Ten Blocks From the Capitol

The hidden corners and characters in Congress’s shadow: A politics-free photo essay

Gallery owner Alex Goldstein.
Photos by D.A. Peterson

Photographer D.A. Peterson was born in the District and has lived on Capitol Hill for the past 27 years. He explains why he began photographing people who live and work within 10 blocks of the U.S. Capitol in April:

Capitol Hill is famous for its politics. Just the name means something to everyone else in the country. But living on Capitol Hill means something different to me. It’s the community, people who have been here for years, people who have raised families here. In this photo series I wanted to document some bizarre things that people would not associate with Capitol Hill. The project was a throwback to when I first was checking out the neighborhood. I would go down alleys because it’s cool to see spaces where people don’t usually go. I currently live in a carriage house in an alley. I am living this experience. Now that I’ve been on the Hill for almost 30 years, I see faces all the time of people who have been here forever. It’s great to have this village that is Capitol Hill.

Gallery owner Alex Goldstein.

(Text by Harrison Smith and Amy Rogers Nazarov. Interviews have been edited and condensed.)

Alex Goldstein, 47

Owner and gallery director, the Fridge, an art gallery and performance space in an alley behind Barracks Row

When I bought the building in 2008, it was just a cinder-block box. I put in double-thick drywall, and it’s been my artist studio and live-work dwelling ever since, an open-door kind of place. My goal was to create an incubator-type space for graffiti and street art. The last 10 years, I think we’ve launched the careers of over 1,000 artists out of this gallery. I’m worried about the future of myself and the city, and the role that we play as a cultural institution. I’ve had kids here for workshops, and I’m mentoring a kid who’s about to graduate high school. He’s been in and out of various housing situations. This is my dude, one of my best friends. I’m helping him with his college apps, and he comes here often, does homework. What I wouldn’t have given to have a place like this when I was younger.

Rick Copeland, 69

(pictured in hat at right) Commander, Sons of the American Legion at American Legion Post 8 

I’m here seven days a week, throwing down the beer, and limit myself to one scotch. There’s lots of activities: They have me calling bingo twice a month because I talk a lot of trash, and we do karaoke in the lounge area. We maintain veterans’ tombstones, feed wounded warriors, sponsor high school students, serve meals to the homeless. It’s a very giving place. And the thing is, you just feel comfortable here. It’s a second home. I’ve been a member for 10 years and made the mistake of going to meetings, so now I’m commander of the Sons of the American Legion. You reach a point in your life where you have to give back. I think all Americans have a responsibility to honor, respect and help those who serve. You should be at least appreciated, and at most taken care of.

 

Vanessa West, 38

General manager, Metropolitan Wellness Center

I started here in 2014, when this office was just a shell. The [medical cannabis] program had a very slow start, partly because there were no physicians willing to write recommendations that their patients use cannabis. They can’t write a prescription for it; they have to write a recommendation. Cannabis works well for physical pain and for anxiety, depression and insomnia. We offer about 100 strains; with every single person who comes in here, it’s trial and error. You and I could both smoke the same strain and afterward you would want to go jump on a treadmill while I would want to curl up in a ball. In private we might call ourselves “bud tenders,” but in an effort to legitimize the industry, we prefer the term “product specialists.” We’re trying to get away from the Cheech and Chong thing, but there is a lot of stigma to overcome.

 

Sok “Ann” Reed, 69

Owner, Ann’s Beauty Supply & Wigs Co.

Everyone know me as Ann. They give me a check to Ann, I can’t even cash it, but this is how people know me. I was married to an American soldier in South Korea, and we come over here. It’s hard to say Sok. People would just say, “Hi, Sock!” That’s why I got an easy name. I opened the store in 1982, at the Waterside Mall in Southwest, and left in 2005 because they had renovations. Here, at a hidden corner, ain’t nobody come by. I couldn’t pay my bills for a while, and cooked some food and served it to workers next door. I can’t afford to employ anybody, so I work by myself. I make people look beautiful, and when they look beautiful, they feel better. These things make me happy.

 

Jenefer Ellingston, 87

Bookseller, Capitol Hill Books

I came upon the bookstore in 1994 or ’95, looking for a book for my nephew for his birthday. I was unemployed at the time, and I got into conversation with Jim Toole, who had just taken over the bookstore after the previous owner died. He said, “Would you give this a day? Just work here a day?” I said, “Okay, I’ll be here Tuesday.” I’ve been working Tuesdays and Wednesdays since around then, and of course I protest whenever I need to — when we invaded Afghanistan, for instance. The only time I was arrested was in the Hart office building of the Senate. I forgot what we were protesting. I ran for the city council in 2002, after I formed the D.C. Green Party. I got 15 percent of the vote. I’m poor, so I couldn’t be active the way I needed to be. It takes money.

