Every night at sundown, two blindingly bright sodium-vapor lamps illuminate a corner near the intersection of Vermont Avenue and U Street NW.
In the hot summer air, crowds of laughing bar-hoppers and restaurant-goers in shorts and flip-flops shuffle past. The corner is bright and vibrant.
But just a few months ago, that corner of the intersection was much darker — in the literal sense.
“For a long time, this was kind of seen as a forsaken corner,” says Andre Esser.
Esser, along with Sheryar Durrani, owns and manages local business U Scoot, a scooter rental shop and dealership that opened at the intersection in June.
“This corner always looked sort of sketchy,” says Esser. “You had people panhandling that I had to chase off, people out here loitering all the time. I don’t know the crime statistics on this corner, but I’m sure there have been crimes here over the years.”
Esser, who also owns Redline Motorsports in Takoma Park, had a plan to change all that. Before opening his scooter business, he mounted two powerful lights on the building.
“Turning on the lights makes it a brighter corner,” Esser says. “Thieves don’t usually tend to hang out on bright corners.”
Esser also hired two plainclothes security guards and installed over $10,000 worth of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.
“The cameras and lights aren’t just for our own personal protection, especially the lights,” says Esser. “I feel like if I’m going to have a business, then it needs to be a safe corner.”
Esser says D.C. Police were glad when he installed the cameras.
“They came up to me right away and said, hey, are those good cameras? Can we have access to them?” Esser recalls “And we said absolutely. It’s for everybody’s safety. We want to assist the police department with making this a safer corner.”
In his two months of running the business, Esser says he’s helped to aid police by recording and turning over footage of three crime incidents. Just last week, U Scoot’s cameras caught a hit-and-run as it happened.
“Hopefully we’ve detracted from some of the crime,” says Esser. “That’s the goal. It’s not to just catch it. It’s to deter it from happening.”
Even when he’s at home, Esser says he sometimes uses an app on his phone to watch the cameras late at night. But he’s not only only watching out for scooter thefts.
“I’ll be having dinner or playing with my kids and I’ll peek in and make sure everything is okay,” Esser says “I’m kind of like Big Brother, but looking out for this corner at nighttime.”
“If there’s a car accident, if someone’s assaulted, if someone’s car is broken into, we’ll see it,” says Esser.
“[A] person might steal a bicycle,” he adds. “Or that person might shoot someone. That person might mug someone. That person should probably be off the streets.”
Photo of U Scoot at night courtesy of U Scoot
Step inside an elevator at the Ring Building south of Dupont Circle and you’ll find a relic of the past.
Each weekday, a small troupe of elevator operators transports more than a thousand people up and down a 12-floor office building.
It doesn’t take a local historian to know that elevator operators are rare in D.C. Most, if not all, of the other elevators in the city are operated by the users themselves.
But the Ring Building, built in 1947, may be the last public office building in D.C. that employs elevator operators, apart from the U.S. Capitol.
Visitors to the Ring Building will always find at least one operator working, no matter the hour or day. (Full disclosure: Visitors to the Ring Building will also find Borderstan’s office.)
Would it be more cost-effective to use an automated system? Probably. But 49-year-old elevator operator Cleveland Johnson says his profession has more to do with sentimentality than efficiency.
According to Johnson, the man who built the building, Gustave Ring, made the job permanent as one of his final wishes.
“It was one of Mr. Ring’s wishes on his deathbed that the building always have elevator operators,” says Johnson while making eye-contact through his reflection on the polished door. “It makes it feel fancy.”
Operating the elevator is more complex than it would seem. To change floors, operators must press a floor button, then tug on a brass lever to close and open the elevator door. There are also three switches to control the light, ringer and air inside the elevator.
Ascending or descending inside the cars can sometimes feel like an amusement park ride.
“If [the elevator] was a car, it’d be stick, not automatic,” Johnson says.
Johnson adds that elevator operators at the Ring Building are actually licensed for the line of work, and that he was required to take a three-minute test about maximum weight capacity and occupancy. Still, Johnson says his job isn’t too involved.
“There’s nothing to it, really. It helps if you’re not claustrophobic,” he says with a laugh. “And good hand-eye coordination helps, I guess. That’s pretty much it. It’s not rocket science. The hard part is dealing with peoples’ personalities.”
