Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.
So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.
Like any other aspiring photographer, I too get tired of the familiar. I’m talking about those places where we tend to spend too much of our limited photographic time in the hope that on any particular day, that great photo opportunity will simply appear before us. Most of the time, it is a total waste of our time. Same thing, different day. But every now and then, something happens. A spot that we have photographed a thousand times without ever liking any of the photos taken, suddenly rewards us with a moment, a keeper moment, if you know what I mean. Hard drives full of photographic junk immediately evaporate from our consciousness, and for a moment (but what a moment), that simple click becomes the justification for endless hours wasted in pursuit of a reason to get behind a camera again. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Satisfaction? Oh yes. Such was the case with this photograph. A familiar deck in Alexandria that I have photographed seemingly a million times before, but only for what seemed destined to my photographic junk pile. I have photographed the deck from every side and from every angle short of being on a boat in front of it. Nothing. Nada. Photo junk. And then this guy shows up. I watch him walk towards the deck and I just stand there waiting for something, anything, to happen. Pack down, leg up on the bench. Click. Moment over. An imperfect photo for sure, but one that reminded me that being there to take the photo is ninety percent of the way to making great photographs. We just have to keep showing up.
They often say that if you want to really get to know a city, that you must first familiarize yourself with its neighborhoods. I kind of agree with that and have made it a point to visit distinct neighborhoods whenever I travel. But sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to see how new neighborhoods transform the cities in which they sprout. As old continues to give way to new, places like The Yards in Washington, DC continue to redefine the city’s urban living landscape. Sure, not everyone is happy to see an old way of life disappear, but shinny, new things also have their attraction. And in a city that has experienced significant population outflows in the past, authorities are quite eager to attract those taxpayers back to the new neighborhoods. The bait: open spaces, shinny new apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and above all, quick access to the Metro. Oh, and should I mention that a Major League baseball park and a New York Trapeze School are within walking distance too? Well, that surely must help.
This recently-developed, waterside area of Washington, DC is sandwiched between the Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals baseball park. Major construction projects are still going on out there, so the place still has that “work in progress” feeling about it. And if the area has not been totally discovered by locals yet, this probably has more to do with its somewhat off-the-beaten-path location than with anything else. Sure, you can get there via metro, but if you drive, prepare to pay at the few parking facilities there (and even on Sundays when most of DC does not charge for parking). Enough reason to stay away? I don’t think so. The Yards are one of the few places in the city where the lack of crowds, traffic, and noise allow for the perfect evening stroll, or for enough quiet to concentrate on that great book you’ve been meaning to spend some time with. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and an all-natural ice cream shop round up the good news about the place. Who knows, this may end up becoming one of the best kept secrets in the city after all.
Not sure whether it was nostalgia or mere curiosity, but I couldn’t resist the impulse to go and photograph the old Florida Avenue Market (or Union Market, as it is commonly known today) one last time before it disappears forever. No wrecking crews there yet, but there is no doubt that major developers in the area are already salivating at the mouth about the money they will make when this part of Washington, DC is finally brought to the 21st Century, so to speak. Not that progress in of itself is a bad thing, mind you, but rather that it is not clear at this point how much of the old market’s character is to be retained and how much of the new development will make the area undistinguishable from so many other developments in the area. In talking to one of the displaced butchers yesterday, it was obvious that he was lamenting the magnitude of change in the area and the upscale transformation of the market. I can’t help but share some of his sentiments, as I was kind of fond of visiting the cavernous warehouse businesses where all sorts of products from Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia were on sale by immigrants with heavy accents, but whose rhythmic sale chants were exotic melodies to my ears. A bit rough, a bit chaotic, but a place like no other in the area. As it disappears in the name of progress and modernism, I can only wonder whether I’ll ever hear again those imagination-inducing, linguistic melodies that so easily transported me to those far-away markets around the world. I’m afraid progress has its very unique way of dealing with those voices.
