On a windy Thursday night, a Chevy minivan covered with giant images of young people wearing D.C. flag T-shirts rolled slowly down 11th Street in Columbia Heights. It was almost as if the van were a Good Humor truck — people talked excitedly and pointed and a few spilled onto the street from a bar, curious about buying the shirts.
Turns out the driver was just in the neighborhood to eat dinner. (And show one of the T-shirt models on his van — a bartender at the Meridian Pint — his likeness.) “But, maybe, I should sell them out here,” joked Derek S. Kennedy, who hawks the shirts online and every Sunday at Eastern Market.
“I feel like anything with the D.C. flag these days is a total gold mine.”
The flag — three red stars above two red bars — is already a symbol of protest for the D.C. statehood movement. Now it has been adopted as an all-purpose symbol of identity and pride by young District residents and business owners. The flag’s clean white-and-red design appears in logos for several new businesses — everything from Yoga District and its newly opened District Tea Lodge to the Three Stars Brewing facility and Sticky Fingers bakery, which substitutes two rolling pins for the two bars.
The flag has also inspired a local cottage industry. Items bearing its image range from kitchen tools to wedding-cake toppers to necklaces, notecards and oil paintings. New York has its “I heart New York” logo. New Orleans has its fleur-de-lis. And now D.C. has its stars and bars.
“There was a time when nobody or any businesses would have used the D.C. flag,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), referring to the city’s troubled past. Norton is known to wear a tattoo of the flag — albeit a temporary and washable one — on her wrist.
But is using the flag to hawk cupcakes or beer selling out this longtime symbol of D.C. statehood? “Just the opposite,” she said. “I think it’s a great thing.”
Just last year, Norton got a bill passed requiring the armed services to display the D.C. and territorial flags whenever the flags of the 50 states are displayed. Returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq had complained that the District wasn’t represented during national homecoming celebrations and military graduation ceremonies.
“What it really says is that a lot of young businesses want to use it and say ‘I’m real D.C.,’ and ‘real D.C.’ today means being hip,” she said.
Dave Coleman, 36, moved here from Cleveland in 2002 and loved the energy of the city with all its new businesses, farmers markets, bike lanes and restored rowhouses. Unlike lots of people who moved to the city in the 1990s, he never looked over his shoulder, wondering how soon he could move to New York.
He was so committed to the District that he had the D.C. flag inked on the underside of his right arm. He named his new business, the Three Stars Brewing, after the flag.
“I met my wife here. I bought a home in Columbia Heights. My career hit its stride here,” he said, standing in his cavernous brewery in the District’s Takoma neighborhood that features two giant murals of the flag. “It’s become such a symbol of pride for people who put down roots here and think that Washington — official Washington — is that place over on the Hill. But D.C. is our neighborhoods, our own culture, totally separate from that.”
Caitlin Carroll, 27, author of the Curious District Blog, recently wrote a two-part series on the rise of the D.C. flag. “There is just such an affinity toward the D.C. flag and expressing your pride in D.C. among twentysomethings,” she said. “The D.C. flag is just everywhere — farmers markets, craft shows, logos.”
Dozens of D.C. flags hang outside restored rowhouses in the city’s Mount Vernon Square neighborhood. Marybeth Stanton and Christine Doran, who live in the neighborhood, gave D.C. flag mugs to the guests at their September wedding.
“We made our home in D.C., and we wanted to give a symbol of that to our family in New York,” said Stanton, 33, a lobbyist who has lived in the District for eight years.
They ordered the mugs from Pulp on 14th Street, where manager Beverly Jones said almost everything with the D.C. flag on it has been selling out.
“It’s an amazing thing,” Jones said.
The District of Columbia didn’t even have a flag until 1938. The movement to create one began when troops returning from World War I noticed that all of the other returning soldiers had their state flags displayed, said Nelson Rimensnyder, 70, an elected historian for the Association of the Oldest Inhabits of the District of Columbia.
There was a contest, and a design was chosen based on George Washington’s family crest, he said. “These days, if someone wants to use it to promote their business or put it on their body in a reasonable place — not on their fannies — then that’s just great,” said Rimensnyder.
In the 1990s, many of those associated with the local punk scene got D.C. flag tattoos as a symbol of city pride. District-based bands, including Nation of Ulysses, adopted the flag’s image.
More recently, in 2004, the flag experts of North America (or vexillologists) came together to vote on their favorite city flags. D.C. was voted No. 1.
“Graphically, it’s really just a great design,” said Kendra Kuliga, a 39-year-old graphic designer and artist who last week was putting the finishing touches on one of the Three Stars murals. Kuliga has helped several businesses with their D.C. flag logos. Inside the brewery, the flag is everywhere: on kegs and even on a wooden beer paddle.
“We are all about the D.C. flag,” said Coleman, who was wearing cargo shorts and his company’s T-shirt — which features, of course, a D.C. flag.
“D.C.’s not my home town, but it’s definitely home.”