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Seeing Green in a Concrete Jungle 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.)

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.)

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.

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

Sharing a Pint, and a Home, in Shaw by Robin Dienel

Nathan Zeender, head brewer at D.C. based Right Proper Brewing Company, standing in front their fermentation barrels. (Robin Dienel/American University)

Nathan Zeender, head brewer at D.C. based Right Proper Brewing Company, standing in front their fermentation barrels. (Robin Dienel/American University)

It was 83 degrees around noontime on an August afternoon in Washington, D.C., when Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s sole congressional delegate on Capitol Hill known for her infamous stance on D.C. statehood, made her way down to the District’s evolving Shaw neighborhood. The year was 2015. The D.C. Brewers Guild’s executive director, Kathy Rizzo, invited her to come taste the local brew at the then two-year-old brewpub, Right Proper Brewing Company.

Walking into Right Proper that afternoon, Congresswoman Norton was wearing her suit and sensible heels, recalls Rizzo. She marched straight through the door, past the kitchen, and into the brewhouse for a tour. She then sat down at the counter and shared a pint, or two.

“So you have to explain this to me,” Rizzo recalls Congresswoman Norton saying to her while she sipped on a glass of ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’, which evidently wasn’t her favorite beer she tried that day. “You brew the beer and make food right here, in this spot?”

“Yes, that’s what happens,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said Congresswoman Norton was really into the fact that there are more manufacturing industries in D.C. now, like breweries, that are doing things to give D.C. a little more of a “flavor” and elevating it from being just a city of monuments.

“But she did really like the Ornette beer,” recalls Rizzo. “That was a major win for Nathan.”

D.C. native Thor Creston and Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company owner John Snedden opened Right Proper Brewing Company in 2013. They tapped Nathan Zeender, former nonprofit database administrator turned professional brewer, to be their head brewer. According to their website, Right Proper describes itself as “a small, community-focused brewery committed to producing soulful, balanced beers for our neighbors in Washington, D.C.” But what neighbors are they actually brewing for?

Right Proper has two different kinds of neighbors in Shaw. One population is mostly African American and has witnessed the race riots of 1968 first-hand that led to the closing of the iconic Howard Theatre, while the other is mostly white and has only lived there long enough to see its reopening in 2012. One has gone to the same church every Sunday morning for the last 60 years, while the other goes to a different brunch spot every weekend. Is anyone from these two generations of Shaw residents sharing a glass of Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne together? Probably not.

The Howard Theatre towers over Right Proper brewpub from across the road on the corner of 7th and T Streets NW. It’s stood in this historically black, middle and lower class neighborhood, in one form or another for over 100 years. In it’s heyday, it was known to cater to African-American clientele. The brewpub's patio packed with picnic tables overlooks the theater’s lit-up vertical sign stretched along the building’s edge reading, HOWARD. Walk by during the day, and bikes are lined up along the patio’s fence, entrenching groups of 20 or 30 somethings eating from cheese plates and drinking their locally brewed pale ales.

Just beyond Right Proper and The Howard Theatre are huge luxury apartment buildings built on what were previously laundromats and barbershops. Real estate developers are rebranding the area to attract mostly young, white millennials to their new buildings by listing local attractions, like a brewery, on their websites. Rent on average in Shaw has skyrocketed to upwards of $2,200 a month for a one bedroom apartment according to Zumper.com, a home and apartment rental search site. What was once an affordable neighborhood has now become one of the most expensive, and it’s mostly due to D.C.’s rapid rate of gentrification.

D.C.’s type of gentrification started taking shape in the early 2000s. It’s different from others that occurred in New York City and Chicago, says Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University and author of the forthcoming book about D.C.’s Shaw/U street area, "Making the Gilded Ghetto: Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City."

From the 1970s to early 2000s, more people were leaving D.C. then coming in. Then, people started to move back to look for jobs, especially after the 2008 recession. Most were millennials, between the ages of 24 to 34. They were attracted to D.C.’s outlying neighborhoods, like Shaw, for its close proximity to downtown.

