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Borderstan People: Erik Wemple, Journalist and Neighbor

"Erik Wemple"

Erik Wemple. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

Here at “Borderstan People,” we like to profile local movers and shakers who are spicing up the neighborhood in a variety of ways. Recently, we caught up with journalist Erik Wemple to catch his beat.

Currently a media critic at The Washington Post, Wemple formerly served as editor of the Washington City Paper and did a stint with with the short-lived TBD.com. In this interview, Wemple discusses everything from trying to keep up with today’s fast-paced and integrative field of journalism, to Borderstan coffee shops and safety tips.

Borderstan: Where did you grow up?

Wemple: I grew up in Schenectady, New York a few hours north of New York City on the New York State Thruway.

Borderstan: What got you interested in politics and/or the media?

Wemple: I think my interest in politics and media came from my father, who served nine terms in the New York State Assembly. He very much enjoyed “working” the media. And I’ve just always had a knack for writing and reporting.

Borderstan: How did you get your start as a journalist? What does a “typical” day entail? What recommendations or tips do you have for journalists getting their start?

Wemple: I worked my way in to journalism slowly, beginning decades ago when I edited a newsletter on federal export regulations. It was a lot of work – a lot of reporting, a lot of meetings in dingy federal office settings, a lot of calling around to industry types and asking precisely what were their problems and priorities were. Never underestimate the corporate confusion over U.S. re-export controls.

Then I started freelancing for Washington City Paper and the InTowner, among others. I really began to get into it, and I got a job at City Paper, eventually becoming the publication’s editor. After eight years, I caught on with TBD and hired the staff there. From there I moved to the Post. It’s really not a very compelling career story, to be honest.

Borderstan: You’ve been in roles from editor to blogger. What has been the most rewarding, memorable, or challenging?

Wemple: It’s tough to attach a superlative, but this current gig is plenty challenging. The challenge is to have something to say about media-related news stuff, as well as to do conceptual stuff and quirky fare. Keeping things fresh is a handful. Thank god there’s cable TV out there – without it, there’d be a fodder deficit.

TBD.com was also quite a challenge, needless to say. We were charged with trying to launch a profitable local, web-only news site from scratch, and we failed (though we didn’t have a lot of time to succeed). That said, I really loved working on the project. The lesson from it, and it’s a pretty narrow one, is that any organization that tries to knit together a traditional TV news operation with a news site driven by print folks has a lot of managing ahead of it.

Both media cultures have their strengths, but they also have sharp incompatibilities. And I’m not talking only about the different personalities of the folks who do TV and those who do print. A good TV story needs, first and foremost, visuals, something that most print journalists think about secondarily, tertiarily, or not at all. Usually not at all.

In this vein, it’s hard for me to compare working for the Washington Post to TBD.com/WJLA, which I’m frequently asked to do. Both are media organizations, and right there the comparisons stop.

Borderstan: How has journalism’s shift to the online environment changed the profession, and how have you adapted to these changes?

Wemple: Journalism’s shift to the online environment has changed every aspect of the profession. I’ve adapted to these changes by scrambling, quite frankly. Scrambling to keep pace with the social media imperative. Scrambling to understand search, scrambling to figure out why my embed code didn’t work, scrambling to figure out why the copy desk says it can’t get access to the post I just filed, scrambling to appreciate why “via” is such a key component of a good tweet, scrambling to watch three cable news channels at virtually the same time and gauge Twitter feedback at the same time, scrambling to nail interviews via phone, e-mail, DM and FB, all at the same time. Just scrambling.

Borderstan: It seems your interest in politics brought you to DC, but what brought you specifically to Borderstan? When did you come here, and what about the neighborhood caused you to stay?

Wemple: I bought a two-bedroom at the corner of 15th and O Streets NW in 1991 for a song. The neighborhood attracted me because at the time I was concerned about my environmental impact on the world; I wanted to live where I wouldn’t need a car too much, where I could commune with others who felt the same way about the planet. And that is all a total lie.

In truth, I moved to Borderstan because it was close to work, and the apartment was better than other places I’d looked at. The environs at the time were a bit dicey, though I had no idea about the degree. For instance, 15th and O taught me to look fixedly at the mirror when I brush my teeth. That’s because one night, as I was brushing, I was gazing through the back window, which overlooked what was then an empty and open lot on O Street NW between 15th and 16th Streets.

