Seeing Green in a Concrete Jungle by Robin Dienel

see original designed version of this article via robindienel.com

What do a basement, a roof, a backyard, and the Fort Totten Metro Station all have in common? Gardening.

Despite Washington, D.C.'s concrete buildings and limited green space, hidden gardens planted in out-of-the-way places are popping up all over the city. Urban gardeners are finding alternative methods to harvest their own crops and create a future, where urban agriculture can flourish in the District.

Just beyond the Fort Totten Metro, up a paved footpath leading over a slight hill, Ingrid Wood is watering her 25-by-25 foot garden plot that she rents for $25 a year at the Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden.

“A dollar a square foot,” Wood jokes.

Ingrid Wood, a community garden plot owner at Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden in northeast D.C., waters her 25-by-25 foot garden plot. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Ingrid Wood, a community garden plot owner at Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden in northeast D.C., waters her 25-by-25 foot garden plot. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Surrounded by trees and construction cranes, Wood points out her newest plants as an urban symphony of jack-hammers, saws and beeps bellows on through the April afternoon air. Construction on a new charter school towers over the scenic vista, but Wood and the other gardeners don’t seem to notice. A padlocked fence surrounds the plots to keep out pests, both of animal and human breeds.

“Last year we had a problem with the deer,” says Wood. “They came in and ate all our vegetables! All that work, gone!”

Every square inch of Wood’s plot is planted with some luscious-looking greenery. Some are recognizable crops, like tomatoes and strawberries, while others are lesser-known plants, like kohlrabi, cabbage’s less popular cousin. Other crops are little experiments that Wood is conducting, like a store-bought bag of organic potatoes she planted earlier that day just to see if they will grow.

Ann Beman, acting director of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, walking through her student's garden plots. (Photo by Robin Dienel)

Ann Beman, acting director of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, walking through her student's garden plots. (Photo by Robin Dienel)

The Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden is run by the Neighborhood Farm Initiative (NIF), whose mission according to their website is to “promote collaborative, sustainable cultivation of food in urban spaces.” It’s located on land owned by the National Park Service. There are one hundred plots, some of which belong to NIF’s Kitchen Garden Education Program ran by Ann Beman, acting director of the NIF board of directors. The education program spans a year, and with a tuition of $500, participants gain hands-on experience in their own 12-by-12 foot plot. Last year, Wood says, most of the plots were vacant. This year, nearly every single one has been weeded and sewn.

Wood, an immigrant from Germany, has lived in the northeast D.C. neighborhood of Michigan Park for more than 22 years. However, she’s only had a plot at this garden for the past three years. During the growing season, she says, she’s always had enough to sustain herself, even from a young age.

A little radish sprouts through some hay in one of the garden plots as a crane looms behind it. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

A little radish sprouts through some hay in one of the garden plots as a crane looms behind it. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

“My mom grew up on a farm in Germany, so we always had a huge kitchen garden,” says Wood. “In the summer we’d be shelling the peas, harvesting them, cutting them up, picking berries, making jam. It’s something I grew up with. I’ve always had a garden around my house,” which Wood admits she didn’t think would be possible in D.C.

“These gardens have always been here, but maybe lately there’s been a resurgence about food and nutrition,” says Wood.

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In December 2014, the D.C. Council passed the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act. D.C. Greens, a food education, access and policy nonprofit that runs The K Street Farm sitting on a 3/4 acre plot adjacent to the Walker Jones Education Campus, played a major role in getting this legislation passed.

Lillie Rosen, food access director at D.C. Greens, says the process started in 2013 when Gail Taylor, owner of Three Part Harmony Farm in northeast D.C., began working with Council Member David Grosso to draft the act. Rosen says Taylor was struggling to legally farm in D.C., and approached D.C. Greens in the winter of 2013 to ask for their help in pushing the legislation through. D.C. Greens gladly jumped on board, says Rosen, and organized other farmers to testify on behalf of the bill. One year later, the bill passed.

This new piece of legislation has made it possible for D.C.-based growers to sell their product in the District. It charged the Mayor to identify 25 parcels of District-owned vacant lots that can be used for urban agriculture. Once found, farmers can apply to access it. It also establishes a 90% tax abatement for private landowners who use, lease, or allow their land to be used for urban agriculture, and creates a tax credit for farmers to donate locally farmed fruits and vegetables to D.C. area food banks, pantries and shelters.

Rosen herself worked with several council members’ staff to revise the legislation, move the tax abatement from 50% to 90%, clarify language and make sure that nonprofits leasing their land for farming, like churches, did not lose their nonprofit status. The tax abatement was funded for fiscal year 2016, and is now in the regulation-setting phase. Once the regulations are put in place, deeper effects will start to take shape on farming in the District.

“It's been and continues to be an incredibly collaborative effort led by local farmers,” says Rosen. “I am so glad to have been able to support their work over the past two years.”

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But maybe this new legislation has already started to have a deeper effect. Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm in 2014, decided in April of this year to take a year leave-of-absence from her position at USAID to work full-time on her farm.

“I had read all this stuff about small plot intensive farming, or SPIN farming,” says Ackley of how she first started to think of farming as a business she could make money doing.

“It’s a bunch of people trying to get together and think about how you can do farming in urban areas but with more of a focus on the entrepreneurial and business aspects of it.”
However, most SPIN farms are in smaller cities located in front and backyards, says Ackley, and a D.C.-sized backyard wasn’t going fit Ackley’s bigger farming ambitions.

