BY MICHAEL T. LUONGO | With summer here along with thoughts of quick, carefree weekend getaways, our sister city in tragedy, Washington D.C., might be far from your mind but I think you would be making a serious mistake if you avoid heading there. I had feared that all that had changed since the dark days last September, and that this beautiful city might be forever altered, restricted, a city full of guards, not the peaceful retreat I once knew. Visiting this Spring, just as the cherry blossoms were beginning to appear, I was greeted by a city thoughtfully healing with few reminders of the tragedies that fell less than a year ago. The airports and train stations and most major monuments, while security conscious, were a breeze of access and movement.
Museums and Exhibits
Washington is a city of museums and fortunately most are free. The Mall is lined with the most famous, the best known being the Smithsonian Institution. The largest museum complex in the world, it’s sort of like Uncle Sam’s Attic, chuck-full of every conceivable object related to US history. (202.357.2700; www.si.edu) Beyond this must-see, there are also numerous special exhibits and museums definitely worth mentioning.
No First Lady brought as much glamour to Washington as Jackie Kennedy. With style and grace, she was Camelot’s Princess, and an elegant foil to her husband. You can see the clothes she wore when functioning almost as an American ambassador as she accompanied JFK around the world. The exhibit, which runs until September 30, is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. (500 17th St., NW; 202.639.1700; www.corcoran.org)
An off-the-beaten path museum that just wowed me and made me think how nice it would be to have fabulous wealth was the Hillwood Museum and Gardens. It is located in the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heir to the cereal fortune. While her husband was Ambassador to the newly formed USSR, she kept herself busy collecting Fabergé eggs and Russian religious objects at what were essentially communist garage sales. You’ll find room after room of these, the largest collection outside of Russia, as well as various other objets d’art. As her home is in an exclusive residential neighborhood, only 250 visitors a day can come to see Hillwood. For required reservations, call 202.686.5807 or 877.HILLWOOD, or visit their website at www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
The United States Holocaust Museum is far from the pleasant experience one usually gets from a museum. Instead, the exhibits might shock or scare you, make you cry, but they will also definitely make you think. While the museum concentrates on the Nazi persecution of Jews, the experience of other groups, such as homosexuals, are woven into the historical context. After the rail car exhibit, you will find a very rare pink triangle displayed on the wall. Berlin’s role as a liberal, international center of gay rights prior to the rise of the Nazis is just a reminder that no matter how free an era might seem, it can easily be replaced by its complete opposite. Due to the nature of the museum, it was the only one with intense security checks, so bring ID and expect to be X-rayed. (202.488.0400; www.ushmm.org)
A living museum in many ways is the U Street Corridor, also known as Shaw. Primarily an African-American neighborhood, it’s a must-see for jazz lovers and historians. Locals here like to say that before there was a Harlem, there was U Street. Many of these players left D.C. for Harlem in the 1920s for bigger time jazz opportunities. That’s how New York got the Big Apple nickname, somewhere jazz musicians came to take a bite out of.
The most famous of all the U Street jazz musicians was Duke Ellington, and though he lived in many places, 1816 13th Street at S Street was one of his homes in this neighborhood. He often played at the Lincoln Theatre and a wall mural across the street at Cardozo Plaza commemorates this.
The neighborhood came about because of the segregation laws and developed into a strong and vital community. It still today is a primarily African American neighborhood, but gentrification and rising property values are changing this. Howard University serves as an intellectual anchor of the neighborhood.
As an example of triumph in the face of racism, the city’s tallest non-government building was built here by African- American John Langford. Clearly visible from the steps of Capitol Hill, the True Reformer’s Building now houses the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum that chronicles escaped slaves and the part they played in the Union army. (1200 U Street, NW; 202-667-2667; www.afroamcivilwar.org; Mon – Fri, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sat 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Sun closed)
The gayest part of town is Dupont Circle, sometimes nicknamed the “Fruit Loop” either as a term of endearment or derision. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, filled with elegant marble turn-of-the-century townhouses, many of which have been converted to embassies. Aside from its gay nightlife, a slower-paced change from our own, the area’s tree-lined streets offer interesting daytime walks and shopping diversions.
While I missed it, Washington has an up-and-coming circuit party –– the Cherry Ball. It’s timed to coincide roughly with the Cherry Blossom Festival. Head to their website www.cherryfund.com for information about next year’s event.
