In Pursuit of No Place

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… Nothing outside you can give you any place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

― Flannery O’Connor

My Memorial Day weekend double feature explored two popular accounts of drifts to the edges of civilization on the road in the American West. First, I reread Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, the young man who died in a remote Alaska van in the early 1990s and was immortalized by a Jon Krakauer book and a later film. Second, I finally got around to the most recent Best Picture winner at the Oscars, Nomadland, a loosely fictionalized version of an award-winning work of non-fiction on people dislocated by the Great Recession who took up a wandering van life. Their adventures tap into a very American thirst for the road, one I ruminated on while road tripping out west last year.

One could draw a sharp distinction between McCandless, a child of suburban privilege who rejected his well-off parents and his Emory degree to go look for something else, and Frances McDormand as Nomadland’s Fern, a woman who, penniless, has just lost both her husband and the employer that was her small town’s raison d’etre. But in each case, the wanderers are haunted by certain scars, and there is an obvious element of agency both in the decision to strike out in the first place and, more weightily, in the decision to stick with an itinerant life despite ample available off ramps. These people are destined to wander, either because they have rejected anything that used to hold them to a place or because whatever that thing was is no longer there.

To strike out like these late capitalist nomads takes a certain headstrong confidence and a rare dose of independence, plus a yearning desire for something that the familiar motions of life cannot offer. No more will they be chained to anything other than a short-term job, and they strip down their possessions to the essentials. Forget any pursuit of wealth; getting by is just fine. In place of a mortgage or rent, a van or even just a tent. Any family they have is ripped from them, and the most wrenching moments in these stories come from the perspective of those who love them: McCandless’s parents and especially his sister, or in Dave, the tender fellow wanderer who asks Fern to join him when he finally settles down. Sadly for their loved ones but grippingly for those of us drawn to their stories, the call for these nomads is too powerful for them to settle down.

There is plenty to admire in the life they choose. Both stories paint a laudatory portrait of the support networks that emerge along the edges of civilization, among the fellow travelers and the kindly souls who take in our vagabonds. Both McCandless and Fern find genuine companionship among fellow itinerants and simple folk who live in scattered outposts across the West. The stray jobs that our protagonists work, in greasy diners and for seasonal harvests and as campground hosts, while low-paying and each offering their own unique indignities, do not come off as hellish: they offer community and stray sources of amusement and sustain the wandering lifestyle. When Fern visits a well-off sister and endures the scorn of her husband and friends, the sister rises to her defense: Fern is taking her place in a long and noble American tradition, freed by her wanderlust to do as she chooses and make the best of a difficult situation. Who are we to judge?

Accounts like Into the Wild and Nomadland can glaze over the risks of a life on the road: robbery, rape, the mental instability that often comes in groups of those on the margins. Most people living some version of the itinerant life do not have fallbacks like Emory degrees or Dave with his well-off son, and some have children or ailing family members or other burdens that shed a different moral light on their wanderings. These stories run the risk of romanticizing an economy built on grueling manual labor for meager returns: Nomadland’s look into Amazon warehouses and farm work is one of light-touch neutrality, with only a vague sense of how backbreaking it can be and not a hint of the immigrants who make up a large chunk of these workforces. There is triumph in making the most of difficult situations, yes, but are we okay with what got us here in the first place?

And sometimes the wanderers wind up dead. McCandless’s story still courts controversy: is he a naïve idiot who wandered unprepared into the Alaskan backcountry, or a folk hero who had the boldness to do what he wanted to do? Krakauer, who had his own bout of youthful wanderlust, is sympathetic to his impulses, if not to all of his actions. For everything modernity has achieved, it has flattened the acceptable outlets for human self-expression and soul-searching, of any experience that goes beyond certain moral and rational bounds that control a society’s definition of a responsible life. This is especially burdensome for the idealists, and for whom a responsible life has given only suffering. Deadened by the world around them, Fern and McCandless look for a shock that goes to the edge and contemplates mortality, that adds urgency back and purpose back into a bourgeois life. Human connection feels rawer here, more meaningful, a chosen community of people who have all taken some version of the same leap. A society that allows for such informality and freedom of movement for those who choose it does not strike me as a bad one, even if the choice of that life can sometimes have grave consequences.

