The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Washington, DC’s U Street Neighborhood With NPR’s Steve Inskeep

“I wanted you to meet me here because when I think about this neighborhood – the story of how it is now – it begins here,” Steve Inskeep says. “In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated and a lot of cities and neighborhoods burned, including this one. One of my neighbors was around at that time and he told me that the riot began here, that there was an office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference right along here. A huge crowd gathered outside and someone threw an object through a drugstore window and the riots started.”

We’re standing on a loud corner at the intersection of 14th and U Street in front of the glass and brick Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, where Inskeep is occasionally interrupted by horns and conversations and one very polite panhandler. He tells me how, after the destruction, a lot of the buildings were empty for decades. Then this government center opened and brought jobs with it.

“Restaurants started to re-open,” he says. “People started to renovate houses.” He gestures towards the construction cranes punctuating the cloudy day as he notes how rapidly the neighborhood continues to change.

I’m listening to his words, soaking up the fascinating history lesson, but it’s also impossible not to be just a little distracted by his voice. Inskeep’s well-known tenor has been seeping out of my radio every morning for over a decade. I cannot help but be briefly disoriented by the physical reality of this surprisingly tall man in khaki pants who accompanies the typically disembodied voice.When I ask Inskeep to hold a tape recorder while we walk and talk, he happily obliges, joking that he’s “held a mic once or twice before.” Whenever I ask a question, he deftly shifts the device over my way, making me feel, though not at all uncomfortably, like I’m the one being interviewed.

We amble east on U Street and Inskeep tells me about how different his neighborhood was 12 years ago when he first moved in. With the help of a first-time home buyer’s program, he and his wife scraped together the money to purchase a fixer-upper.

“It has the original cast iron steps, stained glass windows and wood floors,” he says. “Everything else had to be redone. The plumbing had to be redone from the street in. But that’s what we could afford. So we fixed it up ever so slightly and got ourselves in there. We fixed it up some more after we had our first daughter. Actually there are several guys in the basement right now…”

Back then the area was full of vacant lots and buildings.

“Even the businesses that were open would have boarded up windows like they had been boarded up since the ’60s. It looked like a dead zone even if it wasn’t,” he says.

Now the neighborhood, like his home, is in a state of constant renovation.

We pass a gigantic apartment building called The Ellington, named after the jazz legend who grew up here, then stop to admire Lincoln Theater, built in 1922. Inskeep speaks highly of the shows offered here, from films to live performances. As with his other local favorites, he seems equally as passionate about the space as its history. He draws my attention to the venue’s loving restoration as we peek inside at the gold-leaf infused décor.

Our next stop is neighborhood institution Ben’s Chili Bowl, opened in the 1950s. Theirs is a story of endurance.

“It is said to be the only business to survive the catastrophe of this neighborhood after the ’60s and into the ’80s,” Inskeep says. “Even after they started building the metro in here – ripping up business – these guys stayed open.”

Bill Cosby, who attended nearby Howard University, might be called the patron saint of Ben’s. For years, a sign listing folks allowed to eat for free contained only his name. Then, before his inauguration, President Obama showed up. And just like that the list doubled in size. A colorful mural coats one side of the building, Bill and Barack grinning at each other like old friends.

Inskeep points out another favorite food spot across the street: Ulah.

“My wife and I have lunch there all the time,” he says. “It’s a good neighborhood restaurant with a great variety of people.”

Inskeep clearly thrives in diverse urban environments like D.C., telling me: “everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been excited by the cities that I’ve been to.” He offers Kandahar, Baghdad, Cairo, and Karachi as examples.

From abroad we find our conversational way to Hoboken, N.J. We’ve both resided there and I catch myself telling him about how the PATH train is finally up and running again today post Hurricane Sandy, quickly realizing, but not before the words are out of my mouth, that I’m repeating news I heard directly from him at 5:30 that very morning. Still he listens patiently, only the faintest hint of an amused smile, as I regurgitate his morning report.

As we round the corner back to 14th Street, he points out Home Rule, a trendy house wares supplier that was the only upscale store on the block when he moved in. It’s been around for 14 years and was the first place opened after the riots. Now the stretch is lined with trendy new shops: an oaky wine store, a brightly lit veterinarian, a clothing boutique calling out like a Siren to my wallet.

