Above them hangs a sign that reads, “A Washington Landmark.”
Artist Carlos Carmonamedina hadn’t planned to illustrate the U Street restaurant in that way, or so soon.
“I was saving Ben’s Chili Bowl for a better time,” he explains on a recent afternoon.
He was waiting for the right moment to visit it, study it and do what he does when he finds himself in a new, interesting location in Washington — turn it into art.
In 2016, after Carmonamedina and his wife moved from France to the District, he started creating a postcard a week of different places in and around the nation’s capital. As an artist who grew up in Mexico and worked in Romania, he began the project as a way to get to know the region and the people in it.
His first postcard featured a cluster of Christmas trees discarded after the holiday on the side of a New Hampshire Avenue sidewalk. Since then, he has captured the drummers in Meridian Hill Park, a.k.a. Malcolm X Park, the giant pandas at the National Zoo and the big chair in Anacostia.
One postcard shows brightly bundled children sledding on Capitol Hill.
Another depicts two people holding up their seemingly intoxicated friend during a night out in Adams Morgan.
Yet another shows a homeless person sleeping next to a statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as three people eat their lunch nearby.
The Ben’s Chili Bowl postcard is his latest. It is No. 158 in the collection. Carmonamedina says he finally decided to illustrate the restaurant for the same reason he had been holding off — it is an iconic location. It is a place that is immediately recognizable to native and new Washingtonians, which makes it the perfect backdrop for a pandemic that everyone is experiencing together.
Carmonamedina recently posted the illustration on the social media platform Reddit, where he has developed a following. He shares all of his postcards there first.
This time, though, he also shared something else: an opportunity for people to create their own versions of Washington.
He announced that he was turning his postcards into coloring pages to help people pass the time as they stay home and do their part to limit the number of covid-19 cases in the region. As of Saturday, there were more than 14,500 known cases in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“Need some Art therapy for these times?” Carmonamedina wrote, saying he had made a few of his postcards available to all as free coloring pages. He included the link to his website, DCismycity.com, where people could download them. (Some also appear in an adult coloring book Shop Made in DC recently created using works from local artists.)
“I’m going to have so much fun with these today!” one person wrote on the Reddit string.
“You are the best,” wrote another, “my son and I are gonna color these today!”
Carmonamedina, who works as the art director for the public relations firm Kglobal, says he decided to offer the free pages because he knows how difficult it would be for his own family to “be in quarantine without music, poetry and art.” He and his wife, a professor at American University, have been staying at home with their 18-month-old daughter.
Carmonamedina says he hopes people will use the coloring pages and that maybe, when it feels safe again, they will visit the places represented in the pages.
To create the postcards, he watches people closely. But you don’t have to be a careful observer to notice that Washington is at once diverse and segregated. People come from all over the world, and yet, it’s not unusual for many residents to not know much about the region beyond their own neighborhoods.
To flip through Carmonamedina’s postcards is to take a tour around the city and its surrounding suburbs, stopping not only at the landmarks that appear in guidebooks but also in neighborhood nooks that tell stories. One postcard features the yellow ginkgo leaves that blanket Swann Street every year. Another shows the sunflowers that grew near the escalators at the Dupont Circle Metro station from seeds a “phantom planter” sowed in secret.
Carmonamedina says when he and his wife were considering where to move, they were drawn to Washington because it is “racially diverse and also culturally exciting.” What he found when they got here, he says, is a city that offered even more than he expected.
Last spring, in collaboration with the D.C. Public Library, he illustrated a book of rhymes titled “Sing with me DC.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation also named him in its first “40 under 40: People Saving Places” list. The organization describes those on the list as “innovators” who “are expanding our view of what it means to save places and tell America’s full history.”
“I’m eternally grateful to D.C.,” Carmonamedina says.
He also says he still has much more of the city to see.
“It is a big city, so there are a lot of places I haven’t been to,” he says. “I’m just getting started.”
When he was asked on Reddit eight months ago about the things he still hadn’t done in the region, he posted a to-do list. Of the top three items, he has since completed only one. No. 3 on his list was go to Ben’s Chili Bowl.
No. 1 on the list: Ride a Circulator.
No. 2: Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Read more from Theresa Vargas: