January 19, 2013, Washington, DC: Those of us who move around a lot experience many ceremonial and formal beginnings. We are accustomed to looking back and remembering the bookends — the day we arrived somewhere, the moment we settled in, the afternoon we packed up and drove away. It’s easy to recall the commencement of something new, to call up the morning the transition ended and we began again.
Inauguration weekend in Washington feels like a fitting time to recall these memories, not only due to the nature of the tradition, but because my own relationship to Washington tracks so closely with President Obama’s.
As the President’s relationship to the city began, mine did too. I first moved here from Chicago in the months between Obama’s rising star speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his election to the U.S. Senate that fall. My first years in Washington roughly coincided with Obama’s years as a senator, when I worked as a journalist during then President George W. Bush’s second term. Like Obama, I spent some time traveling back and forth to my home in Chicago before making the move to Washington official. The day my own transition ended was the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the day my aunt and I delivered the U-Haul we’d driven from the midwest to a storage facility just off New York Avenue. We drove through the northeast corner of the city that afternoon saddened by the state of the neighborhood in the Capitol’s backyard and appalled by the condition of New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward.
Like then President Bush, I had a limited relationship with Washington in those days. I was intently focused on Washington the Capitol and not very connected to Washington the City. At the time, the President, too, was detached from the metropolis in which he lived, rarely venturing out to eat, retreating instead to Camp David or his Texas ranch. Unlike his successor, President Bush appeared to choose not to make Washington his home, and during his time in the White House, I didn’t too much either.
It likely had little to do with the change of administration itself, but my relationship to D.C. began to shift right around the time of Obama’s election. With his historic election, there was hope for Washington as a both a capital and a city. In a pattern unique to D.C., November and December would bring newcomers in and flush old timers out, and this time the city would be infused with the energy and spirit of youth. But my changing perception of D.C. likely had more to do with my own decisions than the President’s election: Obama’s first year in office was also the year I shifted careers, stopped covering national news, and pledged to connect instead to my local surroundings, wherever they might be. I moved away from the city for one year to see if someplace else might be a better fit. Looking in from the outside, both geographically and professionally, I saw what I liked and missed about Washington, and returned committed to embracing the city more than ever. The President was too. Unlike his predecessor, Obama would see his daughters grow up in D.C. and he would be an urban president, of and from the bubble of city life. He would dine out at hot spots in various neighborhoods of the city and help coach his children’s basketball games. Photos of his visits to our corner Dunkin Donuts and local restaurants would come to adorn the walls of our neighborhood establishments. As I finally began to love it here, it became evident that the President was making a home here, too.
I went for a run this morning around the U.S. Capitol. Visitors and broadcasters have arrived overnight and the core of the city is filled with bright blue Port-a-Johns. The road blocks, risers and sound systems that started appearing a few weeks ago are now in place and large signs saluting the President on the Newseum and the Canadian Embassy signal that our regular Pennsylvania Ave. bike lane has been transformed back into Monday’s parade route. The bike lane didn’t exist last time around, nor did the food trucks now prepared for a huge weekend ahead. Union Market and H St. now draw people to the northeast corner of the city that looked so unwelcoming that day I returned the U-Haul and officially settled in Washington. As we ceremoniously begin again, it’s fascinating to consider how much has changed between these bookends.