Washington DC: An Apolitical View


I began to know Washington DC as an outsider. In 2012 I moved to the DC area for my job. On weekends I’d drive to DC from the suburbs of Virginia to explore various parts of the city. As I came to see it more often, I fell in love more with its charming rowhouses, bustling streets, magnificent stone bridges, and winding Rock Creek. I even grew fond of those bronze generals I’d meet unexpectedly on a corner or at a turn. I found the traffic circles troublesome for driving but otherwise intriguing. They invite the curious to uncover the city’s deep secret.

I am curious. Later after I moved to the city, I’d spend hour after hour walking many of its neighborhoods. I felt the heartbeat of the city, and my heart would beat with it. While it is true that dark suits are a fixture of the capital, the cityscape is also a constant flow of colors. And the city, I think, is defined more by ordinary people who are here to work and live and to realize their dreams.

A black woman on the marble stairs of a cathedral wrapped in a white sheet with the gaze of a supermodel, a middle-aged father and his young son at Dupont Circle playing hide-and-seek at sunset, a homeless man reading a book in his tent set up above a highway bridge, young couples deep in conversation strolling in some quiet neighborhood on a Sunday morning…These are the people who touch me, and I want to sing their praises. 

Sometimes, I sit in my small apartment on the ninth floor watching people on the street march to work and the city life unfold before my eyes while having my morning coffee. A question would pop into my head. It is a question human geographers take to their hearts: what defines a place and its people? I have no doubt that a place influences its people, and people continuously remake a place. The real question is how. Perhaps my photos and writing here will offer some insight.


Qing Tian

Columbia Plaza

Foggy Bottom



Fall for the City…


Following Rock Creek Parkway to Rock Creek Park, the scenery is not only pretty. The winding roads, the tall stone bridges, the magnificent old trees, and occasionally a glimpse of the creek, evoke a feel of permanence...


At Rock Creek Park, I was so pleased to hear birds singing happily in the city. It seemed as though I had already known the park long before my first visit. But somehow on a previous winter day with snowy clouds on the horizon, the forest’s rolling hills appeared much more grandeur than on this warm spring day with leaves sprinkling a misty green to veil the Boulder Bridge. Occasionally I saw a wild cherry tree blossoming among oaks and beeches. The delicate petals, still fresh, fell scattered on a piece of rotten wood.


In many of DC’s neighborhoods from Woodley Park to Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights… and, of course, Georgetown and Capitol Hill, these old rowhouses, newly renovated and more vibrant than ever, stand beautifully to speak the very charm of the city. I could easily see myself dreaming away on their doorsteps...


At Dupont Circle, I would watch people come and go. Intellectuals with thick eyeglasses sit on a bench reading next to the homeless who drag their sleeping bags around. Two young girls, both white, play chess with an old black man. No one would notice a guy carrying a woman’s purse. Even the most elegantly dressed do not look out of place here. In this part of town, people are united, under the Sea, the Stars, and the Winds…


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Logan Circle, located in an historical neighborhood, with beautiful rowhouses on all sides, is perhaps the finest circle in DC. At its center, surrounded by oak trees, General John Logan, sporting his fashionable hat, rides a horse high up in the blue sky. In autumn, when oak leaves change color, sunlight sifts through tree tops casting a golden hue to green grasses on the ground. I saw a gray-haired man there smoking a cigar on a bench, his eyes fixed somewhere else. I knew he has a story. This place has stories too…



Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café


Soon I’d discover Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café near Dupont Circle. I’d step in to check out what’s new in the bookstore whenever I walked by. Somebody told me Kramerbooks is very DC, meaning political, presumably. However, I spotted Doug Hofstadter’s Surfaces and Essences in its window display the first time I stopped by. I walked away with Dao De Jing on my second visit and Hemingway’s A Movable Feast another time. I noticed that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century stayed in its window display for more than six months, the longest I have seen, perhaps with the exception of The Goldfinch.