I write these words right before I start in on another summer with its share wandering with tents, of voluntary renunciation of creature comforts for a thin air mattress far from cell service or indoor plumbing. This all happens after a year of extensive nesting into a new home that I am very fond of; the wandering road is one I have now closed off for myself. Perhaps this is because the questions that motivated a McCandless have inserted themselves into my life in other ways and found different answers, or perhaps I am merely intrigued by stories of people who do things I would never be inclined to do.

But there’s still a hint of that tug, which is part of the allure to a northern Minnesota weekend warrior. There is peace in knowing that all that matters is making it to the next camp and then completing the mundane tasks of food and shelter before moving on and doing it all again. The endless to-do list and scheming of next moves is gone, or viewed from a comfortable distance and penned in a notebook. It is not unlike the life of some friends who now have small children: the needs are simple and straightforward, a semi-regular schedule of meeting basic desires and making the rest work from there. The tyranny of choice recedes, though knowledge of other paths may still loom. It is a return to an earlier state of fewer expectations and fewer burdens, disconnected from the hyperactive hive mind of modern work.

It was hard not to see these two works through a lens of another book I just read, Annalee Newitz’s Four Lost Cities, an account of how people in a few great cities of antiquity adapted even as natural and political disasters upended their worlds. The era of monumental construction and close quarters living may have been over, and emperors or local elites may have fallen, but the people mostly went on with life, reverting to earlier forms of subsistence and steadiness to get by. Whether through preparation or necessity, modern-day nomads learn a bevy of essential survival skills, and in the event of any coming ruin, would be among the better guides. A nomadic life is an insightful return to the past in more ways than one.

It is harder and harder to get off the grid now. Even in the early 90s, McCandless was within easy walking distance of civilization if he’d bothered to bring a map with him; his decision not to was both a manufactured act of rebellion and, ultimately, a death sentence. Now, one can trace his whole route meticulously on GoogleMaps, and in 2020, Alaskan authorities airlifted his old bus out to a museum in Fairbanks because too many clueless pilgrims were risking their lives visiting it. A mysterious monument that appeared in the Utah desert in the past year, its location kept intentionally secret, was located within days by enterprising satellite map explorers. We now have the ability to fill every last blank space on a map, to be surveilled every step of the way. But the actual taste of those worlds outside the confines of social expectation and economic perpetual motion, the rawness that can meet some deep animal need in both the ambitious and the bloodied: for those among us who need to look beyond to find ourselves, well, that is something no map can contain. The road beckons.

Run This Town

I’ve been a Minneapolitan for eight months now, and I’m slowly starting to mark this city as my own. There is much to like here, though I am skeptical as to how real the Miracle really is when one looks into its underbelly, and don’t know how long I’ll stay after my two-year stint here is up. Still, I’ve been coming to know it in my own particular way, as I have in the past with Duluth and Washington: by foot, running its streets in every direction I can, those runs sometimes degenerating into walks when I stray too far afield to keep up the intensity or find something worth watching at a slower pace.

Home base is in a neighborhood known as the Wedge, both for its triangular shape and the way it shoves itself in between the opulent old money homes of Lowry Hill and Lake of the Isles and the diverse, eclectic, and poorer neighborhoods to the east. It gives easy access to downtown to the north or Uptown to the south, the connections all fluid. It’s spring in Minnesota, that time of year we appreciate best, and it’s time to head back out.

My best-worn route sends me on an architecture tour of the fine homes wrapping around the lakes, though someone long ago had the good sense to save the lakeshore for the public, leaving us with promenades for bikers and walkers, there to see the wealth and to be seen themselves. I’ll meander off the running paths and into the quiet streets beyond, past the Mary Tyler Moore house and out to a landing on Cedar Lake, or over the crest of Lowry Hill and down by the Blake School, one whose façade I’d admire if not for my unshakable pride in that brick building overlooking Lake Superior back home. The Walker Art Center is there, complete with sculpture garden and iconic cherry; just beyond is the Parade Ice Garden, home to Minneapolis hockey, such as it is. Beneath the overpass and over a footbridge is Bryn Mawr Meadows, its ballfields turned to cricket pitches by the latest wave of immigrants.

