I’d like,” she said, “to see more enforcement of laws - you know people hanging out and….” She stopped and swept her hand across her indicating the park, “you know before we revived this park a few years ago it was a complete mess.”

I tried hard to remember what it had been like when I first moved there. A few images flashed in my mind: some dilapidated benches, boom boxes, broken concrete, a man with a dog who’s leash was a piece of rope.

She continued “It had nine benches and no lights and people would hang out here and drink all evening and make a lot of noise and play loud radios and you know it was just a nuisance, a neighborhood nuisance.”

The woman pointed to the flower beds. “So several years ago we worked with the city and our block adopted this park and they redid it and we agreed to maintain it and part of that agreement was NO BENCHES and that it had to have bright lights.”.

“So it has kept that undesirable activity out of this park.” Her voice wound up further, “public behavior,” she concluded, “I’d like to see a little more maintenance of better public behavior. There’s too much acceptance of that kind of behavior among some people in the community.”

Then she started talking about public drinking and the police and how she knew that city services were lacking but that she had a right to feel comfortable in her neighborhood damn it. She’d lived here long enough to deserve that.

So then I tried to ask this question. I don’t even know what I was trying to get at. It was totally garbled in my mind but I guess I wanted to know where she thought those men should go. But it came out all wrong – I was thinking as I was speaking, trying to put it together, I could see impatience in the corners of her eyes. After a nearly incomprehensible preamble, I said, “can you imagine a space where the people who could do the public drinking could…”

She cut me off “Go and drink somewhere else? No, I’m rather intolerant of that behavior.”
“no no no, I was trying to ask….” On the tape, you can hear me protest feebly underneath her sharp, quaking voice. I don’t think she even heard me.

“Look those people have problems.” She said “And they need those problems addressed. But I have a right to have an opinion on what goes on in my neighborhood and make it more pleasant for me. You’re probably encountering a lot of that.”

Amanda and I laughed nervously

“If you’re not, it’s just because people aren’t telling you what they think.”

We approached some other mulchers and rakers. And every single one of them talked about public behavior – and the need for police to enforce “quality of life” crimes. We heard a lot about their desire for “the zero tolerance that worked so wonderfully in New York City.”

The people we talked to, they were fed up, dismayed, disgusted. You got the feeling that Mount Pleasant wasn’t the city life they bargained for. One of them told us how annoyed he was that only the white neighbors showed up for the clean up day. “Maybe some day these clean up days will be more representative,” he groused, looking over at Lamont Park. Another told us that his biggest hope for the neighborhood was a weekly crafts market, “but not with those Latino tape sellers.

Standing in Park Road Triangle, feeling hopelessly inarticulate, I began to think of Mount Pleasant as a wound – Mount Pleasant Street like a gash dividing this leafy utopic urban possibility from a conflicted dispiriting reality, where the struggle of some people just to get by butts up against the arrogance, the sense of entitlement and fear generated by their more fortunate counterparts.

Amanda and I never made the radio documentary. The tape sat in a box for seven years, unlistened to. But it became a reference point for me, a day that I drank from a little vial that said, “try me” and plunged down a rabbit hole deep into my neighborhood. And once I got to the other side I was totally disoriented. It was kind of like one of those dreams where you discover that there is a whole wing in your house that you never knew about. All of a sudden this set of possibilities rolls out before you and it takes your breath away – the realization that you’ve never even explored rooms that belonged to you, never even opened the doors.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Mount Pleasant cut a groove in my brain

When my husband and I got married we moved out of our Mount Pleasant group house to
Takoma Park, Maryland. For two years, we lived in a little bungalow with a curving garden filled with ornamental trees, hydrangeas and wild rose bushes.

The first week w
e moved in I sat in the window, surveyed the yard and felt suffocated with regret. This was a terrible mistake, I thought. I longed to live back in the city, in our old neighborhood. I didn’t care if we had to live in a gritty house with a dark living room, no parking and rats in the backyard.

A year later, a new baby in my arms, that longing only intensified. As Jackson’s screams pierced the silence of our deserted block after my husband went off to work, I felt bereft. I’ll never forget the joy when, a few months later, driving in silence through some lovely Takoma Park street, my husband said, “let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Within a month of this pronouncement, we moved back to our old street. I thought, "ahhh I’m finally home." But, our new house seemed grungy and overwhelming. Thieves broke into it and stole a blender and some tools the day we moved in. I kept finding empty plastic liquor bottles in strange places, left behind, I suppose, by the previous owner. "Why did she have to hide her habit?" I thought to myself. "She lived alone." I found this and the general vibe in the house creepy. I had to clean up vodka bottles, and occasionally human feces from our parking pad and weave the stroller through a gauntlet of guys selling, well, something that attracted a lot of desperate people. One day out in front of my house, this guy asked me if I wanted to buy his backpack for five dollars. “No thanks.” I said.

At times like this, I looked at my little boy and felt selfish. How could I have taken him out of that place, the grassy lawns, the o
ld trees, the clean sidewalks – our little squirrel nutkin cottage. Why did I bring him here?

But then I’d pull the stroller out and walk to Mount Pleasant Street and walk up and down both sides. We'd stop by the bakery and eat cookies in Lamont Park. Sometimes we'd watch the pigeons flying in formation from building to building: from Super Save to El West to La Casa to the Deauville.

Holding my son in my lap, watching the pigeons I'd think about how, as a child, I wanted to live in a real city neighborhood like this rather than the leafy “might as well have been the suburbs” western reaches of Washington DC where my parents raised my sister and me.

I have this memory of myself with this urban longing. A friend and I had been riding bikes in her neighborhood - a collection of colonials and Tudor style houses on winding tree lined streets near the edge of Rock Creek Park called the Gold Coast. We had biked down a path through the woods, crossed a parkway and then dragged our bikes up a muddy hill that ended up in a neighborhood of plain brick townhouses. We rode up a narrow street darkened by an apartment building and more row houses. After biking up a few dark narrow blocks we came to the corner of what I now realize was the intersection of Mount Pleasant Street, 17th Street and Park Road. A great wide city street opened in an angle before us, lined on both sides by Laundromats, taverns and five and dime stores. In the distance you could see steeples and domes of churches poking into a cloudy blue sky.

The street teemed with people, kids riding bikes furiously down the sidewalk, a group of guys sitting on milk crates talking loud and laughing, two women arguing on a street corner. A jolt of excitement and anxiety coursed through me. I was filled with a longing, an elemental longing, that I couldn’t define, like all that was concealed in my neighborhood was revealed right here on this street.,,That this was actual life – and mine was stultified and somehow less real then what I saw unfolding before me.

When I was a kid, my favorite scenes in Sesame Street were the ones on the street – Mr. Hooper’s store, Oscar, kids sitting on the stoop with Gordon.
I was entranced by this world – the world of “the street” constructed as a safe and accepting place.

With my own kids, walking on Mount Pleasant Street one day, I looked up and
saw a One Way sign with some graffiti on it. Someone had written “There’s more than” above the words and “to live a day” below them. And looking at that sign, I felt so happy to feel like I belonged in this place, this place that’s such a sea of contradictions – where you must confront discomfiting things and where sometimes you actually notice all sorts of hearts beating out these wild syncopated rhythms. And your heart is one of them. It belongs there. It has something to add.

(photos by Lely Constantinople and Eddie Janney)