One day, Ackley says, she was running by the Carmelite Friars Monastery in the northeast D.C. neighborhood of Edgewood when she looked at their land and thought, “that could work for a garden.” She emailed them about it, and found they had a quarter acre plot in the back she could use, and that’s how she got started.

Now, she has two farm locations, the other of which is in a dark, damp, windowless, basement.

Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm, waters her microgreens in the basement of The Pub and the People in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm, waters her microgreens in the basement of The Pub and the People in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

The outdoor basement steps of the recently opened Bloomingdale bar, The Pub and The People, are located right off North Capitol Street. Through the basement’s heavy metal door is a packed cellar of boxes, bikes, kegs, and...microgreens.

Yes, microgreens‒those little green leaves that can be seen perched on top of a fancy dish, like lobster risotto, usually served at high-end restaurants.

Microgreens, the king of urban agriculture. Ackley says it's important to keep track of the microgreen planting schedule.(Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Microgreens, the king of urban agriculture. Ackley says it's important to keep track of the microgreen planting schedule.(Photo by Robin Dienel.)

“I was trying to market my microgreens here,” says Ackley of how she first met Nick Belman, owner of The Pub and The People, when she was just starting her business. She was going restaurant-to-restaurant selling chefs her microgreens that she had been growing on her farm at the Monastery when she ended up here, at the Pub.

“He said we have this basement and it’s not being used, so we cleaned out the basement and started here.”

The newly opened northeast D.C. bar, The Pub and the People, opened in 2015. Shortly after, it became home to Ackley's basement microgreen operation. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

The newly opened northeast D.C. bar, The Pub and the People, opened in 2015. Shortly after, it became home to Ackley's basement microgreen operation. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Now, shelving can be seen adorning two of the cellar’s walls. They’re both covered in black plastic pallets that are spilling over with different types of microgreens‒pea shoots, mustard greens, arugula‒which Ackley says are the “king of urban agriculture.”

The turnover rate of microgreens is so quick, about two weeks, that it allows urban farmers to quickly grow, harvest, sell, and repeat the process all year long. She sells them to different stores, restaurants and farmer's markets around the city.

“It’s uncharted territory,” says Ackley about what she thinks the future of urban farming and her business will look like in D.C.

“Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to do it. I’m making microgreen centerpieces for weddings. I make prepared salads topped with edible flowers. I have all these things I do that is not at all traditional farming.”

The Love and Carrots sign stands amongst its urban garden installed outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

The Love and Carrots sign stands amongst its urban garden installed outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

What does traditional farming look like in an urban setting? Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, thinks it looks like Cuba in 1989 after the Cold War, almost.

Cuba was already struggling to support its own food infrastructure following a deteriorating international trade reality due to U.S. embargoes during the Cold War. Then in 1989, Cuba was abruptly cut off from trade with the Soviets, sending the country into a spiraling economic crisis.

Throughout the next few years, Cuba struggled to trade its sugar and citrus fruits for more critical imports, like cereal, corn, and meat, and lost access to animal feed, fertilizers, and fuel which sustained the small island’s food provisioning system. Although the government instituted a rationing program to try and combat widespread hunger, most Cubans experienced it anyways. The Cuban government needed to do something. It needed to become self-sufficient.

Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, working on an organic backyard garden. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd.)

Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, working on an organic backyard garden. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd.)

Cuba would become the first country to successfully weave urban agricultural methods into its food provisioning system. What were once guerrilla gardening initiatives soon became state-supported urban farming programs that were embraced by both the government and the communities they served. The government funded educational programs and provided space for growing, while the community farmed and cared for it. From balcony gardens to vacant and blighted properties, and roofing tiles used as planter beds to soda bottles repurposed to sow seeds, urban agriculture occurred in Cuba on various scales, and is what inspired Shepherd to start her own residential and commercial gardening business in D.C.

“They started planting on every little strip of the highway and everywhere that they could,” says Sheperd about Cuba. “People started planting food and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. From there, I started getting interested in urban agriculture.”

She took some horticulture classes, worked four different jobs: two as a farm hand, one as a wetland biologist and the fourth as a bartender. Eventually, she got a farm manager position at Chaily Farm in Virginia, which produces organic herbs and vegetables for high-end D.C. restaurants, like City Zen. She did that for three years, but she still wanted to pursue the idea of urban agriculture.

A barrel garden installed by Love & Carrots outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel).

A barrel garden installed by Love & Carrots outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel).

“At the time, my yard was really shady and small,” says Sheperd about how she came up with the idea for Love & Carrots six years ago in 2010.

“I really wanted to grow my own garden in D.C. and I was sad about my yard. I was biking around applying for all these urban ag’ jobs and salivating over everyone else’s big sunny yards thinking: they have such a great space, that person should be growing food in their own yard, why aren’t they?”

Then, she says, the idea clicked. She would build hearty gardens for other people. She sat at Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale, which would coincidentally become one of her future clients, for two days and dreamed up Love & Carrots. She posted flyers at different coffee shops, created a Groupon and spammed neighborhood Yahoo email listservs for her first clients.

On her first garden, she says, she lost a lot of money. It was a complete yard transformation. She enlisted the help of her friends and rented a truck to do the heavy lifting, but only charged $350 for the whole job.

