Here’s an idea: Let’s keep the FBI in downtown Washington. Sure, the agency needs a new building — the ugly Hoover Building has got to go — but the G-men and G-women could relocate to temporary swing space, then move back into a new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
I know that’s never going to happen — the real estate is too valuable; security is a concern — but I think we lose something when so iconic an institution leaves Washington. And by institution, I don’t mean bricks and mortar. I mean people.
Washington has never really had “districts” of the sort that cities like New York have. There’s no Meatpacking or Garment district, places where certain trades are practiced or goods are sold. Still, our neighborhoods have different vibes based on the people who live or work there.
When I was a boy, I’d visit my two grandmothers in Brookland. It was a place of cassocked priests and wimpled nuns. Thanks to Catholic University, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and various Catholic orders, the fathers and sisters were part of the landscape. (They still are, even if their vestments are no longer quite so distinctive.)
Once when I was walking down a street in downtown Silver Spring, Md., I was suddenly surrounded on the sidewalk by a tidal surge of young people in colorful scrubs. There was some sort of medical trade school in a nearby building, and these were would-be phlebotomists and X-ray technicians on a break from class.
Such scenes play out daily in and around our city, though, I fear, less frequently.
The FBI and its thousands of employees were a familiar sight for Virginia Weschler of Weschler’s auction house, which until it moved to Rockville last month was on E Street NW, just behind the FBI. FBI workers were among the customers who would show up at Weschler’s weekly auctions.
Said Virginia: “Many of the employees there thought we were one benefit that just wasn’t mentioned in their employee manual.”
And Weschler’s was among the nearby businesses that benefited from having a large law enforcement entity nearby.
“Once, we had a contractor in the building checking something out,” Virginia said. “We got a phone call telling us there was activity on our roof that they had not seen before.”
Another time, several New York dealers took a break during an auction and were standing outside the Weschler’s building. “They were carrying large satchels and hanging around,” Virginia said. “Several FBI police came over to ask us about them. We assured the officers that they were only acting suspiciously but were okay.”
Of course, the FBI will bring such behavior to its new location, wherever that might be: somewhere in the suburbs of Maryland or the suburbs of Virginia. But I think downtown D.C. might seem a little boring when that entire block is transformed into the Hoover Building’s inevitable replacement: an office building with a mixture of law firms, lobby shops, nonprofit organizations and some street-level retail and food service.
I’m curious about your observations of (nonedible) neighborhood flavors. What are some of your favorite memories of areas where the ambiance is informed by the people who work there? Send your anecdotes — with “Neighborhood Vibe” in the subject field — to me at email@example.com.
Colleges provide a distinctive sense of place, of course, and while Washington may not be the quintessential college town, the groves of academe still extend their tendrils here and there.
Willis Mann of Laurel, Md., graduated from Gallaudet University — then a college — in 1967. One of my recent columns reminded him of a place that was a second home back then: the Hot Shoppes at Fifth Street and Florida Avenue NE.
“So many students ate at that restaurant that wait staff picked up basic sign language to help communicate with them,” Willis wrote. “If you could speak, you could order verbally. Since many deaf people don’t have intelligible speech, they would order by pointing to the item on the menu. To tell the waiter to ‘Hold the onions,’ we just pointed to the word in the menu and waved both hands or wagged a finger.”
Willis said if you wanted to order a Coke, you would imitate a needle injecting something to the inside of your elbow.
What? Why was that the sign for a caffeinated beverage?
“Probably because that was the location for cocaine injections and it left no doubt as to the meaning,” Willis wrote. “In other words, a shot in the arm.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.