Saturday, March 01, 2008

CHAIN BRIDGE: A Winter Reflection

ONE OF MY MOST FAVORITE places to hike in the District is below Chain Bridge in the ecologically fascinating Potomac Gorge, not too far from where I used to live in the Palisades, at least how the crow flies. (It generally takes a good half hour to hoof it down from my old haunts on Potomac Avenue down to the trail off the C&O Canal towpath.) On the Virginia side of the river is Pimmit Run, the site of an former mill where the Declaration of Independence and other key government documents were stashed away during the 1814 British invasion of Washington ... before they could be taken to Leesburg for safe keeping.

The Potomac Gorge runs approximately for 15 miles from the Key Bridge near Georgetown in the District and upriver past the Capital Beltway's American Legion Bridge to Great Falls. The marshy area between the Potomac River channel and the C&O Canal, one of the most biodiverse areas on the East Coast, floods periodically, creating an ever-changing environment that is criss-crossed by rivulets and small ponds and marked with boulders, tree limbs and other material washed down from points upriver.

I photograph the this section of the gorge a couple times a year to chart the changing nature of the ecosystem.

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BACKGROUNDER: About The Washington Oculus

Updated, February 2010

THE WASHINGTON OCULUS is an online notebook, journal and personal blog by Michael E. Grass, an editor, writer, Web developer and editorial manager, originally launched in 2003 in the District of Columbia.

Grass co-founded in 2004 and has helped develop online media platforms for The Washington Post’s free daily newspaper Express, and The New York Observer’s 17-state national political reporting network during the 2008 campaign cycle.

He most recently served as editor for a D.C.-based non-profit news organization that funds investigative, public affairs and politics reporting in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico, and managed work on dioxin contamination, HIV policy, rural health care, ethics and transparency, among other issues.

He has written for The Washington Post, Roll Call and Crain’s Detroit Business and was once jokingly described as “Zeus” and, more seriously, a “tireless, content-generating machine” by The Huffington Post.

At Roll Call, Grass was a copy editor, writer, K Street Files lobbying column contributor and helped manage For his highlights from Roll Call, click here.

In 2005, Grass was recruited to edit the Local section of Express and later as Web editor, was part of The Washington Post Co. team that conceptualized, planned and launched in April 2006. He also edited restaurant coverage and on Free Ride, wrote on a variety of localized topics, including transit, politics and neighborhood news. For his highlights from Express, click here.

An alumnus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Grass worked for The Michigan Daily and as a news reporter and editor covered the administration of then-President Lee C. Bollinger, including the Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger affirmative action lawsuits. Grass served as editorial page editor and edited an award-winning series of dispatches from a Daily writer sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan during the fall of 2001. He is a published contributor to “Writing Ann Arbor,” (University of Michigan Press, 2005) a literary anthology featuring the work of Arthur Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, Wendy Wasserstein and other writers who have made their way through Ann Arbor.

Although Grass grew up in East Grand Rapids, Mich., his family has lived in the District of Columbia since the 1860s. During the Civil War, his German ancestors settled in what is today Foggy Bottom. His great-great grandfather, August Grass, would open a carpentry and furniture-making workshop at New Hampshire Avenue and M Street NW and was commissioned to craft much of the intricate woodcarving in the Dupont Circle mansion of D.C.’s master brewer Christian Heurich, which is today open for tours. Pictured at left is the Heurich House’s dining room, where some of the best Grass carvings can be found. His grandfather grew up in the house that is now Kinkead's restaurant on Eye Street NW just west of Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th Street NW, a few blocks from the White House. The Swiss branch of his family, which has ancestral ties to the oenologist who helped develop the Muller-Thurgau grape, settled on Capitol Hill near Lincoln Park. His great uncle and great aunt were some of the last residents of K Street NW, living in a rowhouse in what is now D.C.'s infamous lobbying corridor.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Greatest Hits From Roll Call

MICHAEL E. GRASS worked at Roll Call newspaper on Capitol Hill from January 2003 to July 2005. He served as a copy editor and writer, contributed to the K Street Files lobbying column and helped manage Below is a sampling of his work at Roll Call (subscription required for full article).

