TowA Tale of Two Trips to One City

My parents recently returned to the US from a week-and-a-half-long vacation to London, where they enjoyed the food (and tea) and toured the sites. Ten years ago, in summer 2004, I too traveled to London. Although that trip happened in what is many ways a bygone era, England nonetheless has its place in my life as one of eight countries I’ve been to, and with several museums and historic sites I have visited.

While my parents were gone, I lived vicariously through them and texted them every day asking for updates on their adventures. I was struck by how few sites overlapped on my trip and theirs.

Like me, my parents toured St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and they saw Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. On both our trips, we went to Borough Market for food and sightseeing as well.

But while I visited the National Gallery, my parents went to the National Portrait Gallery. I rode the London Eye; my parents saw the city by taking a bus tour. I made a pilgrimage to the University of Oxford Botanic Garden to see a bench during a day trip to Oxford, whereas my parents made a pilgrimage to Abbey Road to see a crosswalk.

Tower Bridge. Photo by Carol DiSciullo

Tower Bridge. Photo by Carol DiSciullo

I visited the museum at Tower Bridge. My parents visited the museum at the Tower of London (though they did take pictures of Tower Bridge). My visit included the encyclopedic British Museum, while my mother and father visited the locally-focused Museum of London. I took a tour of the Houses of Parliament and learned about the British legislature, and my parents went to the Churchill War Rooms and learned about the (former) British executive.

I briefly took a picture of Buckingham Palace, while my parents stayed long enough to watch the Changing of the Guard.

Additionally, my travels included the Globe Theater, and a ride called This Is Oxford.

My parents also saw the Imperial War Museum, the Docklands, the Tate Modern, Kensington Palace, and Kensington Gardens.

Ultimately, London (and nearby cities for day excursions) is a city with far too much to do to fit into one or two weeks, and there is plenty to fill at least two trips.

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Thick Curtain of Tree Bark at Cleveland Park

Cleveland Park is a Metro station I used once in Weekly Museum Visits: to visit Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park. To get to Peirce Mill, I walked along Melvin Hazen Trail, which is one of 114 sites detailed in the book Peaceful Places Washington D.C. by Judy Colbert and Denis Collins.

The book includes a couple of restaurants I love (Busboys and Poets, Lost Dog Café), some interesting landmarks (the Temperance Fountain, the Albert Einstein Monument), and a number of museums and parks, including many from Weekly Museum Visits. Fourteen of my Weekly Museum Visit locations are designated as Peaceful Places in the guidebook.

What makes a place peaceful? Melvin Hazen Trail is described as a path through “a thick curtain of trees” and “occasional cascades of water,” with animals flying and scampering, and picnic tables for resting and eating.

Other places in the book are peaceful because of “the aroma of a thousand rosebushes” (Dumbarton Oaks), or because “miniature trees reflect the patience and skill of the gardeners who cultivated them” (United States National Arboretum). The United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center “is understandably quiet as visitors contemplate the bravery shown by our former and current military personnel and their families.” Lost Dog Café is peaceful for many reasons, including “the funky painting on the wall, of dogs in bowler hats playing pool[.]”

I bought the book last year because I was fascinated by the premise: the attempt to make a definitive list of places that have that elusive quality of peacefulness. Does peacefulness refer to quiet and tranquility? To spiritual recharging? To an uplifting atmosphere of harmony and joviality? To a dedication to promoting world peace and social justice?

Here are some places in DC, Maryland, and Virginia I would add to the book’s list:

  1. Acorn Park
  2. American Visionary Art Museum
  3. Art Museum of the Americas
  4. Bladensburg Waterfront Park
  5. Brookside Gardens
  6. Clarendon Common (gardens, fountains, gazebos)
  7. Ellipse
  8. FDR Memorial
  9. Frederick Douglass House
  10. Freer/Sackler and Moongate Garden
  11. Georgetown Waterfront Park
  12. Hillwood
  13. Ladybird Johnson Park and Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove
  14. Lake Artemesia
  15. Man Helping Man sculpture
  16. Meridian Hill Park
  17. Petworth Citizen
  18. Red Emma’s
  19. SiTea in Takoma DC
  20. Spanish Steps
  21. Sticky Fingers
  22. Teaism near the National Archives
  23. United States Institute of Peace
  24. University of Maryland – College Park Labyrinth and Peace Garden
  25. Washington Ethical Society

What sites would you add to the list?

As for Cleveland Park, there are a few other Peaceful Places from the book that are listed in the book nearby: Ardeo and Bardeo, Transcendence-Perfection-Bliss of the Beyond, and Tregaron Estate.

Cleveland Park is on the Red Line.

