A City of Contradictions: Farragut Square

Farragut Square smells. Never the same smell, but always a smell. Every morning I tumble off the bus at 17th and K with half a dozen other professionals on my way to work. Whatever smell is wafting through the air hits me immediately. On cool morning it’s the smell of wet, damp grass. In the summer it’s the smell of the thick humid air. On other mornings it’s the distinct smell of Subway sandwiches or the foul smell of the DC sewer.

Located in the heart of the city, where the lobbyists live and the PACs roam wild, you’re hard pressed, even on a weekend to not spot at least one person clad in a suit and tie. People get to work by 8:00 and don’t leave until almost 7:00. Without fail the bus ride home will be more crowded at 6:30 than at 7:00. The schedule should come as no surprise considering Farragut Square is within a couple blocks from the White House.

And yet, despite the pinned up professionals, lobbyists, and humanitarians, one look around the square and you’ll see at least a handful of individuals with grocery carts stuffed with personal belongs like clothing and pictures. You’ll see people asleep on the benches. You’ll see the same man on the edge of the square with his small sign and a cup for change. The same woman yelling from the median as people walk by barely giving her a second thought.

Homelessness is the unfortunate reality of living in any city. It’s also the unfortunate cause of some of the smells that waft through the square. It’s hard to say if I should be thankful or disconcerted that the smell of stale urine is so much a part of my life now that I sometimes don’t realize it until someone else points it out. The unfortunate reality that I know to hold my breath as I walk past certain cold sleeping souls.

It’s a tragedy though, that such a degree of human degradation can happen so close to where the leader of the country lives. That the hundreds of interest groups, lobbying firms and trying to put an end to such extreme poverty are working in offices only feet away. Sadder yet is that unlike some areas of DC where the rich and poor happily intermingle and even sometimes exchange stories about their kids and their dogs, in Farragut Square they keep to themselves. The rich often walk past without acknowledging the McDonalds cups held out to them. The poor sit idly by, with few “hellos” or “how are yous.” In the one place where you’d hope the division wouldn’t exist, it does.

These aren’t the only sights and smells that fill Farragut Square. The other is far more pleasant. Food. At lunch time the DC food trucks line up around square. The smell fills the area. You get an interesting mix of BBQ and Korean, Mexican and Seafood (yes there is a Lobster Truck that wanders the streets of DC). Somehow even when the strange combinations come together it still smells amazing. Even after the trucks have moved on and closed up for the day you still have the residual smells.

Lunch time in the square creates its own kind of DC coated Woodstock. A unique conglomeration of people gather to get food or enjoy an hour outside before huddling up behind their desk. Beyond the typical politicians dressed in their business best, you have vendors, and workers from every corner. They all come. They all eat.

It’s the one time that I feel that food can, besides warding off hunger, do something truly positive. It brings people together. In a region where rich and poor normally keep to themselves at least during lunch that changes. Small conversations start up here and there of people of different economic backgrounds, of different races, of different interests. And, at least for a second, the smells that constantly fill the square stop defining it; the energy of everyone moving from place to place becomes more important.

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