There are few places we don’t have time to see together but that Inskeep thinks are an important part of the neighborhood fabric. He urges me to walk down 13th Street to Logan Circle to see the “spectacular Victorian homes that were mostly vacant 10 or 12 years ago.” Recently they’ve been split into multi-million dollar units.

Later I’ll do just that, then head north up a hill, as he suggests, to take in Cordozo High School, a looming Gothic building under renovation like everything else around here. It’s mid-afternoon by then and the majority of those I pass off the beaten U Street path are construction workers meandering home in groups, guys peeling off one at a time down side streets or at bus stops.

Over lunch, Inskeep mentions the amazing variety of people that exist together in this area. First, this was an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. Then came an influx of Hispanics, followed by white homebuyers. There was gentrification. Bars and restaurants blossomed. There are constant conflicts over what this neighborhood stands for, Inskeep tells me.

“Is it a black neighborhood? A white neighborhood? A diverse area? An entertainment district? A residential area? Is it upscale? Is it downscale? It’s ended up being all of those things in the years that we’ve been here.”

No matter what larger generalizations one might be tempted to make about this area – like any – it’s apparent that Inskeep remains focused on the personal details of the place, just like he does in his journalism. “You don’t want to be abstract,” he tells me. “You want to be specific. You want to tell stories.”

And he’s told me some fascinating ones about this neighborhood over the last few hours – not to mention regaled me with tales about Hurricane Katrina, Charleton Heston, Cairo, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the state of journalism, and, of course, about himself.

At the end of our afternoon, I thank Inskeep for his time – and then I blurt out the kind of favor only a true NPR nerd would ask.

“Would you record the ‘Morning Edition’ intro with me?”

“You want to do what?” he asks, and I cannot tell if he is appalled or amused or somewhere in between. Whatever his feelings regarding the request, he’s game. But not before cautioning: “The sound quality will be terrible.”

And so the last audio recordings from that day are not those of an unflappable journalist collecting material for a story but rather of a giddy fan:

“I’m Steve Inskeep…” he says.

“I’m Rachel Friedman…” I say.

“And you’re listening to ‘Morning Edition’ from NPR news.”

Eat your heart out, Renee Montagne.

About the Wandering Writer:
Steve Inskeep is host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the most widely heard radio news program in the United States. He co-hosts the program with Renee Montagne. Inskeep is the author of “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi,” published in 2011 by The Penguin Press, a story of ordinary, often heroic people and their struggles to build one of the world’s great megacities. In addition, Inskeep has written for publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

[Photo Credits: NPR 2003, Debbie Accame; Rachel Friedman]

Hotel News We Noted: January 18, 2013

white houseWelcome to this week’s edition of “Hotel News We Noted,” where we round up the week’s best, most interesting and just downright odd news of note in the hospitality world. Have a tip? Send us a note or leave a comment below.

Hotels to Spot the Celebs: Washington, DC’s Hottest Inaugural Lobbies
It’s officially here: Washington is celebrating its 57th Presidential Inauguration on Monday, Jan. 21. We’ve already covered how hotels are prepping for inauguration and some of our favorite over-the-top packages, but what about the best places for people watching? We’d park ourselves at the Four Seasons’ Bourbon Steak or Seasons, Adour at the St. Regis, Off the Record at The Hay Adams, the Round Robin bar at The Willard, POV or J&G at the W, Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt, the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, Quill at The Jefferson or West End Bistro at The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, DC. Washington Post’s Reliable Source is a great place to get the scoop on who is staying where this weekend … and who isn’t coming to town (Oprah, among others).

Tech-Free Trend: Leaving the Gadgets at Home
Could you go tech-free for a week or a weekend? Marriott seems to think so. They’re testing “Braincation Zones” at hotels across the Caribbean and Mexico, ABC News reports. This encourages guests to put down devices and truly relax. The article goes on to detail other hotels that encourage tech-free policies or tech-free zones. We’re totally inclined to put down our gadgets on vacation, but think that actually removing the ability to check email or make phone calls goes a bit far … we’d like the ability to make that choice on our own, thank you very much.

