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Loving the Swamp: 13 things that keep Washington real

Beyond the politics, a vibrant city

Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez greets fans along Constitution Avenue during a parade to celebrate the World Series champions on Nov. 2, 2019.
Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez greets fans along Constitution Avenue during a parade to celebrate the World Series champions on Nov. 2, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Washington, D.C., is prone to caricature. After all, who in Congress hasn’t found it convenient to run against The Swamp, that murky collection of strivers and influence peddlers?

On the other side of the stereotype spectrum, what red-blooded patriot doesn’t choke up a little at the sight of the Lincoln Memorial at night, or wax poetic about the documents that started off the whole American experiment at the National Archives?

There is a whole city here, though, grounded outside the familiar confines of those boilerplates, where it’s not all about politics.

Consider the following list a highly subjective sampler plate of some of this writer’s favorite things about D.C. that keep the city real.

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl. The Ali family’s establishment has long anchored U Street in good times and bad, and it gave the world one of D.C.’s unique foods: the half-smoke sausage. It’s a burgeoning empire now, but the original location, there since 1958, is the best place for a chili half-smoke, all the way.
  • Maine Avenue Fish Market. The United States’ oldest continuously operating open-air seafood market. A series of barges housing purveyors of fresh crabs, oysters, salmon and what have you, it also serves prepared food like crabcakes and steamed shrimp. Its proximity to the nearby multibillion-dollar Wharf development provides a nice one-two punch of new and old.
  • “The Exorcist.” The Georgetown of William Peter Blatty’s novel, William Friedkin’s movie and those real-life, super-steep “Exorcist steps” that connect M and Prospect streets is a world unto itself, a place where it’s not hard to imagine the supernatural amid the Jesuit university and its surrounding aged neighborhood.
  • “Lost in the City” by Edward P. Jones. A collection of short stories chronicling the lives of often-ignored Black men and women in the neighborhoods far from the power corridors.
  • “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. The song from the 1979 album of the same name introduced D.C.’s go-go music to the world outside and has endured, becoming an anthem at sporting events, including after any Washington National hits a home run at Nationals Park.
  • The Titanic Memorial. Maybe D.C.’s quietest monument. Sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s statue of a lone figure on Southwest D.C.’s waterfront at Fourth and P streets is a simple yet powerful recognition of the loss of life when the unsinkable ship sunk on April 15, 1912.
  • “The Turnaround” by George Pelecanos. This might be the master crime writer’s least crime-like novel. Set in a time-out-of-place Greek diner in D.C. and centered on people coming to grips with their past indiscretions, it fits right in this list nicely.
  • Jimmy T’s. Run by the same family for decades, this diner on East Capitol and Fifth streets is a quirky gem. The second-generation owner, Cynde Tiches-Foster, still cooks every meal behind the counter. It’s cash only, but you don’t need a lot when a combo plate of an egg, pancake and side of bacon costs about five bucks.
  • “Waiting Room” by Fugazi. D.C. punk and funk came up together, and Fugazi and its label Dischord Records were intensely loyal to local music and instrumental in getting the word out about it. Picking just one punk anthem out of its rich history in D.C. is fraught with peril, but this anthem conjures the sweaty catharsis of an underground show.
  • Ethiopic. Ethiopian food has been a mainstay of Washington and the region for decades as immigrants have sought a better life here. Families have spread out across the area from the previous nexus in Adams Morgan, and it’s hard to go wrong at any of their restaurants. This one on H and Fourth streets in Northeast is among the best.
  • “D.C. Cab.” Director Joel Schumacher’s 1983 comedy film is a time capsule, with Mr. T, Bill Maher, Max Gail, Gary Busey and others trying to make their way through a very different Washington than the one we’re in now. The good-guys-triumph parade makes its way down Pennsylvania Avenue by the John Wilson Building, home to D.C. government, and what would later be renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.
  • Eastern Market. The red-brick public market, designed by Adolf Cluss and opened in 1873, is a place to buy groceries, order a meal at Market Lunch and gather on weekends for arts, farmers’ goods and pop-up food vendors. A place so old-school it doubled as an Amsterdam locale in the 2008 movie “Body of Lies.”
  • The Washington Nationals. There are a lot of area sports teams, many of them champions with good stories. But the Major League Baseball team has the best narrative, at least right now. Like many of us now in Washington, they’re transplants, having moved here from Montreal in 2005. They were awful for years, then became a perennial playoff team and topped it off by taking a patched together, ragtag bunch to win the World Series in 2019. It was one of the really nice things that happened before, you know, 2020.
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