I checked into the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill on a Friday evening and made my hungry way across the street to Art and Soul. Inspired by Chef Art Smith’s southern roots, Capitol Hill’s Art and Soul serves simple, honest food with a modern twist.
Chef Smith has received the culinary profession’s highest accolades and cooked for some of the most famous celebrities. He began a 10-year stint as the personal, day-to-day chef for none other than Oprah Winfrey in 1997. Chef Smith is the founder of Common Threads, a non-profit organization teaching low-income children to cook wholesome and affordable meals since 2003. He believes that through hands-on cooking and introducing children to fresh foods we can help prevent childhood obesity, reverse the trend of poor eating habits and learn about diversity and tolerance through the celebration of our cultural differences and our commonalities.
I dined with a colleague al fresco on shrimp and grits before the rain drops forced us inside for dessert. The chocolate and salted caramel cheesecake accented with English toffee crumbles is worth a second or even a third visit. The outdoor area offers a pooch patio menu, and my Yorkies thoroughly enjoyed sliced sirloin (enough to fill a literal doggy bag that lasted the rest of the stay) and two, giant frozen bones that they gnawed on as if they were kids enjoying summer vacation, lingering in the hotel bed and watching cartoons while I went to meetings.
In town for work, the Hyatt is a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building and a short walk to my meetings at the Senate and Congressional office buildings. I have stayed at this property many times over the years, and it’s always comfortable. The hotel remains remarkably clean given the high volume of traffic. Speaking of traffic, I emphatically recommend using Uber over the local taxi services. DC cab drivers are some of the rudest I’ve encountered in my worldwide travels.
A lunch break on Saturday afforded the opportunity for my other favorite pastime—second only to eating—shopping—at City Center DC. This wonderful new development near the convention center is a hub of luxury with names like Hermes and Gucci, my two other faves. Imagine my delight when the Gucci store had sandals in my size that I have lusted after since I first saw them in Vietnam, earlier this year. They have been on back-order online and not many of the stores stock the new Tian Sandal with double GG canvas featuring an overlay pattern of tropical flowers and birds that is actually taken from a Chinese painting. They’ll look great on my upcoming trip to Aruba!
A combination of retail and residential, City Center DC boasts an arch featuring cool videos that frames a serene courtyard with fountains, while famous restaurants Momofuku, Fig and Olive and DBGB Kitchen and Bar add buzz to the spot. Encompassing 10-acres in the heart of the District, City Center DC is a 2.5 million square foot vibrant neighborhood development enlivened with a mix of condominiums, apartments, offices, public spaces, hotel, restaurants and shops. City Center DC’s boundaries are New York Avenue NW, 9th Street NW, H Street NW, and 11th Street NW. This has become a must-visit destination every time I’m in the District.
Don’t forget that all the monuments and museums in DC have free admission because we are the tax payers who foot the bills for operations. The Botanical Gardens are not to be missed. The Kennedy Center offers behind-the-scenes tours of this magical theatrical complex where the annual Kennedy Center Honors take place. The “nation’s stage” offers a full-slate of programming that includes family-friendly musicals, free nightly shows on the Millennium stage and kids’ concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra. Kinky Boots is playing there this summer, but I already saw that a few years back during its pre-Broadway trial run in Chicago. Featuring songs by Cyndi Lauper, it’s colorful and fabulous!
If you want to visit the White House, which I did a few years ago, make sure to contact your United States Senator’s or Congressperson’s office. They can arrange for tickets. Reach out to them in advance. That was one of the coolest things I ever experienced in the District, aside from the the time at the holidays when I saw Wayne Newton making an exit from one of the luxury hotels to his limousine after performing at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Despite enormous amounts of gentrification, comprised of outrageous housing costs that prevent many working class people, including those of the white collar variety, from living in the District, there is still a high level of diversity. There are a variety of neighborhoods, including a vibrant Chinatown, as well as restaurants for all taste preferences.
My favorite neighborhood is Capitol Hill with gorgeous, tree lined streets, brick sidewalks and 19th century residences. Capitol Hill features a dog park (Lincoln Park) where your four-legged kids can frolic and play. Lincoln Park was part of the original plan by Pierre L’Enfant for the District of Columbia in 1791 and is the largest park in Capitol Hill.
The park is presided over by Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, which is a bronze statue honoring educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, by Robert Berks. The monument is the first statue erected on public land in Washington, D.C. to honor an African American and a woman. The statue features an elderly Mrs. Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young black children. She is supporting herself with a cane given to her by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
There’s a charming little place at the edge of the park for dinner called the Lincoln Park Kitchen and Wine Bar, featuring charcuterie, cheese boards, flat breads, salads and a variety of main courses, including crab cake, scallops and short ribs. I opted for the arugula salad with walnuts, pears and blue cheese for a starter and the Campanelle pasta with sausage, broccoli rabe and kalamata olives for the main course. It truly feels like a neighborhood in Capitol Hill and you don’t even feel like you’re in Washington, DC.
Another hot spot north of Capitol Hill is Union Station, which is also within walking distance from the Hyatt and the Capitol. Daniel-Burnahm designed this Beaux Arts landmark, now a bustling Amtrak hub and bus depot with cafes and shops. The Eastern Market is the city’s oldest public market and features a Farmers’ Line on Saturdays and Sundays as well as a flea market on Sunday, featuring handmade jewelry, vintage linens, printing press letters and other antique treasures.
One place on my list to visit this time was Ebenezers Coffeehouse, formerly an abandoned building one block from Union Station that was once a crack house. National Community Church owns Ebenezers and promotes free trade coffee with a cause. All proceeds go to community outreach projects with a focus on ending homelesnness. The church’s driving motivation behind building a coffeehouse was that Jesus hung out at wells. They were natural gathering places in ancient culture. Ebenezers is a postmodern well that has served more than a million customers—neighbors, business people and elected officials from Capitol Hill alike.
Walking and riding around DC begs the question, “Where does community development end and gentrification begin?” This made the reason for my visit all the more important and timeline . I was there to attend the National Fair Housing Alliance annual conference, where we tackled issues such as fair and equal access to safe and affordable housing, displacement due to economic factors, and disparities in access to opportunities.
After all, your zip code is more than just a number—it’s an identity. Where you live determines your access to opportunities, including health care, education, transportation and employment. Where you live can also predict your future—your success or failure. Will you end up a college graduate with a job that pays enough to live in a high opportunity area, or will you become a statistic, winding up in a cycle of poverty and incarceration?
All of these options seem plausible in our Nation’s Capital, which is ripe with diversity, yet the wealth divide is readily apparent as well. For example, there is a giant “TRUMP COMING 2016” sign in front of the soon to open five-star Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just down the street from the White House, where the nation’s first Black President and First Lady currently live with their family. Simultaneously, the first female candidate is set to make history as the Democratic nominee to vie for the Presidency. The fact that all of the aforementioned people, Trump, Obama and Clinton, are members of the one-percent club, is eerily reflective of the struggle of the American working class and the disappearance of the middle class as the wealth divide grows as fast as the rate of inflation. At the same time, one doesn’t have to strain to see the abundance of homeless people and panhandlers in the District, with an obvious presence of untreated mental illness and substance abuse. The struggle, as they say, is real.