A group of young men dressed in khakis and button-downs and loaded with carry-out food from a neighboring restaurant step inside the elevator. Johnson selects the seventh floor, closes the door and sends the elevator lurching up.
“I know a lot of people’s floor and I don’t know their name,” Johnson says. “It goes both ways. Sometimes people see us and sometimes they don’t. People get used to us being there and they just zone out.”
Johnson has worked at the Ring Building for seven years and said he makes about $1,700 per month after taxes. He estimates that he travels up and down the elevator shafts more than 200 times during each eight-hour shift.
Though there are rumblings that management plans to install new, automatic elevators in a couple of months, Johnson is confident he’ll have many more years to hone his button pressing and lever pulling.
“I don’t think they’re just gonna toss us out of here,” says Johnson.
While wandering around downtown or near Dupont Circle you might catch a glimpse of a puppet in a red shirt and a man playing guitar.
Gordy Walck is the man with the guitar.
The puppet in sunglasses is Miles.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Walck sits with Miles on the corner of 18th and M streets NW.
Walck’s shoulders and mouth are pointed at the ground. He sways as his fingers strum a guitar.
Miles, Walck’s knee-height companion, sits next to him on a bench. While Walck sways and sings, his partner’s wooden lips and eyebrows move with the words.
“He had a hundred dollar price tag on him and I thought, ‘you know what, I’m gonna try that [and] see if I can make this work,” Walck says about the first time he “met” Miles.
It wasn’t ventriloquism that brought the 62 year-old Gordy to D.C. from Seattle, Washington to D.C. in 1992. Asking Gordy what exactly drew him to the city elicits a groan.
“That’s a long story,” Walck says with a chuckle. “Let’s just say I tried to effect a change. Let’s just say that.”
It’s unclear what kind of change Walck wanted to make, but he’s brought smiles to people downtown over the years.
Watching him on a sunny Tuesday, a few men in suits smirk at Miles before continuing on their way. Walck’s open, velvet guitar case only has a few dollars in it. He says making a living as a street performer isn’t as lucrative as it used to be.
More people carry credit cards now, and that means Walck is often met with an audience fumbling for change in their pockets and coming up empty, he says.
Walck says he could easily earn thousands of dollars on the street when he started out. Now, times are a bit tougher and it’s not just the city’s love for credit cards.
“Some towns respond differently to different things,” Walck says. “A friend of mine who’s traveled the world said that ‘if you had this act in Chicago, New York, Manhattan something like that,’ he says it would really go.”
That’s because art is treated differently in D.C. and a higher level of sophistication is much more appreciated, Walck says.
“Some of these players have instruments that are not something you’d commonly see on the street and they do quite well,” he says.
But for a ventriloquist like Walck, times are tough.
He lost his house in Mount Pleasant almost a year ago, partly because two defective amplifiers left him down $4,000.
“It was a great place to live, the neighborhood was calm, there was no crime there,” Walck recalls.
Now, Walck says he doesn’t have a roof over his head.
Losing the amplifiers meant less income, and less income meant Walck had to dip into his savings to keep Miles in working condition.
Rather than sleeping, Walck says he spends time keeping his equipment in working order — and keeping it charged.
“When someone’s indoors then they can plug in to charge and get [some] sleep,” says Walck. “In my case, I have to kind of catch it as I can, charge it at a location or an outlet and then I have to stay awake so it doesn’t get stolen,” he says.
But in the end, it’s worth it to find a sense of purpose, Walck says.
“I give the world a little bit of levity and lightheartedness,” says Walck. “That’s my intention.”
“FIREWORKS TNT FIREWORKS,” reads the sign above Mi Casita Bakery, a Mexican and Salvadoran cafe on 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights.
Inside, the eatery is busy and hot.
“No, we don’t sell fireworks here,” sighs the man behind the counter. “We do not sell fireworks.”
The man sighs again, as if to say he gets that question a lot.
“But Mattie does,” the man says, pointing to the wall behind him. “She’s out back.”
Mattie McLain’s head barely emerges from behind the counter of her plywood fireworks stand. On first glance, the hut looks uninhabited.
Although hidden, McLain is there. Sun or storm, the 78-year-old has manned the firework shack each summer for more than 20 years.
