If you weren’t in Washington in the 1970s or 1980s, probably the best way to get a taste of those pre-Bikeshare, pre-CityCenterDC, pre-artisanal cupcake days is to wander around downtown in the company of Chris Earnshaw, the photographer-bard who carries in his head the memory of D.C. before it was cool.
And if you can’t tag along on a walking tour with Chris, you could look at some of his photographs.
Currently, you can do both. Chris is one of three photographers whose black-and-white work is featured in “District II,” an exhibit at the National Building Museum. It was organized by the Historical Society of Washington and relocated when that group’s home in the Carnegie Library was found to harbor mold.
This is not the downtown Washington of today. This is a Washington of rooming houses, pawnbrokers, topless bars, delis, five-and-dimes, furniture stores, camera stores . . .
Camera stores! Can you believe people once inserted tiny canisters of coiled, light-sensitive plastic in boxes of metal and glass? The plastic slowly unspooled, capturing specific moments in time. It was soon-to-be-obsolete technology commemorating soon-to-be-obsolete structures.
The late William Edmund “Bill” Barrett is another of the photographers whose work is on display. There’s a 1963 letter to Barrett “concerning the photographing of old buildings in the Washington area” from the Kiplingers, the D.C. publishers who funded the project.
That’s exactly what Barrett did: took a lot of pictures of places that would soon be demolished.
Joe Mills, the third photographer, is more concerned with people than buildings. Like Chris, Joe focuses his camera on the shabbier side of things. I think my favorite image is of a leg poking out from behind a pillar, the appendage of an unseen man. There’s a metal brace on the ankle and heel of his black lace-up boot. Joe’s Washington walks with a limp.
Various events are being held in conjunction with “District II,” which is up till Feb. 12, including downtown walking tours with Chris this Saturday and on Jan. 8. For information and registration, visit dchistory.org.
And if you can’t make a walking tour, the National Building Museum is selling playing cards with Chris Earnshaw’s images on the back, $20 a deck. You can build your own house of cards and watch it fall.
If the “District II” show is about the sights of old D.C., “Cerphe’s Up,” the new autobiography from longtime area DJ Cerphe Colwell, is about the sounds of the city.
Cerphe got his start at the late, lamented and increasingly-eulogized WHFS, and he often seemed like the only DJ there who actually possessed a voice for radio.
You won’t find much dirt here — like his voice, Cerphe’s book, written with Stephen Moore, is smooth and inviting — but there are little details that conjure up Washington in the 1970s, including an appendix that lists every band that ever played at the Childe Harold, near Dupont Circle.
And I chuckled when I read the account of Cerphe chasing down two guys he’d caught breaking into his car in Georgetown. Cerphe clattered after them in his clogs.
Cerphe is a bit of a new-agey health nut — a lapel button for tantric yoga once caught George Harrison’s eye and got him an interview — and there was a time when he was drinking so much carrot juice that he started to resemble the root vegetable. Roger McGuinn once grabbed Cerphe’s hands to examine them. “I was just checking to see if your skin was still orange,” the ex-Byrd said.
Another memory: Cerphe is among the DJs backstage at FedEx Field in 2002 for a Rolling Stones concert, each shuttling their lucky listeners who’ve won a meet-and-greet with the band. The crowd parts and up walks Dan Snyder, who autographs a football, hands it to a mystified Mick Jagger and walks away.
Cerphe has worked for most of the rock stations in town — WHFS, WAVA, WJFK, DC-101 — and now broadcasts online at musicplanetradio.com.
When I caught up with him at a recent book party, Cerphe seemed very happy to no longer be on traditional radio.
“I don’t have to play ‘Freebird’ anymore,” he said.
It’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to giving. I hope you’ll think about giving to The Post’s Helping Hand fundraising campaign. We’ve partnered with three great local charities that aid homeless families and youths: Community of Hope, Homestretch and Sasha Bruce Youthwork.
You can find profiles of some of the clients whose lives have been improved by their efforts at posthelpinghand.com. That’s also where you can find out how to donate.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.