Everything looked pretty quiet, though I noticed a Subaru station wagon that was wiggling a bit down there. A little squinting brought into focus a little flagrante delicto inside the Subaru, which I’d prefer to have missed. As I’d later discover, that lot and other spots in the vicinity were popular refuges for fellows who’d cruised nearby blocks for prostitutes.

Worse were the smash-and-grabs. I had a 1986 Honda Accord – nothing sexy, but still a target for monthly break-ins, even though I learned early never to leave anything in it. No matter. One time, I hopped in the car ready to go to a friend’s place and she didn’t start –  didn’t even turn over. I checked things out and found that someone had stolen my battery. On my way back from the 14th Street Trak Auto, trapezoids burning from the weight of my new battery, it hit me: The thief wasn’t after the old battery; the thief was after the replacement battery. Determined not to fall prey to such a scam, I took to parking the car miles away, on an unregulated street in Ward 3. I’d run or ride my bike to fetch it.

Now to answer the question of why I’ve stayed: Because I don’t do change that well. Once I’m in a place, it’s hard to move me. Someone recently told me that she’s “so done with DC” I believe that, but I have no idea what that feels like. They say people have trouble imagining their deaths, but I see mine as falling flat on my face on a piece of concrete between 12th and 18th Streets NW, south of Florida and north of Massachusetts. Hopefully not too soon.

Borderstan: What are some of your favorite Borderstan spots for drinks, coffee, dinner, to get a good book or have a meeting?

Wemple: I’ve got two young kids who aren’t quite ready for swillfests at Stoney’s and don’t have the palates to appreciate the flatbreads at Birch & Barley, so my hanging out at neighborhood joints is limited. That said, I’ll put in a good word for Java House. It predates the boom in the neighborhood and has a feel consistent with its age. It’s just a nice space with nice ownership and nice clientele. Peter Rosenstein and his crew are always there talking civics; my family and I go on Wednesday mornings each week. It’s always a good time.

Borderstan: Anything else you would like to share with the readers of Borderstan about your life or work?

Some safety tips: Watch yourself at the intersections of the bike lines on 15th Street. People tend to be preoccupied by auto traffic and may step off the curb, ignoring a cyclist who is just about to clip you. I hector my kids to watch out for the cyclists, because they whisk by very fast.

Another hotspot is the southwest corner of 16th and Q, right there in front of the PETA offices. I’ve seen a car plow right into the sidewalk there, because it had swerved to get clear of a car turning left from 16th southbound onto Q Street east. When waiting at that intersection, get behind a tree or light post.

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Borderstan People: Jay Newton-Small, Time Foreign Affairs Reporter


Jay Newton-Small. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

The streets of Borderstan are rich with journalistic talent. Previous Borderstan People profiles include Julie Mason of Sirius-XM radio fame (Politico and newspapers prior to that), Harry Jaffe of the Washington Examiner and Washingtonian, Sommer Mathis of The Atlantic Cities (and former Dcist.com editor) and Mike DeBonis with the Washington Post (by way of the Washington City Paper).

Today’s interview is with Jay Newton-Small, currently a foreign affairs reporter for Time magazine and a resident of the Dupont-Logan area. She has also covered general politics as well as the White House and the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns.

Borderstan: We are interested in your residence history, especially as it shapes your view of Borderstan. Tell us a bit about where you were born, and where you grew up. Where was the most memorable, or the most challenging, or enjoyable? How does Borderstan compare? What do you miss about the latter, and what do you love (or hate — be honest!) about the former?

Newton-Small: My parents were both United Nations professionals. My mother was Chinese-Malay and an international lawyer working mostly for the UN Conference on Trade and Development out of Geneva. My father’s Australian and spent most of his career crunching budgets for the UN Development Programme.

They met in Zambia, married in Malawi and had me in New York. We lived all over — spending time in 10 countries across five continents. What was my favorite place is a common question. Bumping around that much is hard for a kid: you just are getting to know a language and culture and make some friends when it’s already time to go. But in retrospect, I realize I’m lucky to have had these life experiences.

