Sunday, July 17, 2011

East of Eden

October 1, 2006

While I was living on Alexander Avenue in Austin, George Bush made a mention in a public address about Texas painter Tom Lea, best known for his idyllic southwestern scenes. Bush quoted Lea, and exhorted Americans to "live on the east side of the mountain," looking east for the sunrise every morning and maintaining optimism about the future.

My mind rushed to my evening ritual there on Alexander Avenue, when I would end most days and start most nights sitting on my front stoop, looking west over the litter-strewn park, watching the light ebb from the sky above. My house faces west, I wanted to tell Bush. I look out on an eroded creek, edged by brambles, tires and garbage. I pick up used condoms left in the street by prostitutes, and drag the mattresses where they turn tricks from behind the Little League clubhouse to the street on big trash day. I spend hours by the window, recording license plate numbers of drug dealers & junkies who meet on our block between streetlights. My eastern view is an old chain link fence, a weedy yard, and the boarded up house next door. I challenge you, Bush, to move into my house and keep your mind on the sunrise side of things.

Before moving here, I wondered how D.C., with its rumors of crime and violence, would compare to life in East Austin. After all the stories of muggings, daytime murders and crime cameras, I expected a lawless and dangerous city. Students at GW call Columbia Heights "the 'hood," but here there are no open air drug markets where guys on the corner flag down your car, asking you what you need. There are few boarded up houses or empty lots. To date, I have seen less than five obvious junkies. So I wondered, where in D.C. is analogous to my old home with the western view?

Although I grew up right outside of D.C., prior to this weekend, I had never gone east of the river. Yesterday, I went to Anacostia, and found the counterpart to my old neighborhood in Texas. There were pockets of neat new home developments next to bleak, dirt yard apartments around the corner from blocks of well maintained modest homes. Areas of hit and miss commercial strips, where mom & pop restaurants ("Clark's Chicken -- food so great you'll clean your plate!" ) shine among dingy mini-markets and empty storefronts. De-natured creeks with industrial concrete banks, undeveloped bramble woods separating housing clusters, guys drinking beer on the street corner at 11am. But unlike my old neighborhood, which was less than 10 blocks square, Anacostia is huge. My bike ride through it was 20 miles, and I saw only a fraction of the area. At times, I found Clifford-Sanchez isolating. If it was hard sometimes to recognize the options beyond that little place, imagine the horizons of a child growing up in Anacostia. East of the river, in the shadow of the US Capitol, but out of sight and out of mind for many. It was strange and familiar, comforting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Last week I overheard two fellow student talking about life in Foggy Bottom, near campus. "We're so lucky," one told the other, "we can walk to everything!" Yeah, I thought, everything. The myriad of sports bars with big screen TVs and syrup-y margaritas, multiple Starbucks, the Italian restaurant with "outdoor" seating inside the mall. Is there anything more depressing than people dining at wrought iron patio tables inside a shopping center? On second thought, yes, there are many more depressing things, like the stuffed animals people leave at street corners in SE to commemorate murder victims by becoming gray and weathered. But still... I would rather live in Anacostia than Foggy Bottom.

That is assuming there is no in between, which is not the case here. I have been listening to Bob Marley this week, and reveling in the song Kaya: "I feel so good, in my neighborhood, so here I come again." Columbia Heights is a great place to live. Last night I crashed a neighbor's party and heard about Fiesta 2006, a street festival in Mount Pleasant taking place this afternoon. "Sun is shining, weather is sweet, make you want to move your dancing feet!" Columbia Heights affords many opportunities to dance, socialize, and explore. It's different from home, but it matches my sunrise view these days. There is an east and west side to every mountain; it's nice to live looking east for a change, as long as it doesn't make you forget the folks turned the other way.

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