» "Recent Defense Debate Has Echoes of 1991" [May 29, 2003]
WHEN IT COMES to examining Defense funding debates, an old adage quickly leaps to mind: The more things change, the more they stay the same. That was never more true than during the recent back-and forth over the massive $400 billion Defense authorization measures passed by the House and Senate on May 22. [More ...]

» "California Finds Messing With Texas Troublesome in Major University Spat" [June 11, 2003]
KEEPING A WATCHFUL EYE on moves by the Energy Department, the University of Texas is gearing up for what would be a major coup in the research community: taking operational control of the nation’s top government nuclear weapons lab away from the University of California. [More ...]

» "Bill Divides Capito, Bush" [July 30, 2003]
AS PFC. JESSICA LYNCH returned to a nationally celebrated homecoming in West Virginia last week, the former prisoner of war’s Congresswoman found herself in a public relations pickle. [ More ...]

» "Saudis Spend Big on Image Work" [Oct. 14, 2003]
EAGER TO CHANGE its image in the nation’s capital, Saudi Arabia has emerged as one of Washington’s biggest spenders since President Bush launched his war on terrorism. According to newly released figures compiled by the Justice Department, the government of Saudi Arabia paid about $15 million in the second half of 2002 for an extensive lobbying and public relations campaign designed to persuade the Bush administration, Congress and the American people that the Islamic kingdom is an ally, and not an adversary, in its counterterrorism efforts. [More ...]

» "Guantanamo Fight Comes to K Street" [Nov. 17, 2003]
IN AN UNPRECEDENTED MOVE, a dozen Kuwaiti families have hired K Street lobbyists to help them try to free family members from the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. military is holding enemy combatants from terrorist sweeps in Afghanistan. [More ...]

» "K Street Files: K Is for Kandahar" [Nov. 23, 2003]
OF ALL THE AMERICAN POWERBROKERS registered to represent Afghan interests, the most peculiar may be Four Horsemen International. While the North Carolina-based group’s name may evoke mythical visions of the apocalypse, it refers to the combined nickname of the founders, four Army Special Forces combat veterans who have an “untiring work ethic.” [More ...]

» "Boeing Playing Defense in New Session" [Jan. 20, 2004]
SENATE SOURCES say the Boeing Co., which is already under fire from the Pentagon, will face increased heat from Capitol Hill in the next few weeks. [More ...]

» "Flap Over Intern Infuriates Frank" [Jan. 28, 2004]
REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-Mass.) is accusing the nation’s largest internship placement organization of misleading him over the firing of a program supervisor allegedly dismissed for assigning a student from a conservative college to the openly gay lawmaker’s office. [More ...]

» "Home Is Not Where the Hart Is" [Sept. 13, 2004]
OFFICE SPACE ALLOCATION has always been a complicated matter on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate. And in the fall of 1982, when the Hart Senate Office Building was set to open, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), like many of his colleagues, was not happy about the prospects of moving out of the Dirksen Building. [More ...]

» "Jefferson’s Bible Returns, Controversial as Ever" [Jan. 24, 2005]
IT IS A GREAT IRONY of American history: Thomas Jefferson, the man credited with coining the term “separation of church and state,” wrote his own version of the Bible — and for decades the views in that Bible were imposed on Congress. [More ...]

»"The Keystone of Washington" [June 16, 2005]
IF YOU WERE to stand at Union Station and look down Delaware Avenue Northeast toward the Capitol, it’s possible to see how the Congressional campus has changed in the past 50 years — if you know what you’re looking for. [ More ...]

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NORTH CLEVELAND PARK: More Proof That It Exists

BACK IN AUGUST 2006, there was a pointless online debate about whether there was actually a neighborhood called North Cleveland Park. While it is commonly called "Van Ness," after the Red Line station, I showed that yes, indeed, North Cleveland Park exists.

Now, more mounting evidence from The Washington Post: D.C. property tax assessments increased by 4.29 percent in North Cleveland Park.

