This Week On Metro Connection: Homegrown D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Week On Metro Connection: Homegrown D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week our theme is Homegrown D.C. We'll visit D.C.'s first public-housing project designed and built by African Americans.

MS. BARBARA WATKINS HAGANS

I do remember all the doors were painted blue and everyone had little red lawn mowers. Even though it was not our property, we treated it as it was.

SHEIR

And we'll motor around with a Washington cabbie/amateur filmmaker.

MR. OLEG MERKULOV

And so it was a guy kicked with his leg, that kicked the door, that bang in the door. Then he kicked my window out. All the glass was flying all over me.

SHEIR

Plus, hanging out with a local band whose songs draw from D.C. in a major way.

MS. RACHEL LOVE

Remembering that space was something else before the Target, I think is sort of an idea we were trying to sort of play within the lyrics of D.C. USA.

SHEIR

But, before we get to all that, we're going to bring you some memoirs inspired by life in our fair city. Six-word memoirs, to be exact. An idea we're kind of borrowing from our friends at WLRN in Miami. We really dug this idea of describing daily existence in your city in just a few words. So we went around the halls of WAMU and asked our colleagues to do just that. Not surprisingly the homegrown denizens among us wanted to show their D.C. pride.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

D.C. native, raised in Shepherd Park.

SHEIR

Others wanted to vent about their commutes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN

Summer heat, MARC train delayed again.

SHEIR

Some just made us laugh.

FEMALE

It'll look good on your resume.

SHEIR

And others, well, in a weird way they were just simply classic D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

Jumbo slice on a car windshield.

SHEIR

In any case, we want to toss the ball into your court now. If you have a six-word memoir you'd like to share with us, we'd love to hear it. You can reach us at metro@wamu.org or find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.

SHEIR

So as we get our Homegrown D.C. show rolling, we're actually going to look across the country now and turn to Hollywood. This weekend marks a momentous occasion for Tinseltown, as stars of the silver screen gather for the 85th Academy Awards.

SHEIR

And among the various contenders in different categories, you'll find a handful of films, "Argo," "Lincoln," and "Zero Dark Thirty," among them, that cast the nation's Capitol in somewhat of a starring role.

MR. MIKE CANNING

In my own researches about movies made in D.C. or about D.C., the last 20 years I'd say, almost a Washington genre has grown up because 80 to 85 Hollywood movies have been shot here on and off in that time, which is a lot.

SHEIR

And this guy should know. Longtime Capitol Hill resident Mike Canning has indeed done a ton of research about movies in, on and about Washington. And he's compiled all of that research into a brand new book.

CANNING

Called "Hollywood on the Potomac."

SHEIR

Subtitle, "How the Movies View Washington, D.C." In the book, Mike points out that despite the plethora of D.C.-based or D.C.-inspired movies, the District is not an easy place to shoot a commercial film. First, you have to negotiate your way through all the various jurisdictions. I mean, you've got executive, congressional and local. Second, D.C. just doesn't offer the financial incentives that other cities like Baltimore or Richmond do. And third, of course, there's the issue of security, which leads us to the particular location where I met up with Mike Canning not too long ago, 3rd Street Southeast and East Capitol.

CANNING

I picked this location because it has the confluence of a number of locations that have been used in Washington movies over the years and in part, too, because it defines the limit of where you can shoot the Capitol from. Third Street, right in front of us here, is the limit, the closest you can get to shooting the Capitol. While cars can drive down East Capitol and be shot, basically action takes place right at this point. And examples of which are the Folger Library, just on the other side of the street from us, has been used a couple of times in Washington movies.

CANNING

Once in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," from 1978, an Alan Alda film used one of the rooms inside for a senator's office.

SHEIR

So the Folger's never played itself? It's always played a different role?

CANNING

I don't think the Folger as such has ever played itself. Maybe it should. Across the street are a couple of buildings in more recent films that people might remember. The large one is the John Jay Building on East Capitol in the 300 block, where Clint Eastwood climbed up on the roof to chase John Malkovich, the villain.

SHEIR

He totally did. That's right.

CANNING

Yeah, "In The Line of Fire," in 1993.

CANNING

And it's very evident when you see it, because you can see the background of the Supreme Court and the Capitol. Just next to it is an apartment building called the Colcord, which was the site of Annette Benning's apartment in "The American President," from 1995.

SHEIR

With Michael Douglas.

CANNING

With Michael Douglas as the sweet president, a Rob Reiner film with an Aaron Sorkin script.

CANNING

But that's where she lived and where she had trouble getting to the President's house in a cab via Dupont Circle a couple of times. Typical Washington goof.

SHEIR

So what about goofs or gaffes? Do you have some favorites where they're depicting Washington, but we all know that's not Washington or that's not how Washington works?

