Memories of Georgetown

July 26, 2011

I came to Washington in the mid 1970s, after living ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area, during a turbulent, heady period working on two different daily newspapers. I’ve never quite been able to satisfactorily explain to myself, or people who know me, why I came. Usually, I make a joke about it.

During the late 1970s — post Watergate, post Gerald Ford even, Carter in mid-malaise — I lived on Capitol Hill, where a group of friends once held an alley-stoop neighborhood party. A young go-getting politician and school board member named Marion Barry found his way to the party. He whizzed by in a frenzied, hand-shaking Afro blur but made an impression. People there, mostly white, talked about him. He was running for mayor, taking on the venerable Walter Washington, the city’s first mayor under Home Rule.

By around 1980, I started writing for The Georgetowner, and the first story I ever wrote for this publication was a detailed from-afar look at Ted Kennedy’s disaster of a challenge against President Carter, a disaster redeemed in part by a defiant, eloquent convention speech. The very next story that I recall was an interview-profile of the legendary stripper, Blaze Starr, backstage at the notorious Silver Slipper Burlesque House, in the New York Avenue area. Starr was futilely enamored of politicians — she had affairs with Earl Long, the Governor of Louisiana (captured nicely in a movie called “Blaze”), and the mayor of Philadelphia, Mr. Rizzo. It’s thirty years and hundreds and hundreds of stories later, and some things have changed…

Michelle Rhee’s Mutual Resignation


-That thumping noise you might have heard sometime on Wednesday of this week? Don’t fret. It was just the other shoe dropping in the great back-and-forth saga of the fate of DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee in the aftermath of the tumultuous Democratic Party Primary in which DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray prevailed over incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he?

She won’t be…staying. And he didn’t…fire her. Word leaked Wednesday that Michelle Rhee would be resigning from her job as chancellor. This, apparently, after a number of telephone conversations between Rhee and Gray following a lengthy meeting between the two in which the issue of whether she would be staying, long-term or short-term, was not dealt with.

Gray did not fire Rhee, according to both. It was a mutual decision, as both of them belabored to the press at a conference called by Gray at the Mayflower Hotel the following day. The press conference was notable for its strangely muted tone, and for the debut of newly named interim chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s right-hand person at DPCS.

Gray’s choice of Henderson was a signal to the many voters, particularly in the predominantly white Wards two and three, that he would continue apace with school reform, which had been energetically, and often dramatically and controversially conducted by the energetic and sometimes undiplomatic Rhee. In the course of her stewardship of the DC schools, Rhee accomplished a lot, and fast: she closed schools, sometimes summarily, fired principals, improved the infrastructure, and twice conducted large firings of teachers. Under Rhee, test scores improved, and enrollment and graduation rates went up. In the course of over three years, she also became a national figure (Time Magazine covers, a major role in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”), and something of a poster child for proponents of national education reform.

But if there was lots of praise, there was also a deteriorating relationship with the poorer and black residents of the city who felt left out of the process—an anger that was mirrored in declining and troubling polls for Fenty, which signaled his eventual downfall. And Rhee was all but attached at the hip to Fenty, going so far as to campaign with him, and to criticize Gray for what she saw as not a lacking commitment to reform.

The dust has settled. The shoe dropped. And the official announcement came accompanied by a show of bonhomie, mutual support and certain hopefulness. All the principals—Fenty, Rhee and Gray—repeatedly said that the decision had been arrived at mutually. In fact, the word “mutual” was used so often that you expected a bell to ring, announcing the end of the day’s trading.

Rhee contended, as she does with most things, that her continued presence and the continued speculation about her future was not best for the children. “That’s what this has always been about,” she said. “Not the adults, but the children.

“We decided mutually that reform was best served and would continue strongly with this decision,” she said. “It was best for this reformer to step aside.”

Gray’s choice of Henderson, which meant that most of the top echelon of Rhee’s team would stay, gave him further bonafides as a reformer. “We cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism,” Gray said.

Reporters, impatient and grumbling, were not convinced. “Was it that she didn’t want to stay, or you (Gray) didn’t want her to stay?” a television reporter asked. “Which was it?”

“It was a mutual decision arrived at over several conversations over the phone,” Gray said, and Rhee nodded in agreement.

While rumors had been out there, the news of Rhee’s sudden resignation still came as a surprise. As late as over a week ago, Gray told us that nothing was off the table, including the prospect of Rhee’s staying. The announcement of a mutual, shared decision appeared to adopt a balancing act in which Gray was not forced to fire her (or accept her), and Rhee did not appear to leave a job undone.

A national television reporter asked Fenty if it was possible that Rhee was forced out by pressure from the teacher’s union, which, in spite of signing a contract with Rhee, was bitter about two rounds of teacher firings. “It was a mutual decision,’ Fenty answered.

There was a lot of hugging going on—it was a regular love feast. Rhee hugged Henderson, Rhee and Gray hugged, Fenty and Gray hugged.

Only a few questions were allowed before the quartet left the podium. Rhee did not answer questions about her future, although it’s been widely speculated that she might take on a national role in the reform movement. Fenty continued to say that he would help mightily with the transition, that he would support Gray in every way.

Although not enough as it seems to appear. As of Wednesday, in at least one in a series of town hall meetings that Gray has been holding all over the city’s wards—especially Ward 3, where Fenty and Rhee are hugely popular—Fenty has declined Gray’s invitations to join him at the meetings. “Well, he invited me to all of them,” Fenty said. “It’s just been very busy.”

Apparently Fenty knew something was up. Asked how long he had known about the resignation, he said “A couple of weeks…well, maybe a week, I couldn’t tell you for sure.”

Fenty also declined to ask the people running a Fenty write-in campaign for the November 2 election to stop doing so. “It’s not my place to tell people what to do,” he said. “I’ve repeatedly said to them and everybody that I support Chairman Gray in the election and every other way.”

Stay tuned.

A look into Georgetown’s Past

The first Americans called it Tohoga – “sweet land of sassafras.” This settlement may have changed its trails and huts, but Georgetown remains the meeting place for the District and its nation.