Melvin Hazen Trail

Melvin Hazen Trail

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The Emu, the Smew, and the Elephant Shrew All Live at Woodley Park-Zoo

The full name of the Metro station is Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan. (Cue jokes about seeing a zoo of animals during the day, and a zoo of people at night in Adams Morgan.)

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, visitors can see the smew (a kind of duck, in the bird exhibit), the short-eared elephant shrew (in the Small Mammal House), and an emu named Darwin, chilling in a habitat along Olmsted Walk along with a wallaby. What can no longer be seen, since it closed in June 2014, is the Invertebrate House.

Jellyfish in the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo

Jellyfish in the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo

The decision was announced a mere week before it was implemented, which added to the controversy seen in the public outcry. “Being told ‘it’s closing, see it in the next week or it’s gone & we’re not sure if anything’s coming back’ is very hard,” wrote one Facebook user on the Zoo’s Facebook page.

Letting go of part of the collection is rarely if ever an easy or uncontentious decision for a museum, but a zoo or other institution with a living, sentient collection has greater obligations to what happens to the creatures in it care. Deciding how much living space to allot to each animal is quite different from deciding how much wall space should be left empty between paintings.

The Zoo has genuine reasons for making changes over time to the exhibits, even closing a beloved hall. These reasons include:

  • the evolution of the moral considerations of zoos from our ancestors’ delight in seeing suited-up animals doing tricks in a cage to today’s ethic of education, conservation, and animal well-being
  • a shift toward showing how ecosystems work together rather than simply arranging animals in individual enclosures by phylum and class
  • budget considerations in a time when it is fashionable to protest government funding of just about anything, and private support of cultural institutions is down as most of the population makes do with less. (The Zoo explained the reasons behind the closure of the Invertebrate House in budgetary terms.)

Nevertheless, the loss of the invertebrate house was mourned and objected to by people who are fascinated by animals as diverse as octopuses, jellyfish, butterflies, and spiders. (Note: the Zoo has stated that the animals are going to other homes at the Zoo or at other zoos.) As the news reports on the exhibit’s closing have noted, 99% of the animals on the planet are invertebrates, and an understanding of the natural world is incomplete without learning about our numerous spineless cousins.

Besides the Zoo’s closure of the Invertebrate House, opportunities to see invertebrates have decreased in the DC area in recent years:

  • The National Aquarium’s DC location, whose collection included a Giant Pacific Octopus and sea anemones, had to close in 2013 due to renovation of the Chamber of Commerce building.
  • At the National Museum of Natural History, the Insect Zoo has grown smaller and exhibits a smaller array of creatures because of staffing cuts.
  • While the National Arboretum is primarily a place for learning about plants, it also teaches visitors about the insects whose lives are intertwined with flora, with installations such as a butterfly garden in the Youth Garden. Government funding cuts have led the Arboretum to decrease the hours it is open to the public almost by half.

While you can no longer worm your way into the Invertebrate House and soak up all the information like a sponge, the Zoo is planning a Hall of Biodiversity to open in 20 years, which will include invertebrates. Still, the closing of the Invertebrate House bugs and nettles a lot of people; it makes people feel crabby; it ticks people off. Some people were drawn to the exhibit like a moth to a flame, and now that the exhibit has closed, the decision has stirred up a hornet’s nest. With limited funds and a whole zoo of animals to consider, the Smithsonian will not be able to make all their visitors as happy as clams when tough choices arise.

Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan is on the Red Line.

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The Park I Want Is (for Now) at Dupont

Update 8/25/2014: A representative from St. Thomas’ Parish has informed me that the new church, like the old, will include a labyrinth that is open to the public. Hooray!


My Weekly Museum Visits project had me using the Dupont Circle Metro station several times. There are museums in every direction from Dupont Circle itself: the Heurich House Museum and the museum-hotel-clutterhouse O Street Mansion southwest of the circle, General Federation of Women’s Clubs headquarters to the southeast, and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History to the northeast.

Northwest of Dupont Circle are Anderson House, the Phillips Collection, Fondo del Sol, the Laogai Museum, Woodrow Wilson House, and (a little farther away in Georgetown but still within a mile of the Dupont Metro) Dumbarton House.

Dupont Circle is not only a good place for people who like museums, but also for people who like food, or drinks, or embassies, or books, or historic architecture, or people-watching, or old churches, or green spaces….

The labryinth at St. Thomas' Parish

The labryinth at St. Thomas’ Parish

One of my favorite places in the neighborhood is the small park at St. Thomas’ Parish, an Episcopal church built in the 1890s and heavily damaged by arson in 1970. The park has a labyrinth, benches, a grassy space frequented by people walking dogs, and signage informing visitors of the history of the building.