CANNING

Well, indeed. My favorite gaffe, which I highlight in the book. It's just hilariously funny for somebody who lives here. And this is from a movie that was released in 1987 called, "No Way Out," with Kevin Costner.

CANNING

There's a sequence where he's in a chase, running in a car from the Pentagon to Georgetown, where he's trying to warn a woman who's going to be assassinated. He and the assassins are coming across the Whitehurst Freeway and he stops their car, to stop them, he jumps over the Whitehurst Freeway Bridge down onto K Street, which is correct, and he runs in and around Georgetown and he runs on the C & O Canal Route, all very effectively and rather with verisimilitude. That's basically where you would go, trying to get to this woman's office.

CANNING

And then the kicker is he comes off the C & O Canal, up some steps, into the Georgetown Metro. Anybody who lives here knows there is no, and has never been, pointedly, a Georgetown Metro. So my wife and I always remember when we saw this movie in 1987 in first run, the audience went nuts. One guy threw popcorn at the screen because it was so ludicrous. And the whole sequence is just a hilarious goof and one of the best.

SHEIR

Well, Mike Canning, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

CANNING

My pleasure.

SHEIR

Mike Canning is the author of "Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, D.C.," published by the Friends of Southeast Library.

SHEIR

You can find more on the book, including photos from some favorite Washington films of years gone by on our website, metroconnection.org. And we want to know, do you have a favorite movie about Washington, D.C.? Or a favorite movie gaffe perhaps? Tell us all about it. Our email address is metro@wamu.org.

SHEIR

We're going to stay in the world of film for this next story and meet a guy named Jon Francke. Francke is a lifelong movie buff, which makes his job kind of perfect for him since he manages a homegrown video rental store right here in D.C. And as Heather Taylor tells us, in this era of streaming video and Netflix, Francke is working to keep that brick-and-mortar business afloat.

MS. HEATHER TAYLOR

Twenty years ago when Jon Francke became manager and buyer for the local video store chain Potomac Video, three of the biggest movies of the year were, "The Fugitive," "The Firm," and "Jurassic Park."

MS. HEATHER TAYLOR

At the time video stores were springing up in every direction, but no one had a crystal ball about the industry's future.

MR. JON FRANCKE

I didn't really know where this business was going to go.

TAYLOR

But Francke knew one thing for sure and he'd known it since his boyhood days in Massachusetts.

FRANCKE

I just really like movies. I think my first love of movies was the classic Universal horror movies, the "Frankenstein…"

FRANCKE

…"Dracula," "The Wolf Man." They were staples for, like, Saturday afternoon. When I was growing up, there were no cable stations, but all the networks would have their own monster movies shows, so…

TAYLOR

And those movies led to an even greater fascination with film as a craft. Francke began making movies when he was just 13. And later he studied film at Syracuse University. Years later, when he had the opportunity to become manager and buyer for the Potomac Video chain, he went for it.

FRANCKE

It was kind of a pleasure to actually be able to work in a business where I got to basically pick whichever films I wanted to carry in my store.

TAYLOR

And for a long time the business flourished. The company grew from a few stores to many.

FRANCKE

Twenty-two stores in five different states.

TAYLOR

Today, movie delivery systems like Netflix and Redbox have replaced most brick-and-mortar video stores. The last surviving Potomac Video is on Connecticut Avenue in D.C.'s Chevy Chase neighborhood. But here's the surprising thing, remarkably the store has always been and continues to be financially strong. And Francke thinks he knows why.

FRANCKE

Well, we offer a lot of titles that are not available through streaming. Our selection of DVDs, VHS and Blue-ray numbers about 60,000 titles, which last time I checked, the Internet was streaming 20,000 titles on Netflix.

TAYLOR

He says location is key.

FRANCKE

It's a very international neighborhood. People are very aware of what's playing in, you know, off New York, in small cinemas there and what the retrospectives are going on in the various film worlds. The foreign language section is probably our single largest section.

TAYLOR

Along with British imports.

FRANCKE

Our bread and butter is the British drama, but the British mystery section rents like crazy. There are copies of "Midsomer Murders" that have rented 150, 200 times.

TAYLOR

But he admits when it comes to making movie suggestions, his track record isn't perfect.

FRANCKE

I recommend movies to people every day and they don't always go over. I like to try to find out what people like before I recommend something. But sometimes I take a chance and sometimes it bites me. Oh, they come back and they say, oh, I really didn't like that. That movie was horrible. It sometimes happens, but it's rare.

TAYLOR

If the store eventually closes, Francke doesn't know what's next, but he's already begun another business, selling portions of his movie collection.

FRANCKE

Actually there's no customer that has spent more money buying movies at the store than I have. So I actually have a huge basement full of movies.

TAYLOR

Returning to filmmaking might be a real possibility, too.

FRANCKE

When I was at film school, it was very expensive even for a 15 minute film. It's like now they can do that on digital video and, you know, you could edit it on your computer at home. It's something that I am looking into.