When walking along M Street – once called Bridge Street, and later referred to as “The Miracle Mile” – we should be mindful that these same steps were once trod by the likes of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Other notables followed: Francis Scott Key, William Marbury, Benjamin Stoddert, William Corcoran and J.C. Calhoun. Georgetown, formerly of Maryland, was the first (and for a while the only) complete business community and village in the new nation’s capital.

The Old Stone House (residential, 1765) and the City Tavern Club building (business, 1796), both on M Street, are the oldest structures in Washington. The beginnings of IBM occurred on 31st Street. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone switching station was next to the C&O Canal, where such a telecommunications structure still remains today. Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the country. President Abraham Lincoln frequented Oak Hill Cemetery, where his son Willie was once interred.

Then in the late 19th century, Georgetown suffered an economic downturn as a result of progressively worse flooding and river silting. Becoming almost a slum, the city was essentially frozen in time.

That freeze later melted when those with government jobs sought housing here during and after World War II. The antique, authentic aesthetic has attracted smart, affluent Americans and foreigners alike ever since. It is said that by leaving their homes untouched, the poor saved Georgetown.

Fifty years ago this month, in 1960, Georgetown became the fashionable place again when an N Street resident by the name of John F. Kennedy ran for president. Today, we are intimately familiar with the senators and government officials, foreign dignitaries, journalists, authors, artists and businesspersons all living or working here. Together we are helping this old town continue to tell new stories. You see, history is not only the past in Georgetown. It is present all around you. [gallery ids="99248,104169,104190,104174,104186,104179,104183" nav="thumbs"]

The Player: Lynne Breaux

CLICK HERE to see live footage of the interview

There’s the tireless advocate for the restaurant industry who has raised the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington – and area restaurants – to a sky-high profile. There’s the RAMW president who is passionate, effective and likeable as she works with the DC Council and Congress.

Then there’s the girl who feasted on her grandfather’s fish eggs and crawfish and still loves pigs in a blanket. The former model whose entree into the hospitality industry came through being noticed on a rooftop in a tiny bikini. The woman who posed in Playboy, albeit fully clothed. The woman who got married in Vegas.

Will the real Lynne Breaux please stand up?

When she speaks up, Bob Madigan and I realize that aside from the occasional drawn-out word, she’s the fastest talker of all our Players. She’s a clear blend – marrying the Louisiana love of fun, food and hospitality to an energy and political drive decidedly DC.

Now at Ris restaurant, she’s talking about the June 26 RAMMY award gala themed Carnevale da Cuisine.

“It’s about the crazy colorful diversity of the industry now in all different price points, all different neighborhoods in the city and the region – the upper end, lower end, a mix of the above,” she pauses. “It’s just been this carnival.”

The RAMMY awards’ visibility has shot up as the DC restaurant scene exploded during a decade under her association leadership. Restaurants are in our face with the food network and focus on cooking. DC restaurants – and, by extension, the city – have thrived. It’s in no little part due to dining, says Breaux.

“I wrote a story once about the five Rs – restaurants beget retail beget residential beget resurgence beget revenue,” she says. “Look at U Street, Gallery Place, H Street right now – restaurants start it and then the rents go up and the buildings go down and the restaurants find another place, which is what happened with me.”

Breaux owned Capitol Hill’s Tunnicliff’s Tavern from 1988 to 2001, a Cajun place with wild Mardi Gras parties that drew politicians and celebrities in the pre-cell phone era. She remembers then maps fell off at 1st St. SE, excluding Eastern Market and Southeast DC.

Now the restaurant scene is extending its vibrancy and reach. Chef Geoff’s opened in Virginia and PassionFish in Reston while a Virginia-centric restaurant group opened up ChurchKey and Birch & Barley. Suburbs and city alike compete actively for a slew of awards celebrating their appeal, excellence and staff.

The Challenge

It wasn’t always so. Breaux became executive director in October 2001, announcing her anxiety in a board meeting three weeks after 9-11. “I said I had nightmares last night and you’d think it would be about bombs and planes but it was about membership,” she laughs. The membership was surprisingly fewer than 200 restaurants versus the over 700 today.

RAMW raised the profile of both restaurateurs and restaurants through catchy award phrases and ritzy events, established New York’s popular restaurant week as a success in its own right, expanded member classes, and, of course, organized powerful lobbying efforts.

Breaux also raised DC dining’s profile, surprising top magazine writers with the richness of Washington’s options through the RAMMYs. She’s worked with embassies to promote their food, pumping up trade of Icelandic and Chilean exports.

Her personal life has also thrived. Two years ago, she married Ford lobbyist Peter Arapis after seeing him for 13 years with a surprise 8 a.m. Las Vegas ceremony followed by a not-so-fancy brunch.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Her Past

Breaux earned her degree in sociology from Louisiana State University. She emerged with two valuable skills – understanding group dynamics and speed dating. She goes to numerous functions, but rarely eats at them these days. “You’ve got to look good, you represent the industry,” she laughs. Instead, when she goes to events, she quickly meets the people on her list.

Her New Orleans background also gave her direction through an unusual un-PC start. “I was swimming on the rooftop [of a New Orleans hotel] in a teeny bikini and someone said you ought to apply for the job of assistant manager on duty and I did,” she reminisces. “A light bulb went off: hospitality was what I wanted to do.”

But New Orleans wasn’t quite the speed of this fast-talking southerner. “That’s one reason I left there,” she laughs. “My mom would say patience is a virtue.” Breaux hits the table like a frustrated teenager, saying, “Mooom.”

And then there’s the type of exhaustion many of us can only fantasize about. “You can only eat, drink and party so much.”

She moved to Aspen for a year working in a restaurant, where she was asked to pose in a men’s magazine and did so – but fully clothed, in an article titled “What Kind of Man Reads Playboy?” Then she returned to New Orleans only to transfer from her position as catering director at the Royal Orleans hotel to work at DC’s Ritz-Carlton in the same capacity.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Issues and Trends

But it’s not all parties and galas for the RAMW head.

“Probably my highest priority at this point is keeping Metro open til 3 a.m.,” she says, citing the constituents – diners and revelers, yes, but also employees.