While things come into existence because of demand, their existence can then create further demand. Sometimes, people do certain things simply because of availability. I think Kramerbooks is a place that exhibits such “increasing returns.” By the way, its Afterwards Café is quite attractive too.




Simply Charming

Walking on the brick sidewalks in Georgetown, Capitol Hill and along Florida Avenue, I see children happy as if in the Garden of Eden, innocent playful youths drawn from a treasured family photo album, balconies where Romeo and Juliet could have rendezvoused, and even “Great Gatsbys.” They come together magically in a dreamy yet real world. But I do not know how to describe those rowhouses behind tree branches or creeping vines, drunken in sunlight, quietly and patiently telling the passing of time. I would not say they are old, though. For a moment I forget that perpetual and perplexing question of life’s meaning.

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Generals in the City

I have been living in the city for a year now. Still from time to time I’d run into a bronze general unexpectedly here and there. I have grown fond of them all, no matter if he is handsome, cool, obscure, or miserable. I would miss them if I did not see them for a while.



John Logan occupies the finest spot in the city

He is the coolest general in DC

Surrounded by charming rowhouses and oak trees

which display gorgeous colors in autumn

He rides his pretty horse high up in the blue sky

as pigeons fly at his side

He always wears a fashionable hat

Its decoration has forever changing patterns


General Phillip Sheridan takes up a strategic location

and looks stately

From a quiet vintage point

under a magnificent American Elm

He and his handsome horse look down

Massachusetts Avenue where elegant embassies sprawl

He has the whole world in front of him



George Washington chooses surprisingly to reside in Foggy Bottom

He is generous, often sharing his residence with the homeless

despite his Napoleon-styled gesture and wild horse

Even though his home feels nice behind shades of green

He really needs a larger statue and a more spectacular setting

 to match his status, I think




The navy war hero John Paul Jones watches

swarming tourists pass by daily

Standing on a marble pylon nestled between

 the Mall, Tidal Basin, and the Potomac

he looks like a police officer

who directs the city’s busy traffic

 but to whom nobody pays attention

David Farragut does not have a horse

The first admiral in the navy shows off power

with powerful cannons

He is popular too -

When the weather is nice

 He commands a large fleet

He may enjoy the smell of lobster rolls from food trucks

But I am not sure how he likes

the busy city life in the central business district



General Winfield Scott is a miserable fixture in the city

Stuck between some mundane brown buildings

he cannot escape

He turned brown too



Very DC but Apolitical

On a winter Sunday morning, the sun cast warm light on the Mall after a light snowfall on Saturday. People were walking and jogging with or without dogs, while trees laid soft shadows on the sand-covered ground. It looked like the Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles. On a warm spring evening, men and women, of different ages and colors, gathered on the stairs of the Jefferson Memorial to watch cherry blossoms peak on the Tidal Basin, with a full moon watching from above. It made me wonder what the high time of the Dionysia was like. Following some schoolgirls to the Lincoln Memorial, I looked out to Washington Monument and its reflection on the reflecting pool. I did not think of the Founding Fathers. I thought of St. Peter’s Basilica and the beauty and grandeur of its Corinthian columns…







Alive in Town

Wandering about in town on a workday in April, I spot professionals grabbing a quick lunch from the food trucks at Farragut Square and enjoying a conversation with friends or colleagues. Children are running up the stairs of the Jefferson Memorial, unleashing their forever renewable energy. A red cape pops up and flashes by Dupont Circle. Families ride Segways swinging their way around town, with bright blue and orange hues dotting the Tidal Basin. It warms my heart.







May Again

I used to buy flowers, lots of them, and arrange them on the balcony of my apartment in the suburbs of VA to celebrate my special day in May. But this year I simply stepped out of my place and found beautiful gardens everywhere in the city before or behind charming rowhouses. I stopped to smell the roses and smiled. They were all smiling at me too.