TAYLOR

Francke thinks people who have never visited a brick-and-mortar video store are missing something exciting.

FRANCKE

There are a lot of people, particularly young people who never really had the video store experience. They've actually never been in a store so they don't understand how much fun it can be, just to look at the titles and select from the titles.

TAYLOR

For whatever's next for Jon Francke, one thing is certain, movies will always be a huge part of his life. I'm Heather Taylor.

SHEIR

Time for a break now, but when we get back, 75 years of history at a D.C. public housing project.

MS. ELOISE LITTLE GREENFIELD

For me personally, I would describe Langston as miraculous.

SHEIR

That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is Homegrown D.C. And the next place we're going to head is the intersection of 21st Street Northeast and Benning Road. That's where you'll find Langston Terrace, the District's first public housing project. When it opened in the spring of 1938, 2,500 families applied to move in. That's nearly 10 times the number of homes that were available at the time. Now, on its 75th anniversary, Emily Berman takes us back to the early days of Langston Terrace to learn why its construction was such an important moment for Washington.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

Back when she was a young girl, Eloise Greenfield used to spend a lot of time on the Langston playground. She liked to look at the stone sculptures of animals. Her favorite was the frog.

GREENFIELD

You could sit on the frog's head and you could see the Washington Monument. You could see all over the city.

BERMAN

The frog and Langston Terrace, all the buildings that surround it, were commissioned in the mid 1930s by the Public Works Administration, part of Roosevelt's New Deal. Greenfield's family was one of the 274 selected to live there and she moved in on her ninth birthday, May 17, 1938. Her new home was a brick row house, like many others she'd lived in before.

GREENFIELD

The major difference was that it was just our family living there. Whereas before we had been sharing houses with other families.

MS. KELLY QUINN

The families who moved in here maybe hailed originally from North Carolina, parts of rural Virginia, some were native Washingtonians.

BERMAN

Kelly Quinn is a historian at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. And as we walk around Langston, she explains how in the early 20th century the District had a housing shortage. Thousands of African-American families had moved here to work for the federal government.

QUINN

Some worked as elevator operators, janitors, messengers, clerks. Remember that in the 1930s, having a government job for African-Americans was really a sign of status and success.

BERMAN

Not only the designers, but the bricklayers and tradesmen were all pretty much African-American.

QUINN

It wasn't that the federal government was benevolent and said, oh, we want to hire these black architects. It's that black intellectuals lobbied for placement in these kinds of jobs in the federal government projects that were being designed specifically for African-Americans.

BERMAN

Hilyard Robinson, the architect of Langston, was a native Washingtonian and had been studying architecture all over the world. He drew his inspiration for Langston from public housing in Europe. The buildings, which are still occupied to this day, take up one city block, called a super block in urban planning speak, with low-rise apartment buildings along the perimeter and cubic two-story row houses in the center, all surrounding a big courtyard.

QUINN

One of the things I think that is so beautiful about Langston is the color of the buildings. And so that that's two-toned brick, a darker brown at the base, and then a buff brick at the top.

BERMAN

Residents have said the bricks look like stacks of butter, but there's also a lot of concrete in the complex, which is long-lasting, easy to maintain and actually, Quinn says, quite expensive.

QUINN

The government invested well in these projects because they were building high-quality buildings that were using supplies that would help stimulate the economy.

BERMAN

Pathways connected rows of houses, letting neighbors walk to the library, to the rec center and to school without ever crossing a city street. And for kids, it was pretty much a paradise.

HAGANS

I've always remembered Langston. If I had a dream, sometime I would dream about Langston. My name is Barbara Watkins Hagans. And my parents first moved into Langston in 1948 and I was two years old.

BERMAN

Hagans' house, she recalls, was on the inside court facing the playground.

HAGANS

The girls would do Double Dutch and the boys--what can I say? They would be playing the ball and our mothers would be talking.

BERMAN

Hagans lived in Langston until she was a sophomore at Howard University.

HAGANS

I do remember all the doors were painted blue and everyone had little red lawn mowers. Even though it was not our property, we treated it as it was. And we did occasionally hear the word project. And then we would wonder, what is a project? Because we, you know, we felt that we were rich as children, because our parents never told us.

BERMAN

As we walk away from Langston, Kelly Quinn stops in front of a concrete water fountain built into the base of a graceful staircase entrance to the block.

QUINN

And to think about water fountains as really a symbol of segregation. And so for black families who had come from the South, where they would have seen regularly colored and white water fountains, to come to D.C. and then to move into a place where at the foot of the courtyard and playground there was this colorful water fountain, with no signs, just this kind of beautiful concrete, I think as these kind of very small gestures that made the urban space more habitable and more dignified and let black families know that they were welcome in a different kind of way.

BERMAN

Langston, Quinn says, was a housing project designed with the human experience in mind. We like to run into neighbors. We like to have amenities nearby. And sometimes we like to sit on the head of a frog, lean back and look out over the city. I'm Emily Berman.

SHEIR

This story came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN. It's a way for us to get input on upcoming projects and for you to reach out to us. You can read more about the network and see historic photographs of Langston Terrace on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

When it comes to our local, homegrown history, among those who witness much of the city's day-to-day routines are cabbies. I mean, they know what D.C.'s pace is like at 2:00 p.m. They know what it's like at 2:00 a.m. They watch as buildings rise and fall and as neighborhoods change and grow. And inevitably, as they do so, they meet all sorts of memorable people. Sarah Ventre brings the story of a cabbie whose experiences behind the wheel led to a rather unusual artistic endeavor.

MS. SARAH VENTRE

Oleg Merkulov was my cab driver once. I noticed he had a camera mounted on the dashboard. He told me that he keeps it there to record potential fender benders, but as we got to talking, he also told me that he had made an amateur film called "Jolly Mob Cab."

MS. SARAH VENTRE

Oleg wrote, directed and starred in the film. And the idea for it came from a real-life situation, sort of. A passenger he had given a ride to twice had asked Oleg to make deliveries for him. It seemed pretty sketchy, so Oleg turned him down, but he kept fantasizing about what would have happened had he'd said yes.

MS. SARAH VENTRE

In the film, Oleg starts out as an honest man, but ultimately he sells himself over to the mob in hopes for a better life and that makes him hardened, a fighter. In real life, he's a man who seems to take his morals pretty seriously. He keeps a postcard of his hometown, Riga, Latvia, and a picture of a Russian Orthodox icon showing the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, both taped to the console in his cab near the radio.

MERKULOV

And we're just cruising, waiting for the passengers to flag us. Okay.

VENTRE

I rode along with Oleg in his cab on a recent Friday night from about 10:00 to 2:00 in the morning. And it became obvious pretty quickly why his job lends itself to interest in film, he meets quite a few characters.

MERKULOV

Come in. Yes, come on in, please.

SARAH

Do you take credit cards?

MERKULOV

Yes.

SARAH

Finally.

MERKULOV

So where are you going?

VENTRE

The evening's most memorable passenger is named Sarah. And her night's been pretty rough. She's obviously been drinking a lot and lost her phone while she was out in a bar, which means she can't respond to the many texts she's receiving from her ex-boyfriend. But Oleg immediately lends her his phone and starts chatting with her. They talked the whole ride about all sorts of things, Sarah's background in acting, bad experiences she's had in cabs before and even relationships.

SARAH

Well, hello, everyone on 88.5. I really want a boyfriend that is honest, cute, takes care of himself, has high morals and values and is romantic. So if you happen to be in this D.C. metro area and you're hearing my desperate call for help, please contact me. I'm Sarah. I really need you.

MERKULOV

Yeah, but how can they contact you if you lost your phone?

SARAH

Exactly.

VENTRE

When we finally get to Sarah's destination, her ex-boyfriend's house, it isn't exactly a smooth transition from cab to curb. Sarah wants her ex to pay for the cab ride and he can't find enough cash. She starts yelling and he starts worrying that the exchange will make it on the radio. But Oleg handles it like a pro, quelling the fight, thanking them both, smiling the whole time. And when it's all over, Sarah keeps thanking him.

SARAH

Thank you for being an amazing cab driver.

MERKULOV

Thank you very much for being an amazing passenger. Okay. Have a nice night, guys. Okay. Have fun.

VENTRE

Bye. Thank you, Sarah. Good luck finding your friend.

MERKULOV

Sarah, you made my night.

VENTRE

Oleg says this sort of thing is typical for a weekend night. But it's nothing compared to some of the other things that he experiences. One time an angry man followed him because he wanted to pay with a credit card and Oleg couldn't take it.

MERKULOV

I was sitting at the light and all of a sudden--I forgot about the guy already, right. All of a sudden the window, I heard a hit. So the guy kicked with his leg, he kicked the door, they bang in the door. Then he kicked my window out. All the glass went flying all over me.

VENTRE

This would not be all that unusual for Oleg the character. In "Jolly Mob Cab" he gets beaten up and handcuffed to his steering wheel.

VENTRE

In real life, Oleg says he's never faced anything that extreme, but he has had to use self-defense on the job.

MERKULOV

You know, a couple of guys tried to twist my hands like that, but then I twisted back because I used to take Hapkido. You know, Hapkido is cool stuff. You just like twist, you don't hit, you don't do anything, just twist. And they're like, okay, okay, we're fine, you know.

VENTRE

Despite the hazards and long hours he spends behind the wheel, Oleg seems to maintain a certain kind of optimism. And unlike his film character, he says he's focused on more than the bottom line. He turned down that shady job that inspired his film and he once refused a job as a translator because the man offering it worked with the federal government.