Hotel News of Note: QE2 to Become a Floating Hotel In Asia
Bloomberg Businessweek is reporting that the Queen Elizabeth 2, the former cruise ship that made waves in the luxury cruise space for more than 40 years is being converted to a floating hotel and will be docked in Asia. The property will open in 2014 and may move locations at some point, possibly to Dubai. How does the idea of staying in a floating hotel sound to you?

Hotel Openings: Tropicana Las Vegas
Hilton Honors members just found their next location for a Las Vegas vacation. The DoubleTree by Hilton has invested more than $200 million to renovate the 1,500-room, 35-acre resort. In celebration, Hilton is giving away monthly chances to win one million HHonors points as well as an ultimate Vegas vacation weekend on their Facebook page.

[Image Credit: ~MVI~ (running away from parties)]

Move Over, Starbucks: Marriott Offers Workspace On Demand

renaissance dupont circle flexible workspaceAttempting to pierce the burgeoning flexible work and meeting space market, Marriott has launched a new program called Workspace on Demand, currently at more than 30 hotels, primarily in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco but also at select locations in Atlanta, Houston and St. Louis.

Here, workers can reserve meeting spaces, lobby seating areas and communal tables to enjoy an afternoon of meetings or a quick catch-up between colleagues.

This may be an untapped opportunity for the hotel market – Marriott is the first we’ve seen to both publicly advertise lobby space to non-guests and to charge for its use. According to research firm IDC, the number of mobile workers – those without a fixed office space – will increase to nearly 1.2 billion globally this year.

“Younger workers are changing the work dynamic. They are mobile and global, living lives untethered to the traditional work environment, and we are evolving with them,” said Paul Cahill, senior vice president, Brand Management, Marriott Hotels & Resorts in a release.

Workers can book these spaces through an app/website collaboration with LiquidSpace, which already offers flexible work spaces on a limited term basis.

We tried to book a meeting space for Washington, D.C., and found the system simple to use, if the work spaces themselves a bit sparse in selection. We could reserve a communal table for eight at the Renaissance in Dupont Circle for $38.50 per hour or $150 for a half-day. The venue was closed for today, but available for Monday, Jan. 14.

It seems like it’s worth a shot if you need a set amount of space for an important meeting, but we might just consider a flexible office space’s conference room where we’re guaranteed peace and quiet, or the option of taking our chances in the hotel lobby.

What do you think? Will you try out the service?

[Image Credit: Renaissance Dupont Circle]

LA Is Still The City Of Dreams

rolls royce in los angeles LAOn my first night in L.A., I had pizza with a rock star and an actor. I didn’t confirm it, but the guy who handed us our slices probably has a screenplay in the pipeline. Los Angeles is still the city of dreams and dreamers.

I’m fascinated by cities people flock to in order to pursue a vocation. Writers love New York. Techies settle in the Silicon Valley. Car people need to be in Detroit. Those who are interested in politics and government go to D.C. And anyone who wants to work in the entertainment industry moves to L.A.

Every city also has accountants, police officers, teachers and the rest, but L.A. wouldn’t be the same without the swarms of people who moved there in the hopes of becoming famous. If you live in a city that’s saturated with people who’ve all moved there for roughly the same reason, I can see how it would be a bit annoying. I’ve lived in D.C. three separate times and never warmed to the place in part because it’s a transient city filled with hyper-achieving, my child is going to speak Chinese better than your child, type A personalities.

But while living among the aspiring and working actors, directors and musicians in L.A. might get old, I never get tired of visiting the place. On the first night of my recent trip, my wife and I fell into conversation with a guy who had movie star good looks while waiting for slices of a pizza in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. I don’t watch enough Hollywood movies and T.V. to know if he was famous, but he looked the part. But then again, there are all kinds of beautiful people in L.A. and only a fraction of them are famous, the rest wait tables, take off their clothes in strip joints and do 1,000 other things to pay the rent while keeping their dreams of stardom simmering.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask him, “hey, are you on TV?” because I didn’t want to be too much of a rank tourist. We went outside with our slices and sat at a table next to a guy with a big mop of curly blonde hair and two slices of pizza. He had a guitar on his lap and I couldn’t help but ask him what band he was in.