“I felt bad charging people money for stuff,” says Sheperd. “But I got better at it.”

During that first summer Sheperd built 15 gardens. She hired another person, Morgan Morris, who still works for her now, and saved $2,500 to buy a truck. Sheperd says Love & Carrot’s profits flat-out doubled for the first three years and she now has a staff of 15. It was named one of Business Insider’s 50 Coolest New Businesses in America and Sheperd was awarded the Green American Award in 2014.

A rooftop garden in Dupont Circle installed by Love & carrots. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd).

A rooftop garden in Dupont Circle installed by Love & carrots. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd).

“We’re providing people the support they need to get started and education they need to grow in a way that's not just frustrating with not great results, but support people throughout the season so they can see what they can get out of a garden,” says Sheperd.

“Once they’ve gardened with us for a couple seasons they’re pros and can take it over themselves. They share their extra vegetables with their neighbors, who see what they’re doing and will want to do it too.”

In addition to residential gardens, Sheperd is expanding their gardening initiatives to impact more communities and reach more people. They're building garden beds on rooftop terraces, restaurant patios, and school grounds. They’ve started managing community gardens and working with local area nonprofits.

Maybe Sheperd and her team will start building garden beds on highways soon, just like in Cuba.

“At the heart of it we try to take the intimidation out of growing food,” says Sheperd.

What is the future of urban agriculture? (Photo by Robin Dienel).

What is the future of urban agriculture? (Photo by Robin Dienel).

So what do a rooftop, a basement, a backyard, and the Fort Totten Metro Station really have in common? Maybe not just gardening, but a future where D.C., and other cities like it, can completely self sustain itself.
Gone will be the days where organic produce is too expensive, or that cucumber at the Columbia Height’s Giant hails from Brazil. In its place, produce grown in the District. A government that understands the importance of self-sustainability. A rooftop that is no longer a vacant space but a thriving, living green space. An engaged community that understands the importance of maintaining a garden and the benefits they get from it.

“I’d like to get a contract with a developer who's putting in, you know, 15 row houses somewhere and each one of them gets a vegetable garden in the back,” says Sheperd about what she hopes to see more of in the future for Love & Carrots.

“They’re doing things with solar panels now, what about cookie cutter vegetable gardens? How cool would it be if you could buy a new home and get a little vegetable garden too?”


Here's a map of all the community gardens, farms, markets and rooftop gardens in Washington, D.C., as of April 2016.

Am I missing one? Send an e-mail to rdienel13@gmail.com

Giving Yeast a Life of Its Own by Robin Dienel

Before Nathan Zeender’s self-proclaimed “rightness of life correction” ten years ago, he was logging his workday hours in front of a computer screen. Now, he brews beer.

Nathan Zeender answers his cell phone after five rings, slightly out of breath. We had a call scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday morning to set up a time to meet later in the week, but he was up all night with his 3-year-old son, Fhinn, who was sick. He had to postpone our call due to an unforeseen morning trip to the pediatrician. It’s now 3 p.m.

“Where in the neighborhood do you live?” I tell him 10th and Jackson. His excitement is obvious. He has lived in this residential Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood for more than 10 years; on the same street, just one block from the new Right Proper Brookland Production House, where he works. Surprise—we’re accidental neighbors.

The following Tuesday, I walk the short distance to the production house, as we had arranged on the phone. A long freight train rolls noisily down the tracks down the street from the brewery, a familiar hum in Brookland since the late 1800s when the tracks were first laid through it. Row houses line the streets around it. A totem pole mural is painted on the warehouse’s brick façade, flowing into a blown-up version of the Right Proper logo split down the middle by the old building’s edge. It was a beat-up auto repair shop before Right Proper took over in 2015, and supposedly a bakery before that.

Up the cement steps and through the metal front door is the tasting room. It’s decorated by a half-finished mural of the Smithsonian National Zoo, with a dark twist: the animals are set loose from their cages and the humans become the entertainment, and lunch. Yellow Post-its adorn the rest of the walls; depicting whatever horror show the artist plans to paint next on them. Windows face into the brewery, giving the patrons a front row seat to their neighborhood production house. Above four of the windows is a long list of restaurants where Right Proper beer is on tap around the District. The bathroom door is open on the left, revealing a full-size piano across from the toilet and a sign, “Pianists must wash hands before playing.”

Zeender is standing in the back of the warehouse talking to their general manager, Elizabeth Schnettler. They’re discussing a new possible client. 

Before he was a professional brewer, Nathan spent his workdays in front of a computer screen as a database administrator for a nonprofit. Then, he says, came his self-proclaimed, “rightness of life correction,” about 10 years ago.

“My wife and I just decided that we wanted to do something else,” says Nathan Zeender. “So we came up with a multi-year plan where she went to law school to do public interest law. I was like well, while you spend the next three to four years doing that, I’m going to start building a bridge towards this brewing career.” 

Instead of climbing the ladder at a brewery, or attending a professional brewers’ school, Nathan built that bridge by studying books about the science and brewing ambitiously at home. He learned about the three main ingredients of beer: grain, hops, and his personal favorite, yeast—which is what makes beer, well, beer. It ferments the sugar to create alcohol and unleash all kinds of flavorful compounds. He slowly built up his own makeshift home brew system, did some professional beer writing, and eventually picked the brains of brewers he respected at The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore and Jester King in Austin, Texas.