Coming up this Fall is Reel Affirmations, Washington’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival sponsored by One in Ten, an organization started to give local D.C. gays more fun instead of political things to do, a challenge in a city like Washington! This year’s festival runs from October 17 – 27 and some of the premiere parties will be in the embassies of countries where the films were made, a unique experience only DC can offer. (202.986.1119; www.reelaffirmations.org; www.oneinten.org)
All year, D.C. offers bars and clubs galore in Dupont and beyond. JR’s is a preppy, very Washington old favorite, with political talk often in the air. (1519 17th St., NW; 202.328.0090) Mr. P’s gained infamy as the place where the ex-gay movement’s poster boy found himself claiming to only be looking for a bathroom. Maybe it was the name. Have fun at this two level bar. (2147 P St., NW; 202.293.1064)
I liked Club Chaos with its largely Latin clientele and sometimes silly drag events. It’s a down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to people place. (1603 17th St., NW; 202.232.4141) Green Lantern offers a wild atmosphere, with a touch of leather, that folks on my trip could not stop talking about. (1335 Green Court NW; 202.347.4533) The Fireplace is easy to find ’cause it has just that on the outside. It’s popular with an African American crowd and has a very neighborhood feel. (2161 P St. NW; 202.293.1293)
A sophisticated choice that will remind you of the best our own Chelsea has to offer is the three part complex of Cobalt and 30 Degrees, just upstairs from the Food Bar at 17th and R Streets. (202.232.6969) If you like to dance and lounge around a good-looking collection of well-dressed young men, this will be one of your favorites. For more intense dancing, check out Badlands, one of the city’s biggest gay nightclubs, with two levels of partying. They also offer Liquid Ladies, a once a month women’s event. (1413 22nd Street, NW; 202.296.0505)
For even more of a circuit feel though, I recommend heading out of Dupont all together to Velvet Nation. This place does not get happening until around 2 am and it’s full of young clubbers who must have no idea they are in a city where the art of politics rules. (Corner of South Capitol at K St., SE; 202.554.1500)
Stay and Play
Since Dupont is where most of the gay things in D.C. go on, it makes sense to stay in the area. It’s also a great neighborhood in its own right, full of cafes, galleries, and beautiful homes and embassies. I was able to check out two Dupont Circle hotels on my trip.
The Radisson Barcelo Hotel is on P Street, just a stone’s throw from most of the gay bars and clubs. Rooms have nice touches and the hotel is especially convenient if you’re in D.C. on business and need all the standard services. The restaurant offers a very popular Sunday brunch. (2121 P St., NW; 202.293.3100; www.barcelohospitality.com)
On the more funky side is Hotel Rouge, where red rules and you’ll feel like you’re living inside of a cinnamon Altoids tin. The lobby bar of this boutique hotel is also very popular and fun on weekends. Red drinks of course are de rigeur. (1315 16th St., NW; 202.232.8000; www.rougehotel.com)
The train or the plane? That often seems to be the question for New Yorkers heading to D.C. I went both ways on this trip to get an idea of what is more comfortable, convenient, and hassle-free. My conclusion: it’s hard to say.
US Airways shuttle runs almost every hour between New York and Washington. Flying from LaGuardia, the terminal, which is all their own, is hassle-free and security, while thorough, is comfortable. On the way back, US Airways shares the terminal, but offers a separate line for shuttle-users. The flight leaves from Reagan-Washington National Airport, which is almost walkable from downtown D.C. The flight is about a half-hour, but be warned there is no chance to use the bathroom. I had no delays either way. (800.428.4322; www.usairways.com)
Amtrak Acela offers high-speed service almost every hour from Penn Station to downtown Washington. The service takes about 2 1/2 hours. It’s easy to walk around on the train, do work at a desk, or grab a snack on the meal car. I had no delays on my way down, but had some on my return. (800.USA.RAIL; www.amtrak.com)
The Pentagon is rapidly being rebuilt, and by the time you arrive, there might be few reminders on the building of what happened. As at our own Ground Zero, you’ll find makeshift memorials on hills overlooking the sight. While the building is heavily guarded with a new system of barricades, you are free to move, photograph, and remember in the area.
Some monuments remain shut, and as of this writing, the White House tours are still closed to the public. You’ll also find other buildings closed, including the Capitol, whose steps you could once jog up and down a la Rocky.
For more information, contact the Washington, D.C. Convention and Visitors Bureau at 202.789.7000 or 800.422.8644 or on the web at www.washington.org.