Aside from the labyrinth outside the shuttered Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School, I cannot think of another labyrinth in DC that is both so close to a Metro station and so accessible to the public. Some are indoors or on rooftops and only open certain hours, some are on school grounds that are being used by schoolchildren during the day, and the one at Georgetown Waterfront Park is a pretty, but long, walk from the nearest Metro.

I’ve made use of the St. Thomas’ labyrinth to calm my nerves before job interviews and after eating lunch on one of the benches during my break while temping at nearby offices. I have shown it to family and friends after a restaurant meal or a late night out in Dupont. So I was sad to learn that St. Thomas’ Parish plans to build a new, expanded church on the grounds of the park and sell part of the land to a developer to turn into apartments.

Many residents who live near the church share my initial reaction to the news, and they are campaigning for an expansion plan that would better ensure the preservation of the old church building and the park. The Greater Greater Washington blog describes a meeting of parishioners and neighbors, and the contentious discussions of the issue.

Supporters of the church’s plans point out that there are plenty of other parks and green spaces in the area. This is true. There’s Dupont Circle itself, Stead Park, and Mitchell Park, to name a few. Less often mentioned is how unique the park at St. Thomas’ is in having a labyrinth.

Ultimately, though, the owners of this land intend for it to be a church first and foremost, not a park. I will miss the park, but I have realized that it’s not for me to decide how a religious community uses its land. The needs of the parish trump my desire to have a labyrinth on every block (or at least the block of 18th Street between P and Church).

A similar situation went on for several years at Third Church of Christ Scientist, also in Northwest DC. Historic preservationists had the brutalist building designated as a historic structure, while the church found the building expensive to maintain and the general public sentiment held that the edifice was an eyesore. Ultimately, the church won its battle, and demolition of the building has begun. The church has sold the land to be developed for office use, and the church community has relocated to the Eastern Market neighborhood.

These disputes bring up questions of the purpose of historic preservation and the role of religious institutions in the neighborhoods where they are located. There’s the predictable NIMBY-ism involved, as well as concerns ranging from religious freedom to the effects a new development will have on area property values.

Though the labyrinth at St. Thomas’ has helped fulfill my own spiritual needs, it is not its job to do so, as I am not part of the congregation. I would have liked the parish to preserve the park and more of the historic structure where three U.S. presidents worshiped, but it is not for me to decide. The church is not designated as a historic place in any official way that would obligate the church leadership to preserve the structure. Meanwhile, although Dupont will be losing a labyrinth, it will still be brimming with other historic sites.

Dupont Circle is on the Red Line.

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Back and Forth at Farragut North

The thought of K Street (and its Metro stop, Farragut North) conjures up images of law firms and lobbyists. It is a world of Keurigs, conference rooms, and consultants, where the fast casual restaurants on every block and the food trucks lining the perimeter of Farragut Square offer quick $9 lunches to throngs of people. You should never stand on the left of the escalator in any Metro station, but especially not Farragut North, where all those people in suits have somewhere they need to be. I have used this Metro station frequently, for internships, job interviews, and temp assignments.

National Geographic Museum

National Geographic Museum

An area so famed for its identity as a hub of quintessential white-collar DC workplaces might not seem like an obvious choice of a destination to visit for leisure. But there are reasons for an out-of-town visitor, or locals on their day off, to hang out here.

For one thing, the people-watching can be fascinating. There is certainly no shortage of people ascending from the three entrances to the Metro station. A person with several minutes and several dollars to spare can buy a meal from a food truck, sit on a bench in Farragut Square, and watch the crowds of individuals go by. Farragut Square also has its eponymous statue in the center; this tribute to Union admiral David G. Farragut might be of interest to Civil War buffs.

Then there’s the quiet and beautiful Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, which I have written about here. Visitors can take a self-guided tour to learn about the church’s history and religious art.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

Finally, there are two museums directly across the street from each other that offer different-sized lenses on history. I enjoy the juxtaposition, the way a visitor can go back and forth on M Street to visit both the National Geographic Museum and the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives.

The National Geographic Museum’s exhibits examine, collectively, the whole history and natural history of the whole world. In recent years, the museum has put on exhibitions on topics such as gold in Peru, terra cotta warrior statues from a tomb in China, a slave ship taken over by pirates when it journeyed from London to the Caribbean to Cape Cod, and birds of paradise in New Guinea. Outside the museum is a pleasant courtyard (another potential place to eat that food truck lunch), with rotating photography exhibits on the outside of the building.

Across the street from this internationally-focused museum is the Sumner School, which has a localized and specialized focus. Specifically, the school-turned museum educates the public about the history of public education in DC. When I visited a few years ago, I saw exhibits on the school system’s extracurricular activities and student life in decades past, as well as an exhibit about Adoph Cluss, the architect who designed the 1872 building.