One highly emotional issue? Food trucks, which flip out restaurateurs. “When the trucks park in front of a restaurant, it doesn’t matter if same type or it’s a different type of food, it impacts business,” she says. “RAMW has been portrayed as anti-truck but we’re not anti-truck we’re for a fair and balanced regulatory environment,” she says, citing taxes as one issue.

As for obesity, she thinks nutrition education should start in schools and exercise should be emphasized, a la “Let’s Move”, but also that the industry should embrace a proactive stance. DC’s options have expanded to include a simple Chipotle championing humane treatment and a proliferation salad and high end places touting food quality, local ingredients and sustainability.

Breaux is also concerned about profitability, which fell from 4 percent in 2009 to 2 to 2 ½ percent today, and, by extension, taxation.

Issues are challenging, but the restaurant spokeswoman also remains on the bustling forefront of DC dining where she sees lots of exciting trends.

“For years hotel food was fantastic. You would go to hotels for the dining experience. Then it was like, ‘Oh that FNB? [food and beverage] is costing way too much money, let’s just sell the rooms,’” she recalls. After seeing in the potential of weddings to bring in room revenue, places like the Kimpton Group decided food was a winner. Poste, Watershed and Maestro represent some excellent hotel options.

A not so new trend? Tapas that sprung from Spain but developed into diversity of dining options at places like Masa 14, Cava, and Kushi. “Small plates,” says Breaux. “That’s going to stay around forever.”

A third is unfussy and unglamorous street food, she says, citing a recent article about healthier hot dogs. And though she’s dining on a salmon salad she indulges her food fandom. “I happen to love pigs in a blanket which sounds so tacky,” she jokes before defending her choice “A delicious mini-sausage with a perfect mustard and a crispy crunchy wrapping – there’s nothing better.”

As she leaves to work on gala planning, we sharpen our forks in anticipation of more delicious DC dinners.
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10 Trailheads, Inside the Beltway

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

Billy Goat Trail

Description: 4 miles. Moderate difficulty.

A roundabout portion off the C&O Canal Towpath, the Billy Goat Trail is rightfully a local favorite among hiking veterans and families. The trail stretches along the Potomac Gorge, a rocky, diverse 15-mile section of the Potomac River from above Great Falls and south to Theodore Roosevelt Island. The path itself is a tempered balance between dirt crosscuts woven through the lush forestry, and rugged cliff faces with sweeping views of the adjacent river, rock faces and woodlands. Convenient river access has also made it a popular destination for kayaking, canoeing and fishing.

The trail, broken into sections A, B and C, has varying levels of difficulty. Section A, stretching along Bear Island, while the most strenuous, is also the most frequented. And there are good reasons for this. Access to the trailhead is absurdly simple and conveniently located minutes outside the city – just off I-95 on MacArthur Boulevard, the parking area across from the Old Angler’s Inn. The path itself is a two-mile stretch along Bear Island, affording premiere vistas at the top of high rock faces that hikers must scramble up for the reward. The trail is something of a U-shape up the island, starting and ending at different points along the C&O Canal Towpath. Walking beside the reflective canal shaded by the forest’s florid, abundant eaves offers a nice cool-down from a challenging hike. The trail is almost always busy on a fair-weather day, so try and get there early to avoid the throngs.


Description: 8.5 miles with shorter options. Easy.

The Brookland section of Northeast Washington is an unusual and distinctive area of the city. It in fact feels like a separate community from the District altogether, comprised of so many churches and school campuses, residential neighborhoods and historic cemeteries. Walking along any portion of the nearly all-pavement trail, you are bound to run into friendly people bursting with local pride. This natural diversity and serenity makes it one of the best neighborhood hikes in the area.

The trail in full circles around Catholic University, Rock Creek Cemetery and National Cemetery, as well as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, cultural center, Brooks Mansion, Howard University Divinity School and an expanse of quiet neighborhoods.

This is the kind of hike where you put your dog on a leash, a smile on your face and be as sociable or contemplative as you see fit. It’s also right off the Metro red line at Brookland/CUA, so it doesn’t require any planning, so much as a slow afternoon and an itch for something experiential. En route, savor the striking exteriors, and consider returning another time to explore the interiors.

Capital Crescent Trail

Description: 11 miles in full with shorter options. Easy.

For much of the 20th century, the Capital Crescent Trail was the right-of-way of a railroad spur line that delivered coal and building supplies to the Georgetown waterfront. When the remaining coal customers switched to truck delivery in 1985, the rail line was closed, but in 1996 it was reopened as a recreational nature trail, affording inner city residents from Bethesda and D.C. backyard access to an unanticipated community walkway. Used largely as a neighborhood recreational trail, and abuzz year-round with cyclists, dog-walkers and stroller-toting joggers, the CCT has been heralded by the International Project for Public Places as one of the 21 greatest places that show how transportation can enliven a community.

If you’re looking for a good hike, Fletcher’s Boathouse would be a good starting point. It’s about two miles above Georgetown and can be navigated upstream along the Potomac until it veers off and takes you all the way up to Bethesda. Once in Bethesda, treat yourself to a well-deserved meal at any one of the scores of restaurants within the city proper.

Columbia Island

Description: 5.7 miles. Easy.

This is one of the city’s best-kept natural secrets. It’s hidden in plain sight, in the Potomac River across from the Lincoln Memorial. You might know it better as the beautiful forestry surrounding the GW Parkway with all those scenic outlooks over the Potomac onto mainland Washington. Surrounding the island, and crisscrossing over, under and around the shrouded parkways and arching, its concrete bridges and quiet pathways lie waiting to be explored. The 121-acre island has been designated by the National Park Services as Lady Bird Johnson Park to honor the then-First Lady’s efforts to beautify the country, and is now in rolling abundance with dogwoods, pines and flowering bushes. Access the trail from the Virginia side, where there is a juncture from the Mount Vernon trail.

Great Falls

Description: Expansive. 1 mile-10 miles. Easy to difficult.