Beyond the dandelion fountain in Loring Park Downtown stirs to life, as the sunlight sucks people out of the skywalks and on to the streets. The restaurants bring back their outdoor seating, and Target Field opens its doors to further Twins mediocrity. Nicollet Mall bustles, though it’s hard to keep up any speed with all the stoplights and traffic; in time, I make my way up along the riverfront, finally open to the city as the centerpiece it deserves to be. Further down, past the scores of new apartments, the Guthrie Theater, and the rising shell of that financial monstrosity of a football stadium lies the University of Minnesota campus, ideal for springtime people-watching, as everyone emerges from whatever room or study hole or bar they’ve ensconced themselves in over the past year and revels in the sunlight.

Cross a bridge and there is St. Anthony Falls or Nicollet Island, those old icons of Minneapolis now dwarfed by the towers around. Old Main has the best patio seating in the city, and Nye’s, that irreplaceable polka bar, beckons me into Northeast, the old realm of European immigrants now filling with immigrants and hipsters and the like. Changes are afoot to the south as well, where a battalion of new loft apartments forms ranks along the Greenway, Uptown’s transformation near-complete. Further along Lake Street is the Midtown Global Market, plus the stretch were I’m apt to go in search of some genuine Mexican deliciousness. And, of course, that damn K-Mart is still there, ruining the flow of traffic along Nicollet but providing a service no one else can in this low-income district.

To the east of home base, across Lydnale, lies Whittier, the apartments growing a bit larger and a bit more frayed around the edges. There is a little bit of everything here, with Eat Street along Nicollet and little pockets of old grandeur, especially around Washburn Fair Oaks Park, home to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, the stately Classical museum gazing out upon the center of the city. A pedestrian bridge just a block away lofts me over 35W and into Phillips. Urban farms abound, and curiosities such as the Swedish-American Institute poke their way out of a steadily declining housing stock. Now it’s diverse as can be, with even a Native American strip up along Franklin, and over in Cedar-Riverside, just off the West Bank of the U, is the heart of Somali America. They’re stuffed into Riverside Plaza, that tower block of mismatched Legos that is only one-seventh the size it was supposed to be. Why did we ever think it was a good idea to stuff people into these things, I wonder, though at least some have carved out a little oasis for themselves between the foreignness and ignorance of the broader culture and the allure of al-Shabaab. If people can build community here—and I don’t know whether they can or not—maybe all this grumbling about the offenses of brutalist architecture misses the point.

One day I take a path not yet taken, a bridge beyond 394 that carries me into neighborhoods that few people I know have deigned to visit. My surroundings take a turn for the bizarre in Sumner-Glenwood, one of those hyphenated havens of low-income housing. Twenty years ago this was all projects and towers, but they all came tumbling down in the late 90s. In came the next-generation urban renewal scheme: instead of shoving poor people into towers like sardines, we now scatter them about green New Urbanist landscapes, with cheap housing that tries to look like it’s historic and suburban. The result: far fewer units, and acres upon acres of lifeless, empty grass separating buildings that look like they are pretending to be something that they are not. Harsh, perhaps, but it was hard not to look at this space and not think of the bankruptcy of any theory that thinks the design can rewrite these lives. The only life anywhere along these roads are two decrepit people sitting on their walkers across from their senior housing looking positively miserable, and one lady who yells obscenities at her dog as it chases after me for an entire block. The return route down the next street takes me past Bethune Elementary, one my teacher friends describe as “the worst.” It may not be ugly, but it still seems a wasteland.

To the north is North, though there is plenty of Minneapolis north of North. This is the heart of the ‘inner city,’ the place I’m told fills all the stereotypes of crime and blight and a large black population. It doesn’t entirely look the part: the upkeep of some of the historic homes is better than in Phillips or Whittier, and there is nothing remotely threatening about its streets on a Wednesday morning. In the distance, flashing lights make me wonder what is going on, and before long it’s clear the haze in the air is something more sinister. Several streets have been blocked off, and all that I can see from the corner as I peer past the crowd of onlookers is a fire engine’s cherry-picker looming in the smoke. An entire block has gone up in flames. Not wanting to gawk, I run on, though I circle around the perimeter of the cordons.