Much is written about eclectic neighborhoods around the world, but after so many years of traveling, I have to say that the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, DC will give any one of them a run for their money. No two days are alike around the Circle, and if eclectic lifestyles are what you aim to discover, the Circle has those in abundance. Passionate environmentalists, one of the largest gay community in America, staunch advocates of Julian Assange, artists, performers, retirees, incredible restaurants, trendy bars, and nationally-ranked chess players, to name a few. This all adds to a treasure trove of the human condition for a photographer. No other neighborhood in DC has this vive, and no matter how many times I visit the place with my camera, I find it impossible to get tired of it. In fact, the place is like a never-ending play, with new scenes constantly taking their place on stage in order to keep your interest and your attention. And you know what? It works just right for me.
Ever heard of NoMa? Don’t blame you, as most people wonder whether the acronym stands for some sort of medical condition. But if there’s a neighborhood that is on its way up (and I mean way up), it is NoMa, or what is otherwise known to non-hipsters as North of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC. The neighborhood is still work in progress, but with its spacious metro stop (NoMa-Gallaudet Station) and proximity to Union Market (the hottest market in town), the area will no doubt have a great future as a place to live and work. Three significant employers are smack in the middle of the neighborhood: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), National Public Radio (NPR), and the DC facilities of SiriusXM Radio. Add to this a public wi-fi network, clean streets, and a whole slew of small, affordable restaurants, and you can’t help but be impressed with this up-and-coming neighborhood. It won’t remain undiscovered for long.
A few years ago, and before coffee shops were discovered in earnest by modern-day workers, a somewhat bohemian fairy tale entered our lives. This fairy tale described a world where everyone had a relaxed disposition, enjoyed a warm latte by the window, and toiled through the day about as far away as you could get from the office maddening crowds. This very special place was an ideal sanctum where creative introspection, creativity, and unparalleled productivity could all be nurtured at the same time. However, something appears to have happened since the inception of that bohemian dream. Have you been to a city coffee shop lately in the middle of the morning? I don’t purport to speak for every coffee shop in every city of the world, but after seeing the above scenes at a very popular coffee shop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC, I’m beginning to wonder whether what people intended to leave back at their crowded offices ended up following them to the modern coffee shop. Expensive lattes, canines, noise, uncomfortable furniture, you name it, and it’s there. Not that sitting in any of these places while you finish your morning cup of joe has ceased to be a rewarding experience, but it’s beginning to look like everyone and their families is now congregating there where you intend to do your day’s labor. Is this a necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps not, but just in case, better not get too enamored with that bohemian lifestyle just yet.
The weather report is forecasting a very cold, wintry day for tomorrow, but today the weather could not have been any better. A bright, sunny day with temperatures around 50 degrees made for a good day to walk the streets with your camera. The strange thing was that I found myself photographing once again around the Georgetown waterfront as if pulled by some cosmic magnetic force beyond my control. And you know what? There may be something to this after all, because if there’s a place that can exert such force on mere mortals, it must be the lollypop-shaped Georgetown Labyrinth. Never mind that on this day its primary purpose seemed to be to serve as a racetrack for a father and son combo trying out their dueling remotely controlled cars. No, I have to believe that this divine center of gravity in a city mostly known for governmental witchcraft and cutthroat politicians exists to elevate the human spirit above its mundane nature. Yes, that’s got to be it. The Labyrinth must emanate some sort of magnetic field that attracts imperfect souls to its bosom, to the circle of self-discovery and introspection in order to cleanse the spiritual attic of our lives of all its cobwebs and imperfections. There is no doubt that this is the reason why I found myself on this very spot today, looking at the skies from the center of the circle waiting for something great to happen. Well, I didn’t have to wait long for it. First, there was a swoosh, then another, then a rattling noise by my feet that I interpreted as my soul about to be elevated above the clouds to a higher level of existence. And then, there they were, circling around me at high speed, but never to be confused with stars and magnetic forces of any kind: two noisy electric cars moving at high speed in a nausea-inducing crisscross pattern, with father and son busily punching at their control boxes as if they were commanding a nuclear submarine. My spirit safely tucked where it had been all along, I made it out of the Labyrinth before the local Nascar duo had a chance to tromp all over it. I knew it; this place exists for a purpose, and it may well have to do with the bonding between a father and his son.
