Write DC Right

Hi. Junior member of the Legion of N00bs here.

I've been leafing through some web fiction while waiting for my own story to be listed on the site. Something that poked out at me, and not for the first time, is that people like to write about Washington DC and they get the town mostly wrong. Or they get it "Google Maps" right.

I've lived in DC now for 25 years and know the city fairly intimately. I've traversed it by car, skateboard, bike and foot. I've house shopped here numerous times, been drunk in its bars, sick in its hospitals and worked in its buildings - even a couple of the famous ones. I have even personally been pushed into the pole in the center of the dance floor at the old 9:30 club before it moved to U street. I'm ok, there was a mattress wrapped around it.

And if you have questions about DC, I will be more than happy to help you out. Lots of weird, far reaching things happen in DC, but it's a real place that has more in it than the National Mall, The Capitol and The White House. If you are going to write about DC, you now have the ability to write DC right!


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Cool. How do you feel about Arlington? Because I've got a pair of novels centered there, with occasional drifts into DC proper or other nearby regions like Alexandria and Bethesda, depending on circumstance.

Thus far, I've been primarily focusing on the less than stellar reality of the region- gang violence, drugs, crumbling infrastructure, and generally the poor side of town... In fact, I've made a conscious effort to keep the story *away* from the landmarks, at least as far as "characters actually doing things there" goes... occasionally mentioned as part of something or other, but never actually witnessed "on screen"... because why actually use all the famous landmarks that would elicit instant familiarity, when instead I can do the entire story in no-name locations, right?

Well, I do know my way around Arlington, but truly, it's a pretty boring landscape. Apologies to my VA neighbors. There is lots of military style housing where you have blocks of the exact same house over and over and a lot of the original housing around the Willson/Clarendon area has been knocked down and replaced with modern buildings.

Thing is, if you REALLY wanted to do crime in DC, there are better places to do it. Arlington just isn't terribly interesting. It's a near-in suburb. If you've been reading Marvel's recent comic "The Vision" (and if not, get on that - it's really crazy good, like Aja/Faction Hawkeye good) it's set in Arlington because the Vision wants to make as typical a family in as typical a family setting as he can.

And ... well, tell you what, give me an email. DC has been an economic powerhouse lately. It didn't get really badly hit by the recession and there is a lot of tech here. We also have a lot of immigration to here which is its own economic boom. Arlington has it's issues, but gang crime and such is not one that comes to mind. Petworth, Anacostia, Capitol Hill, some parts of the Maryland suburbs, those places are more known for that kind of crime.

Here's the thing about crime in DC. Everything is pretty close together. So the mugger who jacked you while you were stumbling out of Captain Dan's stealth bar in Adams Morgan at 3AM could live in PG county or Anacostia or pretty much anywhere. The "safe" neighborhoods aren't safe because a robber could just take the bus.

So for Arlington, at least the more rundown parts - think of the vibe of appalachia but with considerably more minority and devoid of the large stretches of places to shoot deer. Instead of trailers, it's banks of identical low density brick housing that look like they might once have been barracks bordering on single family homes that also have a certain military precision. Allong Wilson and Clarendon, there are pockets that are hanging on to the fifties amidst places that are new, tasteful and could be anywhere in America they build high with street-level shopping.

Hard to get more than that without knowing what you need for a setting. Hope this helps. Feel free to email.


PS: if you are going to do Arlington, you have to take the Metro into consideration.

So, what's around the government buildings? Like, in a post apoc setting, where a gang or whatever is squatting in the ruins of the white house, what are the next couple blocks around them?

I lived in Arlington for a bit while growing up--though that was in the 80s. The part of it I was in could have been any suburb in the US. I passed through the less nice parts riding the bus on the way to school.

I can definitely second paying attention to the Metro though. That's how I got just about everywhere when I was there.

Walter, that's my old neighborhood, so you have the right person.

If you look at the map, you can see that to the north and south, there are parks. to the east and west are buildings. The land falls away at a pretty significant grade that runs roughly parallel to Pennsylvania down to constitution and the buildings follow this, resulting in some weird architecture. Constitution used to be a canal (never terribly successful) that went from I think where Rock Creek hit the Potomac to in front of capitol hill, so consider that might have filled in post apoc. Things that would be interesting in a feral DC would be metro stations (well established undergrounds meeting street access) and some of the landscape. The federal bits downtown are built on a river valley that goes up as you go north generally. the post apoc would have DC return possibly to a marshy area, but not as high up as the White house.

In the immediate area, of the white house, you have the treasury building to the east and the old executive office building to the west. Beyond that, east and west and north it's all office buildings that are pretty generic but - and this requires emphasis - NO BUILDING IS HIGHER THAN THE CAPITOL DOME ANYWHERE IN DC. If you have a skyscraper, that's totally wrong. I think the highest you can go is 14 stories. Also, there are places where there are laws that keep buildings low to preserve historic sight lines. I used to live in Logan Circle, so I'm aware particularly of that one, but I am sure there are others.

All this said, the White House would be an absolutely terrible squat from a security standpoint. It's not that big. Every other building in the vicinity looks down on it with the exception of some of the historic places like the Blair house across the street. Sure, there might be a very cool bunker in it, but I'd think that the Phone Booth (The Verizon Center, where the Caps play Hockey) would be a more interesting gang turf. Access to the underground, big area attached to another big area, would be more interesting. Plus, it's got the Chinatown arch.

