November 6, 2018
I booked a bus home to Bethesda to vote in the miderm elections instead of filing for an absentee ballot, and at our kitchen island ranted to my father that fiscal conservatism is actually hereditary aristocracy. He claimed to be convinced.
I took my wallet and phone and walked to the polls one block away at my childhood elementary school. I voted in the auditorium that had doubled as our cafeteria. I remembered it as massive, but saw that it is actually smaller than the main floor of the open-plan office I go to every day.
After voting, I walked to the Metro station through my suburb to what my mother always ironically referred to as its “beating, pulsing heart;” a soulless eight-block faux downtown area comprised of chain stores, fast casual restaurants, and boutique fitness studios. I had a few hours to kill before my bus back to New York.
The Washington D.C. area Metro is incredibly clean and incredibly far below ground. I descended one of the endless escalators, and waited for a red line train to Glenmont. Lately, when I’ve visited home, former classmates have wanted to go out on U Street. I wanted to walk around sober in the daylight like I had in high school.
The U Street Corridor is one of America’s most historic sites of resistance, art, and activism. I’m not proud to admit that my recent visits here have involved spilling out of Ubers and trying to cut the lines of belligerently drunk white guys in boat shoes and pastel t-shirts in order to get into one of the freshly refurbished clubs, taking shots at gleaming copper bar counters, licking salt off the rims of margarita glasses, and shouting to be heard over pounding music.
I exited the Metro at the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop in spitting rain that made my hair frizz up. I stood across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl, a squat building painted ruby red and adorned with a white cornice. After 5 pm, there’s always a line out the door, but it was 2 p.m. and quiet. I walked one block west, and stood on the corner of 14th and U streets. Crowds gathered here in 1968 to hear Stokely Carmichael speak after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Now there’s a SoulCycle, next to Lululemon, and down the block a Trader Joe’s. Real estate developers have advertised this neighborhood as having been transformed from “riots to renaissance.”
Soon I reached Busboys and Poets, a cafe and bookstore named for Langston Hughes, who’d been a busboy before he was a poet. The gentrificationcore architecture of a luxury condo complex painted maroon and beige, with black metal balconies jutting out from tinted windows stopped me, because it was simply so ugly. This building is called The Louis, and I sat down on a bench to google it. It describes itself as where “urban meets upscale.”
On the next block I saw a $30 barre class taking place through floor-to-ceiling windows. White couples browsed expensive faux mid-century side tables at a furniture store called Room & Board.
I turned back and descended into the Metro again. I took it to Union Station and boarded my BoltBus, thinking about how big my elementary school used to look, what U Street looked like a few years ago, and what my own suburb used to look like.
When I was growing up, our suburban downtown was anchored by a Barnes & Noble, where everyone in the neighborhood between the ages of twelve and sixteen loitered on Saturday nights. Boys got kicked out for bringing skateboards inside and tweens flirted on the escalators. Last year, when the store announced its closure to make way for a huge flagship Anthropologie, kids I hadn’t heard from since sixth grade posted facebook statuses en masse complaining about neighborhood change. This is obviously sort of comedic; the wealthy are complaining that late capitalism is making their bland, bougie neighborhood even blander and bougier by day while getting fucked up at bars gentrifying U Street by night.
Eventually, my bus made it through the Lincoln Tunnel traffic and arrived at the half-built construction site of Hudson Yards. A huge sign hung from the scaffolding of a future skyscraper, advertising what will be a hybrid condo-hotel complex branded by the Equinox gym franchise, which also has outposts in Bethesda, Maryland and on M Street in Washington, D.C. I shouldered my backpack and walked to the subway station.