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PHILADELPHIA: Boar Meat, Brussel Sprouts and Searching for the Mildred Street Mosaics

ALTHOUGH I HAVEN'T spent too much time in Philadelphia, on a recent weekend, I got to take in quite a lot of Center City hanging out with a Michigan Daily alumnus who lives in Queen Village, not too far from the heart of South Street and Jim's Steaks, the cheesesteak emporium that sadly, I wasn't too impressed with. (Sorry, It's Not Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)

For a city that I normally pass through on Amtrak on the way to New York, I had a great time exploring that is one of the nation's most walkable places, though I'm told that Philadelphia residents hate to walk and would rather drive, despite the congested colonial-era streets and scarse parking.

Two highlights from my visit:
» Up in the Northern Liberties, I had one of the best brunches in quiet some time. At the Standard Tap, I ordered the boar meat and brussel sprout baked eggs, paired with a nice beer. Philly, to my surprise, has plenty of places that put a lot of time and effort into their beer lists, much of it comprised of local brews. It'd be nice if D.C. had more local breweries, but alas ...

» My mother told me that a few years back, she and some of her mosaic tile artist colleagues had worked on an installation on Mildred Street. When I told my friend that my mom had worked on the famed mosaics in the blocks near South Street, he got all excited. There are tile installations in odd places making explorations in the tiny alleyways a fun afternoon activity. But over the course of two days, we were having trouble finding Mildred Street. Philadelphia's Center City, for being on a grid, is also made of up of many tiny alleyways and side streets off the grid, like Kater Street, pictured at right. Mildred — a most dreadful name — is another. We eventually stumbled upon it, coming across three tile installations, one partially deteriorated and vandalized with tile debris on the sidewalk.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

GRAND RAPIDS: 'American Pie' Hot Dog Haven Escapes Gas Leak Destruction

USUALLY WHEN I GET NEWS from Grand Rapids, Mich., the city of my birth, it's about record amounts of snow. This past week, however, a building in the Eastown neighborhood, not too far from my parents' house, exploded due to a gas leak. The Grand Rapids Press video team incorrectly identified the building as being in East Grand Rapids — close enough though — and also as a "landmark" building. While I'm not aware of any particular historic significance, the building located at Wealthy Street SE and Ethel Avenue SE nonetheless anchored a key corner in a neighborhood that's often described as Grand Rapids' "Greenwich Village." (Though anyone who has been to New York would likely beg to differ.)

Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured and the explosion spared Yesterdog, the hot dog joint across the street that inspired "Dog Years" in "American Pie," the 1999 movie based on my high school. (It was in Dog Years where the Jim, Finch, etc. hatch their plan to lose their virginity by prom.) Anyhow, any self-respecting economically displaced Grand Rapidian will return to Yesterdog over Thanksgiving and Christmas to pound down a couple Cheddars, Yesters, Ultras, etc. after last call. Now, directly across the red-brick street, there is pile of rubble.

One can only hope that the void will be filled by some new structure that fits in with the nature of the neighborhood. While I can't say I have any particular attachment to the now-destroyed building, it would be a shame if the space is paved over to expand the Ethel parking lot. That would really leave a hole in Eastown aesteticly. Parking lots can suck the life out of a neighborhood. And that's the last thing Eastown needs right now.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Free Ride's Greatest Hits

RECENTLY, I've been paging through Express' Free Ride archives for a trip down memory lane. From the time we launched the blog in April 2006 up to now, I've authored more then 4,000 blog posts. Though it isn't a definitive list, below, I've selected some of my greatest hits.

» "Rat Jumps Into Baby Stroller in Dupont Circle"
ON MOST DAYS of the week, Jim McGrath can be found taking a coffee break on the outer ring of benches in Dupont Circle. And while he says he tries to sit away from the "gigantic rat holes" in the section of the park opposite the Sun Trust Bank, it's not uncommon for some of the circle's rodent residents to make their presence known. [More ...]