Up Broadway, a bustling shopping street laden with fatty food options. Down around the bedraggled football field belonging to North High, then doubling back to pass three more schools: a stately and quiet Catholic school, Elizabeth Hall Elementary with its tame and bustling playground, and a crumbling concrete shell of a former charter school just down the block. Nothing quite conforms here, and the face of 21st-Century urban American poverty just doesn’t show the squalor of the past. The forces at work here are deeper, more subtle, but often every bit as pernicious, the cycles of financial struggle and broken families only perpetuating themselves, here in this city with an achievement gap that ranks among the worst of the worst. The Miracle has a dark side, hard as it may seem to believe on my next run, when I’m cruising down along Lake Harriet, darting in and among the beautiful people finally free to break out their summer finery.

I’m sore now. It’s time to head home, check out my latest route on a map, and plot my next venture outward. Every one of them seems to open up another corner, remind me how little I know of this place, even as I head further afield. There’s always more to discover.

Farewell Duluth IV: The Walk

Eighteen years ago Saturday, a moving van bearing my father and I rolled into Duluth to join my mother, who’d already made the trek. I now have less than a week left here—this time around, anyway. My departures are never very permanent. Even so, a proper good-bye was in order. So I headed out the front door and started walking.

I begin in Lakeside, an idyllic middle-class neighborhood on the far east end, and my home for most of my life. It isn’t uniform; there are some gaudy houses along the lakeshore and scattered about, and many of the homes are older, bringing with them some character and occasionally some shabbiness as well. It just seems healthy, my own childhood repeated before my eyes from block to block. At times perhaps too sheltering, as evidenced ongoing temperance 80 years after the 21st Amendment, but it’s also easy to escape out into the woods or up the shore and find some freedom. The business district has hollowed out some over the years; the second grocery store and the pharmacy is gone now, though many of them plug along, and a new coffee shop is set to come in. For the most part, it seems timeless.

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At the end of Lakeside is the new Duluth East, in the building where I went to middle school; the setting is second to none, with the expansive views of the lake. The building itself, though, can’t quite match the old one, which I come to in a short while: that old gothic brick academy with giant windows perched right in the heart of Congdon Park. To the west, Duluth’s mansions and old money core, tucked beneath the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Longview tennis courts. Say what you will about Duluth’s elite, but their commitment to this community down the years has been unquestioned, and that Congdon sensibility rubbed off on me during my time at East. Class, unapologetic appreciation for high culture, and sympathy for that noble approach to the world: political wars and resentment are so below us, and instead it is all our plaything, here to be enjoyed in all its finery. A defense of time-honored traditions and inheritances worth passing down, stewarding, and bringing to fruition. It has its shortcomings, of course, and I’ve got enough Wisconsin farm boy in me that it’ll never quite be me. It is a fine place to call home, though, and I have its largesse to thank for so much.

I leave the mansions behind, and a protest is afoot on 4th Street: the towering maples lining the route are on the chopping block due to planned street repairs, so the neighbors have wrapped them in clothes arranged to look like tree-hugging people and added some speech bubbles from the trees themselves. I grab their flier, turn north off 4th, and slide into the Hillside. This is often Duluth’s cutting edge, with many possible futures on display: incoming college students, the growing gardens of those who want to raise their families in the heart of a walkable city, lower-income rentals, and the sudden appearance of minorities, all in relatively close proximity. Variety begets vivacity, though it comes at the expense of some stability. The strength of neighborhoods such as this will be the bellwether for the future, not only in Duluth but across the nation: how do we adapt to the thinning of the middle class? How do we make do with our roles in life, knowing most of us aren’t destined for those Congdon mansions, and how do we adjust to neighbors who may not share our culture? The Hillside likely holds the answers to these questions.

