Before the condos
and burger CHAins ...
... everyday people and places
If you came of age in D.C. in the ’80s and ’90s, you knew you were in a special place. Between its standing as the nation’s capital, its local history as “Chocolate City” and the crack wave plowing over America, even a kid knew that this city was unique.
But as development and new residents sweep through the District, my mind wanders back to places that don’t exist today. Places that, when I was growing up, felt like my entire world and represent a D.C. that’s hard to find now: homespun spots that took in whomever wanted to come, not just those of a targeted market demographic.
Like the Golden Dome arcade. On long summer days, with not much else to do, my older cousin Marc and I would venture around the neighborhood surrounding my grandparents’ apartment building at 12th and M streets NW. Just past Thomas Circle and down 14th Street was the mighty Golden Dome. We’d save quarters all week to play games like Bad Dudes in a dingy hole-in-the-wall. Sure, it was grimy, but that didn’t matter to a competitive 10-year-old.
In his 2008 book, “Victoria’s Secret,” local urban novelist Jason Poole wrote: “The Golden Dome is where all the hip teenagers hung out at, and was considered heaven on earth for troubled teens, runaways, and soon-to-be drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes.” Yes, I first learned about prostitutes because my uncle told me to avoid the strangely dressed ladies I saw on my way home from the arcade.
Now it’s a service entrance to D.C. Coast, the upscale restaurant where K Street power brokers drink wine and eat shrimp. Given how some people regard lobbyists, maybe not much has changed.
When I had moved on to high school, Kaffa House at 1212 U Street NW provided an affordable place to see a show. A blend of coffeehouse, open-mike and music venue, it was the first place that made me feel cool.
It was pretty bare-bones. The logo was spray-painted in Rasta colors on the brick bay front, there was no stage, and equipment was set up right there in the back, on the floor.
In a review for The Post, Adrienne M. Brown wrote that Kaffa House was “where the underground poetry scene in D.C. began. … The audience includes boys in cargo pants with beginner’s locks who came for the reggae and found a bit of soul, and the neighborhood wanderers for whom this is one stop of many that evening.”
Since then it has been a lounge, an Ethiopian restaurant. Now it’s boarded up.
Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown provided the perfect place to just hang: It was a 24-hour joint that served unlimited fries and bottomless coffee for about $5. My friends and I spent countless afternoons chatting with the multilingual waitresses, smoking cigarettes and coming up with dumb games to see who got to sit in the seat where Russian spy Vitaly Yurchenko ate immediately before slipping through the fingers of the CIA. The small plaque on the seat is still there, but only one of the employees working recently at what has become a Five Guys knew the story.
Though it closed in 2004, Au Pied was still garnering tributes five years later. “Georgetown is a lesser place for not [having] Au Pied any more,” Derryk A. from Silver Spring wrote on the restaurant’s defunct Yelp page. “The food was so-so, but that didn’t matter. What matter[ed] was the history of that place. All of those b/w photos on the walls, the hanging copper ware, the large wine and champagne bottles on the shelves ... The drunken fool trying to dance on the dining table. The winos hanging around outside, the beautiful party girl passed out on the floor, the never ending chain smokers, the long bar that always had some eccentric person seated down at the end.” Sadly, it’s just another sterile burger joint now.
When the Capital Children’s Museum closed, also in 2004, the city lost a gem. The oddball layout of the former Catholic convent on H Street in Northeast was perfect for an educational wonderland. Cootie the Bug greeted you outside, and inside, you could learn about world cultures and snack on Mexican tortillas and hot chocolate. To a child, it had more than charm. It had intrigue.
One of the people responsible for that was Mark Thorne. Now director of visitor services at the renamed National Children’s Museum in National Harbor, he started at the old CCM as a high school volunteer. “I went home that [first] day, and I told my mother I had the coolest job in the world. Kids were respecting me, and they were [looking at me] like I’m a teacher. I got hooked on that aha moment” when knowledge connects with children,” said Thorne.
Although he enjoys the current space, there’s so much he can’t get back. “It was such a quirky building. I put out fires in that building, I got people out of elevators, I had the chance to meet Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Gorbachev, Nancy Reagan.” And there was something more. “It was our compound,” Thorne said, referring to his staff, many of whom were city kids who couldn’t get chances elsewhere. “After work, a lot of us would go there and wash our cars and just hang out. ... It was like our little piece of the world where we would feel safe.”
I stopped by the condo complex that now occupies the site: Landmark Lofts at Senate Square. There’s a brand new Giant Food across the street. Some of the stoops are gated, sending an odd message of: Welcome, if we know you.
There’s nothing to commemorate the museum that taught local kids for 30 years, no marker to remind many of the city’s adults where they came from. When I glanced skyward, though, I saw that someone had a reproduction of Venus de Milo on his deck. For a moment, it felt like a museum again. And for a second, I felt like a kid again.