Washington, D.C., has always been a great city for walkers–rich with monuments, parks and circles, streets wending gracefully from one vibrant neighborhood to the next. It should come as no surprise that in 2011, Washington was ranked in the top ten most walkable cities in the United States, (seventh), with the Dupont Circle neighborhood coming in as its most walkable neighborhood. For countless people, both in and out of Washington, The Phillips Collection is one of Dupont Circle’s highlights, and for many of us who work at the Phillips, the walk to work through the manifold seasons of the year is a beautiful way to start the day. The walks are varied, both in topography and timbre, provenance and pace.
My days begin with the sun illuminating the tall chimney of Garnet-Patterson Middle School and glancing off the windows of Duffy’s Irish Tavern below. At this time of year, the new cold air paints the sky in morning’s amaranthine waves. I walk the first block down Vermont Avenue and turn right onto U Street, where art abounds in many forms.
Photos: Martín Paddack
Photos: Martín Paddack
The U Street neighborhood is nearly as alive in the morning as it is at night. Duke Ellington grew up here, and I often think of him along this walk and how everyone’s syncopated footfalls, strides, and toe-taps at the corners could play counterpoint to his music. There is a nice mural of Duke Ellington by Byron Peck on the west face of the True Reformer building on U Street, where Duke Ellington had his first paid performance. Across the street, I pass Ben’s Chili Bowl, already filling with customers at the early hour and sometimes snap a picture or two for a tourist. Then it’s past the famed Lincoln Theater to the corner of 13th and U. Here I always glance to the right to admire the peaked rooftops of the old Victorian homes that colorfully line 13th Street.
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Photo from my walk to work, a mural on 17th Street. Photo: Jess Stephens
The spotty, wheezing internet in my Chicago apartment could not accommodate the street level Google map of the Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights neighborhoods in much detail. So in 2007, I moved to D.C. armed only with the images of an unbelievably picturesque November week during a manic educational visit as a teenager.
Before I lived in D.C., I spent over two hours per day commuting on public transit. Long commutes can be a reader’s oasis. A big part of me pines for the pacing and adventure extended commute reading lends to the rest of the day, but long commutes also foster a disconcerting myopia. A fellow bus rider once had to ask me twice if I had a cell phone, needing to call 911 because a man three rows in front of me was having a grandmal seizure. Routinely oscillating between the fiction of stories and actual reality within the collective can seep into non-commute time and dull or disconnect the experiences of daily work and joy.
All of this is to say I was quite excited and curious about my new commute: a twenty-five minute walk to work at The Phillips Collection. D.C. has wonderful density and a kaleidoscope of neighborhoods contending with any number of transposed architectural styles in each square mile.
My commute awakens my legs at the beginning and end of the day. It eliminates the uncertainty of when I will finally be in my cube or home once I’m out the door. It adds a sonic overlay of construction, nature, and myriad shoe heels to the music coming through my headphones instead of just the deafening hum of traffic or trains. Yet, what I seem to have internalized most is the ritual. My walk to and from work does not symbolize anything. It’s not a substitute for exercise or meditation. Nor is it something utilitarian that I have to do everyday, like eating, since I could get to work a number of different ways. Each time I embark on foot, it simply generates value in and of itself because all of my senses are present. Value that I think cannot be deconstructed into irrelevance as many rituals that do not privilege practical function are and should be in the contemporary world.
Jess Stephens, Staff Accountant