Musings + Essays

D.C. and the The Parochial Wild.

By: Jen Shoop

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.

Darling new Gap baby arrival.

This tunic is SO CHIC.  I’d wear it over my go-to black one-piece with huge black shades.

Dream outfit right now: this blouse with white jeans and these slides.

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?

I never thought I’d want to own a frayed denim skirt again (flashback to high school), but this Everlane find has me reconsidering….imagine it with this.

This is so so so so so cute.  I want to throw it on after a day at the beach, with my hair piled on top of my head — and these slides.

Wouldn’t my scarf look adorbs with these (finally on sale!?)

Speaking of Tuckernuck, check out their sale!!!!  I love this classic yellow slicker, this floaty white dress, and all of the Kule tshirts on sale!!!!

Very exciting (no, really): I’m buying this and two of these to organize the clutter on top of our washing machine — we stow detergent, an iron, etc up there.

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19 thoughts on “D.C. and the The Parochial Wild.

  1. Tuning in way late here, but just wanted to say how much I loved this and identified with it. I went to college at AU and got to know DC on foot but also behind the wheel of my little Nissan, which I piloted all over the city, and beyond. This was pre-smartphone and pre-GPS, so I had to rely on the directions I jotted down on a post-it, and the paper maps in my glovebox. It was a fantastic way to learn DC, and all its bizarre and beautiful and magical little corners, awash in humidity and that lush greenery. The bit about taking a left onto Tunlaw…I knew exactly what you’re talking about! I desperately wanted to feel at home in DC, and despite my efforts to commune with the city by knowing its every corner, I never really did. I now live in NYC, where my family roots run much deeper, and despite not being a car owner anymore, if feels like home more than DC ever did.

    1. OMG — directions on a post-it. I remember those days. (Or printed out from Mapquest and inevitably flawed.) It’s funny that you make the point that some places just never feel like home to us. We lived in Chicago for five years, bought a home there — but it never really felt like “my city.” I always felt a bit like an outsider there, like the streets I came to know were familiar in a temporary way but not in the deep, lived-in, THIS IS MY CORNER OF THE WORLD kind of way. I already feel a lot closer to New York than I ever did in Chicago, though I think part of that could be owing to my entirely pedestrian life, where every single square of pavement in my neighborhood feels familiar to me already. You know? Anyway, thanks so much for writing this; glad it resonated. xoxo

  2. I feel the same about D.C. and I only lived there for one summer. But after reading your post I now wonder if that’s because at that time I was dating a boy that had grown up there and I was experiencing the city of his childhood… All interesting food for thought.

    1. That is super interesting to think about! I do think I have impressions of Chicago and New York that were shaped by people that lived there before I did, too.

      Glad it resonated with you though 🙂

  3. I adore this post and the way it unfolds. You write so beautifully (as always!) about your hometown. I have spent a considerable amount of time in DC, mostly for work — and while, to me, it has always conveyed a feeling of grandeur (mostly thinking of the central parts of the city here), I know exactly what you mean about Northwest DC. Lush, humid, and quiet. Love.

    I’m thinking about my hometown, which is about 20 miles west of Manhattan, and thinking about how its old homes and Revolutionary War-era buildings have informed my sense of what I find attractive in dwellings. I’ve always loved my hometown for its gentle hilly landscape, diversity, and proximity to not only New York, but the beach and (relative) mountains as well. And New York itself — what can I say about it other than that I find it hard to see it as outsiders do, having grown up so close by and having spent so much time there, and then lived there for 8 years? It’s like no other city I’ve been to, and I mean that from both sides, positive and negative.

    As far as my current hometown (Cambridge), I love how leafy it is and how the various neighborhoods have such unique feels in terms of their landscapes. It’s much more manageable than New York, of course, but I love the academic inflections, the history, and the cultural offerings as well.

    1. Hi! I’ve visited Cambridge a number of times for work in the past, and I was obsessed with it, and especially running in it and then down the Charles River. What a beautiful city. I’ve always told Landon that I think we would love to live in Boston — it combines some of my favorite elements of D.C. and specifically Georgetown (quaint streets, a nod to American origins) with “big city” elements I’ve always cottoned to — higher skylines, busier urban areas. Remarkable how green Boston is, too!

      Thanks for writing in about this!

    2. I think you’d like living in Boston, too, for all those reasons and more! Cambridge is really such a gem of a city — I adore living here.