» "Update: D.C. Rat Patrol Targets Dupont Circle Park"
IF THE RECENT COLD WEATHER hasn't been hostile enough to rats living in Dupont Circle's park, then recent visits by D.C.'s "Rat Patrol" might have been a more lethal threat. [More …]

» "Out & About: Clinton Makes Cameo, Bores Partiers"
WHEN HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS of people cram into a crowded ballroom to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton speak at a major Democratic Party social function, be sure to guard your nasal passages. If you're sensitive to the interaction of perfumes and colognes wafting about in close quarters, then the gathering of party faithful at the West End's Park Hyatt last night might not have been your cup of tea. [More ...]

» "Taxi GPS Doesn't Eliminate Fare Zone Confusion"
WITH THE DISTRICT facing a deadline to act on taxicab reform this fall, some companies have been trumpeting their use of dashboard global positioning systems to navigate D.C.'s confusing jumble of taxicab fare zones. But as I found out on Saturday, even with GPS technology in cabs, it still takes one's human GPS to figure out when a cabbie is making a fare-calculation error — or just trying to scam you. [More …]

» "Around D.C., Mixed Reactions to Meter Decision"
AROUND NOON on Wednesday, one cab driver on M Street NW pulled up to the light at 16th Street, where another driver was stopped. Both of their windows were rolled down, and one shouted to the other that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty could go ... well, you get the picture. [More …]

» "As Riders Sleep, Special Metro Cleaners Get to Work"
AFTER THE GATES of the Stadium-Armory station's Independence Avenue entrance were locked behind us and we walked past the empty station manager's kiosk, the sights and sounds of Metrorail after hours slowly emerged. The rattle of machinery grew louder as we approached the escalators leading down to the platform. [More …]

» "Fortunately, They Didn't Bring Down the Roof"
AFTER TWO NIGHTS of concerts at the 9:30 Club, this writer's ears are ringing, but during Tuesday night's Editors' show, they were still sharp enough to overhear a conversation that unnecessarily caused worry: "What would happen if the roof caved in?" one guy said to another. "Yeah, that'd be nuts," came the reply. For sure. [More …]

» "A 14-Mile District Alleywalk"
WE SPENT OUR MEMORIAL DAY walking through District alleyways. That may seem strange, but after reading Lyndsey Layton's article in Monday's edition of The Post about living in D.C.'s alleyway housing, we wanted to take a stab at listing and photographing our favorite District alleyways. It turned out to be a nearly 14-mile trek. (Only about two miles of the journey was by Metrobus.) We started at the Stadium-Armory Metrorail station in Southeast, walked across Capitol Hill, up through Shaw to Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, back through Adams Morgan to Dupont Circle and onward to Georgetown, ending our trip at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Observatory Lane in Glover Park. Our feet hurt and we're slightly sunburned. [More ...]

» "Out & About: At Palm Gala, Vanity Meets Revelry"
D.C MAYOR ADRIAN FENTY has finally made it in this town. Last night at The Palm's grand reopening party, cameras zoomed in on the all-grins mayor as he climbed to the far end of a "power booth" to sign his caricature, which has joined the hundreds of other boldface names, current or has-been, that grace the walls of the famed Dupont Circle steak house and place to be seen. [More …]

» "D.C. Diary: In the Words of Gore Vidal"
WHEN MY FATHER interviewed writer Gore Vidal in Los Angeles last year for a documentary project, the outspoken figure told him to relay some advice to me back in Washington: "Tell your son to keep writing, even if it's a suicide note." [More …]

» "D.C. Diary: Going Hungry at Hooters"
SOMETHING WENT TERRIBLY WRONG at Hooters on Saturday night. For restaurateurs in the bustling Gallery Place-Chinatown-Verizonville area, there's plenty of money to be made. And there's plenty of money to be lost. And the manager on duty at the 7th Street NW outpost of the national chain best known for its well-endowed wait staff and chicken wings wasn't having a good night. [More …]

» "Escalator Canopy Not Coming Brookland's Way"
FOR YEARS, the escalators at the Brookland Metrorail station have been regularly out-of-service. In fact, a 2005 investigation by The Post found that the station's escalators were among the most problematic in the system. [More ...]