Friday Evening

A stroll on a Friday evening does not only reveal some lively social life scenes. I also come to realize that the character of the city is that of a play, staged on the stairs of rowhouses, the streets, entertainment places, public spaces… It can be magical too, like that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I come to understand why there are many theatres in the city and why Tom Stoppard has always been a hot commodity. The city is no place for A Hundred Years of Solitude.





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Farmers’ Markets

The many farmers’ markets in town not only add color to the city but also keep people in touch with the earth and seas, the sources of life. I’d go there to see mushrooms of many different shapes and pickles in all sorts of jars. I would buy fresh Chinese bitter melons and chives with pretty purple flowers. Sometimes, I’d also enjoy a free performance there while having homemade ice cream.


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The Waterfront

The last day of May turned out to be perfect. The waterfront at Georgetown was very pretty. Since I moved to DC, I have discovered that whatever the city lacks, it does not lack smart and charming people. Maybe this has to do with the Potomac. It reminded me of the town of Seward in Alaska where I saw people smile beautifully, blending into the beauty of their beautiful environment. I also thought of the village of Sappada and my friends there who are all as natural as the Dolomites. Perhaps the Chinese saying makes sense: “The soil and water in a place cultivate its people. While mountains make people good and wise, water makes people charming and smart.”


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On the Water

The Potomac is filled with colors in summer. I noticed something new this year: people are paddling a flat board on the water. From afar one cannot see the board, and it looks as if Crusoe were floating into the city. It seems really cool and just right for the free-spirited. And I imagine nothing could be more relaxing than paddling on the river after a long workday and then practicing Yoga on the board at sunset.






Open Up

Georgetown on weekends is alive everywhere. On the streets flows a dynamic river of colors as if it were an extension of the Potomac. And the flow moves back and forth between its waterfront and streets. Restaurants, doors removed or rolled up, windows pushed inward or outward, open themselves to everybody who passes by. Even a stranger cannot (who could?) resist such whole-hearted invitations to come in and sit for a while. It is then hard to tell the inside from the outside. They all blend together onto one stage where the play is merry and romantic without central characters.


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Rock Creek in Summer

The temperament of Rock Creek in summer is cool and tranquil. Under many shades of beeches, maples, oaks, and hickories, the creek flows at its natural pace - It is under no pressure to get anywhere. Rocks, no matter in the shade appearing dark or white in the sunlight, are all content. They are content just being there. 

I have seen kingfishers here flashing their wings over the water as if wingless and heard pileated woodpeckers beating drums vigorously to announce their presence. This past May I was overjoyed to be greeted by two wood ducks at the beginning of my walk in the early morning and then later in the water near a busy bridge. They seemed so at ease in this place. They must have been here before.

We, too, have all been here. And we come here from time to time to hear the sounds of nature, rejuvenated.




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National Arboretum


At the National Arboretum, it was a delight to see picture-like barks of crape myrtles (red or white), lacebark pines, and river birches. And I was glad to learn the differences between pine and cypress in their needle-like vs. scale-like leaves, and what is a fir, a hemlock, a cedar, a spruce, a larch, or a tamarack. I was, of course, impressed by the handsomeness of redwoods and the softness of their flat needles like fur. What impressed me most, however, was the herb garden where I was surprised to discover sages blooming brilliantly, and a hummingbird was kissing a red basil flower in mad passion.

While the Capitol Columns, deserted, rest solemnly on a hillock in the Ellipse Meadow, a yew tree stood alone under the sun. I lifted my eyes to follow its Gothic shape, and saw a moon face white as a knuckle, with its blue garments unleashing small bats and owls in the blackness and silence of a churchyard.


