Story collector becomes a modern-day Studs Terkel with People’s District blog
Danny Harris was still a novice story collector when he stumbled across Joe sitting on a milk crate outside the Howard Theatre. Joe had an amazing face — bushy browns, creased forehead, gray hair peeking out from a Kangol hat — and a friendly look, so Harris ventured up and explained he was looking for tales of the city. “Yeah, I got lots of stories,” Joe immediately said, launching into a description of U Street in the old days, when it was lined with theaters, pool halls and the best music venues in the city. “We didn’t go downtown because of the segregation, but we had everything right here,” he said.
And with that, People’s District was born. Harris, a 31-year-old self-taught oral historian with a good audio recorder, a fuzzy mike, a red Vespa and an easy smile, spoke to a different person every day and, within months, began posting photos and edited transcripts online daily. People’s District (peoplesdistrict.com) is now home to more than 400 stories about waitresses, bike messengers, musicians, artists, bus drivers, gardeners, religious leaders, business owners, nonprofit administrators, ex-convicts, sex workers, homeless people, teenagers, seniors, old-timers, newcomers, kings of the street corner and neighborhood know-it-alls.
“I didn’t want to Google the history of my block. It simply started with ... ‘Who knows about these things? I want to talk to them.’ ” Harris said. “I’d lived in this city longer than I had anywhere else, and I wanted to invest in it. It turned out my investment became the people.”
People sometimes say the District is soulless, Harris said, and when he first moved here, he probably would have agreed. But creating People’s District has been like a kind of urban therapy that’s helped him find the city’s spirit. “I really do love Washington, and it’s meeting people that made me love it,” he said.
Sometimes Harris interviews District power brokers — politicians and their ilk — but he’s generally more drawn to everyday people whose incredible stories aren’t apparent at first glance. For example, Sarita (the entries usually bear first names only), is a former Georgetown University basketball player who became mixed up in the drug trade and ended up in prison, rooming — during her last lockup — with Martha Stewart.
BJ, who survived a shooting at 17, speaks starkly about gentrification in Petworth. “For 30 years or better, we lived how we lived. ... Then, the white people started moving in.” (That post garnered hundreds of comments — many angry — after also appearing on another local blog.)
Delores, an African American woman who has worked in a Jewish deli for 37 years, has a substantial Yiddish vocabulary and some strong opinions about sandwich etiquette. “For me, the only way to eat corned beef is on rye bread with mustard. Maybe put coleslaw or Russian dressing, but that is already pushing it,” she says.
Another subject is Blelvis — the District’s black Elvis — and another was, until recently, the longtime pianist at the Mayflower Hotel. Georges de Paris is the legendary tailor to senators and presidents. Guilia talks in her interview about trying to find mental health care for her schizophrenic son. Mistress Domina Vontana is a preacher’s daughter turned dominatrix. “Power is real, and these people in D.C. pack a lot of it. . . . This is the perfect city for what I do,” she says.
“In terms of the blog world, he is one of very, very few who makes a concerted, strong effort to talk to as many people as possible,” said Dan Silverman, the Prince of Petworth editor, who gave the site an early boost when he invited Harris to contribute to his popular blog. “He is virtually putting people together who wouldn’t normally be together. . . . That’s priceless.”
When he moved to the District soon after completing a public affairs master’s degree, he wasn’t at all in the habit of starting conversations, Harris said. An intrepid traveler, he was always speaking to strangers in foreign countries, yet at home, he felt like he was living in a bubble. Thanks to his job in the Treasury’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, he knew minute details about far-flung places but was ignorant about his neighbors, building and block. The city was so balkanized — by race, by occupation, by quadrant — and he felt disconnected.
His crisis came to a head at Whole Foods one day, he said. He felt like a cliche with his yoga mat and overpriced produce, and everyone, as he looked around, seemed disappointingly familiar. He bought an audio recorder the next morning, and the following day, he began interviewing.
At first, Harris wasn’t sure what to do with his stories, but in late 2009, with 30 completed interviews and encouragement from friends, his Web site went live. He started acquiring readers and fans and, less than five months later, quit his Treasury job.
Between e-mail subscriptions, Twitter, a Facebook page, RSS feeds, guest posts and site hits, Harris estimates that about 1,500 readers see his stories on the days when new posts now go up. Despite all that — devotees, a brand, an undergraduate intern — being a modern-day, electronic Studs Terkel isn’t yet self-sustaining. He receives revenue from advertising, storytelling workshops (he recently led classes at two public high schools) and nonprofit consulting but still pays the rent with freelance writing, photography and nighttime DJ gigs.
But most weekdays, he’s back on the streets in his semi-scruffy attire — jeans, sneakers, green canvas bag — approaching strangers or chasing tips and rumors. He zips around the city on his scooter, although he always parks and gets around neighborhoods on foot. The one time he failed to do that, he was dressed down about his incongruous ride by a dubious guy on a Southwest street corner, he said. (That guy was ultimately softened by Harris’s mellow I’m-just-compiling-stories pitch and agreed to an interview. See the entry on Derek: “I’m the stereotype of what all of you white folks think of black men in the ghetto. . . . Don’t you judge me, though, because living here is hard as [expletive].”)
Harris occasionally develops themes — interviews with council members or Valentine’s Day seduction stories. Recently, he had the idea to collect histories of old movie houses. But frequently, he simply homes in on a neighborhood hub and starts asking around about who knows the community or has a good tale.
Sometimes, he’s unlucky — a whole day will pass without any worthy stories surfacing. Other times, providence strikes, like the day a woman abruptly turned to him on H Street to complain about her grandchildren’s ignorance of the District’s history. He walked with her as she ran errands, and later they sipped ice tea together in her living room.
Harris’s conversations — a word he prefers to “interviews” because it reflects his free-form style — last from five minutes to two hours. He likes to let his subjects lead, and afterward he tries to find a theme or poignant nugget, whittling down interviews to digestible chunks. He sometimes deletes ums or rejiggers sentence order but always uses the subjects’ words.
For now, Harris’s grandmother, an 87-year-old New Yorker, is his chief (unpaid) employee. He usually e-mails her a transcript late at night and Babushka (as he calls her), a Russian immigrant with a sharp eye for typos and limited sleeping needs, returns an edited version by 7 a.m.
She tells him that participating helps keep illness and death at bay — who will proofread when she’s gone? — and that she feels like she is exploring the city with him. Others say in comments that the stories have inspired them to be more compassionate or friendly.
“This site makes me see the people around me differently. I now like to tell friends that I walk down the street with my ‘People’s District’ goggles on, knowing that everyone has a story,” one woman wrote in January. “I do my best to talk to the people around me. . . . I don’t like to think of them as strangers, just friends that I haven’t met yet.”