The better question would be: What was my favorite time and place? The world, especially the developing one, changes so quickly. Everything you once knew can be replaced in a matter of months. My favorite time and place was Malaysia when I was 17. That Kuala Lumpur lives as a bubble in my heart. All my friends have since scattered and virtually nothing remains of our favorite haunts — indeed the entire city center has since been moved. For lack of being able to revisit it physically, I rely on photos, certain recipes (smell is a powerful reminder!) and reminiscing with friends. So, that’s my very long answer to your simple question! Can you tell I’m a magazine writer?

Borderstan: Living abroad with Foreign Service parents, I can understand how you came to your current profession, and to DC. But what brought you to Borderstan in particular, and what kept you here?

Newton-Small:  This is the first home I’ve ever owned and, really, the first time I ever lived alone. I travel so much that it doesn’t really feel like I live here full time — or it hasn’t until recently. It took me seven years to finally unpack the last of my boxes and paint the house! Nesting is a process, but I’m getting there in fits and starts. I love Borderstan because a) my office is a 10 minute walk and b) every time I come home there’s five new places on 14th Street to discover. It has the perfect mix of static and motion.

Borderstan: Being a Congressional correspondent, one might assume you would have chosen to live on Capitol Hill — any particular reason  you didn’t?

Newton-Small: Since January I’ve covered foreign affairs for Time and before that I covered politics in general. A lot of that was the Hill but it was also campaigns — I covered the Kerry and Obama campaigns in 2004 and 2008 — and the White House. So, I bounced all over from the Hill to the White House to Iowa and New Hampshire. These days it’s the State Department. I just got back from a trip to Iran. In that sense, Borderstan is very centrally located between everything!

Borderstan: While we know you are incredibly busy, what are some of your favorite Borderstan spots for drinks, coffee, dinner, to get a good book or have a meeting?

Newton-Small: We moved offices a couple of years ago but we used to be located just above Tosca on G between 11th and 12th. I got to know the chef — Massimo Fabbri — pretty well. So when Massimo opened Posto on 14th, I immediately became a barfly. I meet a lot of sources there and half the time bump into colleagues from the New York Times or Politico. Seems like it’s a popular destination for political journos.

Borderstan: In your years here, what are a few of your favorite ‘only in DC’ experiences?

Newton-Small: I lived in NYC before moving to DC and all my New York friends can never understand why I’m not dying to go back. New York was full of lawyers and bankers all trying to make enough money to go off and follow their real dreams — becoming artists, musicians, actors, journalists, etc. DC is full of people pursuing their dreams. You may not agree with their goals or, often, their methods. But whether they’re environmental bleeding hearts, Wall Street lobbyists or World Bank economists, you can’t say they’re not interesting and passionate to engage. That’s what I love about DC.

Borderstan: Anything else you would like to share with the readers of Borderstan about your life or work?

Newton-Small: As someone who grew up without really knowing where “home” was, I like that my block is so close. We had a block yard sale this summer — unfortunately on the hottest day of the year — and we have wonderful leaders who’ve pushed the city to be better about policing the neighborhood and tending to the trees and streets. I’ve learned a lot about community from them and I feel lucky to be blessed with such civic-minded and engaged neighbors. I’ve covered government at its highest levels but seeing the grassroots from the ground up has been a powerful lesson on how much one person — or a block of people — can change things.

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Chick-fil-A: “No #hatechicken,” in DC says Gray, HRC

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

Back to food trucks (did we ever really leave?). Amidst a national controversy over Chick-fil-A’s public opposition to same-sex marriage, last week neighborhood-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC) staged a protest at the fast food restaurant’s food truck downtown.


How do you feel about eating at Chick-fil-A? (Courtesy of Carly & Art’s Photostream on Flickr)

Protesters held signs that informed diners their lunch money would be going to the Wingate Foundtion, the charitable wing of Chick-fil-A. (See Playing Chicken with Politics and Food.)

You can’t say they weren’t warned. A few months back, there was something of a kerfuffle surrounding the debut of a Chick-fil-A food truck in the District because of their connections to ultra-conservative charities. And DC, particularly Borderstan, is a pretty liberal place. (See Playing Chicken with Politics and Food.)

Outrage to the chain’s stance on gay marriage goes far beyond DC, with mayors in Boston and Chicago publicly saying they don’t welcome Chick-fil-A in their cities (even though they cannot legally stop them from expanding there). Late Friday afternoon, even Mayor Gray got in on the action, tweeting that he “would not support #hatechicken.”

