Reclaiming D.C.’s history: new online resource lists famous local writers
By Marlena Chertock
First published in The Writers’ Bloc.
This is the first part in a series on the D.C. Writers’ Homes project. Each Friday for the month of January, one writer who hits close to the UMD campus will be featured.
Roberts and Vera have what they call a strange hobby. They research D.C. and surrounding communities for still-standing homes of authors and record the information on D.C. Writers’ Homes, their online resource that lists about 125 D.C., Maryland and Virginia houses where local authors once lived. The website was released on December 1.
“I don’t think we’re very good at claiming our history,” said Roberts, who teaches the course in traditional verse forms for the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. “I think that there’s much more interest in preserving people’s private properties. I wish more of them were marked by plaques.”
Other cities, such as London, have plaque systems to signify where famous people lived.
“We were doing it for us, because we wanted to know who these writers were and where they lived,” Roberts said. “We didn’t really know other people would feel the same way.”
But the website has already been getting a lot of traffic. The website has an interactive Google map with blue balloons and photos marking individual writers’ houses in D.C. and surrounding Maryland or Virginia communities. Writers can be searched on the website in different categories, such as by geography, ethnicity, sexual orientation, winners of literary awards or different historical eras.
“You can search writers who hosted literary salons, had showbiz connections or were radicals, who were abolitionists in the Civil War, arrested for protesting the war in Vietnam or wrote for socialist or communist magazines,” said Roberts, “I was quite fond of the radical categories.”
Roberts was also interested in the way writers form communities and support each other.
“Writing is such a solitary act,” she said. “We writers need to group up and create our own community.”
Roberts and Vera investigated writers for years at the archives at the University of Maryland, George Washington University and Howard University, the Library of Congress, the Washington Collection at the D.C. public library and other public libraries.
They spent a lot of time looking through early writings, correspondence between writers and city directories, Roberts said.
Researching local authors’ homes is Roberts’ and Vera’s way of reclaiming D.C.’s history.
“It was nice to make that connection back to those writers and where they actually lived,” Roberts said. “It increased my essence of this being my city. If we’re not claiming our history, we’re in danger of having it taken from us.”
The most egregious example of history being taken from people is the Harlem Renaissance, according to Roberts.
“The movement actually started in D.C.,” she said. “Major writers of that time period lived here or started here and moved to New York. But D.C. got erased. We want to stake our claim and say D.C. has always been a place that has been welcoming to writers and a place where writers have done some of their best work.”
People tend to think of New York and San Francisco as literary cities, said Sarah Browning, the director of Split this Rock, a non-profit organization that sponsors festivals and reading series. The organization sponsored the project.
But D.C. has had a rich literary culture, according to Browning and Mark Smith, the director of grants and special projects at the Humanities Council of Washington. The website gives a sense of what the literary culture was like in the city at any given time, Browning said.
“The project gives a new life to some of the district’s authors,” Smith said. “Who [writers] had relationships with, what life in the city felt like at that moment for a writer. It gives us models with how we interact with one another.”
Roberts is on the advisory board of Split This Rock and Vera is on the board of directors. The organization often collaborates on projects with its members, according to Browning.
The Humanities Council of Washington also funded the project, with a $2,000 D.C. Community Areas Project grant.
When Roberts drives around the district or its surrounding communities now, she said she is always aware of the streets where writers once lived.
“We’re not alone; we’re surrounded by these writers who are our literary forbearers,” she said. “All these different time periods are layered on top of one another.”
If you have suggestions for authors or information on addresses for the website, contact email@example.com.
About Marlena ChertockMarlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.
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