As a third year, I took an excellent seminar at the University of Virginia called “Gothic Spaces.” In it, we interrogated the representation of physical space — the ruined castles, the hidden passageways, the enclosed attics — as a projection of cultural anxieties. It was an awakening. Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, I took a Central Grounds bus from my apartment at the intersection of Rugby Road and Grady past squat fraternity houses and the rolling expanse of Mad Bowl, down the backside of The Lawn, and then made my way around the perimeter of an outdoor amphitheatre to reclaim my spot towards the front of a small, cavernous classroom on the third floor of Bryan Hall. It was always dark in that room; there were no windows at the front, so light filtered in poorly from the rear — and I liked it that way. Cocoon-like, quiet, and at insane odds with the explosive intellectual work going on in my mind. The course changed the way I thought and read in a profound way, inviting me to ask, “But how else could they have presented this? Why did they choose to have this damsel in a castle attic versus a dungeon versus an isolated shack?”
Even these many years later, I find its mode of inquiry at the ready, a quick draw. When I discovered recently, for example, that some Native American tribes placed their dead in above-ground mounds versus subterraneous coffins, I thought: “Now that would be an interesting line of thinking to study in that class — the architecture of death.”
And recently, too, when I returned to D.C. for our family vacation, I was struck — suddenly — by the consonance between the physical cityscape of D.C. and its “feel” in my memory. D.C. has always seemed, to me, small and slack — like a mildly overgrown thicket or a tumbler of water that’s been sitting, sweating, in the heat, a ring of water pooled around its basin. There is a languor to it — especially in the summer — underscored by the heavy shade of trees you’ll find most anywhere in Northwest D.C. in particular, and the torpid buzz of cicadas, and the canopy of humidity. The lush green spaces are unmanicured; street signs are often partially obscured by vines or branches; medians will occasionally boast knee-high grass. There is a thickness, a drawl to things, that has always made me think of the city as part wild — but not wild in the awe-inspiring sense of the Rocky Mountains; wild in the sense of the wood playhouse my father built with birch planks from Hechingers and installed at the top of a small hill in our backyard, beneath a shady pine tree. We played in it for the better part of two weeks and then found spider webs and raccoon droppings in its interior, and purple splotches of bird poop on its roof. From then on, the playhouse was the answer to many rounds of truth or dare that typically ended with one of us screaming as we’d jet down the hill, swiping phantom creepy crawlies off our shoulders. “There was a rabid squirrel in there!” my sister once told me, eyes wide. Like this playhouse, D.C. felt wild in a parochial sense, in a backyard animal sense.
Mr. Magpie and I prefer to cross Chain Bridge versus Key Bridge when entering D.C. from Virginia because it feels, as Mr. Magpie put it the other day, “like a back road.” That, too, is how I feel about much of the D.C. I know — full of “back roads” and “shortcuts” and the odd zig zaggy routes of a native D.C. driver: “take a left off Mass Ave at Observatory Circle and cut up Tunlaw,” my Dad will say to visiting guests, insisting that they avoid the bulk of Mass Ave and Wisconsin Ave to the best of their abilities.
As I write this, I’m aware that D.C. feels “small” because it is my hometown, many of its streets and trees as familiar to me as the arrangement of furniture in the living room of my childhood home: the diagonal line of the small settee in relation to the large upholstered couch, the arrangement of Herend baby shoes (one for each child) on my mother’s coffee table, the lines of the vacuum cleaner across the carpet. But that’s not all the way true. There is something about D.C. that affords a feel of the small-town whether you were born there or not. The skyline is by and large flat, with nary a skyscraper. The Washington Monument and the Air Force Memorial alone puncture the sky — the rest of the city is close to the ground, hushed, squat. The streets, at least in my childhood neighborhood, are narrow and often one-way. The city is hilly in a way that reminds you that the earth was here first. In New York, I have to strain to imagine what things might have looked like when the colonists first disembarked there. In D.C., it’s an easy exercise. The slope of the hills, especially in Georgetown, can occasionally make buildings and streets look out of place or precarious, dug into the side of a hill or perched perilously or winding in an awkward way. The heavy shade of trees conspire in this effort: “The houses are accidental, or, if I’m being generous, apposite, to my roots here,” they say. It’s as if the trees, the grass, the hills, are caught in the act of reclaiming their space. All of this gives off the aura of an overgrown backyard, that parochial wild of my childhood playhouse.
And so, whereas New York can make me feel anonymous, in D.C., it feels as though I am always a grocery aisle or car-length away from someone I once crossed paths with — and not just because I grew up here, I don’t think…or is that precisely why?, I wonder. Have I mentally shaped the D.C. cityscape to reflect my experience of growing up there? After all, my life in D.C. was rather insular: I attended a Montessori school with about 10 classmates, then a small Catholic school with about 20 classmates, then a high school with 100 classmates, and there was crossover between the schools — kids that had graduated before I did had matriculated to my high school before me. And because I have so many siblings (4) and cousins (18), there was a feeling that I already knew many of my classmates before I knew them — Justin was the little brother of my brother’s friend Jessica; Peggy was cousins with those kids my sister went to camp with; Katie had dated my brother’s best friend; Mia was my cousin’s best childhood friend. And because my brother attended my high school’s “brother high school,” there were even more connections. And because we belonged to two country clubs that counted many of my classmates’ families as members, there were those connections, too.
So I wonder — have I fashioned D.C. into a small town, claimed the low skyline and the lush green spaces as colluders in my casting of the city in a certain way — as small and insular and slack? Was my English classroom truly dark and cocoon-like, or did I fashion it that way in retrospect? (Would someone else have described it as claustrophobic?) How do we experience space? Do we force it into a coherent narrative? Do we project our experiences onto it? Or does it shape us and how we feel about the world?
A little of this, a little of that, I’m sure — a fluid give and take.
I’m curious, though: take a minute to think about your hometown, or your current town, or any old town in which you’ve taken umbrage. How do you think of the physical space there? What are the words you’d use? For my fellow Washingtonians — does my experience of the city resonate? Or am I floating off into a narrow memory in its recollection?
One final Nordstrom sale discovery: how chic is this top (under $60!)?! Love the detailing on the sleeve.
This tunic is SO CHIC. I’d wear it over my go-to black one-piece with huge black shades.
I’m dying over this map-print skirt (under $100). Would be the perfect vacation companion — thrown over a white bathing suit or paired with a simple white tank?