Ever heard of the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC? Can’t blame you if you haven’t. Most locals haven’t either. And judging from my recent visit to Shaw, it doesn’t look like it’s one of the tourism hubs in Washington, DC either. But if you think this somewhat low-keyed anonymity means that you should ignore this part of town, you will be sadly mistaken. This wonderful neighborhood is home to Howard University and the incredibly popular Art All Night DC event, which takes place at the imposing building that was once home to the Wonder Bread Factory on S Street NW. And if the “Big Easy” label were not already taken, it would fit Shaw like a glove. Laid back, friendly, and not totally gentrified, Shaw is one of those places that once you visit, you’ll be asking yourself why you had never been there before. Not that the neighborhood can match its richer and more famous U Street neighbor a few blocks away, but rather that if it were noise and rowdy crowds I was intent in getting away from, then Shaw is the place I would head on out to. This is specially the case starting next month when the Right Proper Brewing Company opens its doors at T Street NW.
One of the great things about photography is its ability to hold on to a scene so we can take our time in analyzing it. This is what photographers commonly refer to as “capturing the moment.” Now mind you that this “moment” doesn’t really have to be publishable material, but rather it is a moment that has the effect of grabbing on to your attention while simultaneously precluding you from moving on in a hurry. The phenomenon is commonly experienced when we flip through a photo book or magazine barely noticing much of its content, until something makes us stop and take notice. Sometimes it’s bewilderment, sometimes it’s just plain old curiosity. But we do stop and linger while our eyes and brains get in synch to make sense of what lies before us. Not that this whole synching thing takes a long time. After all, we’re talking Internet-era attention span here. But unlike video, our “moment” goes nowhere and there’s never a need to rewind. It is static, suspended in time until we are done with it. It is a story onto itself, and we rarely know what happened before or after this fraction of a second in time. An incomplete story where more often than not our imagination must fill in the blanks. Perhaps that’s why we linger after all, to take our time in completing the story.
Today was one of those days when I just felt like lugging my Leica for a long walk in Alexandria, but in no particular direction in mind. For starters, it was one of the nicest days we’ve had in a long time; a sunny day with temperatures that stayed in the low 50’s for a change. I also got an early start, as there’s something about the empty streets in Alexandria during the early morning hours that seriously appeals to me. First stop along the way: Misha’s coffeehouse and roaster. This is a busy place, with people vying for table space as if it were a DC bar on a busy Friday night. But it was precisely this busy atmosphere that got me thinking about this whole concept of photographic micro-scenes. Everywhere you looked, people seemed to be in their own micro worlds. Some read, some talked, and some listened. Photographic micro-scenes were everywhere, with people inadvertently posing by constantly altering their body language. It was all like watching a play with ever-changing scenes and characters. Everyday art in everyday lives.
As I walk around Washington, DC these days in search of interesting places to photograph, one of the things that has impressed me the most are the number of old-fashioned shoe repair shops in the city. I take it that when you are hanging around the corridors of power, it does pay to have that extra sparkle on the old Bostonians or Clarks. One such place can be found around the Capitol Hill neighborhood, specifically around 8th St. SE. Head on down to the Vibran Cleaners at the corner of 8th & I Streets and you will think that you have just walked back to the America of the 1950’s. Of course, if you are familiar with 8th & I Streets you would know that this is the famous location of the oldest military post on our Nation’s Capital, the spit-ad-polish Marine Barracks. And if you have never been to the area, you are definitely missing out. All the way from the Eastern Market Metro Station down 8th Street to the Marine Barracks you’ll find some of the most creative food establishments in the city, from beer-fueled oyster bars to the absolutely decadent French pastry shop, Sweet Lobby. This entire neighborhood doesn’t just deserve a visit, it deserves to be explored in some detail. I’m definitely going back.