Flash forward to 2013, and Nathan picks up his first job in beer as head brewer for Right Proper Brewing Company, the original brewpub that opened its doors in Washington, D.C.’s downtown Shaw neighborhood in December of that year. The demand for their beer became so high, Nathan says, that they decided to open up a second location, the Brookland Production House, to focus on their beer production and packaging operations. He now works at the Brookland location full time.

“I’ve always wanted to be some type of artist or writer, or do something with my hands. So this really was fulfilling that dream,” says Nathan about his life now. “My world has become really small.”

For example, today, he says, he dropped his oldest son at school down the street before walking to work at 8 a.m. At work he’s brewing a beer called Raised by Wolves. He named it after a play on the botanical name for hops, Humulus Lupulus, which means ground wolf. His wife, Rachel, gave birth to their second(?) son Rory on Christmas Eve, and is on maternity leave. She wasn’t feeling well this morning, so he walked his one-minute commute home to make lunch for her and hold his newborn for an hour. Now, he’s meeting with me—his new neighbor. 

Despite all the change, Nathan says his days are planned out just like a normal job would be, just with more flexibility and less boredom now.

Every night, him and his crew look at the recipe card and mill the grains needed for the next day. Last night, they crushed 800 pounds of grain to brew Raised By Wolves this morning. After brewing, he does administrative tasks, like capping of kegs and delivering them to the distributor, answering emails, hosting neighborhood events, or leading tasting tours. 

At 3 p.m., Erin Lingle and Karlos Leopold, co-owners of the newly opened tapas restaurant Nido, and one of their employees, Jasmine Andrews, walk in for a tasting tour. They already have a Right Proper beer on tap, but they are looking to expand their beer program at their restaurant located less than a mile up the street on Rhode Island Avenue. 

It’s still a new phenomenon in D.C. for restaurant owners like Lingle and Leopold to be able to head to their local beer supplier. Before microbreweries like Right Proper started to pop up around the District a few years back, macro breweries, like Anheuser-Busch based out in Missouri, owned the beer-on-tap stage. 


The D.C. Brewers Guild is a 501(c)(6) business association comprised of representatives from local breweries. They work together to educate consumers and promote their shared business interests around the District. Their efforts have played a major role in leveling the playing field for smaller breweries like Right Proper.

For example, Nathan says, right now tasting rooms and brewpubs can only be open seven days a week from 1 to 9 p.m. But there’s a law that passed by City Council, because of the brewers guild, which will allow tasting rooms to be open everyday from 8 a.m. to midnight starting in March 2016.

“Our area has been ripe for local breweries to set up shop,” says Kathy Rizzo, executive director of the D.C. Brewers Guild. “I can't say if a change in legislation has helped so much as a general consumer demand for local, craft beer.”

“Do you guys want a beer before we go on a tour?” Nathan asks Erin, Karlos and Jasmine site down at the bar.

“I want to try the Ornithology because I love birds,” Karlos jokes. Ornithology is the branch of zoology the deals with birds. Nido means nest in Spanish. Zeender and Leopold share a laugh.

“Can I try a taste of your favorite?” asks Jasmine. He pours her a sample of The Lubitsch Touch, a pale styled beer whose malt grains Nathan says were smoked over beech and cherry wood before he made them into this brew.

Jasmine’s eyes widen as she takes a sip. “Whoa! So good,” she says.

After everyone grabs a beer, Nathan leads the group into the brewery. He shows them the brew house’s 15-barrel system they built in this six thousand square foot warehouse. Each tank holds a thousand gallons of beer, three times the amount they make at the brewpub in Shaw, and exponentially more than Nathan used to privately make in his own home. After Nathan’s beer spiel, they head back into the tasting room to finish the tour up back at the bar with a few more samples and questions, like the origin of their beer names.

“‘Being There’ is Peter Sellers’last movie, so it’s kinda bittersweet,” says Nathan about their “bready, herbal, crisp,” kellerbier German styled beer he named after the film. The movie was also partly filmed in Shaw, where the original brewpub is located, in the late 1970s when the neighborhood was “at its worst.”

Eventually, after many more samples, they start to gather their things to head back up the street to Nido. They are due for a wine tasting at 4 p.m. 

“A lot of our beer is inspired by the yeast part of it”, says Nathan. “It’s what’s alive in the beer, it’s the animated life source in the beer.” He’s hastily loading the last of the tasting glasses into the dishwasher and packing up the bar to get ready to leave for the day. After this, he’s walking back over to his son’s school two blocks away to pick him up and bring him home.

“I’ve always thought of ourselves as a yeast-forward brewery, because we embrace the flavors and life force of the yeast,” he said. He turns the knob, testing it to make sure everything is locked up. “It’s a quasi spiritual art kind of thing: the idea of allowing the yeast to have a life of its own.”

The Impending E-Book Apocalypse, or Not by Robin Dienel

Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse has been open in northwest Washington, DC, for over two decades. (Credit: Robin Dienel, American University)

Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse has been open in northwest Washington, DC, for over two decades. (Credit: Robin Dienel, American University)

As you pull open the double doors of northwest Washington, DC’s Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, the familiar smell of paper immediately floods your senses and invites you in.

   Situated on Connecticut Avenue and Fessenden Street NW, two stories of books, and an under-construction café on the lower level, welcomes Washingtonians with curiosity and excitement. Look up, and colorful cardboard signs dangle from the ceiling above detailing countless genres of books within reach, ready to take readers on whatever literary adventure they desire. 