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I swing down around a reservoir, past a slope where I once went to count butterflies, now overgrown, and reach the Lower Chester hockey rinks. The place where the Williams brothers and Mike Randolph learned to skate has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the closure of the rinks in Congdon; it looks sharp, though today its only occupants are a couple of skateboarders. I pause to admire the towering building across the street; ex-mansion or some great hall I do not know, but it’s hard to tell if it’s occupied today. I plunge down the hill, through the tangle of the Hillside, and there is the lake: this walk wouldn’t be complete without a brief venture into the realm of the tourists. There’s the Armory and the walls of the old Duluth Arena beneath the Super One, and there is the brick next to the Rose Garden fountain where I must kneel and brush off the dirt. Onward, past two statues: one of a man who had nothing to do with Duluth but is honored here anyway (Leif Erickson), and the other of a robber baron who had everything to do with Duluth (Jay Cooke). How curious our historical memories can be.

I head down Superior Street, past bustling Fitgers and into the east end of Downtown. It’s come a long way since I last made this walk: Duluth has outlasted the Last Place on Earth, and the Kozy Bar offers no respite. Now, a Sheraton, classy restaurants, and a shiny independent theater. (As if I needed another trigger for childhood nostalgia and rumination on the passage of time, “Boyhood” has just opened here.) This is looking more and more like a cultured downtown, the commercial hub of northern Minnesota, many of the buildings lining its brick streets still graced with turn-of-the-century detail. It’s not a steady march into the future, though: the Fond Du Luth Casino’s lurid lights still flash all over the place, and a walk one block up to First Street is a step back into a different Duluth. The memorial to the 1920 lynchings sits vacant opposite the burned-out shell of the Kozy, and a woman stumbling up the street in an apparent drugged daze offers a halfhearted hello.

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A light mist has kept the crowds at bay, and now as I get into the very heart of the city, it begins to rain properly. I seek brief shelter amid the ever-intriguing crowds in the Holiday Center, people who have caught my attention since my youth, left me to puzzle out lives that are not mine. I do a few stretches, then take to the skywalk for a brief spell. I can’t get far on a Saturday, but by the time I step out next to the Missabe Building, it’s all stopped, and I can admire the façade there and on the Board of Trade before plodding on to City Hall. I’ve spent my share of time in the halls of power over the past two years, but Duluth is too small for anyone to live in a bubble here. A block away, the ore ship of a library sits in port with its cargo of knowledge and collection of unsavory characters who needed a new home after the Last Place on Earth closed its doors, and beyond it, the real harbor, ever the root source of this city’s identity.

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It’s time to head up. Fifth Avenue West is Duluth’s steepest street, but I conquer it with the help of the sidewalk railing, and stop to admire the view down toward the harbor and the DECC, another place where I’ve seemed to practically live at times, from hockey to concerts to other formal functions from high school on up. I hike the crest of Observation Hill, observing that house where my mother stayed when she first moved here ahead of the family seventeen years ago, and come to the Twin Ponds and Enger Tower. The park is busy, but I don’t linger for the view. Instead, I retreat to the woods, and head down the Superior Hiking Trail. Here, too, there is great variety: a stand of pines, an alpine meadow with views of the harbor, a babbling stream to hop across, and a forgotten old basketball court and baseball diamond, slowly being swallowed up by the woods. I cross Piedmont Avenue, then descend through Lincoln Park. As a ribbon of greenery it’s similar to the more familiar Lester Park, but it seems a bit less tamed, a bit more wild, and I have the upper reaches to myself.

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Down below, in the heart of the park, there are a handful of picnickers and two fishermen; a pair of young lovers guide each other across the bridge. Then, back out to civilization, and a host of worn-out rental properties, some legitimately blighted. A little festival at a mid-block church apparently requires the presence of three police cars, and “Beware of the Dog” signs proliferate. More than anything now, I want lunch, and the Duluth Grill, that quintessential local restaurant, calls out. Even in the midst of Lincoln Park, a beloved restaurant of locally sourced food thrives, one of a few signs of change here. It’s packed as always, but it’s not hard to find a spot for one at the counter, and I recharge with a salmon burger.

My next steps take me along West Michigan Street, up to the Heritage Arena, my usual winter haunt and another of those signs of life out here. For once, the parking lot is empty, and I only briefly peek into the lobby. I’ll be back here in December and January, no doubt. Then it’s back along the backside of Lincoln Park, all industrial storage space and the like; lifeless on a Saturday. Up above, the gaudy new west side middle school lords over it all. I go underneath the railroad bridges and come to Wade Stadium, the ballpark in desperate need of the forthcoming state aid. The Huskies’ season has just come to an end, though I never did make it out there this year; what this park really inspires are fond memories of the Dukes, that old independent professional team that had a couple of entertaining title runs in my childhood. It’s one good remodeling away from being a real gem.