Eton Llewellyn, 60

Owner, Eastern Market Shoe Repair

I learned [how to fix shoes] back home in Jamaica. I miss the beach and the weather, but I’ve been in the D.C. area for 30 years. I’ve been here on Pennsylvania Avenue for six years. I fix everybody’s shoes, like the [shoes of the] people in the stores around me. I buy from them and they buy from me. I fix a lot of Congress’s shoes: I’ll be honest with them about whether shoes are beyond repair. I want them to get their money’s worth. I haven’t fixed Trump’s shoes yet; I was going to get Obama’s shoes, but in the end it didn’t work out.

 

Chris Schlegel, 23 (center), with Kevin Iraheta, 25 (left), and Cole Montgomery, 25

“Bridge Spot” under the Southeast Freeway, near Garfield Park

I usually skateboard once a week, sometimes twice. I’m not a beginner, but there are others way better than me. Skateboarding is a great tool for meeting people; I’ve had like the same group of three or four people I’ve been skating with the past eight years. I grew up in Hyattsville, but I live near Congressional Cemetery, pretty close to here. We call this Bridge Spot. Skaters built the ramps themselves; they’re movable so we can shift them around, almost like an art installation. But ever since they began the [highway reconstruction] it’s been pretty barren. The last time I came to Bridge Spot, one of the ramps was burning, and that was pretty upsetting to me that someone would just set it on fire like that.

 

Cynde Tiches-Foster, 61

Co-owner and chef, Jimmy T’s Place

We’re kind of a neighborhood place. The T stands for Tiches. My father, who started Jimmy T’s in 1968, shortened it because he figured nobody knew how to pronounce his name. I would work at nights or on weekends to help him out. I’ve probably been involved 40 years and have three kids who grew up here. My husband does all our ordering and washes the dishes. He keeps us straight. I’m the chef. We live upstairs. The neighborhood has become a lot more expensive than it used to be. I miss a lot of the college students that used to rent out the English basements. When I first started it was a lot of rooming houses, a lot of elderly retired people. They would come in and get the same three meals every day. And slowly it changed. It’s a whole different ballgame now.

 

Charles “Smitty” Smith, 82

Barber, Wrenn’s Barber Shop

I’ve been cutting hair since 1966, always in D.C. I was an engineer in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain in the Mediterranean. I ran boilers. When I left the Navy, they were taking veterans at Armstrong [a D.C. adult education center that closed in 1996]. The TV and radio class was all filled up, so I chose the barbering class. I became an apprentice and later got my license. I worked for the D.C. government in the maintenance division and cut hair on the side. A lot of the places that were here when I started cutting hair are gone. I’ve got quite a few customers, although many of them have passed away. I got kids who come to me now who I started cutting when they were 6 or 7 years old. And I used to cut quite a few Marines, but there’s not as many as there used to be a few years ago. Time brings on all kinds of changes.

Carolyn Rispus, 54

Co-owner, Ms. Carolyn’s Grooming

I try to treat dogs like I would want to be treated, rather than treating them like an inanimate object or something I’m going to give back to a person in three hours. I’ve been an animal person all my life. When I was a little girl, I was the alpha dog in my neighborhood, in the projects in Lincoln Heights in Northeast. We used to have packs of dogs running through, and they would all hang out on my porch. I can almost remember all their names: Pup, Queenie and the littlest one was Poochie, who was running everything. This is the only creative outlet I actually have. I get to look at each dog and see what I’m going to do. Only thing I don’t like is the time pressure. I don’t like being rushed, and the dogs don’t like you rushing on them.

 

Sally Thompson, 55

Reader, Mystic Shop

I’ve been here for four years, over the Indian restaurant [Aatish on the Hill]. People come to me for information about love, career, family, health. Sometimes they come in a crisis, sometimes they just come in. I do palm readings, psychic readings, tarot cards. Everyone has things they get wrong about readers. They think they are going to see a crystal ball with images. We are not magical. It’s something you have or don’t have. As a child I used to get premonitions that someone was going to call, that something was going to happen. I am the third generation of readers in my family. I used to have a shop in Dupont, but it’s a little more quiet here. I have customers who come in once a week, others who come in twice a year. I like making people happy with the information I share with them.

D.A. Peterson is a commercial and editorial photographer in Washington. Amy Rogers Nazarov is a writer in Washington. Harrison Smith is a Washington Post obituary writer.

Credits: Story by Harrison Smith and Amy Rogers Nazarov. Photos by D.A. Peterson. Designed by Clare Ramirez. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.