   Turn to the left, and see books of fiction, new fiction, non-fiction, biographies, politics and more adorning bookcases and tables around the room. Continue left, and an entire room dedicated just to the imagination, named Fiction Room, unfolds around you.

Every surface of the bookstore is covered in books, ready for reading. The Fiction Room is on the left ready to feed hungry imaginations. (Credit: Robin Dienel, American University)

Every surface of the bookstore is covered in books, ready for reading. The Fiction Room is on the left ready to feed hungry imaginations. (Credit: Robin Dienel, American University)

   Walk across the store to the sounds of drawers springing open and scanners ringing purchases for customers at almost every cash register, despite the early morning hour. To their left, small racks of CDs and records lead to even more books. A man and woman are sitting at a table in the back of the store, discussing politics - a common occurrence here. A child walks by them, leading his mother eagerly by the hand downstairs to the children's section to find a book about sharks.

   Five years ago, analysts would have predicted bookstores like this one would have been shut down by now. Why’s that? E-readers.

   E-readers, the anticipated achilles heel of print. Far and wide, analysts were screaming the demise of print was within reach thanks to these devices. 

   Then, in 2015, digital sales slowed sharply, and the earliest e-reader adopters were now returning to print. Amazon, the leader of e-book sales thanks to its Kindle e-reader and online store, opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle, Washington, in November 2015. 

   According to Entrepreneur, Amazon is leveraging its online data to create offline sales by stocking its physical stores based on online consumer reviews.

   “It’s data with heart,” Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, told Forbes. “We’re taking the data we have and we’re creating physical places with it.”

   The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations last year, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations just five years ago despite the competition from e-book sellers like Amazon.

Donna Wells, a children's book seller at Politics and Prose, stands in front of her section downstairs at the store. (Credit: Robin Dienel, American University)

Donna Wells, a children's book seller at Politics and Prose, stands in front of her section downstairs at the store. (Credit: Robin Dienel, American University)

   In DC, community-based bookstores are rising as well. Politics and Prose, leading the charge, now has three satellite stores stationed in Busboys and Poets restaurants around the city. In the past year, two new brick-and-mortar independent bookstores, Upshur Street Books and Walls of Books, opened their doors.

   Donna Wells, a former Barnes & Nobles employee, has worked at Politics and Prose for the past year as a children’s bookseller. The difference between here and the big stores she simply says is, “customers like having someone to talk to.”

   Shown evidently throughout the bookstore on this cloudy Wednesday, employees can be seen welcoming customers as soon as they walk into the room. 

   An employee in the fiction wing is helping a man publish his own book on Opus, the store’s own book making machine. Another is showing a woman the latest Stephen King novel, and talking to her about the upcoming Hulu series starring James Franco based on his fictional book on the Kennedy assassination, 11/22/63. The event calendar by the register shows nightly author talks at the store. Tomorrow is David Greenberg discussing the history of the American Presidency. Can’t make it? Their website shares mp3s from these events. 

   “Excuse me, do you know the difference between comic and graphic novels for kids?” a father asks of Wells while she stands at the help desk in the children's section. She excitedly leads him away to the graphic novel section, explaining how graphic novels are more complex and told in one or two books, while a comic tells a story over many issues. They pick out an issue of Minecraft: Creaturetopia together for his son.

   Is the e-book apocalypse just running late? Or have customers found the value in their community-based bookstores? Time will tell. 

   For now, the centuries long tradition of words on paper will live to see another day, at least at Politics and Prose.

By Robin Dienel, 27 January 2016

I am a Flower Thief by Robin Dienel

Each Spring, Washington, D.C. is a ripe cityscape of flowers. However, since the Spring of 2011, many gardener’s claim their hard-earned spoils have been uprooted and sold downtown by the notorious, Flower Thief.

According to Peggy Robin, the Cleveland Park Community Listserv co-founder and moderator, she’s seen on the list by multiple people that he goes into people’s gardens and “chops off” their flowers and sells them to florists, event planners, restaurants and farmers markets by convincing them he grows them on his own farm.

Although he’s been caught by both gardeners and police on multiple occasions, he has yet to be caught in the act, which Robin said is the only way he will be charged for his thievery.

The flower thief in question is thought to be around 60 years old and fit and believed to be behind the plundering of countless community and private gardens, as well as commercial plantings, up and down northwest D.C. for the past seven years. He’s been spotted on the outskirts of the Glover Park Community Garden scouring plots, on the canal marching briskly with an armful of hydrangea and by the White House carrying a bunch of peonies en route to a local shop.

After the furor of press in 2013 surrounding the thief, he had appeared to have slowed down his routine. However, now that the press has died down and the plots are in full bloom, he is believed to be up to his same-old flower stealing antics. Where will he spotted next?

Christopher Cox, a new member of the Glover Park Community Garden, had just started working his own plot last year when he discovered a peony bush right outside his fence left by a another gardener. He said his fellow gardeners, including Glover Park Community Garden veteran Ernie Vergara, would come up to him and tell him to watch out for his peonies, because a flower thief will come and take all his blooms, which Cox said he found hard to believe at first.

“I’m like, a thief,” said Cox about when he was first told about the “notorious” Flower Thief. “Who’s going to steal flowers, you know?”