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I step out on to Grand Avenue, the main artery of the west side and a simple summation of the plight of working-class America. It’s not blighted, but there’s nothing to make anything stand out here, either. It’s just uniform, everything of the same age and showing that age. The neighborhood around Denfeld offers a bit more, with the high school serving as the anchor. The houses here could all be in Lakeside, though the streets are in worse shape, and there’s action in the businesses. The girls’ soccer team is practicing on the field, the high school season just around the corner, and there’s a party in Memorial Park, too. Plenty of people come and go in the West Duluth downtown, but no one really lingers anywhere, so I don’t, either. On past the businesses, through the library parking lot, and down into Irving. Here again the housing stock takes a dip downward, though the street is pleasantly leafy, and there’s a herd of screaming children running along. The street suddenly fades into a dirt track through a copse, and I have to skirt a little stream that makes its slow way down to the St. Louis River.

Here is the west side charter elementary school, undergoing some summertime renovation, and I weave a bit more, dodging a kid on a bike and drawing closer to the river, where the houses are newer. The last time I was here, the far end of the Western Waterfront Trail was closed for pollution clean-up; now it’s open again, though I skip the first loop of the trail before joining it on Indian Point. I wind around the campground, breaking into a jog just to show myself I can do it as I close in on 17 miles. A family spends a sleepy afternoon on a pier jutting into the river, while I am accosted by a sudden swarm of mystery insects.

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I’m nearing the end. It would be nice to plow on out to Gary, ruminate on the old steel mill and Morgan Park, and end it all by running up Ely’s Peak one last time, but it’s growing late, and I have a goodbye party to throw for myself. The destination for now is the former home of a high school teacher and Denfeld grad who, despite marrying a wealthy lawyer, remained true to the West Side, and had a point to prove about this city’s east-west divide. She doesn’t live here anymore, but it still seems like a fitting endpoint: a grand, modern house on the river, a sign of what might be to come in the redevelopment for the river corridor imagined by Mayor Don Ness. As I look around, I see the vision is already a fait accompli on the lower side of Norton Park: there’s a whole subdivision of nice, newer houses across the bay. Perhaps it won’t be as hard as it had seemed, though this budding urban planner has no illusions about the road ahead. There is much work to be done.

That is a debate for another time, though. My rescue wagon awaits me. I need to head home and freshen up, and after that, it’ll be time for one last Canal Park dinner and one last bit of mild debauchery on the Park Point beach. I’ll miss it, of course. But I’ve seen so much of it that I can’t help but leave satisfied. It’s all there, right before our eyes, and even after eighteen years, there’s always something new to find.

My Washington

Spring (or the lack thereof) is by far the most miserable season in Duluth, and by late March, it’s not hard to flash back to those four brilliant springs I enjoyed in Washington, D.C. By now everything is abloom, midterms are underway, and Georgetown basketball has already made its annual embarrassing early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Bouncyball angst aside, Georgetown is such a vibrant campus that one can go all four years without venturing far from M Street and the handful of streets that feed down into it. I can hardly describe it to Duluthians without resorting to a string of bubbly clichés. The neighborhood is a storybook village, the brick and pastel rowhouses lining the cobblestone streets interrupted by old trolley lines, a historical plaque on practically every building. (My personal favorite: one that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”) The Georgetown Bubble is a college student’s pleasure dome, and few are called to venture out into the wider city: classes consume us, special events abound, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a short walk to The Tombs is all we need.

Of course, everyone gets out for at least one Monuments Tour at night, goes and stands before Lincoln and Jefferson in awe, or in the memorials to Vietnam and Korea in reverence. This time of year, the FDR Memorial is the place to be: its lights shine through the waterfalls and illuminate inspired quotes, the whole scene robed in the soft luminescence of the cherry blossoms, a full moon gazing down on the Tidal Basin. And then, of course, there are the Smithsonians and their various friends, usually toured with a group of friends or visitors from back home, though every once in a while on my own, freeing me to stand transfixed in front of Magritte’s “La condition humaine” at the National Gallery for as long as I choose. The sprawling Mall, where everything looks closer than it actually is, the grassy avenue fading away toward the Capitol, down past that spot where I stood as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Across the Key Bridge in the Virginia are more markers of the past, perhaps less visited but no less impressive: Roosevelt Island, Iwo Jima, the Netherlands Carillon with its peerless view of the city, and Arlington Cemetery.