MERKULOV

And, you know, the problem was it was 1999. It happened in 1999. And the politics kind of stood in my way, because at that time, the United States was bombing Serbia and I felt very bad about it.

VENTRE

But it's this kind of frank openness that probably makes it possible for his passengers to be so open with him.

MERKULOV

Friday and Saturday night people are very different, you know. Daytime they all go from point A to B, business like. But at nighttime, people relax. People get drunk, you know. People get wild.

VENTRE

Almost as wild as in the movies.

VENTRE

I’m Sarah Ventre.

SHEIR

If you're a D.C. cabbie we want to hear your tales of memorable moments behind the wheel. You can reach us at metro@wamu.org or find us on Facebook.

SHEIR

And now, our weekly trip around the region. On today's Door To Door, we visit Parkfairfax in Virginia and D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront.

MR. DAN KING

My name is Dan King and I live in the Southwest Waterfront. And that neighborhood extends from the historic fish market on the west side and M Street all the way to South Capitol Street on the east side. On the north side it's pretty much the Southeast/Southwest Highway and then on the south side is the Washington Channel of the Potomac River. It has a lot of history. This was one of the places where, especially after the Civil War, many African-Americans kind of made their homes here.

MR. DAN KING

That pretty much lasted until the 1930s, 1940s. There used to be wharfs down here and people worked at the Navy Yard. The 1950s and 1960s was the start of the urban renewal project and they basically just wiped out almost everything down here, except for the military base and a few churches. So it's an area that really underwent a lot of change. And I don't think it quite lived up to its promise. At the same time they were also building the Southeast/Southwest Highway. That sort of cut off this neighborhood and only a few streets could get north of that highway.

MR. DAN KING

So this sort of became an island unto itself. The development for the past five years has really been anchored on, I think, making up for some of the mistakes that the urban redevelopment initiated. I think there were very grandiose plans, but it never really felt like a neighborhood again. So the new development really has been looking at reclaiming that sense of community.

MS. MEG BOUHABIB

My name is Meg Bouhabib and I'm from Parkfairfax, here in Alexandria, Virginia. It's right across 395 from Shirlington. So a lot of people know where Shirlington is. And there's actually a walk bridge over to Shirlington. So you can get there in about five minutes, which is also one of the nice things about living here. Parkfairfax is really charming. It has a lot of the old school brick original foundation. It's from the '40s.

MS. MEG BOUHABIB

It was actually created for Pentagon workers and it has two presidents have lived here, Nixon and Ford. So it's surprisingly kept pretty much as it was. It's very unique in its nature and the enchanting kind of forest paths, you know. And it's kind of like a secret garden. You know, you come up upon it and it's kind of out of place, but they've kept a lot of the natural atmosphere.

MS. MEG BOUHABIB

We're all fighting for land and, you know, everywhere nearby, new high rises are cropping up and this particular condo community provides something pretty unique and different.

SHEIR

We heard from Meg Bouhabib in Parkfairfax and Dan King on the Southwest Waterfront. If you think your neighborhood should be part of Door To Door, just send an email to metro@wamu.org. Or visit us on Facebook. That's facebook.com/metroconnection.org. And to see a map of all the doors we've knocked on so far, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

Up next, a local band with a rather unforgettable name.

SHEIR

Do you still wear the ugly purple sweater?

MR. SAM MCCORMALLY

I attempted to turn the ugly purple sweater into an ugly purple sweater vest, but it ended up looking sort of like a Viking basketball jersey.

SHEIR

That and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I’m Rebecca Sheir and this week we're saluting the native Washingtonians among us with a show we're calling Homegrown D.C. Earlier in the hour, weirdly enough, we focused a lot on movies. We met a cabbie who doubles as a budding filmmaker. We visited a still thriving, independent video store. And we examined how Hollywood portrays our fair city on the silver screen. But to kick off this part of the show we're going to turn from movies to music.

MCCORMALLY

Let's do the other new one. Maybe we'll do it slightly more proficiently than we already did.

SHEIR

No, this is practice. This is rehearsal. It's not supposed to be perfect.

MCCORMALLY

Usually our practices aren't also on the radio.

SHEIR

We're in a crammed Tacoma Park basement with Ugly Purple Sweater, a band whose five members not only were born in the D.C. area, they also sing about it.

LOVE

We've never practiced this song ever, ever anywhere.

SHEIR

This particular number is called "Jumbo Slice," and it's written about, yes, the infamous eatery on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Lead vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Sam McCormally says "Jumbo Slice" has more or less become Ugly Purple Sweater's unofficial anthem.

MCCORMALLY

I was going to make a really preposterous comparison, which is that it's like our "Creep," by Radiohead, but obviously there's some distance between us and Radiohead.

