My school day visits to the nation’s capital hardly strayed from the manicured National Mall. Like most tourists, I marveled at imposing monuments honoring dead presidents, ran a marathon through free Smithsonian museums, and then went home. So when I decided to trade my life abroad for a non-profit job in Washington, D.C., I worried about navigating through the polished and political to find my place in this transient city.
During the daytime, the multicolored Queen Anne rowhouses centered around the 18th Street thoroughfare in Adams Morgan remind me of Europe. I choose my first DC apartment near this line of a few boutiques, indie record shops and bars in a cozy pocket perched above the center. All ages stroll past my vantage point on a Tryst cafe couch, where I refuel after exploring the forested trails lacing Rock Creek national park just across the Potomac River. But when weekend nights pack rambunctious crowds into live music locales like cheekily muraled Madams Organ before spilling into late night jumbo slice pizza joints, I feel eager to move on.
Two blocks east in Neoclassical Meridian Hill Park, I climb the steps against the flow of the cascading fountain for a new view of downtown dissected by the Washington Monument. Groups practice yoga or balance on slacklines near statues of Joan of Arc on horseback and James Buchanan, fifteenth president and only representative from Pennsylvania where I grew up. Other Washingtonians uncharacteristically let loose during the Sunday evening drum circle, a 50 year old tradition believed to follow the death of Malcolm X.
My own beat is found two blocks south, on U Street corridor stretching from Adams Morgan to where I now live in Shaw. The counter show of choreographed workers is worth the lines at Ben’s Chili Bowl, serving sloppy half smokes since 1959, even when the 1968 race riots rocked the street. Once called “Black Broadway” during its heydey when Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performed at recently restored Howard Theatre, today the neighborhood is a multicultural mix. I scoop up Ethiopian platters with fresh injera bread at Zenebech Injera nodding to the largest community outside Addis Ababa, or sip housemade suds with hipsters at Right Proper Brewing Company.
Falling into step with scenesters walking south past design stores and curated thrift shops like Miss Pixie’s on intersecting 14th Street, this once seedy Red Light District is where I take out-of-town guests to show the city off. But alone, instead of competing for patio tables to taste tapas at Barcelona or french fare at Le Diplomate, I bask with a book on sunny days in Logan Circle.
Close but outside these 14th street crowds, I find my home near the unmarked Chicago-style Ivy and Coney and no frills All Souls Bar shaking cocktails to the jukebox. Cafes atypical to America take me back to life abroad, with new Compass Coffee roasting their own beans and hip La Colombe in an alleyway. Not yet revitalized like its neighbors and perhaps no place for politicos, Shaw seems to fit me just right.
This article originally appeared in Spanish in the December/January issue of National Geographic Traveler Latinamerica.