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Today, though, I write not about the DC of monuments and museums and marble at every turn, but instead of the world beyond. It’s a city of both beauty and sorrow, one that encompasses both the best and the worst of the nation ruled from its center. It was never home, but it became a part of me, its little corners tugging me back and inviting a second look.

First, there is Northwest DC, a common haunt for a Hoya with aspirations of calling himself a runner. Quiet, leafy streets, well-tended homes, and the occasional tasteful business district slipped in to make it all walkable. Just behind campus lies the Glover-Archbold Parkway, an avenue of green that heads five miles north through all the bustle, up toward American University. A side trail leads to Battery Kemble Park, an old Civil War artillery outpost atop a hill, where I’d keep watch over the dog-walkers from a picnic table, free to study away from the cloud of stress hanging over the Georgetown library, away from the distractions of campus life. Further along, another site in the ring of forts protecting the District, this one now a reservoir: Fort Reno Park, a windy expanse where I’d flop in the grass and drift off, jolted to life only when the students of Woodrow Wilson High poured out into the sunlight at the end of their day, spray-painting prom invites on a weathered wooden stage and taking me back to afternoons on the lawn out in front of the old Duluth East.

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Shifting west, the city becomes more unique, more authentically DC. There is the Naval Observatory, its daily bugle calls audible from my off-campus house on R Street; the bars of Glover Park, underused by Georgetown students. Beyond that rises the monolithic Russian Embassy, and then the National Cathedral, a Gothic marvel, and one of the few American houses of worship that can rival anything in Europe or Latin America. Its nave could hold the Washington Monument on its side, but its beauty comes out in the details as well: the quiet chambers in the crypt, the contemplative Bishop’s Garden, and the preppy St. Alban’s campus unfolding below. In the midst of the urban jungle, a refuge where no one will ask any questions.

To the east of campus lies a world of great wealth and aesthetic beauty. Down the brick sidewalk past the Argentine gelato place (now sadly shuttered) one comes to Dumbarton Oaks, a walled estate whose very name suggests grandiose affairs. The name does not lie: it was here that, in 1944, the Allies laid the groundwork for the United Nations. It is a wonder to this day, its sprawling gardens offering romantic allure at every turn, tempting the young to hop its walls with a wine bottle after dark and settle along one of its pools or masterfully manicured courts. Behind its grounds are public parks, filled with flowers and woods and babbling streams, with a footpath snaking its way along Rock Creek up toward the giant parkland separating east and west DC. Beyond it is Embassy Row, its stately avenues filled with little monuments: the Khalil Gibran Memorial, Gandhi in stride, a Brazilian aviator, the Bard of Ukraine, the memorial on the spot where Chilean dissidents were killed by a car bomb. The Spanish Steps, plucked out of Rome and shrunk into a shady cul-de-sac with a fountain that never works. Some of the embassies bustle with enthused energy; others hide behind bars and gates, guarding the secrets of statecraft. This is the DC that dreams are made of, its well-heeled families parading about with their perfect children, its shady streets a short walk from the bustle of Dupont Circle.

That is only one of the city’s many faces, though. Much of downtown DC is a drab wasteland of government buildings and everything that comes with them, a sclerotic mix of government and contractors and the echo chambers of K Street. This is the heart of L’Enfant’s city, but his plazas are now mostly a home for the homeless, a reminder that all is not well, even as the capital’s wealth overflows. At night, all is dead. Even vibrant Chinatown further along is a bit manufactured, but there is at least some life here: the bars, the restaurants, the National Gallery, and the Verizon Center, home to Georgetown basketball. (Let’s please not talk about this season.) There is the government center where we endured Zoning Commission meetings on a proposed campus plan, plus the National Building Museum, where I once spent an evening with Ann Coulter. (Ask Uncle Chuck about that one.) And, to the east, Union Station, its great atrium modeled on the Baths of Diocletian, the site of many of my DC comings and goings, plus that final senior ball the night before I walked across the stage.