Great Falls is nothing short of a national landmark. Frequenters of this national park (and there are many of us) are sure to see tourists, family picnickers and recreational events in droves up and down the expansive recreational areas. The flagship representative for purple mountain’s majesty in the nation’s capital, visitors come from around the world to glimpse the thundering waterfalls of the Potomac that separate Virginia and Maryland. Good weather will find the park packed to capacity, amateur photographers sardined around scenic overlooks. Experienced climbers are known to hop the ledge and climb down the rocky cliffs to the riverside and look up into the ferocious mouths of the falls. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a kayaker braving the extreme rapids and freefalling thirty feet from one exhilarating threshold to the next. But the real beauty of Great Falls is that it’s really two parks rolled up into one: The Virginia side and the Maryland side. Each half of the park has a wealth of dynamic pathways and sites to keep a hungry adventurer occupied for weeks.

The Virginia Side
The Virginia side of Great Falls boasts rugged trails and convenient riverfront access (though if you’re venturing all the way down there, convenience is to be gauged relatively). You will hear many locals refer leisurely to “rock scrambling” along the water, as the staggered and jagged cliff faces make for deliciously spontaneous rock climbing. The mountainous heights and plumbing depths in such immediate vicinity to one another create treasure troves of natural beauty hidden from view of the trails, such as a cliff-encircled, sandy beach with jungle-like shrubs, and a small lake that may recall that fishin’ hole Mr. Griffith always whistled so fondly about.

The Maryland Side
With a maze of raised plank walkways that take hikers through a seeming marshland of tall grasses and overhanging trees, and a towpath running along an adjacent canal further inland, the Maryland side of Great Falls is also a northward connection to the Billy Goat Trail, off MacArthur Blvd. The views of the waterfalls themselves are arguably more expansive than its sister park across the river, and creeks and streams that feed into the Potomac offer hikers peaceful, secluded resting sites to wait out the beating sun.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Marsh

Description: 2-4 miles. Easy.

For a hike within the city limits, just off Anacostia Avenue NE, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Marsh are disarmingly exotic and wild – and anything but urban. The Aquatic Gardens are part of the 77-acre marsh, located on the east bank of the Anacostia River. Within this marshland hikers will find tidy garden landscapes and small, explosive bursts of wilderness. Acres of water-lily ponds – containing enormous communities of butterflies – wildflowers, an impressive collection of flowering lotuses and tidal marshes rich with plant and wildlife patch together this diverse expanse of inner-city biodiversity. The water-lily blooming season lasts from May to September, and the land lilies are at their peak in June and July, so now is the perfect time to go experience the backyard you never knew existed.

Potomac Heritage Trail

Scotts Run to Roosevelt Island
Description: 11.5 miles in full with shorter options. Moderate difficulty.

The longest trail east of the Mississippi after the Appalachian, the Potomac Heritage Trail is a network of trails extending from Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands to the Chesapeake Bay, which includes more than 800 miles of trails that are in many cases, pre-existing arteries of a different name. This branching path system has long been touted as a premiere urban-area hike destination.

Scotts Run Nature Preserve is at the base of the GW Parkway, where this hike begins, and where you could take any number of roundabout hikes of a different destination, as this is the meeting point of a number of other trails. Additionally, there are no closer waterfalls to the D.C. area than those in Scotts Run. Head north up the trail, designated as a segment of the PHT, parallel to the parkway, and enjoy a meditative hike along the Potomac, where you will pass Fort Marcy, a well preserved Civil War fort, some private riverfront estates, a small, rocky gorge equipped with handrails and eventually get to Potomac Overlook Regional Park. As you come upon the end of your journey, eyeing Roosevelt Island while passing under the Key Bridge, you might find yourself amazed by the ever-expanding natural world just beyond your doorstep.

Rock Creek Park

Description: Expansive. 1 mile-10 miles. Easy to moderate difficulty.

Rock Creek Park was founded in 1890 as one of the first federal parks. When the park was founded, it was already a favorite area for rural retreat in the growing city of Washington. In the establishing legislation, Rock Creek Park was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States…[The park will] provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curi­osities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition, as nearly as possible.”

On forest hills lie systems of Union Army fortifications from the Civil War, woven seamlessly into the dense wildlife of the surrounding area. Paths run around and throughout the historic park, highlighting the northern to southern regions. The hilly and often-ignored forests of the northern section are some of the city’s best hikes for complete emersion into nature. The unpaved trails are laden with horse tracks and wildlife abounds. The central area of Rock Creek is a popular area comprised of a rocky stream valley set amid the forestry. The premiere attraction is the Boulder Bridge, a (arguably) beautiful concrete arch bridge, adorned with boulder faces, that stretches across Rock Creek. Well-wooded parklands comprise the southern section, and the hikes, much like your favorite record, only get better by repeating the experience.

U.S. National Arboretum

Description: 8 miles in full with shorter options. Easy to moderate difficulty.

Though not as well known as perhaps it should be, the U.S. National Arboretum ranks among the city’s finest outdoor discoveries and easily the most botanically diverse hiking destination in or around the city. At almost 450 acres, the arboretum sits between New York Avenue and the Anacostia River. While it serves primarily as a U.S. Department of Agriculture horticultural research center, it is also a magnificent hiking destination that can overwhelm and dazzle the senses. Though deceivingly natural, the entire area is manmade, once but a plain tract of farmland. The scenery changes with each passing season, and communities of varying plants bloom through all 12 months, making it a great outdoor venue any time of year.

The scenery includes a five-acre forest of dwarf conifers, a single-trunk weeping blue Atlas cedar, an azalea grove, dawn redwoods (once believed to be extinct), tulip trees, a collection of plant life from Asia, Fern Valley, a wooded stream valley filled with Native American plants and even a collection of free-standing columns, once part of the Capital. There is more to be seen here than can be justly described in a few short paragraphs. We can only urge you to discover it for yourself.

Winkler Botanical Preserve

Description: 2 miles. Easy.