These two museums together exemplify DC’s role as a city of national and international institutions, with a rich local history of its own.

Farragut North is on the Red Line.

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A Labyrinth to Enter at Metro Center

I recently achieved my goal of being able to say I have visited every Metrorail station in the DC area’s public transit system. (Every Metro station, that is, until the system opened five new ones on July 26.)

So I have visited 86 Metro stations, and explored the surrounding areas, and in due time I will visit the five stops that recently opened up on the west side of the new Silver Line, for a total of 91 stations.

There are Metro stations that have a half-dozen (or more!) museums within a one-mile radius, and there are Metro stations that have another Metro station located a few blocks away in every direction. At some Metro stations, you can ride the escalator into a neighborhood teeming with nightlife, or fast casual lunch restaurants, or murals, or classrooms, or offices, or some combination of the above. There are others where you are more likely to find boarded-up buildings or massive parking garages. Nevertheless, I set out with optimism that there is something interesting everywhere.

In the middle of it all is Metro Center, the multi-line, multi-entrance station in downtown DC. You cannot go too far from Metro Center and still have Metro Center be the closest station to where you are.

The blocks surrounding Metro Center have never seemed as hip as neighboring Galleryplace, where the busy, noisy, colorful 7th Street has museums and restaurants and bars and the Verizon Center, but there is plenty to see at Metro Center too. I have written before about Ford’s Theatre, which is a museum and a theater, as well as National Museum of Women in the Arts, where I have seen museum theater.

Labyrinth at Church of the Epiphany

Labyrinth at Church of the Epiphany

Another site worth visiting near Metro Center is the Church of the Epiphany. It is not necessarily a museum, but it does have historical significant. Built in 1844, the Episcopal parish was attended by both Jefferson Davis (regularly; he rented a pew) and Abraham Lincoln (at least once, for a funeral). The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. With its Gothic Revival architecture and stained glass windows, it is also a place of simple artistic beauty.

The reason for my occasional visits is the labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used around the world, through a good chunk of human history, for their healing and meditative effects. They can be found in a variety of places, including houses of worship, hospitals and other health-related sites, parks, and schools. A small number of other Metro stations also have public labyrinths nearby.

A labyrinth is one thing, at least that Metro Center has and Galleryplace (as far as I can tell) doesn’t.

Metro Center is on the Red, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines.


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Two Cultures, Five Senses: Folklife Festival 2014

Another year of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival came to an end at the beginning of this month, this year featuring China and Kenya. Like other years, the festival immersed visitors in colors and textures and sound and the heat of a crowded National Mall in the summer.

Here are some highlights, brought to you by the five senses:

Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performs on the Dragon-Lion Cart

Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performs on the Dragon-Lion Cart

Sights: on one Sunday, I saw a Chinese dragon dance; the next Sunday, I saw a lion dance, and a performance on the Dragon-Lion Cart by Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe. I turned to my friend and confessed I wasn’t sure how to tell the difference between lions and dragons. What I had assumed were lions on the Dragon-Lion Cart, she had assumed were dragons. What visual cues should we be relying on? I wondered. My guess (confirmed, at least, by a cursory Internet search) was that lions have four legs while dragons have a lot more. Meanwhile, the golden yellow creatures reminded me of the fur of a lion. In any event, all three performances were amazing to watch.

Sounds: at the Ngoma Stage in the Kenya area, I caught part of the Choral Waves and Kenyan Classics performances. The artists who performed included Wesonga, Sengekwo, Ayub Ogada, DK Wamaria, and John Nzenze and Akwabi.

Giraffes made out of flip-flops by Ocean Sole from Kenya

Giraffes made out of flip-flops by Ocean Sole from Kenya

Textures: there were gorgeous Chinese textiles that I would have loved to touch, but I obeyed the signs like a good visitor. However, I did get to touch Kenyan giraffe sculptures made out of recycled flip-flops.

Tastes: even though it means occasionally waiting in long lines, a big draw of the festival every year is the food. In the China section, I tried vegetable lo mein, vegetable dumplings, and Tsingtao Lager. From the Kenyan concessions, I bought a rice and salad dish called Pilau and Kachumbari, spicy vegetable samosas, and Tusker lager.

Smells: while watching a Chinese cooking demonstration, the speaker said that the tofu being used was called “smelly tofu” because of its strong aroma. As soon as he said it, a man in the audience approached the counter and asked to smell the tofu. The speaker told him that audience members could smell the tofu after it was cooked, which of course, everyone wanted to do now that this man’s behavior had piqued everyone’s curiosity. All I could smell was the lemon sauce, though, not the tofu itself.

What were your favorite parts of the Folklife Festival this year?

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