» "Convention Center Needs an Anime Invasion"
THE WASHINGTON CONVENTION CENTER is hurting for business. As The Post's Dana Hedgpeth reported on Monday, "convention attendance is dropping, the surrounding neighborhood is yet to be transformed by the promised new development, and conventioneers are filling fewer hotel rooms than expected." So the massive convention center complex — which stretches from Mount Vernon Square to N Street NW — is sort of a white elephant, with no adjacent convention center hotel and little in the form of street-level retail, which was supposed to transform the 9th Street NW corridor in Shaw. [More …]

» "C-List Borat-Type Tricks Kids at Lincoln Mem'l"
OVER THE YEARS, the Lincoln Memorial's steps have been home to countless notable events, speeches and performances, from Marian Anderson to Martin Luther King Jr. to, eh, Ricky Martin (at President Bush's 2001 inaugural celebration). On Saturday, in the midst of cherry blossom festivities in the city's monumental core, another notable joined the esteemed ranks of those who have used Mr. Lincoln as their backdrop: Jamie Kennedy. [More …]

» "Poll Center: Who's Worst at Winter Clean-Up?"
A LARGE PIECE OF ROAD SALT hit this writer directly in the forehead last night at U and 17th streets NW. A D.C. Department of Transportation snow plow/salt truck was clearing the road when its salt distributor sent a large chunk of NaCl product at your faithful scribe, who was waiting for a No. 90 bus a bit after 11 p.m. [More …]

» "Poetry for Pakistan's President"
ON FRIDAY, the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, visited Washington, stopping by the White House for an East Room news conference with President Bush before his entourage went to an evening event at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel. The buzz that day for most of Washington that cared to notice was Musharraf's assertion in a "60 Minutes" interview that Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, had threated to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks if Musharraf didn't step in line with the United States. [More …]

» "36 Hours: Washington D.C."
ON FRIDAY, some local bloggers — and certainly other D.C. denizens — objected to The New York Times' Escapes section's "36 Hours: Washington, D.C." feature, written by the esteemed political reporter Adam Nagourney. To sum up the commentary online, Nagourney's choices of local fare to highlight left critics underwhelmed. After all, does anyone really care if former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe "holds court from his regular table in the front right corner" of Cafe Milano's dining room? [More …]

» "D.C. Diary: A Morning at the Protests"
ON SATURDAY MORNING, this writer decided to check out the anti-war protests on the National Mall. The influx of thousands upon thousands of demonstrators who flooded into the nation's capital was a living, breathing example of American democracy in action — so we went along for the ride. [More …]

» "Memory & Myncis: Euros Childs"
WHEN TOLD ABOUT the recent closure of Dupont Circle's 40-year-old tavern and music club the Childe Harold, the soft-spoken, unassuming Welsh pop-folk rocker Euros Childs said endearingly: "Oh, that's sad." [More ...]

» "D.C. Diary: They Came, They Got Arrested"
AS HE WAS ARRESTED about an hour and a half ago on the steps of the Sudanese Embassy, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., put on a wide-brimmed hat and was escorted away, as if we were going on a leisurely walk. But then he was put in a Secret Service paddy wagon, where Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., on the left next to Lantos, John Olver, D-Mass., Alexandria's very own Jim Moran, D-Va., and other Darfur activists joined the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, was put in the back of a Secret Service cruiser. [More …]

» "On the Case of the Mysterious Blue Splotches"
ON WEDNESDAY, a man walked into the Wilson Building downtown, threw a white substance at a security guard, and then ran off. The seat of the District's government was evacuated for about two hours. Authorities determined the substance was probably just harmless table salt. It was the kind of incident that has cropped up now and again after the anthrax attacks of 2001 made mysterious substances in office buildings something to fear. But what if someone throws a suspicious bright blue material, like the stuff pictured here, on the ground? Would that spark the same kind of reaction from authorities? [More ...]

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STIRRINGS: The Oculus Is Comin' Back

PARDON THE CURRENT dated look of the Oculus. Links and such are so 2004 or something. Changes are a comin'. Details to come, at some point.