SHEIR

The ever humble McCormally says he wrote "Jumbo Slice" shortly after moving from the suburbs to D.C. proper, before he really understood the scene or got to know that many people.

MCCORMALLY

It's, in particular, about me being there, the pizza place on 18th street, late at night, not having very much to do, watching people walk by and just sort of feeling very resentful at, sort of, the world.

SHEIR

And yet the song has a playful, upbeat feel to it, as McCormally sings of, as he puts it, all the staffers and hipsters, comparing the size of their big, long resumes and cooking lamb shoulder and greens.

SHEIR

But while "Jumbo Slice" hails back to 2009 and is one of the band's first songs about D.C., the city gets a whole new treatment in a tune from the just-released EP, "DC USA."

LOVE

So it obviously references the DCUSA-Target complex on 14th Street.

SHEIR

McCormally's wife and band mate, Rachel Lord, is another member of Ugly Purple Sweater.

LOVE

I play keyboard and banjo and melodica and sometimes sing.

SHEIR

Can you say that again? Melodica?

LOVE

Melodica, yeah. Yes, it's like the plastic, easy version of an accordion.

SHEIR

Anyway, Lord says DCUSA isn't just about the gigantic shopping center in Columbia Heights. It's about what was on that space prior to the riots in 1968.

LOVE

When Sam and I first moved to town, we lived a couple blocks away from there, before it was built. And from my understanding, the building that was there previously burned down in the riots. And then it was just sort of an empty field that had a gate up around it until the Target was built. So remembering that space was something else before the Target, I think is sort of an idea we were trying to sort of play with.

SHEIR

Granted, Sam McCormally says, development can also be fantastic for the city. It can bring in revenue, it can create new jobs, but, he says as you develop, you have to be careful about erasing all sense of place and history.

MCCORMALLY

I remember seeing this banner over a construction site and the poster said, when we're done with this place you won't even recognize it.

MCCORMALLY

Which I think they though meant to sound promising, but it also sounds like a threat. Like it sort of sounds like what you say before you beat somebody up.

SHEIR

Now, not all of Ugly Purple Sweater's songs reference D.C. Some tunes are far more far-flung, like "Roatan," a wistful ballad named for an island off the coast of Honduras.

MCCORMALLY

I went there once and then wrote a song about it. And then, after we posted it, the Roatan New Times got in touch with me. And they were like, we're so happy that someone wrote a song about our island. And so we did a short interview with them. We really would like an all-expenses-paid tour to the Caribbean, paid for by the New Roatan Times, but they haven't taken us up on it.

SHEIR

In case you haven't picked up on it yet, Ugly Purple Sweater's music…

SHEIR

Is this like a terrible question to ask musicians? But I'm going to ask it anyway. How would you describe your music?

SHEIR

…pretty much defies genre.

MR. WILL-MCKINDLEY WARD

Wide-net rock.

SHEIR

Will McKindley-Ward sings back-up vocals and plays the guitar. And he admits that, yeah, the band's sound is kind of all over the place.

WARD

There's a lot of different stuff going on. It's a pretty wide net for what we're willing to play and what we enjoy to play.

SHEIR

And that, says Sam McCormally, is actually the point of Ugly Purple Sweater. It's also tied, believe it or not, to the band's rather distinctive name.

MCCORMALLY

I had this ugly purple sweater and a bunch of my friends said it was the ugliest thing they had ever seen, but I really liked wearing it. And I think the reason I named the band after it is that the band was sort of my attempt to get out of my head about writing songs. For a long time I was trying to write songs in one genre or another genre. I was trying to write a punk song or a new-wave song and nobody seemed to like it very much, including myself.

MCCORMALLY

And so I was like, I'm going to try to just write songs that I like and not worry about it too much. Sort of like, I'm going to wear this sweater because I like it and not worry about what other people think.

SHEIR

As for what became of that ugly purple sweater, well, McCormally says it eventually fell victim to an experiment gone awry.

MCCORMALLY

I attempted to turn the ugly purple sweater in to an ugly purple sweater vest, but it ended up looking sort of like a Viking basketball jersey. And that was the end of that.

SHEIR

Luckily, though, it wasn't the end of the band. This homegrown assortment of banjos and keyboards and melodicas, with its wide net of genre-defying tributes to the city it's always called home.

SHEIR

Ugly Purple Sweater plays it's next gig on March 16 at D.C.'s Velvet Lounge. For more on the band and to hear a bunch of their tunes, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

We shift now from local music to local writing, with Bookend.

SHEIR

Our monthly exploration of the region's literary scene. In this edition, Jonathan Wilson sits down with Manil Suri. Suri is the acclaimed author of three novels, "The Death of Vishnu," "The Age of Shiva" and his new book, "The City of Devi." All of the novels take place in Suri's native country, India, but for more than 30 years, the author has called the D.C. suburbs home. Jonathan Wilson recently visited Suri in Silver Spring, to talk about balancing his life as a novelist with his other life as a math professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

Your new novel is called "The City of Devi." It is the third book in a loose trilogy?