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For more interesting environs, head north. To Adams-Morgan, with its bar-lined cosmopolitan boulevard, a pleasant break from the pretension of M Street, though the creep of gentrification looms. Indeed, that is a theme all across the north side, from Hispanic Columbia Heights to the historically black corridors of U Street and H Street Northeast, with a vibrant Ethiopian community mixed in. The food is delicious, the diversity is real, the rents aren’t through the roof—but one suspects they will be soon, and with them will go the vibrant city. But for now it is a delight, teeming with life, melting seamlessly into the bourgeois Northwest by the National Zoo before drifting into the part of the city that is still uniformly African-American. Wedged between Adams-Morgan and that Latino nonprofit in Mount Pleasant where I once doused myself in silvery paint while brushing up a balcony lies Meridian Hill Park, among the greatest of DC curiosities. Up top, a stately lawn reminiscent of a European capital; below, a sprawling fountain and a memorial to the not-so-memorable James Buchanan, to say nothing of the statues of great American heroes like Joan of Arc and Dante. It has a little of everything, attracts some of everyone, though that rare mix may prove fleeting.

To the east lies a DC few outsiders visit, though that is changing, as the money flows in and developers snap up the real estate. The District’s black population, no longer its majority, is drifting eastward into Prince George’s County. The southeast riverfront looks nothing like it once did, with Nationals Stadium and its crisp sightlines rising up on the banks of the Anacostia. RFK Stadium, once the main attraction on the east side, is on its way out, with its last tenant—the DC United soccer club—headed for a soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park in the not-so-distant future. To the north, one monument stands unchanged while DC shifts around it: the National Shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, and one unlike any other with its exquisite Byzantine look.

Across the Anacostia’s polluted waters lie a few sites worthy of a visit. The Anacostia Community Museum, exiled far from the rest of its Smithsonian brethren, and the Fredrick Douglass House, sitting stately atop a hill. Parts of Southeast aren’t nearly as blighted as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Yet the troubles persist. The projects and planning schemes have amounted to nothing; even Marion Barry’s patronage machine couldn’t do much to change the fate of his home ward. Just past the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcom X sits Ballou High, where I spent part of a semester in a class that had us trying to instill some civic engagement in a struggling, all-black public school. Through the metal detectors, down chaotic halls, into a classroom where maybe half of the kids would show up—and these were the survivors, the seniors, the thirty percent who’d made it through from freshman year. Midyear we were thrown from the school, ostensibly for lack of communication, but more likely because we were witnesses to the shock therapy imparted by Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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The status quo was untenable, but the vicious cuts and relentless turnover didn’t make much of a difference. Five years later, not much has changed, save for the changes brought on by the eastward march of urban renewal schemes. A few heroic teachers and community leaders battle on, trying something, anything, that hasn’t been tried before, but one senses that Black DC is slipping away, scattering through suburbs off toward Baltimore. The new District will be beautiful, and offer ideal urban living—for those who can afford it. It will continue to attract the best and the brightest, those who believe they’ve outgrown wherever it is they’ve come from, a transient city for the ambitious of all political stripes. I could have been happy there, in among the interesting neighborhoods and people, perhaps living in a grand old house, raising children amid all that cultural wealth while still being able to show them the other side, and to do what I could to keep the vibrancy alive.

And yet I made no effort to stay in DC after I graduated from Georgetown. I left in part for reasons my old professor and fellow ex-Washingtonian, Patrick Deneen, describes here; in part for more personal reasons. Distance, however, has eased some of my jadedness, and I can now remember all those little details with unburdened fondness. I no longer reject Washington; it left a mark I cannot deny, and in many ways it was a positive one. I’ll happily go back and dip my feet in from time to time. But it was also just one chapter in a much longer book, and the strength of those chapters is measured not in my closeness to power, nor in my rejection of it. It will come instead, I think, in how fully I lived in each of those years, what I learned from them, and how I took those lessons and used them to write the later chapters. In that, Georgetown proved an excellent guide—but it couldn’t have done it without its city, one whose streets my mind will forever wander.