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.