MR. MANIL SURI

Yeah, I mean, the books are not such that you have to actually read them one after the other. They've got different characters, but it's like three panels, almost, of the three deities, Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, who's the mother goddess.

WILSON

Talk about how you ended up, you're a native of Mumbai, is that correct, is where you grew up?

SURI

Yes, that's right.

WILSON

So how did you end up in, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in the D.C. area? How did you end up here?

SURI

Well, it's a long story. I came to the U.S. to do my PhD in mathematics, and then right after finishing, I got this job at UMBC, and I've been there -- this is my 30th year there, which is hard to believe. But the writing then came as a hobby, and it started about the time I started teaching. So that was way back in '83. And it took me a long time to really get my stride, and you know, I really didn't get anything published for years. But that started in 2001, when the first novel came out.

WILSON

How hard were you trying in terms of trying to get things published? Were you sending stuff out? Did you have a dream, even before you were a professor, of being a writer?

SURI

Not really. It was just a hobby, and I was not sending things out, which was actually a great luxury because I could just concentrate on the craft. I did start sending things out only in the mid-'90s or so, and I got a hundred rejection letters, as every good writer should, I think. So I think that in terms of thinking about myself, I didn't really start thinking about myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as a mathematician who had writing as a hobby.

WILSON

What was it like combining your two worlds of being a math professor at a state school, outside of D.C., and writing these pretty epic novels about a place that was thousands of miles away, across the world? What was that like? Did the worlds intertwine at all, I mean, did you get inspiration from your math students, or were they completely two separate things?

SURI

I think they were pretty much two separate things, and that's the way I wanted it. I wanted one to be an antidote to the other. So when I started writing, I would actually come to D.C. -- I used to live in Baltimore back then. I used to – and I would drive down to D.C. and I had these writing groups that I was attending. And they were almost something in secret that I did. Again, I didn't tell anyone in my department, my colleagues didn't know. And the writing groups themselves -- one of them was actually associated loosely to American University.

SURI

Another one was a workshop at George Washington University. And then a third thing that I did once I had moved to this area was at the Bethesda's Writing Center, so I've really been, you know, my writing is really a product of local schools and local opportunities.

WILSON

What was the reaction that you got from colleagues at UMBC?

SURI

Well, they only found out about my writing in 2000, when an excerpt from "The Death of Vishnu" was published in The New Yorker. And I think all the people who didn't have tenure bought my book, so that, you know, they were on my good side. So that was perfect. But then a few people, you know, who are readers, did read them and some people have followed all three books. So I'm looking forward to reading out at UMBC again.

WILSON

In terms of writing about Washington, or the U.S., do you see yourself doing that any time soon, any time in the future?

SURI

Well, the next novel that I'm doing is actually not set anywhere. It's a math novel, and it's more abstract, almost, it could be anywhere. It's definitely not India. So in terms of actually writing about -- well, I just wrote a story actually called "The Silver Spring Lakshmi" that was in The Washington Post, and that was set in Silver Spring. So that was very interesting, you know, talking about landmarks that I see every day, The Discovery Building, Wayne Avenue, and so on. So that was fun, so who knows, I might actually go on that way.

WILSON

Well, Manil Suri, author of "The City of Devi," as well as "The Death of Vishnu" and "The Age of Shiva," thank you so much for having us in your home.

SURI

Well, thank you. This has been a pleasure.

SHEIR

If you'd like to hear Manil Suri talk about books that he's read and enjoyed recently, visit our website, metroconnection.org. You can also hear him read an excerpt from his new novel, "The City of Devi."

SHEIR

As we continue our tour of homegrown D.C., we'll stop now at a few of the more than 180 embassies packed into our city's 68 square miles. These buildings are more than just brick and mortar, they're symbols of public diplomacy, they're high profile landmarks, sandwiched among the private homes and small businesses of D.C. neighborhoods. Back in October, Jacob Fenston took us inside several of the city's embassies, starting with one that was recently repurchased, more than 100 years after being lost as imperial plunder.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

When you think embassies, you probably don't think Logan Circle, and when you get to Logan Circle, you might not even notice the house on the corner of 13th Street, hidden behind huge magnolia trees.

MS. LORETTA JENKINS

The house is such a beautiful piece of architecture. We didn't wish to see this house broken up like all the grand houses around here.

FENSTON

Loretta Jenkins and her husband bought this old brick Victorian back in 1977. A few years later, as they headed out one Sunday afternoon, they happened to notice...

JENKINS

There was a Korean man standing on the corner across the street, and he was still standing there when we came back a couple of hours later from the event that we had gone to.