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Posted in Business, Politics & Government1 Comment

DC Height of Buildings Act Might Have First Alteration Since 1910

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.


Building height restrictions in DC could change. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Last week the Congressional Committee with oversight over the District’s affairs began considering a measure that would allow DC buildings to exceed their current height limit.

If it came to be, the change would be the first alteration of the federal Height of Buildings Act, which has limited the city’s vertical – and many say economic – growth since 1910.

As Wikipedia notes, “The original act restricted the heights of any type of building in the United States capital city of Washington, D.C., to be no higher than 110 feet (90 feet for residential buildings). In 1910, the 61st United States Congress enacted a new law limiting building heights to the width of the right-of-way of the street or avenue on which a building fronts, which is the main law presented by this act.”

Committee members were quick to reassure District officials and concerned residents that the change would not allow skyscrapers and condos to overshadow the monuments. If enacted, the bill would allow DC buildings to turn roof space into occupied space, essentially adding one story to much of the city skyline.

City officials say the District suffers a disadvantage because the federal government owns approximately 40 percent of its land, rendering it non-taxable. This additional real estate would provide a new source of tax revenue to counteract this disadvantage.

While many people think The Cairo residential building on the 1600 block of Q Street NW is the city’s tallest building (other than the Washington Monument), that honor actually belongs to The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, according to Wikipedia.

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Gray Near All-Time Low Approval Rating for DC Mayors

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

"Vincent Gray"

Mayor Vincent Gray, not so popular anymore. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Last week The Washington Post released a poll showing troubling signs for Vincent Gray’ political prospects. The poll revealed that 54 percent of residents — including 48 percent of African-American voters, a vital part of Gray’s political base — no longer trust the mayor and wish he would resign. Only 25% said he is running an ethical administration.

Gray pushed back against the poll, saying on Thursday that his achievements as mayor are being unfairly obscured by the dust-up surrounding his 2010 campaign. Since allegations of illegal conduct surfaced last week, Gray and his aides have pointed to lower unemployment and homicide rates as signs that Gray has been a vigilant and effective servant of his city, regardless of what may have happened during his campaign.

Despite these efforts to change the narrative, the poll shows voters aren’t buying the snake oil. Gray’s current approval rating is at 29%, the office’s lowest since Marion Barry’s slip to 28% in 1989.

By contrast, The Post reports that former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s approval rating stands at 59%. And, although Fenty said he won’t seek elected office again in DC, Gray hasn’t said he will either. Gray defeated Fenty in the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary by a margin of 54% to 44%.  However, the Dupont, Logan and U Street areas of DC voted overwhelmingly for Fenty over Gray in the September 2010 primary. Fenty carried 9 out of 10 local precincts, winning six with more than 70% of the vote.

“I’m thinking about my job every day,” said Gray.

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Posted in Politics & Government1 Comment

Chief Lanier Gets Cover Story for Her Approach to Policing

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

"Chief Lanier"

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier  is getting attention for new policing methods. (Luis Gomez Photos, file photo)

DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier is the cover girl for Governing magazine for a story in which the publication highlights Lanier’s policing strategy. They say that many claim some  of her methods could change the District and the nation.

Lanier has made a name for herself on the national stage since being unexpectedly picked by former Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2005. By diverging from DC’s zero-tolerance crime policies, which were fashioned after New York’s hard-line crackdown on crime in the early 90’s, Lanier has eased tensions between high-crime neighborhoods and the police. This, Lanier says, is the key to winning the District’s long-term war on crime.

The article examines Lanier’s unusual path to the top, as well as how far the District and its police forces have come since she joined the force. There’s a good chance that if they haven’t already, Lanier’s policies will soon influence the national debate on crime. This makes her story one worth knowing.

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Uber Kills Council Amendment Restricting Its Services

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

"Uber Towncar"

Uber and its supporters killed a  DC Council amendment restricting its services. (Luis Gomez Photos)

The Uber conundrum took yet another turn this week as the DC Council briefly considered an amendment that would restrict the car service’s ability to operating only as a luxury alternative.

Uber, the tech-enabled car service that brings luxury cars to the doorstep of anyone with a smartphone, has been embattled by the DC Taxicab Commission since its launch last December.

