A quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is painted on the exterior of Logan Circle’s Luther Place Memorial Church: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Illinois transplant Jonathan Marino was inspired by the words as he walked to and from work each day. “If you’re having a bad day, or if you just don’t feel like going to work, it’s uplifting. I would have my little morning ritual of saying ‘Hi’ to Dr. King and marching on my way,” said Marino, who moved to the District with his wife three years ago.
Over time, Marino started noticing other outdoor quotations between Logan Circle and his then-workplace near Union Station: one at the foot of the statue of labor organizer Samuel Gompers, another at the entrance to the National Postal Museum. Quotes were everywhere, even at the entrance to a nearby bar, Kelly’s Irish Times.
“It’s a city of writers. A city of politicians, and they all write,” Marino said.
In November, Marino, who now works for online knowledge-mapping initiative MapStory, started the City of Words Web site to map the quotes around the city and record the stories behind them. He’s been joined by two cartographically minded friends: James Anderson, who works on an initiative to map global deforestation at the World Resources Institute, and Cadmus environmental consultant Clare Stankwitz, who joined the team last month after Marino spoke at a meeting of Geo DC.
Joined by a group of friends, the three drove around the city on evenings and weekends, collecting quotes and later researching them. The Web site, intended as a community effort, encourages residents to send in submissions. About 20 people have e-mailed the project with quotes.
Although the Mall and its monuments and museums are rife with quotations, the City of Words project hopes in particular to chart the words of unofficial Washington. “We want it to be inclusive of the whole city,” Marino said. “Not just the monuments and the Mall, but the neighborhoods.”
The team discovered, for example, that the quote Marino passed each day was indicative of Luther Church’s role in local history. Designated as a site for reconciliation and reconstruction when it was built in 1873, the church was also a stabilizing force during the riots of 1968, keeping its doors open as a haven for the community. In the years that followed, Luther Place played a crucial role in providing aid to the displaced along the ravaged 14th Street corridor, helping set up institutions such as Bread for the City, Zacchaeus Clinic and many others.
The City of Words team, which conducts its work as a “labor of love,” is hoping volunteers will help expand its reach. The vision of the project includes teachers using the site to educate students on local history, perhaps by searching for quotes in their neighborhoods.
Marino said mapping could provide scope for future research. “From a research perspective, once there’s a map, you can start to ask: How many are from men, how many are from women? What are the topics most covered — war or freedom? What voices are represented? You can start clustering around topics,” Marino said.
“D.C. is changing fast,” Anderson said. “But for those of us who didn’t grow up in this city, it can be hard to put that change into context. The city’s quotations are a really rich record of how this city has perceived itself over the years.”