Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Kim Roberts — Interview with a D.C. Website Creator – DC Writers’ Homes

DCauthors

    Matthew Gilmore asks…

  1. Tell us about the website.

DC Writers’ Homes documents the residences of literary authors who lived in Washington, DC from the city’s founding in 1800 through the present. You can find us online at http://www.dcwriters.org.

  1. Where did you get the idea? 

This started out as a weird hobby. When I moved to DC over thirty years ago, I immediately started investigating what other writers once lived here, and seeking out their books. I started compiling former addresses as I found them. When I told Dan Vera about my list, he suggested that we visit the houses and take photos. All of the contemporary photos on the website are Dan’s; he’s a talented photographer with a fine eye for the visual detail. As other friends heard that we were making this list, they expressed interest—so about a decade ago, we decided it might make a nice website, which would be easy to share. We got a grant from Humanities DC to make an initial website, with about 50 writers’ homes, in 2010. At the end of November 2018, a new redesigned website was relaunched. Unlike the earlier version, this one is easily navigable by desktop or smartphone users. It also has an appealing new design by Patrick Calder of The Design Foundry. There are many more categories (so you can filter a search by neighborhood or region, by a writer’s affiliations, or by time periods). We now document the homes of 345 writers.

  1. What are the most important influences on your creation?

I’ve always loved mapping projects—so I’ve looked at hundreds of other web maps to draw inspiration for ours. We wanted to create something that would deepen a user’s sense of connection to DC.

  1. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

Because DC was created as a seat for the Federal government, and remains essentially a one-industry town, it’s easy to forget that the arts have flourished here, particularly the literary arts. Dan and I wanted to reinforce that other part of the city’s identity. We wanted a forum to tell residents and visitors that famous writers lived here, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglas, Katherine Anne Porter, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sinclair Lewis—and that they accomplished some of their most significant writing in Washington.

  1. Are there any comparable websites (for Washington DC or elsewhere)? 

Not really. There are some other mapping projects in DC we admire—including a “Literary Map of Metropolitan Washington, DC” that Martha Hopkins made for the Washington Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association almost twenty years ago. That map, which was never digitized, includes 36 authors. The DC Public Library created an online map called “DC By the Book” showing locations where books of fiction are set. There are literary maps of New York State and the Commonwealth of Virginia. But I don’t know of anyone else who is researching a single city with as much depth as we are. And, while we want to document the well-known writers who lived here, we are just as excited to find residences of writers who are lesser known—which also makes our site unique.

  1. What challenges did you face in this research?

We decided, early on, that we would not include writers whose houses no longer stand. Too often we’ve done the research on a writer and discovered that none of their homes remain. We have found seven former addresses for Walt Whitman, for example, a writer who has been an important influence on both Dan and me, but all his former boarding houses were in the older central part of the city, and all are now the sites of high-rise office buildings. So we don’t include Whitman in the site—alas.

  1. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

For every house we document, we decided we needed to confirm the address in at least two independent sources. When we find an address in an obituary, a newspaper story, in their correspondence saved in an archive, or written about in a biography, we always look for a second source. Our best second source has always been DC City Directories.

  1. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?

We have found it much easier to document homes of older writers. Newer losses are harder to find. We wish someone would digitize telephone books and save them for each year, the way we have saved City Directories. Libraries no longer seem to hold onto old phone books.

  1. Who’s your audience?

We hope this site will be of general interest. We want residents to look up the writers who lived in their neighborhoods. We also hope it is useful to students and scholars. We know the website is a favorite among real estate agents—which we never expected. The Washington Post actually published an article about us in their Real Estate section of the newspaper when they heard how many agents were using it.

  1. Tell us about you*.

Dan and I are both poets, as well as researchers. I just recently released A Literary Guide to Washington, DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston (University of Virginia Press, 2018), and I am the founding editor of a literary journal called Beltway Poetry Quarterly. My latest book of poems is The Scientific Method (WordTech Editions, 2017). Dan Vera co-edited Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalduan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2016) and is the former board chair of Split This Rock. His latest book of poems is Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2009, winner of the inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Book Award).

  1. What inspired you to create this website?  

A desire for a stronger sense of place. DC is a city that is wonderful and infuriating in equal measures, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. DC Writers’ Homes connects my twin passions for literature and the built environment.

  1. What’s unique about your perspective? 

We’re documenting a city that has always been held under a microscope because we’re the capital of the U.S. We’ve always been used as a “model city” for new political ideas—so, for example, Prohibition began here before the rest of the country, and we’re the only place where slave owners were compensated financially for the forced emancipation of their slaves. For good or ill, people across the country feel they have something at stake in this city.

  1. What’s your favorite DC website?  

I recently discovered “Washington Tunnels: An Underground Atlas of the District of Columbia,” a website by Elliot Carter, and got lost exploring for a few happy hours. https://www.washingtontunnels.com/ [see also https://matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com/2018/11/27/elliot-carter-interview-with-a-d-c-website-creator-d-c-underground-atlas/]

  1. What’s next for you? What are you working on?

I’m currently editing an anthology of early DC Poets, born before the city’s founding in 1800 through 1900. The city has always been home to prominent poets, including presidents and Congressmen, lawyers and Supreme Court judges, U.S. Poets Laureates, professors, and newspaper correspondents. But I’ve taken particular pleasure in seeking out less well known poets, especially women, working class writers, and writers of color. I’ve found a large group of women who published poems regularly in newspapers but never collected their work in book form, and a large number of poets born enslaved. Their work is ripe for rediscovery! I’m drawn to this early history, in large part because it’s a time when poetry was more accessible, more popular, more a part of most Americans’ daily lives.

*Kim Roberts is the author of A Literary Guide to Washington, DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston (University of Virginia Press, 2018), and five books of poems, most recently The Scientific Method (WordTech Editions, 2017). She co-edits the journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes. Roberts has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, HumanitiesDC, and the DC Commission on the Arts, and has been a writer-in-residence at 18 artist colonies. Poems of hers have been featured in the Wick Poetry Center’s Traveling Stanzas Project, on the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Project, and on podcasts sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her website: http://www.kimroberts.org

 

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2018 by in DC History, DC writers, Washington DC fiction, Washington DC literature.
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