Completely unattached and equally ready to go anywhere, I settled on DC after conducting a truly unbiased and scientific review, involving visiting the city a few times and asking all my friends for their opinions on living here. For the first time in my life, I moved not for a job or to enter a program of study but just because I had a good feeling about the place, and hope for the opportunities there.
What I found was a place far different from what I had expected and far more like home.
I’m from the Carolinas, born in South Carolina and raised in North Carolina. Last May, I finished my graduate degree in one of our good old state schools and starting thinking about where to go to find work and begin the next phase of my life. The temptation to stay in North Carolina was strong; I could have chosen Raleigh, or Chapel Hill where I did my undergraduate work, or Charlotte where the economy is hopping compared to Wilmington, where I lived most recently. I’ve lived abroad a few times, though, and that seems to have changed my range of vision, making me realize I can make any place my home with enough effort and that I should remember to look farther afield.
So it might seem like moving to DC would be too easy a transition, since it’s only one state away from my home and has much the same climate and terrain. I’m a mid-sized city kid, though; my hometown, Greensboro, is only a little over a quarter of a million people. Moving to DC seemed to me on par with moving to New York or L.A., where growing accustomed to the city size would be a greater challenge than growing accustomed to the local culture.
How ironic, then, that the neighborhood where my friend and I happened to land looks and feels so much like the place I was raised.
One thing I love about this neighborhood is precisely the thing that gets in the way of my work: it’s so beautiful that it draws me outside. Looking out the window of my apartment as I’m working, seeing the trees and the spire of the Capital Memorial Church, isn’t enough.
When the lily magnolia and cherry blossom trees scattered in the neighborhood were in bloom, I got no work done. I grabbed any pretext I could–a bit of exercise and fresh air, the need for a few semi-necessary ingredients for Thai green curry–and headed out the door for a walk.
When the azaleas peaked and started to fade, I found more excuses so I could catch them while they lasted. Now that the irises and rhododendron are out and the hydrangeas are nearly ready to burst into bloom, I’ve even given up on pretexts completely. If it’s sunny, I’m gone.
I’m a house-watcher as well as a flower-watcher, so my walks in the neighborhood involve plenty of Name That Architecture. North Carolina has heavily red-brick centered architecture in all permutations and combinations: Georgian and Federal styles, modern revamps and the good old utilitarian American Foursquare design.
It makes perfect sense to use brick when any child with a spade knows that the red clay is just under the surface, all over the state. Who would ever think a person could miss a building material so much, but it’s true. The times I’ve lived abroad, it was hard to get used to buildings made only of concrete and tile or wood and white clay. Seeing a red brick house, fronted with azalea bushes, when I’m walking in my new neighborhood gives me the same sense of home as a stranger smiling when we pass on the sidewalk.
I love walking in Forest Hills and seeing architecture I recognize. When people think of the South, front-porch culture is one concept that springs easily to mind. Although these days even the South is suffering from the epidemic of anonymity that comes with rapid movement and development, when people don’t know their neighbors and don’t care to know them, pockets of front-porch culture still exist here and there. Imagine my delight when I stroll through the Forest Hills neighborhood past houses with huge front porches. They aren’t even purely decorative additions, either. I’ve seen signs of habitation and, here recently, even neighbors themselves out on their porches now that the weather is warm.
This week, a representative from the Census bureau called on my roommate and me to ask a long list of questions, much more specific than I’ve had to answer before. After the typical demographic queries, she started asking questions about the neighborhood and how tightly knit it is: if people in my neighborhood saw kids they suspected were skipping school, would they do something about it? Do my neighbors know and look out for each other? Do people in my neighborhood meet to discuss issues affecting the neighborhood? Simply thinking about the people on the hall in my apartment complex, I was a little taken aback.
Many of them are embassy staff, don’t know the culture or language very well and probably would have no idea what to do to get involved in the neighborhood. Then I thought past the building and into the surrounding area, to people I’ve met, the parents I see out my window walking their kids to Forest Hills Playground, the regular customers I speak to at my favorite businesses on Connecticut Avenue.
More than I ever would have expected, more than people would believe for a borough in a big city, I feel people do know their neighbors and do watch out for each other here. They have something of the front-porch culture mindset. I think that’s what reminds me of home the most.