A private nature sanctuary hidden in western Alexandria, the Winkler Botanical Preserve is a great way to jump outside of the city without ever actually having to leave. With its small, easy network of hilly trail ways that stretch over 44 acres, there is much to be explored, including a small lake with several streams, a baby waterfall, meadow and covered bridge and even a bonafide Hobbit House. The playful scenery changes every few meters. Through its collection of 70 species of trees and around 650 species of flourishing wildflowers and plants, the Winkler family has created a private botanical preserve dedicated to serving as both a sanctuary and an institution specializing in trees and plants native to the Potomac River Valley. Guided tours of this preserve are monumentally beneficial, as it is so small and the plant life is unlabeled.

Beyond the Beltway:

Bull Run Mountains Natural Area

Description: Expansive. Moderate difficulty.

If you’re feeling more adventurous than usual, or simply have too much time on your hands, Bull Run is worth the drive. About thirty miles down I-66 at exit 40, the Bull Run Mountains are made up of a 16-mile mountain range that rises above the Piedmont area. Around Haymarket, this nature preserve offers hikers 2,500 acres of heavily wooded mountains to explore, including the headwaters of the Occoquan River, and one hell of a cliff-top vista of the surrounding area.

The trails are well preserved and labeled, with references to the area’s rich history. They are color-coded and appear on the preserve’s maps. Guided tours are available and summer camps for children even run throughout the summer from the preserve.

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The Blue and Gray: ‘Vince’ Optimistic About Campaign

Vincent Gray isn’t a natural politician.Maybe that’s why it took him so long to decide to challenge Mayor Adrian Fenty, taking on a man who’s much younger, who can tout progress and numerous achievements, who has a Midas-like war chest and who got into the mayor’s chair by winning every precinct in the District of Columbia.

“I like to think things over, carefully,” Gray recently told The Georgetowner. “It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. It’s a big risk. A lot of people were urging me, asking me to run. I’m still getting used to the idea that no matter what happens I won’t be on the council anymore in any capacity.”

Not to mention that if he should lose — and lots of so-called political experts say that’s likely — his political career is pretty much over. Gray, in short, made a decision not to run for re-election as city council chairman (for which he was a shoo-in), a position he had filled admirably by almost any measure.

I met Gray last week at Busboys and Poets (at Fourth and K Streets), which is near his campaign headquarters.

Asked how things were going, the mayoral candidate sounded enthusiastic. “Great,” he said. “It’s going great, really great.” When I suggested that things seemed to be getting testy, as evidenced in some of the exchanges at the Washington Hotel PAC candidate forum the previous week, he nodded. “Yes, they are,” he said, “It’s getting a little tense sometimes.”

In recent days, we’ve watched Gray several times, at the forum, on television, at the Ward 2 straw poll, and in person. If an election campaign is a drawn-out process, something like a boxing match of punches, counterpunches and dancing back and forth, Gray seems invigorated by the process, or at least he’s enjoying himself. For sure, candidates often repeat the same things over and over again, but Gray repeats some of his best stuff with relish.

As in: “When it comes to yard signs, the city’s turning blue, and the other side is green with envy.” It’s a hokey line, but it gets cheers from supporters every time, and a few laughs too. Gray laughs right along.

This an election campaign that seems to have been sparked not so much by a clash of ideas — although there are significant differences between the two — or even a conflict of wills, although that started becoming evident over the past year.

Rather, it’s a contest sparked by a growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the mayor’s way of operating, his style, his approach to dealing with the city council and constituents. Increasingly, Mayor Adrian Fenty, the executive leader as action figure, came to be seen as brusque, disconnected from voters (especially east of the Anacostia River), arrogant and unwilling to work with individuals or groups. Polls in January showed that while people appeared to like what he’d done in terms of school reform, public safety and development, they had serious reservations about his way of operating. Which doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Gray, a man who remains something of an enigma in large parts of the city. “I’ll say this,” Gray says. “I didn’t start out like some other people dreaming about becoming mayor or some such thing from the get-go,” he said. “I wanted to be a baseball player, and I was good at it, too.”

The self-described “through-and-through homey” grew up in a one-bedroom apartment at Sixth & L Streets N.E. He went to Logan Elementary, Langley Junior High School and graduated early at 16 from Dunbar High School, where he played first base, “hit over .500” and was scouted by professional baseball teams.

“It wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “But you know, I still think about it sometimes.” Gray still plays in a city softball league, apparently as reliable a hitter as ever.

In his younger days, politics wasn’t on his mind — he went to George Washington University, studying psychology and getting undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. From the beginning, he was passionately engaged in issues involving people with developmental disabilities. He worked at the Association of Retarded Citizens (now known as the ARC).

“Here’s a moment that affected me powerfully,” he said. “I was given a tour once of Forest Haven, a mental institution run by the District, a horrible place. I saw female residents and patients there, being herded outside, with no clothes, being hosed down. I’ll never forget that.”

Gray led the effort to finally close down Forest Haven, an achievement he still speaks about with pride. In 1991, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly made him Director of the Department of Human Services, in an era when the District government was heading for its lowest points. Fenty and his spokesmen repeatedly criticized Gray for being a part of that administration, whose failures eventually led to the imposing of a Control Board on the city, which oversaw its operations and finances.

Gray chafes at the criticism, especially from Fenty. “What in the world do you know about the 1990s?” he said angrily at the hotel forum. “You have no idea, you need people to tell you what happened.”

To Gray, that period was about public service, which later would include his becoming director of Covenant House, a faith-based organization that serves homeless people and at-risk youth.

“You take pride in things like that,” he said. “I do. Because you can help people.”
He took a keen interest in education, almost naturally, given that his wife Loretta, who passed away from cancer in 1998, was a teacher in the D.C. Public Schools system all her professional life.

Gray, who has two grown children and two grandchildren, still lives in the family’s Hillcrest neighborhood home, pretty much by himself. “I’ve got a cat,” he said.

Hillcrest is in Ward 7, from which, in 2004, Gray launched his first political race for the council seat occupied by Kevin Chavous, who had run unsuccessfully for mayor. Less than midway through his term, he was encouraged to run for council chair by his supporters. “I said at first that maybe they were having a mental health problem,” he said. But run he did, winning a very tough and tense race against Kathy Patterson, the highly regarded Ward 3 incumbent.