As soon as his peonies began to bloom, Cox said they were chopped off and never seen again.

Vergara has gardened his Glover Park plot for 34 years, making him one of the oldest gardeners there he claims. He said he’s been both a witness and victim of the Thief.

“The thief would come around and gather all the peonies” said Vergara. “I think he should be in an asylum because people would catch him and he’d sort of argue and say, ‘Well these are for everyone.’”

Nancy McKeon, a Cleveland Park listserv member and Georgetown resident, said she’s seen him carrying an armful of white flowers down the C&O Canal.  

“Hopefully he doesn’t come back this year,” said Vergara. “But you know what they say, once a thief maybe always a thief.”

Barn Therapy by Robin Dienel

A 1500 pound animal running at full speed underneath you while you hold on for dear life would alarm most people, but for Casey Leffue, these animals keep her bipolar disorder manageable.

Leffue, 27, is an aspiring actress in Washington, D.C., who works full time at the Carnegie Institution for Science as an event coordinator. However, she also works as a riding instructor at Rock Creek Park Horse Center three days a week, an environment she said feels like home.

At the young age of three, Leffue was introduced to her first horse in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. Since then, she said she’s been obsessed with horses and the lifestyle that goes with it. But what started as an extracurricular activity has now become her own way of managing her mood swings.

“Having bipolar disorder, and especially me, it’s a disease of perception almost,” said Leffue in an interview. “You have to balance am I eating too much too little, exercising too much too little, how am I working, how am I feeling, and it’s nice to have something that unequivocally, not medically, that I can step out of my head and be so in the zone in something that I’m good at, I love doing and I’m happy to do that it helps me subdue the anxiety and bouts of depression and control some of the mania.”

Also known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disease is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out daily tasks. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 2.6 percent of adults in the U.S. have bipolar disease and 82.9 percent of those cases are classified as “severe.”

Leffue said she is one of those severe cases, but it’s riding these horses that helps keep her in control of her bipolar disorder.

“My whole life is filled with me trying to reality check” said Leffue. “But I think it’s so much you’re responsible for, especially instructing, you’re responsible for these kids safety, and you’re responsible for the safety of your horses and taking care of them. You can’t just focus on yourself and I think that’s helpful to step back and every once in a while be like, oh I can actually do it, I can let this go and be a normal human being without being preoccupied with myself and my mental capacities.”

In addition to horseback riding, Leffue treats her symptoms with medication and therapy sessions. She said riding provides both an athletic activity and a mental outlet for her to take a break from her inner demons and let go for a few hours.

Although bipolar disease can be treated, it’s a lifetime of treatment. Developing healthy habits and lifestyle choices is one of the most effective ways to treat bipolar disorder over the long term.

“So I say I work here at Carnegie for the money, so I can live, I’m an actress for my passions, and I horseback ride for therapy.” 

Knight Lab: Computer Assisted Reporting Reimagined by Robin Dienel

Richard Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is bilingual, but not in the way you’d think.

He speaks two “languages”: journalism and technology, and has worked throughout his career to combine the two in an effort to translate yesterday’s old world news to today’s online world.

In 2007, Gordon was one of the first-round winners in the Knight News Challenge, which awards monetary funds to journalism innovators. When he first heard about the grant opportunity in 2005, Gordon says in a phone interview he believed, “we could, at Medill, propose to use some of the Knight News Challenge money to apply for, and get a news challenge grants, to people in our journalism program with computer science backgrounds.”

In the average journalists’ minds at that time, the two schools of thought, journalism and computer science, couldn’t be more opposite. Gordon believed differently.

After a mocking mention of the opportunity on the tech blog Boing Boing, which Gordon says was the most successful thing he did for the scholarships marketing program, two scholarship winners were chosen and the initial program officially launched.

Gordon’s experience with online media traces back to his college days in the late 1970s at the University of Pennsylvania, where in addition to being a managing editor at the schools newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, he also took computer science courses. It was in those computer science courses, he says ironically, he received the worst grade in his college career.

Fortunately, in a time when desktop computers, or dumb terminals, were only used at newspapers to manage the workflow of an organization, Gordon says he was astute enough to see that, “whatever this computer thing was, it was going to be big.”

When he was appointed the first online director at The Miami Herald Online in 1995, he was tasked with the job to translate the printed version of the newspaper to an online audience, something that very few editors had done before him at that time.

“I thought I was being hired as an editor at a new publication when I took this job, and it really turned out I was being a publisher. I had the responsibility of both the editorial side and the business side,” says Gordon.

He hired the staff, designed the online layout, assigned editorials, and found himself hunting down advertising. During his last two months there, before taking the teaching job at Medill, Gordon is proud to say The Miami Herald Online experienced its first, but short-lived, profitable months.

But then came the dot-com bubble, when American Online, or AOL, and Time Warner signed that infamous $350 billion agreement. Jobs were loss, retirement accounts were emptied, and newspapers sifted relentlessly through executives, all in a chaotic response to the rapid extinction of profit in the news reporting industry. 

Gordon says he left the newspaper industry not out of foresight of its imminent doom, but out of a need to do something different. He says he felt there were things that journalism needed digitally that the free market was not providing.

In a report predicting the “Digital Life in 2025” published by The Pew Research Center in March 2014, 2,558 canvassed experts and technology builders foresaw a future with, “an ambient information environment where accessing the Internet will be effortless and most people will tap into it so easily it will flow through their lives ‘like electricity.’”