If you really wanted to have a cool place that's near the White House, try the National Press Building. It's hollow on the inside and has a mall that runs the whole block and has entrances on three different levels on three different sides of the block (working from memory, but I think that's right). It's also attached to a large office building for space (I used to work there). It's on that rise I told you about earlier.

Couple of things to think about when considering a post-civilization DC:

There is a humongous park that cuts upper northwest DC in two and divides places to the north of the white house from georgetown and places north from there. There are a few places where that gets narrow - it's generally just a crossing until you get north of Mass, but there is a significant creek that runs through it. I'm currently a few blocks from one of the boundaries on 16th street and I've had deer poop in my yard.

DC has significant terrain, being in a river valley. Ignoring that would stand out. It's not like this is san francisco, but if you have some guy just running up 16th from U like it's no big deal and he's not a superhero, you made a mistake.

DC has row houses, but they aren't as big as the brownstones in harlem and they certainly aren't tenements. DC is majority black but the distribution is not uniform. As a rule, the further west you go, the more white the people are, but that is a VERY loose rule. The Adams Morgan area is, or has been hispanic. The biggest rule of DC is that it's very culturally mixed. And if you can mix in a mention of Chuck Brown and the Go-Go beat in, you will impress the natives. I firmly believe that the Go-Go beat will survive the apocalypse as it is most often performed on pickle barrels and flipped over trashcans anyway.

Hope this helps or is in some way amusing.


Thanks SC, that'll be useful. I appreciate it.

Main thing about DC is it's impossible to drive anywhere in a straight line. You're on a street which turns into a circle that bisects another circle but you take the wrong circle and you see the other street you wanted on the far side of the circle you didn't take so you try to turn around but the one way street goes the other way and suddenly whoa where did this residential neighborhood come from and how do I get out nope that's another neighborhood oh look hotels OK I'm on 14th street but at this point I have no idea if it's the north, south, east, or west 14th street and DAMMIT IT'S ANOTHER FOUR TRAFFIC CIRCLES

"Just drive toward the Washington Monument"


"Metro closes at 12"


(I'm exaggerating a little. Only a little.)

@SC- Well, it's not specifically limited to Arlington, but that's where the main character(s) live. It's a supers setting, and precog involvement means they can successfully patrol a rather wide chunk of territory. Gives me a lot of margin for error in dealing with regional crime without having to specify which neighborhood.

@Uber- Sounds an awful lot like this city a couple hours from where I currently live. I suspect the people who designed the road layout took their inspiration from ant colonies and vodka. And possibly vodka poured into an ant colony.

@TanaNari - If you are not all that concerned with having things be precisely tied to the place, Arlington is a nice way to be generic. Generally speaking, the neighborhood is kinda dull 50's/60's suburbia with very little concept of historical preservation. Lots of people who are in Arlington are short-timers and that's reflected in the kinda bland niceness. Now... there are people who really like that. I've never been one of them, but I totally know plenty. DC has a lot of ex military as well and that vibe certainly is prevalent.

@Uber - I'm thinking the people who figured out the main routes here were whiskey people. And the city's streets proper were a product of the L'Enfant plan which had cut streets across the grid to purposefully confuse an attacking army, provide rally points (the traffic circles) and give natives an upper hand when navigating. Besides that it's an old northeastern town. The road to Baltimore is called "Baltimore Avenue" etc. Wilson boulevard I think was the most convenient way to dig out of the patomac river valley go get from Richmond to Georgetown. Wisconsin went from georgetown to Rockville, etc. And shoot, Tyson's Corner was at the corner of two middling roads and Tyson owned the general store there.

So yes, Drunks and chance. More like whatever route the horses felt like taking. Refer up above to my mentions of the area's terrain.

Back to Nana, My only hesitation is when you start going into the neighborhoods. If you have an open air drug market or a pawn shop in Georgetown, you've got a problem. If you are doing white collar crime in Petworth or Friendship Heights or even Alexandria, you've got at least a pretty good stretch to make that work.

Nah, don't do a lot of that sort of crime. Clearly, it happens, but none of the characters thus far have dealt with it. The setting has *laws* about B&E type heroics. Namely- unless someone's life is in immediate peril, it's a crime to break into houses without a warrant. In fact, it's illegal for vigilantes to apprehend suspects or interfere with nonviolent crimes in general- Stand Your Ground applies only to imminent peril.

Basically, if a dude in spandex walks up to to a drug deal in the middle of the street, he can't do shit to stop them. He can tell them to stop. He can call the cops. He can film them with his camera phone. He can follow them until they enter a private residence. But if he throws the first punch, he's the one going to jail. Well, unless he *is* a cop.

Anyhow, since we're here... if you were a couple young adult women looking to spend an afternoon of window shopping (well, one is, the other's getting dragged along whether she likes it or not), where would you go? With the specific intent of avoiding touristy shoppers. A bit of 'shady' is fine, since 1- The instigator's quite comfortable with the counterculture. 2- They have a whole lot of superhuman firepower. 3- Having a precog ally means never having to worry about someone trying to hurt you.

Once upon a time I could make my way around DC by starting at the 9:30 Club and going from there. Then they moved the 9:30 club to a new location and besides now I'm 45 and also I moved to Alabama. :)

@uber, you wouldn't recognize either location anymore.

As for not recognizing a location, the links in your sig are dead. I'm assuming that's unexpected. Tried figuring out how to email you but came up zeroes.

Holy cow, I forgot I had sig here. Um... let me fix that.

Thank you! Fixed.