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Eastern Market and Arts

Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood is one of the largest farmers’ markets in DC. On weekends, it also includes artwork and crafts featuring local artists and craftsmen. It is interesting to see a reinterpretation of Chinese paintings in a Western surreal style. There is originality in the idea to use pajamas as surrogates of human figures in paintings or in such sayings printed on plaques as “I love you more than beer,” “It does not do brain damage to change toilet paper.” While subjects featuring local places or scenery in DC get various forms of representation, African crafts, Turkey glass lamps, and oriental antique furniture do not shy away. Bold and quiet styles of arts coexist, and I have no doubt that each reflects the personality of its creator. From painting panels filled by dynamic brushes to faded woodframe mirrors, I see a marriage between art and utility - like those charcoal drawings of fashion design - though they may be located in different positions on the spectrum from art to utility. After all, this is a marketplace, and artists need to make a living before they can create truly creative art.



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Sunday Morning

Sunday morning on Capitol Hill is bright. I noticed a dominant white and young population in contrast to the vendors at Eastern Market. The African-American population in DC has declined steadily since the riots in 1968. Though DC’s population started to grow again in 2000, the new residents are mostly white. And many of DC’s neighborhoods are being gentrified. While this neighborhood transformation has contributed to the growth of the city, making DC even more attractive to wealthy and young people, it has also created a growing affordable housing crisis for those lower-income households.


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At Lincoln Park

At Lincoln Park, Lincoln and the educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune face each other on opposite sides of the square. While Lincoln holds the Emancipation Proclamation before a kneeling black man, Mary McLeod Bethune hands a copy of her legacy to two young black children. Some come to sit for a while. Some just pass by.

 Young people are sunbathing on the lawn. Some families have picnics in the shade. A middle-aged couple enjoys a relaxing moment. Two women carry on a conversation. A mother watches her two kids biking. A young father rolls a baby stroller by. An old man, who wears a hat decorated with feathers, sits with his small funny-looking dog. A young girl walks by with a dog. The two dogs greet each other. So did the old man and the young girl.

I cannot help wondering if public spaces like Lincoln Square, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and many street parks across the city, have contributed to integration of people. It may be true that one comes here mostly to spend a moment alone or with friends or family, but as people co-exist in this space at the same time, they must at least tolerate each other. Public spaces may have helped increase acceptance of different kinds of people.

In 1978, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling demonstrated, using pennies and nickels on a paper board, that even when individuals have only a slight preference for their neighbors to be of their own race, a community could easily settle into a pattern of segregation. His segregation model thus cast a pessimistic outlook for integration of society. And the principle of homophily, which is people from similar backgrounds inclined to interact with each other and more likely to become friends, found empirical evidence in many social studies. Furthermore, being friends with similar people reinforces this interaction pattern.

The notion of “Small World,” which originated from an influential experiment by the Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram in 1967, seems to strike a more optimistic note on social interaction. Milgram randomly chose residents in Omaha, Nebraska (deliberately picked to be distant from Boston) and asked them to mail a letter to a stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. The participants were given the name of the target person and certain information about him. They were told not to contact him directly if a participant did not know the target personally but instead mail the letter to a personal acquaintance who was likely to know the target person. It turned out that the average number of intermediaries needed to reach the target person was five for completed chains. But he was quick to point out that five intermediaries do not mean five individuals but five social circles or structures.

Integration of society is not only about race. It also includes integration between the poor and rich, integration of people from all walks of life, integration between men and women, etc. Not only does the smooth functioning of society require inclusion of different kinds of people. The diversity of people also makes a place interesting. At least some people moved to DC to escape the life in suburban neighborhoods that are dominated by households of very similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Integration of society requires tolerance, appreciation and understanding of people who are different. In fact, we are all different in some ways.

(I will say more about diversity later. The prosperity of cities depends on diversity as Jane Jacob argued convincingly, based on her keen observations of urban life, in the early 1960s. In addition, diversity is closely related to cooperation, another important topic of social studies and what Prof. Robert Axelrod’s famous computer tournaments were about. I think we can better promote cooperation if we emphasize that people are different, and each can contribute to society in his or her own way. Many of the important problems our society faces today require cooperation to solve.)


To be continued...