These experts agreed this would have a profound impact on a variety of things, especially business models established in the 20th century, including publishing. Newspapers needed an upgrade if they were going to stay relevant for consumers.

In December 2010, Gordon, along with Larry Birnbaum and Kristian Hammond of McCormick School of Engineering and Owen Youngman from Medill, took the scholarship program one step further and founded the Northwestern University Knight Lab, thanks to a $4.2 million grant to the university from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Lab’s mission is simple: “to advance news media innovation and education.” It consists of a variety of technologists, journalists, designers and educators who together brainstorm ideas and develop tools aiming to help translate information in a more meaningful and interactive way on the Internet.

However, what started as a small school program in an overlooked room off a wing on the school’s engineering building has turned into a full-fledged, bustling lab in the school’s communications building with its digital tools utilized by publications around the world.

The Lab’s online site shares both new interactive web tools developed by the Knight Lab team as well as the latest in journalism technology news.  Its web-native tools listed in its free  “publishers toolbox” have been embedded hundreds of thousands of times on websites like RadioLab, VH1 and Al Jazeera America, according to the Lab’s website. It’s become a hub for both developers and journalists to come together and learn about the future of interactive web reporting, which Gordon hopes has built a respectable enough reputation as a leader in journalistic innovation to encourage future funding in the coming years as its initial grants come to a close.

Currently, the Lab consists of eight full time staff members, two fellows, and a handful of students. Ideas for online tools can originate from anywhere, anyone, and at anytime.

One of the drawbacks to this free flow of ideas is the Lab’s inability to do more detailed user research, says Gordon. Since its business model does not include a designated staff member to research every stage of the development process, it’s hard to “bottle a replicable process” for how the Lab can continue to develop successful journalism tools, like the Timeline JS tool from Emmy awarding winning interactive producer and associate professor at Medill, Zack Wise.

“The biggest problem for anyone with innovation as an end goal is finding something that people really need and being able to define it well enough to build it,” says Gordon.

With its future and reputation on the line, Gordon says he plans to work on doing more user research for future projects at the Lab.

Show Me The Money, Knight by Robin Dienel

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The Northwestern University Knight Lab, an initiative developing innovative web tools for online journalists and storytellers, faces a daunting deadline in the next two years haunted by the thought: where will our future funding come from?

Richard Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, was one of the first-round winners in the 2007 Knight News Challenge, which awards funds to journalism innovators. However, the Knight grant, like all grants virtually do, will eventually run out, and so will the main funding source for Knight Lab.

Gordon’s experience with online media traces back to his college days in the late 70s at the University of Pennsylvania, where in addition to being a managing editor of the schools newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, he also took computer science courses. It was in those computer science courses, he says ironically, he received the worst grade in his college career.

Fortunately, in a time when desktop computers, or dumb terminals, were only used at newspapers to manage the workflow of an organization, Gordon says in a phone interview he was astute enough to see that, “whatever this computer thing was, it was going to be big.”

Following 20 years of various positions at newspapers up and down the East coast, Gordon moved to Chicago for a teaching position at Medill in 2000. When he first heard about the grant opportunity in 2005, Gordon says he believed, “we could, at Medill, propose to use some of the Knight News Challenge money to apply for, and get a News Challenge grant, to people in our journalism program with computer science backgrounds.”

After winning that $4.2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Lab launched as a joint initiative between Medill and the Robert R. McCormick School for Engineering and Applied Science tasked with combining the two divergent worlds of journalism and computer science.

However, funding sources have been scarce over the past eight years. Other than relatively limited additional support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and a small grant from Google, the Lab continues to operate primarily on that Knight money.

But the lab is still growing. What started as a small idealistic scholarship program tucked away in an overlooked room of the school’s engineering building in 2007, is now a brand new, full-fledged, bustling lab in the school’s communications building equipped with a full time staff of seven.

In the next couple years, regardless of its own internal growth and increasing popularity, the Knight grant will be up and the Knight Foundation will need to reconsider if it will continue to fund the Lab’s mission “to advance news media innovation and education.”

The Lab prides itself on providing free web-native tools for journalists supplied to journalists in its website’s “publishers toolbox.” The tools have been embedded hundreds of thousands of times on sites like RadioLab, VH1 and Al Jazeera America,according to the Lab’s website. It’s become a hub for both developers and journalists to come together and learn about the future of interactive web reporting.

Gordon hopes they’ve built a respectable enough reputation as a leader in online journalistic innovation to encourage more supplemental funding to help the lab continue to grow over the next few years. Without diverse funding from other investors, advertisers, or even subscribers, the future of the Lab after the Knight grant runs out is unclear.

“A lot does hinge on, in terms of year two, year three, what is our financial situation? Where does the money come from?” says Gordon. “I’d like to think we’ve built enough of a track record here, that one way or another, the lab will continue to operate for two or three or five more years, but it may be different then it is now.”

Standing Out While Popping Up by Robin Dienel

Restaurateurs in Washington, D.C. are harnessing the power of social media to promote a new kind of eating scene — the pop-up restaurant.

In the last year, 1,328 restaurants are now licensed in D.C., adding an additional 350 new restaurants since 2013, according to the D.C. Restaurant Association. How does a restaurant stand out on that growing foodie battleground? They make a new restaurant.

