When I told people I was going to school in DC I got one of two reactions: “That’s so cool” or “Please be careful.” Everyone interprets DC into these two ways. A great city with amazing national monuments and a spectacular history or a city that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country and one of the highest crime rates in the world.
If you only went to American University, aside from the DC “Taxation without Representation” license plates, you may never realize you’re in Washington, DC. At least not the DC that everyone claims to know and love. There are no national monuments. The crime rate is relatively low and the poverty rate is almost indistinguishable.
American University lies in Northwest, DC. It is in the wealthiest part of the city. And rather than being adorned by town houses and apartment complexes most of the region is residential. In fact, AU id surrounded by houses that would easily sell for over $1 million.
When I was looking at colleges and when I envisioned my future, I never thought I would be living in area surrounded by million dollar homes. It wasn’t part of my plan. It didn’t describe me or my outlook on life at all. There were times at school when I felt “too poor” to be going there. There were times when socioeconomically I felt beneath everyone. I didn’t have multiple homes. I didn’t go to private school. And, spending $40 on dinner seemed absurd.
And yet, four years of walking the streets of Northwest, DC, from Nebraska Avenue to Massachusetts Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue, has made it home. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s safe (aside from the occasional mugging) and it’s quiet.
After long days at work it’s pleasant to hop off the metro and onto the AU shuttle to travel down Nebraska Avenue and stare at that the pretty houses. With polished lawns and rod iron fences. To ride down the streets at Christmas time with the houses decorated in traditional, non-gaudy Christmas lights and decorations. Or take a stroll through the neighborhoods in the spring as flowers are blooming. To take an evening walk in the muggy summer time watch the fireflies dance in the bushes. Or jump in piles of leaves as they change colors in the fall.
For any myriad of reasons, despite the discrepancies Northwest DC has with every other part of the city, it provides me with comfort and has come to mark normalcy.
Aside from perspective students coming to visit the campus, the AU Park, Palisades, Spring Valley, area does not have many tourists stopping to “oooo” and “ahhh.” Tourists don’t think the region has much to offer them other than pretty houses. And, with the limited number of hotels dotting the area, there’s really no reason for them to take detour up that way. But, they don’t always realize what they’re missing. Northwest DC isn’t just pretty houses. Some of the houses area ancient, even surrounded by hidden parks and other beauties.
This isn’t to say that the area is perfect. Far from it. Northwest DCers get to keep the DC title without ever having to actually experience the real DC. They never have to travel into the city and face the tourists, the poverty, or the crime. They get to sit in their perfect, wealthy worlds without giving a second thought to where they actually live.
…Though they do live in fear of the chemicals that may be seeping through the surface. During the early part of the 20th Century, AU was part of a chemical weapons development program. The university made and then buried numerous weapons, containing a variety of different chemicals, like Mustard Gas. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the information was released. Large parts of the campus and the surrounding areas have been contaminated. But, the school has been working to remove the chemicals.
Needless to say, it’s strained an already fragile relationship AU has with the community. They think the students are too loud, the school insensitive to their concerns, and even the university a very threat to their way of life (even if it is over 100 years old). They assume that every young person, whether they are a student or not, is to blame.
Despite the anger, despite the frustration, despite the contradictions, it has become home. When I go back to Colorado now, I don’t feel like I’m going home, I feel like I’m vacationing from home. Waiting to get the chance to return to my DC world in the Northwest corner of the city.