“I know it’s different for y’all!” Tinch said. “Y’all ain’t been there in a minute!”
The three men smiled while Tinch and friends, blowing the last smoke from their cigars or sipping the remaining drink from their cups, kept strolling toward the entrance, where they would stop a few more times whenever they saw a familiar face.
“It’s about coming to see old friends,” Tinch said about the Turkey Bowl. “It’s amazing to see so many people I haven’t seen in 30 years, celebrating whoever’s school it is [playing in the game].
“It’s a big family reunion,” he said.
For native Washingtonians of a certain age, and a certain race, the Turkey Bowl is more than just the annual D.C. public schools championship game. It’s coming home. It’s celebrating the traditions of their youth and remembering a time before the city, which was once called chocolate, transitioned into something closer to a vanilla latte.
“It’s almost like tradition. Since I was a young kid, we were going over to watch the game,” said Dunbar Coach Maurice Vaughn, who attended the Turkey Bowl, even though his team lost in the playoffs to H.D. Woodson the previous weekend. Other than this big event, Vaughn could think of only go-go music as a D.C. staple that has endured from the days of his youth.
“The city definitely has changed,” Vaughn said.
To be sure, there was a good football game played here on Thanksgiving afternoon. Theodore Roosevelt, a program that had just three varsity players when Coach Chris Harden arrived six seasons ago, won, 37-22, as running back Juan Pratt scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
But the Turkey Bowl is not just a game. It’s a monument to survival. An emblem worn proudly by the predominantly Black crowd of roughly 6,000 who gathered in a changing Capitol Hill neighborhood on a holiday. Living proof that gentrification cannot erase every tradition.
“I am a native Washingtonian. We like to say: ‘We are like dinosaurs. We’re rare,’ ” said Reginald Speight, a Dunbar High alum who shows up every year whether his team is playing or not. “[Dinosaurs] don’t go extinct. They say they do, but we don’t. We’re still here.”
Yes, Speight and Tinch and their 50-something-year-old peers are here, but technically they’re not. They grew up within the D.C. borders, went to school here, still call the city home — but they now reside in the suburbs of Maryland. They all have different reasons but share a common thread. Priced out by their own city, they moved away to afford to live.
The latest census numbers tell the story. The District of Columbia gained its “Chocolate City” nickname after it became the first metropolitan city in America to have a majority Black population in 1957. According to the 2020 Census, however, only about 41 percent of residents identified as Black.
The Turkey Bowl takes place at Eastern High’s football field, off Constitution Avenue Northeast, where the change has been dramatic. In 1990, the neighborhood was 75 percent Black. Over time, the chocolate melted. A 900-square-foot condo across the street from the school’s stadium recently sold for $467,000. A nearby rowhouse went for $1.26 million last year. Over a 30-year span, the share of Black residents has plummeted by 55 percent, and White residents now make up more than three-fifths of the neighborhood, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Those all-too-familiar signs of change surround Theodore Roosevelt High in Petworth as well. The brick houses painted in a charcoal hue with yellow doors. The ramen shop that opened a year ago. The sudden disappearance of Black residents.
In 1990, Black people made up 80 percent of the neighborhood, but now they make up 41 percent.
These reductions don’t just happen in neighborhoods. Harden, the winning Turkey Bowl coach, told me they’re felt even more acutely for coaches in D.C. public schools. Harden said a private school successfully recruited his starting defensive end before the 2019 season. Another private school, he said, is after his 6-foot-4 sophomore quarterback.
“It happens all the time to us public schools,” Harden said. “They’ll overlook a kid, but when a kid shows some growth …”
For one day, at least for the old-timers, the city felt familiar. Some fired up their mini grills; others tailgated for hours. Tinch talked his stuff, and Speight brought the vibes, playing go-go from the trunk of his SUV and smoking a Nicaraguan cigar.
They followed thousands into the stadium and cheered for a new Turkey Bowl champion; Roosevelt won its first title since 1979. A lot has changed since then, but the dinosaurs are still here.
“What has remained the same is our love for the city,” Speight said.