Yesterday’s proposal was an attempt to bring the car service into compliance with DC law, and was the fruit of several months of collaboration between councilmembers, the Taxicab Commission and Uber representatives.

The sticking spot in these negotiations was a proposed price floor that would force Uber to operate only as a “sedan class” service. The price floor mandated that Uber charge a minimum fare of $15 – three times the taxicab minimum – crippling its plans to expand into lower-cost transportation services in the District, as it has in New York and other cities.

In a characteristically impassioned e-mail sent yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick denounced the price floor, accusing members of the DC Council of stifling entrepreneurs, and calling on his supporters to reject this politically motivated interference (yes, he went there). Twitter-savvy Uber users took the cause viral, and in the 12 hours that followed, Council members received tens of thousands of Tweets and e-mails urging them to strike down the amendment. Many undoubtedly came from an online petition at change.org in support of Uber.

Yesterday morning, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) announced that she would do just that, but expressed disappointment at the breakdown of what she believed was an amicable agreement. “Uber contacted me and asked to work together to legalize services like [theirs] in the District, and I have met with Uber many times, negotiated in good faith and believed that I had reached an agreement with them last week,” Cheh wrote in an e-mail.

Despite being caught off guard, Cheh stated her intention to reintroduce the amendment – likely without the $15 minimum – before the council. “I am flabbergasted but flexible,” she said. In a time when things move as fast as Uber, she probably has the right attitude.

In fact, that line proves all too true. Late yesterday Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced an amendment to the taxi modernization bill recognizing Uber’s operations as legitimate under DC law. The amendment, which leaves out the contested price controls, was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Micahel A. Brown (I-At Large), David Catania (I-At-Large and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

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Posted in Business, Politics & Government1 Comment

Mayor Proposes Increased Jail Time for Drunk Driving

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

"Vincent Gray"

Mayor Vincent Gray proposes increased jail time for drunken drivers. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Drunk driving laws could change in the city. Last week, Mayor Vincent Gray unveiled a new proposal to stiffen DC’s drunk driving laws, and the worst offenders could have an increase in their minimum jail sentences.

The Examiner reports that the measure, currently pending before City Council, would boost sentences for drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.20 or higher to at least 10 days in jail. Currently, District law requires five days for such an infraction. For drivers who blow a 0.25 or above, the penalty under Gray’s plan would jump to a minimum of 15 days in jail. Gray’s proposal would also increase fines for less serious instances of impaired driving.

It is estimated that these new measures would affect nearly half of individuals arrested for drunken driving.

Gray’s spokesman called the initiative “part of a broader effort to reduce traffic issues … and … to make it safe to come into the District.”

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DCist Looks at Impact of Shaw’s Watha T. Daniel Library

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

The Watha T. Daniel Shaw branch of the DC Public Library.  (Luis Gomez Photos)

As many Borderstan readers know, the Watha T. Daniel Public Library in Shaw opened in 2010, creating a striking, modern presence along Rhode Island Avenue NW.

The Shaw branch of the DC Public Library, encased in metal and glass, was followed by similarly ambitious projects in Tenleytown, Anacostia and Benning. The designs, many of which are by world-renowned architect David Adjaye, make it hard to believe the structures are government buildings.

DCist takes a moment to focus on the renaissance of the District’s libraries. It notes that their progressive designs have brought critical acclaim and, more importantly, much-needed attention to the slumping library system.

Librarian Ginnie Cooper points out that these projects are favored by architects, who relish the library’s function-oriented public space. “One architect I know calls them today’s cathedral — a secular, sacred space.”

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Posted in News, Politics & Government3 Comments

“Titan” Chats with DCist About New Trinidad Blog

News from Dupont-Logan-U Street

From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.

DCist gets up close and personal with Calvin, aka the “Titan of Trinidad,” a blogger covering the up-and-coming Northeast DC neighborhood that lies north of the H Street NE corridor.

Although it’s only a couple of weeks old, Titan of Trinidad is gaining considerable buzz due to its quirky take on one of the city’s original neighborhood blogs. And it doesn’t hurt that Calvin was one of the first to break the story on a new Ben’s Chili Bowl location coming to H Street NE.

Despite the name’s similarity to local blog, Prince of Petworth, Calvin insists “Titan of Trinidad” is all his own creative fruit. Try it for yourself — and the DCist article is a good read, too!

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