He rolled into office with a triumphant Adrian Fenty, and several other new members, including Kwame Brown, Harry Thomas, Jr. from Ward 5, Tommy Wells from Ward 6 and Mary Cheh from Ward 3. It seemed, four years ago, like a fresh slate, a new beginning.

It was Gray who presided even-handedly — and forcefully — over the hearings for the legislation that would allow Fenty to take control of the District schools and initiate the school reforms that would culminate with the selection of Michelle Rhee as chancellor.

“This mayor voted against mayoral control when Mayor Williams tried to get that,” Gray pointed out.

Fenty announced the appointment of Rhee without consulting Gray or the council first; The Washington Post had the news before they did.

Gray dismisses the suggestion that this was an early catalyst for his decision to run. “A lot of things had already happened, and were continuing to happen.” he said. “It was an accumulation of things.”

But the school reform process, which included a delayed, drawn-out contract negotiation and the abrupt and controversial firing of nearly 300 teachers last fall over mysterious budget shortfalls, took its toll on Gray, and increasingly appeared to leave him at odds with both Fenty and Rhee.

“It’s not something I set out to do when I was elected chairman,” Gray said. “At first, a lot of people were urging me to run. And then, well, you feel compelled to do so.”
Gray sees it as another way to serve. He is known as the kind of chairman who will work hard to reach out to others and arrive at a consensus. And there is a way of doing that, as far as he’s concerned. “You respect people,” he said. “You work with them. You bring people together. You give and take. But especially, it’s about dignity and respect.”

He accused Fenty of cronyism during the parks and recreation fiasco last year, saying the mayor bypassed the council while giving contracts to his friends, a matter still under investigation. He’s clashed with District Attorney General Peter Nickles frequently over the issue, and has gone so far as to suggest that Nickles be fired.

Ray, who likes to listen to jazz and Motown oldies, is clearly energized on the campaign trail. He still slams Fenty for a recent no-show. “Here we are,” he said. “We’re going to hold a public forum on education, which is the mayor’s number one issue. He holds the cards, and what happens? He’s a no-show. He doesn’t show up. I was shocked, let me tell you.”

Clearly, there are style issues here. But it goes deeper than that — it’s generational. Fenty will be 40 this December, Gray is 66. If Ray has a political idol, it’s Walter Washington, the city’s first mayor under home rule. “He had such a difficult task, but he stood tall, he behaved with great authority and dignity, and he tried to do what’s best for the whole city. That’s what I intend to do.”

“The question isn’t about firing people, or what I would do with Michelle Rhee. It isn’t about one person. It’s about the whole city. Education isn’t just about test scores, it’s about expanding vocational education and jobs, it’s about early education and special education and charter schools and community schools and equal resources.”

In fact, his education proposals aren’t so much different from Fenty or Rhee as they are more expansive and more inclusive.

“We’ve got to reach out to everybody, we can’t govern from some lofty hill and just do things without talking to people,” he said. “When I’m mayor, I’ll be mayor for the whole city, not just parts of it.”

A Barking Good Time

The Washington Animal Rescue League has a number of dog-related events on deck. Looking to adopt? Check out their dog adoption event at D.C. United’s Aug. 22 game against the Philadelphia Union at 11:30 a.m. League representatives are also on hand Aug. 25 at the Spy Museum’s Community Day, mingling with locals and showing off their prized pooches beginning at 4 p.m. Those eager for a night on the town with their four-pawed pals should head to Paws at the Park on Sept. 1, a cocktail mixer and benefit at the Park Hyatt, 1201 24th St. 6 p.m., $12 at the door for two drink tickets.

Bring your best friend out to J. McLaughlin’s (3278 M St.) dog photo shoot party beginning Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. The party will kick off a five-day photo competition inviting the public to submit photos of their canine companions to win in five categories, including “Best in Show” and “Most Irresistible” (who could resist that?). A $5 entry fee is required, all proceeds going to the Washington Animal Rescue League. From Sept. 27 to Oct. 10 the public will cast their ballots to select the winners, who will take home a J. McLaughlin brand leash, collar and belt (for the owner, of course). Talk about celebrating the dog days in style.

Dog-Friendly Happy Hours

Life, especially in August, is better spent with a cold drink and a good friend. Why not your best friend? Despite a restaurant scene where our furry compadres are often treated as pooches non grata, a generous handful of bars in the District have no problem serving up a dish of water with a dirty martini. Just don’t forget the treats.

Come Friday in Adams Morgan, you’ll find pups aplenty tramping around the vast patio at Adams Mill Bar & Grill (1813 Adams Mill Road). Humans get a few bucks off their suds or tipplers, but the dogs really cash in — the nearby Doggie Style Bakery comes through each week with a healthy supply of cookies, cupcakes and ice cream, all made for canines (and surprisingly nutritious, too).

Wag away, pizza lovers. Red Rocks Pizzeria in Columbia Heights (1036 Park Road) opens its corner patio on weekdays to people and their pooches from 4 to 7 p.m. Drafts are $1, your pal gets a complimentary dish of water, and the pizza is out of sight (sharing crusts, of course, is optional).

Union Pub (201 Massachusetts Ave. N.E.) hosts its weekly Pooches on the Patio on Saturdays from noon until sundown. $5 meal specials — fittingly, the mini corn dogs are a must — are available until 4, and $2.50 rail drinks are on tap all night.

Finally, if you feel like venturing across the river, head to Old Town for the official Doggie Happy Hour at, of all places, the Hotel Monaco (480 King St., Alexandria) from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. With the resident bichon frise Charlie holding court, canine attendees can expect their share of treats and fresh water, along with the chance for a little socializing. The hotel also hosts an annual Halloween event for the more extroverted (or is it thick-skinned?) pups to strut their stuff. Visit for more information.

Listening to the Paintings

Plato advised his students about the dangers of forming strong opinions when they were still very young and inexperienced. One such young Washingtonian learned this life lesson and went on to be a great promoter of what he originally disparaged. The New York Armory show of 1913 was the first time the French Impressionists had a big showing on this side of the Atlantic, and young Duncan Phillips, then an art critic at Yale, attended the show and wrote about what he saw. Phillips, who had never before seen art like this, wrote that it was “stupefying in its vulgarity”. He said Cezanne was “an unbalanced fanatic”, Gauguin was “half savage,” the Cubists were ridiculous and Matisse was “poisonous”. He would live to take back his words a thousand times over by founding what is considered by many to be the first modern art museum in America, Washington’s own Phillips Collection.