September is a great time for street festivals in our nation’s capital, and if you haven’t taken the time to hit the street to enjoy some great food while listening to local bands, you may be in some serious need of some “latitude” adjustment. These festivals are a lot of fun and present you with a much-needed excuse to get out of your comfort zone to visit some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the area. You know, the ones you read about in the papers, but never take the time to visit. During the month of September, the streets of the Adams Morgan and H Street neighborhoods are some of the best places to be in the whole DC area, as these neighborhoods come alive with music, ethnic food, and plenty of libations to make sure you add some spice to your life. All the restaurants and watering holes lining the streets are open to the wandering public, and frankly, it is near impossible not to have a good time. For photographers, these festivals are great venues, as people are in serious “party mode” and don’t seem to mind having cameras pointed in their direction like they do the rest of the year.
Of the two festivals I had a chance to visit this month, I will have to say that the party at H Street was the best of them all. Maybe it had to do with the five music stages along the street, or the live fashion show, or the characters that descended on the street for the day, but whatever it was, H Street simply rocked this weekend. There was music everywhere and the beer flowed like water next to some great local eateries. This may have something to do with Oktoberfest celebrations, but whatever the case, it worked. It wasn’t exactly Munich, but the folks from the authentic Biergarten Haus restaurant with their great German brew did manage to transport us to the great Bavarian city while we consumed some great German-styled sausages with sauerkraut. Without a doubt, one of the best neighborhood scenes in the metro area and a “must visit” for anyone interested in getting to know the real DC.
Having not visited Paris in more than ten years could lead you to forget how beautiful this city really is. Of course, the hot summer days could easily temper your enthusiasm, but nevertheless, once you begging to get acclimatized to the soft Parisian light, you will begin to tell yourself that it has been too long since your last visit. For me it has certainly been too long, but during my short stay it will be my intention to find the real Paris away from the world-famous attractions. My goal it to wander the neighborhoods most tourists never visit and to try to feel what it feels like to spend days mingling with the common folk in this great city. First stop: the 6th Arrondissement and the area of Montparnasse with the beautiful Luxembourg Palace at its very heart. Not a bad place to start.
Is it possible to inhabit two distinct worlds at the same time? Well, for me this seemed to be the case when on Saturday I headed out to the preview event at the soon-to-be-opened Union Market at 1309 5th Street NE in Washington, DC. Just a couple of blocks off Florida Avenue in NE DC, and between 4th and 6th streets in the old warehouse market district, the simple act of crossing the street will take you from the hustle and bustle of dark meat markets where the constant sounds of meat cutters and banging cleavers compete for dominance with the multilingual cacophony of the working class clientele, to the gentile atmosphere of gourmet wine pairings and and delicately-prepared artisinal confections. Two worlds, only one block away.
But what perhaps caught my attention more than anything else this day was the fact that with one single exception, people in these two worlds didn’t seem to cross that invisible divide between them. As I wondered the dark retail and butcher shops in the old market, I never saw any of the folks from the upscale Union Market in any of them. And in case you were wondering, the reverse was also true. For all practical purposes, 5th Street NE acted as the functional equivalent of the Berlin Wall, with folks from each side looking over the wall while seemingly incapable of walking across it. The only exception: the famous A. Litteri. Never been there? Well, you are truly missing out. The cramped, floor-to-ceiling Italian products behind an always-shut front door are nothing short of amazing. It is perhaps the closest you’ll get to Italy in Washington, DC. And if you are looking for some of the best sandwiches in the area, navigate yourself to the back of the store where a large chalkboard with the day’s offerings are sure to induce uncontrollable Pavlovian responses from you. No wonder I like this diverse, crazy neighborhood so much. Just don’t go there at night.