Every afternoon, a small crowd of children gathers in front of the stand. With a smile, McLain doles out pop-its, sparklers and party poppers for a dollar apiece.
Earlier this week, the stand was discovered — and subsequently written about — by PoPville.
“Seems legit,” wrote one commenter sarcastically.
“The [person] who runs the fireworks stand has had [their] stand on that corner for 30+ years,” writes another. “The nice folks at [Mi] Casita don’t have to let [them] continue the tradition, but they do.”
But McLain doesn’t just own the fireworks stand. She also owns the building that houses Mi Casita.
“I’ve owned the building 40 years,” she says.
McLain used to run a grocery store and deli out of the space, but she closed the deli 10 years ago.
“I just got too old,” McLain says. “Now, I sell fireworks. It keeps me busy.”
Over the years, McLain has gotten to know her neighbors well.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot,” says McLain. “But a lot of the same people are still here. I know them.”
“Each year around this time, they look for me,” McLain says with a laugh. “Everybody says, ‘Where’s Mattie?'”
McLain often says she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll sell fireworks. But she’ll run the stand as long as she can.
“I’m old,” McLain says. “Too old. I fell this morning.”
“But I can get up,” she adds.
Rainbow flags lined the the streets in Dupont and Logan Circle as the city celebrated during last Saturday’s Pride Parade.
Though D.C. activated its heat emergency plan earlier in the day, thousands of people turned out to celebrate the occasion.
Atop decorated floats and on foot, revelers traveled the 1.5-mile parade route to hand out candy, beads, T-shirts and the occasional high five. This year’s theme was “Flashback,” and many in attendance donned colorful costumes meant to evoke past Pride celebrations.
And plenty of people wore speedos.
We’ve had a big couple of weeks here at Borderstan. And we’re about to have a big weekend.
We’re happy to announce that we’ll have a spot in this year’s Pride Parade on Saturday. We’ll have plenty of staffers on hand to pass out some nifty new Borderstan T-shirts.
Good morning. Borderstan is back.
We probably look a little different than you remember. That’s because, in April, Local News Now LLC, the publisher of ARLnow.com, acquired Borderstan from founders Matt Rhoades and Luis Gomez. Since then, we’ve worked with Matt and Luis to map out how we can build upon what locals loved about the site the first time around.
And based on what we’ve come up with, we think you’ll be pleased.
Moving forward, we plan to cover everything Matt and Luis did well, from arts and entertainment, crime and politics, to local businesses and dining. We’ll also add to that mix up-to-date breaking neighborhood news coverage in a large swath of Northwest D.C., which includes the areas around Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, up to U Street, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.
Our site editor is Tim Regan, who has covered local news, restaurants, oddities and the arts for Washington Post Express, Washington City Paper and Thrillist, among others. He’ll occasionally be assisted by Andrew Ramonas, the editor of our sister site, Hill Now, Local News Now managing editor Bryan Doyle and a stable of stalwart freelance contributors.
Have a suggestion? Want to contribute? Drop us a line at [email protected]. Or, if you have an idea for a story we should write, call our tip line at 202-930-3546 to leave a message about what’s going on in your neighborhood. Be sure to connect with us on Twitter and Facebook, and check back with us frequently. We’ll be updating the site daily.
Borderstan.com will be back before you know it, delivering comprehensive neighborhood news coverage of Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, the U Street area — and now Columbia Heights.
We’ll relaunch Monday, June 1 with editor Tim Regan at the helm. Tim has covered local news, restaurants, oddities and the arts for Washington Post Express, Washington City Paper and Thrillist, among others. Most recently, he was assistant editor of two magazines on the housing market and home renovation, ProSales and Remodeling.
Local News Now LLC, the publisher of ARLnow.com, acquired Borderstan.com earlier this year from founders Matt Rhoades and Luis Gomez, as we announced last month. In the meantime, we’ve been working with Matt and Luis to map out how we can build upon what locals loved about the site the first time around, from August 2008 to June 2013.
You can expect up-to-the minute, community-based reporting on breaking news, development, restaurants and more, in the areas Borderstan previously covered. As part of the relaunch, we’ll cover Columbia Heights, too.
Questions, comments, scoops or inquiries about becoming contributor? We can be reached at [email protected].