Phillip’s passion for art was shared by his brother James, and the two siblings were very close. When James Philips died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Duncan decided to make a monument in his memory. Phillip’s wife, the painter Marjorie Acker, further inspired him and with the money he inherited from his family’s Pittsburgh steel fortune, the couple traveled the world acquiring the art works that would be the basis for their collection. They displayed their acquisitions in the family home at the corner of 21st and Q Streets, and eventually turned the whole building into a museum and moved to Foxhall Road. The great coup of their collecting adventures was Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”, which Phillips bought for $125,000. This sounds ridiculously cheap today but it was a fortune in 1923. When his rival collector, Philadelphia multi-millionaire Dr Alfred Barnes, who bought paintings by the carload, heard about the purchase, he asked Phillips, “That’s the only Renoir you’ve got, isn’t it?” and Phillips answered, “It’s the only one I need.” He was right. The painting instantly became a big draw and attraction for the museum.

Phillips went on to sponsor and encourage a raft of artists who were ”cutting edge” at that time, including Georgia O’Keefe, Milton Avery, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Arthur Dove. A special small room in the gallery is dedicated to Mark Rothko and the artist himself participated in planning the space, so it would reflect his paintings as “distillations of human experience”. The small room flooded with Rothko colors creates a emotional context for the viewer, or as Phillips himself said, Rothko’s paintings have the power to expose “old emotions disturbed or resolved.”

Phillips liked to move paintings around so the artists could “talk to each other.” And when you walk through the rooms, the varying visions of artists clash and coincide in a provocative way that fosters what Phillips wanted to teach, “the power to see beautifully”. We’re lucky that this man who grew to see so beautifully himself had the money to build a great collection and we’re also lucky that the young man to attended the 1913 Armory show changed his mind about “modern art”. Now we Washingtonians can enjoy the very personal experience of visiting his collections and communing with the artists as their paintings “talk to each other.” [gallery ids="99185,103269,103275,103273" nav="thumbs"]

Council Candidates Ruffle Tenant Feathers

In a 2010 election campaign where the focus and news coverage seems to be almost exclusively on the combative struggle between incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and council Chairman Vincent Gray and, less so, the two-man race between At-large Councilman Kwame Brown and former Ward 5 Councilman Vincent Orange, the numerous races for other city council seats sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

The recent D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition city council candidates forum at the venerable Sumner School tried to pack in all the council candidates, including Brown and Orange, into one forum, a process that proved to be both unwieldy and illuminating, a kind of fasten-your-seatbelts night with lots of placards outside while a picture of political diversity emerged inside.

As is often the case with any forums sponsored by particular groups, the focus often tends to be on the interests and concerns of that group. TENAC is a coalition of groups focusing on the concerns of renters, which make up a majority of D.C. residents. That includes protection from landlords, the preservation and extensions of rent control laws, legal representation against landlords, tenant rights issues, development, condo conversions, the need for affordable housing units and so on.

The issues of affordable housing and the rights of tenants is a kind of arena where we-the-people populism clashes with age-old economic interests, usually big and small business developers, construction companies, lobbyists, and property owners with deeper pockets and what are often seen as heartless tactics (hence the mention of the plight of people evicted from their domiciles, their property and belongings strewn all over the sidewalk).

The issues vary throughout the city, and they’re very much a part of today’s economic climate of failed mortgages, a housing market that’s stalled, condos that aren’t selling, buildings that are either being converted to condo status, or re-converted to rental units with higher price tags. TENAC confronts these issues as an advocate for tenants, and that often includes battling developers, promoting mixed use projects and, above all, preserving rent control.

“There is no substitute for rent control,” said Jim McGrath, the dynamic, eloquent TENAC president with a bit of an Irish lilt and bent in his voice. “All of you who came here tonight have a stake in this, and we want to hear from the folks who are running all over the District and their stands on this and other issues.”

You see all sorts of people at forums — the homeowners worried about more taxes, students, bankers, landlords and developers, hotel managers, tourist workers, restaurant owners, teachers and educators, city workers and advocates for the homeless. The rich, the poor, people with a lot, people struggling, people with visions for the city’s future, and people who see things others don’t, people who want to keep what they have, and people afraid they’ll lose just that.

Renters make up a large body of potential voters, but they’re also some of the most economically vulnerable people in the city. They have to deal with regulations and regulators, officialdom and bureaucracies in maintaining some semblance of day-to-day living security. So you’ll find elderly people on fixed incomes living in endangered rent control apartments, or families living in complexes or units where owners have decided to convert to either much higher rents or condominiums. Some of those situations conspire to erupt into all-out legal warfare and tactics in which landlords have been known to reduce basic services in order to drive current renters out.

Lots of people showed up to tell their stories, and even more candidates showed up, some of whom many people around the city are probably not aware. The forum was also hurt by the fact that it competed with a D.C. Night Out event. “National Night Out is Fine,” McGrath said. “Tenants’ night in is better.” Both Brown and Orange were absent at the start of the forum.

Still, here was Ward One incumbent Jim Graham pointing all of his legislative and one-man endeavors to keep rent control and its extensions and efforts to make it permanent, and explaining how elected officials, advocates for tenant rights and realtors work in an arena that is full of “Faustian deals.”

This is a world in which there is—in spite of the claims of officialdom—a decreasing affordable housing lot, and as Ward 3 Councilperson Mary Cheh and others pointed out, the very definition of affordable housing “might surprise you.”

“We are not talking about people at or near poverty-level earnings, were talking high five-figure salaries that qualify.”

It’s a slippery world where the rules change all the time. These forums where the tumult of the Gray and Fenty campaigns have receded open up still another world — where Graham, for instance, has two very viable challengers in Bryan Weaver and Jeff Smith, easily the two best dressed men in the room. It’s a world where Phil Mendelson, facing a tough challenge from Clark Ray for an at-large council seat, doggedly presented himself as a defender of rent control, of renters and vox populis, and where Ward 6 contender Tommy Wells faced his challenger, the eloquent Kelvin Robinson, once again.

