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Area writers uncover D.C.’s bookish past

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Office workers in line for burritos at the Chipotle on the corner of 19th and M streets NW probably don’t realize they’re lunching in what was previously the home of not one, but two great Washington writers.

Travel writer Eliza Scidmore lived there between her 19th-century jaunts to Asia, and famed novelist John Dos Passos was still a child when he and his mother moved in several decades later.

There are no plaques or markers denoting the small building’s historical significance. Dos Passos’s bust doesn’t sit on the condiment bar. There are no cherry blossoms to honor Scidmore’s work to bring the trees to the nation’s capital. In fact, the structure’s legacy likely would’ve been lost to the ages if not for the obsessive work of two Washington poets.

For nearly eight years, Kim Roberts and Dan Vera have devoted themselves to a peculiar hobby: researching the residences of dead writers who once lived in Washington. The culmination of those efforts is DCWriters.org, a site devoted to mapping out the homes of noteworthy area writers.

The online literary tour includes famous authors such as Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as lesser-knowns who lived here for a time but are not usually identified with the area. See: Sinclair Lewis, Rachel Carson and Julia Child.

Roberts, author of three books of poetry and editor of the online journal “Beltway Poetry Quarterly,” has long been interested in urban and literary history. In Vera, a writer and publisher of two small presses, she found “a playmate” with similar passions.

Roberts would mention former homes of noteworthy writers she’d tracked down and Vera went out with his camera to photograph them, if they were still there. Eventually he joined her in the research, and the pair began spending hours in area archives.

“If we found a mention of somebody, then it became this manic search for an address,” he says.

The pastime was a game, but it also nurtured the two poets’ sense of place and belonging in a city not usually known for fostering literary talents.

“There are very few neighborhoods in the city that I can’t walk through and have this greater, time-extended understanding about writers that lived here,” says Vera. “That other people did what I’m trying to do — write and be creative in this space.”

Three years ago, they published a photo essay of the homes. The reception from readers fueled their interest, and a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., gave them the resources to build a full Web site.

Roberts and Vera decided to include only authors who had died, and focused on those who had written novels, poetry, memoirs and plays, rather than those who worked strictly as journalists. And they used the Metro system’s reach as their geographic parameters.

When the site launched Nov. 1, the map included homes of 123 writers. The most challenging restriction was the decision to include only homes that were still standing. “We were not interested in documenting what used to be here, but what people could actually go and take a look at,” says Roberts. That meant one of her favorite Washington writers, Walt Whitman, didn’t make the list. All of his former residences have been demolished to make way for office buildings.

It was often the case that research on one writer led to another. Washington’s writers have a long history of supporting one another, Roberts says, by building tight-knit communities, hosting regular gatherings and publishing one another’s work.

“Instead of feeling like we have to compete with one another, we feel like the underdogs who have to support one another,” she says. Case in point: Roberts’s second book of poetry was published by Vera’s Vrzhu Press.

One significant stop on the virtual tour is former home of Georgia Douglas Johnson at 15th and S streets NW. Johnson’s poetry may not have changed the world, but her hospitality almost certainly did. For nearly 20 years during the Harlem Renaissance, she hosted a Saturday-night literary salon that brought together some of the greatest talents of the generation, including Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke.

In most cases, current homeowners were not aware of their famous literary predecessors. When Roberts and Vera were in Petworth, taking photos of the house where Philip K. Dick lived as a small child, an elderly woman opened the front door to greet them. She’d never heard of the science-fiction writer, but her grandson immediately recognized the movies made from his books, including “Minority Report.”

One of the most surprising names on the map is British writer Roald Dahl. Turns out the beloved children’s author, who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach,” was dispatched to Washington as a spy during World War II. While keeping tabs on the mood in the capital, he lived near Embassy Row and became a published author for the first time, writing an essay on his experience in the war.

Vera and Roberts debated the inclusion of some writers, including Ezra Pound. The poet and editor resided in the city for 12 years, but not by choice. He was incarcerated at St. Elizabeths Hospital psychiatric hospital for treason. Still, he made a mark on Washington’s literary landscape, so he ultimately made the cut.

The site’s creators still consider the map a work in progress and have included a list of writers they’re trying to trace. The hope is that readers will help.

They also hope the information will give visitors a new perspective on Washington. “This city is more than what we assume it to be. And that’s powerful.”

© The Washington Post Company