FENSTON

Their home, it turns out, once housed Korea's first diplomatic mission to the United States, back in the 1890s. And the man standing across the street, he said he was the grandson of Korea's first ambassador here.

JENKINS

My husband invited him in, and I made tea, and he walked around the house with such reverence that it struck a note with us.

FENSTON

Over the years, they got offers from Korean businessmen to buy the house. But they worried the historic building wouldn't be preserved. Finally in August, the Jenkins and the Korean government hammered out a deal.

MS. ANDREA CHOI

Yeah, so basically, this building that we just recently repurchased, holds great historic significance.

FENSTON

Andrea Choi is with the Korean Embassy's cultural center. Korea first bought the building in 1891 for $25,000.

CHOI

Which back then, was a huge sum of money.

FENSTON

But then, they lost the building when imperial Japan occupied Korea in 1905. So, for many Koreans, the building isn't just an old house.

CHOI

It really does show our ancestors' efforts to ensure that Korea was free from imperial powers.

FENSTON

Today's newer embassies also have a lot to say. Take, for example, the Finnish embassy, a copper and glass box, ultra-modern architecture.

MS. ANNELI HALONEN

Architecture is -- Goethe actually said, architecture is like frozen music.

FENSTON

Anneli Halonen is the embassy's cultural counselor.

HALONEN

Music expresses the soul of the nation, and so does architecture.

FENSTON

Every design element here reflects Finnish culture, says Halonen. There's even a sauna, a necessity in any Finnish building.

HALONEN

Yes, our Parliament also have it, and we call this sauna diplomacy, because in sauna, we are all equal. We are naked, or wrapped in towels.

FENSTON

It's not just the sauna, or an embassy's architecture that says something. It's also the property's upkeep, or lack thereof, even the location.

MR. ERIC LEWIS

Now this is the only embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, in D.C., between the White House and Capitol building.

FENSTON

Eric Lewis is leading a helmeted gaggle of tourists on Segways around the National Mall. Right here, in the midst of all these symbols of America, stands a six-story building covered with Canadian flags. Shannon-Marie Soni with the Canadian Embassy says the location here reflects the closeness of our two countries.

MS. SHANNON-MARIE SONI

The Canada-U.S. bilateral relationship is so complex that we need to be speaking on a daily basis to the members of Congress. Our location, if I can use a hockey metaphor, at center ice, between our two goal posts, is really important to us.

FENSTON

Embassies in Washington weren't always these big architectural showcases. Architecture historian Jane Loeffler says the first embassies, like the old Korean one on Logan Circle, began life as private mansions, built around the turn of the 20th century.

MS. JANE LOEFFLER

A lot of people built A lot of people built fabulous houses in Washington. Millionaire tycoons, who wanted to get closer to the center of power.

FENSTON

But when the Great Depression hit, the tycoons couldn't afford to keep their second homes in Washington.

LOEFFLER

Miraculously, there were foreign governments looking to buy property in D.C. and establish themselves here at that very time. So they bought a lot of those houses and saved them from what would have been destruction.

FENSTON

Now many of these houses are returning to private hands. Realtor Bobbie Brewster is trying to sell this former embassy in Kalorama.

MS. BOBBIE BREWSTER

The embassy of Portugal, this is a beautiful Georgian building with all the best motifs of the Georgian style. It's a classic.

FENSTON

Brewster has sold six embassies before, and this will be her seventh, most were bought by private individuals. And now this one could be yours. In fact, the price was just reduced to $2.5 million. I'm Jacob Fentson.

SHEIR

To see pictures of some of the embassies Jacob visited, check out our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jonathan Wilson, Jacob Fenston, and Emily Berman, along with reporters Heather Taylor and Sarah Ventre. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. Metro Connection's managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our interns are Rachael Schuster and Robbie Feinberg. Lauren Landau, Rachel Schuster and John Hines produce Door To Door. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" and our Door To Door theme, "No Girl" are from the album Title Tracks by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. We also heard music today from such homegrown talent as the Nighttime Adventure Society, Fort Knox Five, Chuck Brown, and Jason Mendelson. Those tracks were from his album, "MetroSongs, Volume 3: Red Handed." As always, all the music we use is listed on our website, metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song. Also on metroconnection.org, you can read free transcripts of stories. And if you missed part of today's show you can hear the whole thing online anytime. You can also find us on iTunes and Stitcher.

SHEIR

We hope you can join us next week for a show all about teamwork. With Congress and the White House fighting over sequestration, we'll hear how the layoff of a team member could affect the workplace and the local economy. Plus, we'll meet the members of a poetry slam team, and we'll jam with the D.C. Roller Girls, who are hoping to find a permanent home.

FEMALE

We want to be in a great neighborhood, we want to have access to it 24/7, we want a wide open floor with no columns, on clean cement. So one of those things has to give.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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