It is a different world, this kind of forum—a world of struggling people trying to sort out the words of candidates who seem closer to them than the more large-scale politicians battling for the top spots.

Even so, things happen. An alarm went off. Literally. The building had to be evacuated. As we walked down behind a woman slowed by ailing joints, you could hear a man say “Somebody did this. I just know it. They didn’t want things to go right here.” Firemen walked through the building checking alarms. There was no fire, although there was a lot of fiery oratory.

News From the Campaign

Earlier in the campaign, after a mayoral campaign, TENAC ended up endorsing challenger Vincent Gray over Fenty because “he will look out after tenants’ rights better than the incumbents,” among many reasons offered up by McGrath.

TENAC wasn’t alone in supporting Gray. Both the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO offered up their endorsement of Gray, as did the Latino community and other groups recently.

Fenty, on the other hand, received an early and glowing endorsement from the Washington Post which has supported almost uncritically his stand on school reform and his unstinting support in that direction of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who most recently and controversially fired over 200 teachers based on untried and locally developed evaluation systems, a development that so far has been met with almost total silence on the campaign trail.

Lacking regular polls, straw polls, themselves not necessarily reliable, have been used by observers on the campaign trail to try and make some sense of the ebb and flow of the campaigns. Fenty wins Ward 8, surprisingly, has a too-close win in Ward 2, drops Wards 3 and 6, and most recently suffered a startling loss in Ward 4, Fenty’s home district, where long-time residents appeared to rise up in revolt against him.

That straw poll event included by all account a loud, raucous forum, accompanied by imported supporters, some rough back-and-forths between the candidates and their supporters. It’s uncertain whoever’s ahead, but it’s also certain that the level of civility has fallen among the main contenders and their followers and the level of hostility has risen.

Straw polls are notoriously unreliable as indicators, but the Ward 4 results seem to have sent ripples through the media, votes, and the camps of all the candidates. Stay tuned for storms and loud political noises.

Candidates Charge Through Ward 2

Every election campaign is a process, an ongoing ebb-and-flow epic, punctuated by candidate forums, straw votes, polls and news. Campaigns also heat up at various times, beginning with candidacy announcement, going through polls, attacks and counter-attacks, policy debates and the waning days running toward the climax and voting.

In the case of the District of Columbia primary — the Democratic Party primary, which in this city is tantamount to the election in November — that would be September 14. A lot has happened already.

Four years ago, a young, ambitious Ward 4 councilman named Adrian Fenty was taking on veteran and heavily favored city council chair Linda Cropp, criss-crossing the city hellbent on knocking on every door of every house. Cropp and her managers weren’t paying close enough attention and the result was a devastating victory for Fenty, winning every precinct and ward in the city. He brought with him a new chairman — Ward 7’s Vincent Gray — and other new faces, including Harry Thomas Jr. in Ward 5, Mary Cheh in Ward 3, At-large Councilman Kwame Brown and Tommy Wells in Ward 6.

This time around, things seem a little resonant of the previous run: Fenty is once again facing a city council chairman in self-dubbed candidate Vince Gray, who finally entered the race in the spring, prodded by supporters and a polled dissatisfaction with Fenty’s style and way of operating.

But it’s also different: where the 2006 election seemed almost dreamily sleepy and below the radar in the summer months, this race has a daily, electric and strange feel to it, covered almost 24-7 by a blogosphere that never lets up. Gray has polled well, but there have been no recent polls. He’s won big citywide straw votes, although straw votes, because of their size, are rarely true indicators of results. The campaign has turned surprisingly negative, with periodic outbursts of anger and hostility flaring up. With Gray’s mayoral candidacy, the new chair will be either Kwame Brown or former D.C. Councilmember and mayoral candidate Vincent Orange, after Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans chose not to run. The Brown vs. Orange choice now seems like slim pickings to some observers, especially after news that Brown carries an unpaid $50,000 credit debt and owns a boat called Bulletproof.

And all that is before last week’s firings of 241 teachers for “poor performance” under a new and still controversial evaluation program called IMPACT launched by Michelle Rhee.

Over the last few days, we peeked in the candidates at a Hotel PAC forum, at the Penn Quarter Association forum for non-mayoral candidates and a Ward 2 Democratic straw poll.

Under the prodding of moderator and WRC reporter Tom Sherwood, Fenty and Gray engaged in some heated exchanges notable for what appeared to be genuine anger on Gray’s part. When the mayor in a boilerplate statement thanked the Hotel PAC “for this opportunity to debate the issues,” Gray responded in turn by saying angrily, “You’ve had lots of opportunities to debate the issues. You just haven’t shown up.” He called the mayor’s failure to show up at a recent education forum “shocking … That’s his issue, for heaven’s sake.”

When the mayor again criticized Gray for his human services gig in the 1990s, Gray said “what in the world could you possibly know about the 1990s?”

At the Penn Quarter forum, Brown and Orange both touted themselves in different ways: Brown talking endorsements, including several organizations around the city and “all of my fellow councilmen,” Orange touting his experience on the council and his rise from a poor family. In the at-large council race, Clark Ray came across as experience-hungry and energetic, Phil Mendelson as experienced. Tommy Wells touted his experience and progress in educational reform, which he’s supported. Challenger Kelvin Robinson promised to push for more choices in education. The former chief of staff to Mayor Anthony Williams proved articulate, vocal and knowledgeable, though without highlighting failures, it’s always tough to topple an incumbent at the ward level, and Wells seems anything but complacent.

At the Ward 2 Democratic straw poll in Thomas Circle, it was politics and campaigns as theater. While supporters showed their signs outside with a sea of bobbing blues and grays held high for drivers to see (with much honking ensuing), Gray and Fenty appeared one after the other to give their stump speeches and engage with supporters. Fenty, it turned out, won the vote by about a 30-point margin, enough to breathe a sigh of relief, but not big enough to free himself of worry.