Along the U Street corridor, Sonia Sotomayor finds all the comforts of home
By Ian Shapira,
The Social Committee at the U Street corridor condo building was planning a “progressive” holiday dinner party for its residents. People on the ground floor would provide cocktails and snacks; hors d’oeuvres would be on the next floor; and courses 1 to 3 would be on the next three levels up.
One person, at least, couldn’t make the original date but still wanted to pitch in.
“Dear Neighbors,” the new woman on the third floor wrote to the building’s e-mail group. “I hate to miss this get together, but I understand that if everyone else can make it, you can’t change it for me. I will contribute a couple bottles of wine before I leave. Warm regards, Sonia Sotomayor.”
Along the U Street corridor — a Northwest Washington hotbed of urban renewal — neighbors and take-out joints are embracing a relatively new arrival: Sotomayor, the nation’s first Hispanic and third female justice on the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor, who moved first to staid Cleveland Park after her 2009 appointment, now lives side by side with members of the city’s diverse class of professionals in a hip, transforming Washington neighborhood once known as the cultural hub of black D.C.
When Sotomayor, a former federal judge in New York, lived in Manhattan’s West Village, she seized on her neighborhood’s offerings, going twice a week to a bakery on Bedford Street for coffee and breadsticks and hosting friends at her apartment for Spanish or Thai take-in.
Now, Sotomayor is trying to re-create some of those rhythms in Washington.
Near her sleek U Street area condo building, where prices for units range from $350,000 to a little more than $1 million, the staff at the “green eatery” chicken place knows whom to expect when the name on the take-out order is “Sonia.” At The Greek Spot, the owner says that Sotomayor sometimes swings by on her way home from work for the $9.75 gyro platter.
Other Supreme Court justices — who live in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, Georgetown, near Adams Morgan or at the Watergate building — have been fairly involved in their neighborhoods, too.
The court’s proceedings are not televised, so they can maintain some level of anonymity when they venture out. The big exception: Clarence Thomas, who’s been a recognizable figure ever since his contentious 1991 confirmation hearings.
Then there’s Sotomayor. Last month, she took center stage, swearing in Vice President Biden during the inauguration ceremonies. Also, she’s been busy plugging her new memoir, “My Beloved World,” on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and other TV shows.
Within her condo building, Sotomayor has already engendered such affection that last month another resident e-mailed the group list to remind everyone about her upcoming “60 Minutes” appearance:
“[M]ake sure to set your DVR’s to tape or watch 60 Minutes who will have our most famous and esteemed neighbor Justice Sotomayor on, speaking about her amazing life story from the Bronx to the Supreme Court. . . . 7 PM tomorrow! CBS.”
Slav Gatchev, 39, who is an emerging-markets finance specialist, said he occasionally runs into Sotomayor in the building. One recent night, Gatchev, dressed in sweatshirt and sweatpants, dropped off items for recycling in the garage and bumped into Sotomayor on her way home from work.
They greeted each other. Gatchev told her what he was doing, and he asked what she was up to. “She said, ‘I just came back from the White House,’ and I said, ‘Well, guess who had the better evening,’ ” Gatchev recalled. “She laughed. That’s the point. She totally seems to be part of the community. Whatever you do around your neighbors, I would do around her. It’s sort of like everything has changed and nothing has changed.”
Sotomayor declined to be interviewed for this article.
But in interviews with the media about her new memoir, she has talked a bit about her U Street life and her motivations for moving there.
She told The Washington Post’s Supreme Court correspondent last month that U Street reminds her of New York, where she grew up and worked as both a federal trial court and appeals court judge.
“U Street is the East Village,” said Sotomayor, who keeps a place in Manhattan’s West Village. “The East Village has been developing in the last 10 or 15 years, and I’ve often said if I was going to buy an apartment now, it probably would be in the East Village. So what did I do? I came to Washington and established a home in the East Village.”
In June, after three years of renting in Cleveland Park, Sotomayor paid $660,000 for the U Street corridor condo unit. She bought it from a then-Department of Homeland Security official. After the final walk-through, seller and buyer signed all the paperwork at Sotomayor’s Supreme Court chambers, said Wil Laska, the seller.
“It was a neat experience. She’s an extremely busy person, and she thought it would be best to do it there,” Laska recalled. “When you sell your house to a Supreme Court justice, you better make sure all your T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.”
(Despite her legal prowess, the Supreme Court justice had “other folks” there to ensure that she completed the deal properly, the seller said.)
Once the deal was over, he sent an e-mail to everyone in the condo building, alerting them to his successor’s identity.
Bo Trinh, 40, a scientist who lives in the building, said the justice gave him a ride in her chauffeured car to Union Station as she headed to work. Other times, they’ve had a neighborly meal.
“When we get together, she does a lot of cooking herself,” said Trinh, who, like many other building residents, spoke cautiously to avoid sounding boastful and compromising her sense of privacy. “I’m not really a big political person, so that’s something I totally avoid” in conversation with her.
Mikko Makarainen, another resident, said Sotomayor achieved positive condo karma when she first moved in and needed to renovate her place. “She slipped a note under my door, saying something like, ‘I apologize in advance if there’s construction noise,’ ” said Makarainen, a White House analyst. “She gave me her number, so I feel privileged by that.”
At the building, where he said she wants everyone to call her “Sonia,” Sotomayor is good about sharing her opinions.
“She’s cute,” Makarainen said, “I have a motorcycle, and she tells me to be careful all the time.”
At the condo’s holiday party, which was rescheduled, Sotomayor kept conversation light, Makarainen said, but occasionally got people to talk about their lives.
“She did engage people about their backgrounds and how laws affect them,” he recalled. After the party, he said, people in the building asked each other, ‘What did you talk about with her?’ ”
Roger Ghatt, a nonprofit executive who is another building resident, said he tries hard to pretend that the justice is simply another occupant. But that feeling lasts only so long. “You go into the mailroom, and your package from Amazon is sitting next to hers,” he said. “And then I wonder what the justice orders from Amazon.”
Victoria Garcia Umana, co-owner of the restaurant Chix, said Sotomayor first dropped by last fall, placing an order under the name “Sonia.” She started speaking with Umana in Spanish. The justice, whose parents are natives of Puerto Rico, asked Umana where she learned the language, and Umana asked her as well.
“After she left, I realized it was her. It just clicked. Sonia. Puerto Rico. It all came together,” Umana recalled. “Then I ran out to tell her I was so sorry that I didn’t introduce myself properly, and she said: ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s nice when people treat you nice without knowing who you are.’ Then, I wouldn’t shut up to her about how much I loved her.”
Juan Antonio Santacruz, the owner of Tacos El Chilango, a nearby Mexican restaurant, said Sotomayor has dropped by a few times for take-out dinners. Once, Santacruz said, his boyfriend was there and asked her whether the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was on the court’s agenda. “She just said that they were definitely working on the issue,” Santacruz said. “We love her.”
But it’s the people who live in Sotomayor’s building who enjoy the real face time. One resident passed along an e-mail that Gail Ross, who is a well-known literary agent, sent to the building’s e-mail group with an intriguing prospect. “I mentioned to Justice Sotomayor that I’d heard from some in the building that perhaps [a condo only] booksigning was in order . . .” wrote Ross, who also lives in the building. “She would sign previously bought copies and talk a little for us.”
Julie Tate and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.