  4. Wow. Such a perfect description of DC, and what a lovely way to be thoughtful about space — both how we find it, find ourselves in it, and create it. I lived in DC for a while after college, and those back road routes off of Chain Bridge always reminded me of the mid-Atlantic suburbs that I grew up in. So green and winding and with that special kind of heat that seems to be so quiet and weighty.
    I love love love your description of New York and how it feels harder to see the earth underneath the city (or even, the older city under the city, like you can see in places like Rome). That’s such a striking idea and one that will resonate with me, I think, in the way I meander through my own current midwestern city — so planned and rectangular, but with a daily interaction with powerful manifestations of nature — big storms, big heat, daily unfurling plant life. I am so glad it’s summer and we get to see, if we like, how lightly we live on it all.
    Thanks for this –

    1. Thank you so much, Aileen — I love the way you described your new hometown, too: “daily unfurling plant life”! Cool to live in a spot that blends the natural with the manmade. xo

  5. I agree with all you said about DC (including Chain Bridge and Tunlaw!). To me, the building height restrictions make the city more approachable, more comfortable. Another factor is that- with the exception of Farragut North to Gallery Place, Foggy Bottom to Federal Triangle, and Navy Yard*- you are never more than two blocks from houses. Not apartment buildings and new developments, but real houses. To me, seeing the unpolished signs of human life make a city seem small. Toys and shoes on the front porch, the wild vines you mentioned, a newspaper yet to be taken inside. I don’t think you have the proximity to houses/real life like that in other “big” cities. Part of the reason I love living in DC is that it does have that smaller city feel.

    *Have you been to Navy Yard in the past two or three years? It’s undergone an insane amount of development and seems so different than the rest of the city. All new “hi rise” (for DC) apartment buildings, hip chains like Philz, and catered to Nats park crowd. It feels so different than the rest of the city, and I’m not sure how to feel about it.

    1. Hi Kate – That is such a well-observed point, that you’re never far from real single family homes, or rowhouses, and the litter of life that accompanies “real life living.” So true. I have been down to Navy Yard and agree with your assessment; it feels out of place to me, sort of inauthentic to the D.C. I know. But sometimes these new developments just take time to earn their own “lived in” patina. I remember when the High Line went up in NYC maybe a decade ago — it felt so brand new in a city so old! But, now, it’s part of the cityscape.


  6. Your thoughts on DC ring so true! Your description of DC’s heavy, green summers does justice to my own memories of living in DC years ago. And your words on how even a big city can have the characteristics of a small town when you grow up in an interconnected community of family, classmates, and friends strike a chord. It’s that same feeling that brought me back to my own (humid and hot and lush) hometown, where I see cousins at the grocery store and my parents’ friends sit next to us at dinner.

    1. Yes! Your comments made me realize how much it truly is “a little of Column A, a little of Column B” in the sense that our interpretations/memories of a physical place are both rooted in its actual features and in the narrow aspects of our own lives. Thanks for reading and writing this!

  7. Your writing is so beautiful – elegant is the best word I can think of to describe it. Not overly done, flowery and full of pretentious words, but elevated from so much of what we read today – tweets and Instagram captions and screaming political headlines. Your posts are a breath of fresh air in a blog world full of PR moves and c/o clothing.

    I’m from the southwest and the physical landscape is so ingrained in the culture and the identity of the west. Many more talented writers have come before me and written about it, but I still think of home as being wild. Not wild like your D.C., but wild like the wild west, where things aren’t always strategic and planned for, but instead someone woke up one day and thought, “Today I will…” It has an element of survival that makes you tough; nothing survives in the desert easily: animals, plants, buildings.

    I could carry on all morning thinking about this and the places I’ve lived and spent time: the barn where my horses are, the deep South where I went to school, the sleepy South Carolina town where I lived post-grad and now, this Midwestern town that almost feels too nice sometimes, like the total opposite of wild.

    A lovely way to start my morning, thank you!

    1. Hi Holly! I love your description of the Southwest — “where things aren’t always strategic and planned for, but instead someone woke up one day and thought, ‘Today I will…'” WOW. I lingered over that for a good couple of minutes. I haven’t spent enough time in that neck of the woods, but I completely understand what you mean, and it’s funny the way “manifest destiny” and the land grabs of the 1800s have imprinted themselves there, even now, even hundreds of years after the fact. Thanks for writing that, and also for your extremely generous words. Thank you for reading. xo

  8. You are absolutely spot-on about D.C., coming from a visitor! Probably everyone who went to school in Virginia feels some ownership over it, as they would race up for the weekend or cinch a coveted internship there, but that’s all I had: small exposures.

    D.C. was small in my mind until you recalled its wild: then the stop signs sprung up in front of my eyes once more.

    Thank you for the beautiful reminder of this gorgeous city!

    (By the way it’s Bunny!! But as I mentioned, I have a new blog… so I wanted to start posting under my blog name instead of the . Just posting on Sundays for now, but this Sunday will be a what’s in my bag, which I know you love too!)

    1. So happy to hear it resonated — I have been so curious…

      Congrats on the new blog! Keep writing!


  9. I often feel too intimidated to comment here – your writing is so elevated and intricate, and my tired morning mind never feels up to the high bar of eloquence! But I just loved how you captured the D.C. summer essence in this magical piece – so, thank you for the beautiful read.

    1. Dana! Never feel that way! Jump on in. I have the advantage of time to edit and reflect and write these posts over a couple of days, and then I dump it all on you at 7 A.M. in the morning 🙂 But, regardless — thank you for taking the time to respond today. I’m so happy my description resonated! I have been seriously wondering whether my impression of it is radically different from that of others…xo

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