Pop-upperies are described as temporary eating-places set up in restaurants or market kiosks. They can last anywhere from one to two hours, two days, or indefinitely. The pop-ups need little more than a location, a menu and a social media account to open for business, while the restaurant host provides the kitchen. The structure types are infinite, but the goal is consistently the same: to generate buzz.

Owners and chefs are using pop-ups as a way to test a market or concept before investing in a brick and mortar facility of their own, or adding new recipes to their menus. In the past year, the D.C. metro area has been home to more than 20 pop-ups of all different shapes and sizes, according to EaterDC.

Bad Saint, the soon-to-be only Filipino restaurant in D.C., is set to open this winter down the street from co-owner Nick Pimentel’s restaurant, Room 11, in Columbia Heights. Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of Bad Saint, with Pimentel and chef Tom Cunanan, said in an interview that their first pop-up on November 9 at the Dolcezza Factory was a chance for Bad Saint to “get on people’s radars and to gauge people’s interest.”

As crowds lined the street during its 3:30 to 6 p.m. pop-up slot that day, it was clear the pop-up was on a lot of radars already.

Although customers were enduring two-hour waits to get their food on that luckily warm November afternoon, followers would never know it by looking at the event’s social media feeds that day (#badsaintdc). Villamora was walking through the line of hungry patrons, offering samples of Dolcezza’s Ube (purple yam) gelato, which was made special for the pop-up, and chatting enthusiastically about her new Filipino venture in D.C. Other dishes on the merienda-style pop-up menu included pork blood stew, Filipino egg rolls, rice porridge with egg, and chicken and citrus stir-fried noodles.

“I think when you’re planning for an event like that that’s open for the public when you don’t really know how many people are going to come, especially when we did as much outreach as we did, we were hoping for a good turn out. But I don’t think we ever imagined that many people would come. That’s a good problem to have,” said Villamora in an interview.

There’s virtually no limit to how many people can be reached by social media. For Villamora, she said social media was an inexpensive way to reach a lot of people all at once. The event, which served upward of 600 people in just less than three hours according to Villamora, exceeded her expectations.

Renaissance woman and D.C. native Katy Chang, an artist, lawyer and chef in her own right, opened EatsPlace, D.C.’s first “pop-uppery”, in August 2014.

Chang describes the space as a food-incubator, where Chefs submit their business plans, resumés, and references for review, as well as undergo a tasting interview, which Chang describes as the “best part of the job” for her. If chosen, they hold one of two breakfast or dinner residencies in Chang’s newly renovated commissary kitchen located in the basement of the renovated 1919 row house in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood.

“When we hand over the keys to EatsPlace, we want to make sure that people are making delicious food that’s responsibly sourced that, you know, tells a real culinary point of view,” said Chang.

Chefs do all of their own press, hire their own kitchen and wait staffs and are given full reign of the main floor dining room. EatsPlace then provides the kitchen, the storefront, the proper licenses, and the curated libations.

EatsPlace also provides training, menu consultation and points-of-service training, acting as a “soft-landing” for chefs to fully realize their restaurant on the main stage. Chang said her restaurant is the first food-incubator of it’s kind in D.C. Chefs are able to build a “bank” of proof-of-concept to show potential investors, who visit EatsPlace to taste their food, that they are a turnkey restaurant ready for buisiness.

Jeremiah Cohen, owner and head bagel maker at Bullfrog Bagels, held a series of pop-ups before he opened his own brick and mortar spot on September 18, 2014.

Hailing from a background in pizza making, Cohen first found his knack for bagels testing new recipes for his family during his days off from the popular D.C. pizzeria, Two Amys. His first informal pop-up was held at a friend’s home a week before his official first pop-up at Cork Market on 14th street. He had hoped to produce an initial buzz about his new D.C. bagel, but ended up generating a stampede.

He spent that first morning on May 31st at Cork Market hand-rolling bagels from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. The result: more than 1,000 bagels were pre-ordered before the pop-up opened at 10 a.m., while the remaining 200 bagels sold out by 11 a.m. To say D.C. was hungry for it’s own classic bagel is an understatement. They were starving for it.

Due to high demand, Cork Market hosted another Bullfrog Bagel pop-up the following weekend, resulting in the same response. Cohen went on to host a longer term pop-up at CakeLove’s U street location from July 17-27. It was here he met his new co-storefront owners.

“It’s all about scaling up without losing quality. Those pop-ups, the one at Cork, and then the one at CakeLove, were really important in terms of how I visualized what it would take to have a bagel shop,” said Cohen in an interview.

Shortly before his pop-up started at CakeLove, Cohen said he was approached by Joe Englert, a notoriously successful bar owner in the D.C area with popular spots like The Big Hunt, Rock n’ Roll Hotel and H Street Country Club, who connected him with Mark Menard and Mike Schuster, the owners of Star & Shamrock on H Street. Halfway through his pop-up at CakeLove, Menard and Schuster they asked him if he’d be interested in building his bagel shop in their tavern.

“I think getting some social media attention really helped creating a hype and a buzz which was really useful. But it wasn’t sufficient, you know. I didn’t want just hype, I wanted it to be real,” said Cohen.

Well now it’s real. You can walk into the tavern and order a hand-rolled Bullfrog Bagel at Cohen’s newly renovated bagel counter, now open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Cohen said now, almost six months after his first official pop-up at Cork Market, Bullfrog Bagels is “running like a real business.”