“We’re called the Mowgli’s,” he said.

The name meant nothing to me but immediately resonated with my little boys, who are fans of “The Jungle Book.The young man told me his name was Michael Vincze and, while I naively assumed that he was just an eccentric dreamer that liked to walk around L.A. with a guitar, he casually mentioned that they’d recently played at the House of Blues in Chicago and on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

In many ways, emerging artists like the Mowglis are forced to be consummate travelers. Vincze told us that his band had crisscrossed the country in a van several times, playing gigs in towns and cities all across the fruited plane.

Later that evening, I rode an elevator at my hotel with a strikingly attractive black woman and thought, she’s probably famous or soon will be, and later found out I was right. It was the British R & B singer Laura Mvula.

Of course, if you’re serious about stalking the mega-stars while in L.A., the real household names, there are a number of websites that list their home addresses, where they eat, pray, shop, etc. I have little interest in celebrity stalking, but I love to simply drive around L.A. and marvel at all the ridiculously expensive cars.

I saw more Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis in four days in L.A. than I’d see driving around Chicago, my adopted hometown, in a lifetime. These kinds of cars would be considered ostentatious in most corners of the planet but in L.A., hardly anyone seems to bat an eyelash.

On our last day in L.A., I was reminded what I like most about the city after reading a beautiful, heartbreaking story in the Los Angeles Times about Seth Burnham, a struggling “Mid 30s-ish, early 40s-ish” actor who moved to L.A. to pursue his dream and, like many, hasn’t made it but keeps hope alive. The story is part of a series called Chasing the Dream that neatly encapsulates how hard it is to make it in the entertainment business.

As a traveler, I like to be in a place that’s filled with dreamers like Seth Burnham. D.C. is filled with practical, serious career climbers, the kind of people who pay obsessive attention to their 401k portfolios and have panic attacks if they go more than 3,000 miles without an oil change.

But L.A. is chockfull of impractical people following dreams, people who carry their guitars around with them, waiting for inspiration to strike, people who, if given a million dollars, would rush right out and spend it on a Rolls Royce, people who, when you ask them how old they are, respond: “Mid 30s-ish to early 40s-ish.” L.A. doesn’t get much love from travel writers but there is no better place in the country to rub shoulders with fun, idealistic people who are this close to making it big.

[Photo credit: Frankenmedia on Flickr]

Roman Coppola And W Hotels Release Four Travel-Inspired Films

With the help of filmmaker Roman Coppola, son of director Francis Ford Coppola, W Hotels and Intel recently held a travel-inspired screenplay competition. Out of more than 1,000 online entries, four scripts were chosen by Coppola, who then used his production company, The Directors Bureau, to match the winning scripts with emerging directors and actors.

The result are the short films below, each of which takes place at a W Hotel around the world: in Doha, Qatar; Mexico City, Mexico; Washington, DC; and the Maldives. The only other stipulation for screenwriters was that the films had to feature an Intel Ultrabook – kind of like the secret ingredient in an Iron Chef competition. The results are quirky, touching, and sometimes eerie, but most of all great ways to inspire travel and help emerging talent get their feet off the ground.

Modern/Love: Two 20-somethings take the next step in their long-distance cyber romance, meeting in person for the first time during an exotic vacation in Doha, Qatar. Will their tech-enabled feelings hold true in real life?
Screenplay by Amy Jacobowitz
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Featuring Robert Schwartzman and Naomi Scott

¡El Tonto!: A socially challenged vacationer in Mexico City, Mexico, strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of the country’s best-known luchadores.
Screenplay by Ben Sayeg
Directed by Lake Bell
Featuring Kyle Mooney and Kyle Mooney

Eugene: A traveler in Washington, DC, gets a mysterious gift: an Ultrabook that grants all his wishes. How will he wield his unexpected powers?
Screenplay by Adam Blampied
Directed by Spencer Susser
Featuring Michael Govier and Karolina Wydra

The Mirror Between Us: Two young women embark on a dream-like adventure through the islands of the Maldives after an event turned both their worlds upside down.
Screenplay by Nicole Beharie
Directed by Kahlil Joseph
Featuring Dan’ee Doty