“It was gentrification gone wild,” says Hyra.

Shaw used to be 90 percent African-American in the 1970s, says Hyra. By 2010, they made up only 30 percent of the neighborhood population and young, mostly white people made up the majority of the rest. D.C.’s robust housing laws protected many of the long-term residents from being priced out of their homes.

“You walk down 14th Street, U Street, 7th street, and you’re like woah, what a diverse community,” says Hyra about what Shaw looks like today. “We got low income, upper income, students, people who are Latino, whites, African-Americans. But when you go into the social fabric and civil institutions of the neighborhood, it starts to segregate.”

This social fabric, like the new specialty coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and even breweries, are on a micro-level, segregated, according to Hyra.

“I think the breweries do strive to be a part of the pre-existing community rather than change the community they enter because beer really is an accessible commodity for people of various socio-economic classes,” says Rizzo. “The price difference between a pint of Bud Light and a pint of DC Brau within the city is often only $1-2 different, which can be significant when you're purchasing large quantities, but not cost prohibitive to someone looking to try a new beer.”

Hyra says most likely, the people who are going to microbreweries are millennials. Although they might differ in race, he says long-term neighborhood residents probably wouldn’t be found sitting at a table at Right Proper anytime soon.

Although D.C.’s craft beer movement today may look like another byproduct of gentrification to some, it wasn’t always viewed that way. Before 1917 when prohibition threatened to extinguish D.C.’s thirst for alcoholic beverages, the Germans came to town and brought with them this really inclusive beer garden culture. The biggest beer garden in the District at the time was Alhambra, run by the Washington Brewing Company. It sat on Capitol Hill where what is now the site of the Stuart-Hobson Middle School.

“It was open to everyone”, says Garrett Peck, historian and author of "Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t," about Alhambra and beer garden culture back then. “Mixed races could come, families could come with their kids. Once people were done with work, people went to the saloons and beer gardens to socialize. We don’t really do that anymore though.”

Rizzo says her mission to educate people and communities about D.C. breweries will not stop anytime soon. She plans to hold more events in neighborhoods around the city to try and get communities more involved in their local brewery. According to D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, there are 10 breweries currently operating in the District, with more on the way. Incorporating this new industry into the social fabric of what is already the flavor of D.C. will prove if these new craft breweries reflect the communities they opened up shop in.

Beer has three main ingredients: grains, hops and yeast. The yeast is the beer’s life source. It ferments the sugar to create alcohol and unleash all kinds of flavorful compounds. It’s what makes beer, well, beer! In Shaw, that life source is the people. Over time, the people have changed and brought with them all kinds of different styles and cultures, adding to the flavor of Shaw. For many of its longtime residents, this new flavor is threatening the historical fabric of Shaw in more ways than what anyone a hundred years ago would’ve thought possible.

“I’ve always thought of ourselves as a yeast-forward brewery,” says Nathan Zeender of Right Proper, “because we embrace the flavors and life force of the yeast.”

Perhaps the residents of Shaw, both old and new, can bring back that beer garden culture of sitting down under the lights of the Howard Theatre sign and share a pint together.

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

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     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.

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      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.

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      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

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.”

D.C. Adoption Day: Natasha Reilly by Robin Dienel

Natasha Reilly (left) with Ann Reilly at the Moultrie Courthouse Atrium on D.C. Adoption Day on November 22, 2014. Photo by Robin Dienel, American University.

Natasha Reilly (left) with Ann Reilly at the Moultrie Courthouse Atrium on D.C. Adoption Day on November 22, 2014. Photo by Robin Dienel, American University.

On this frigid November Saturday before Thanksgiving, Natasha Reilly was finally able to officially call Ann Reilly, Mom.

Natasha and Ann were greeted by a thundering applause as they made their adoption official in front of the packed Moultrie Courthouse atrium for the 28th D.C. Adoption Day ceremony on November 22, 2014.

“I feel like a brand new person today,” says Natasha in an interview following the ceremony.

Although 38 other foster infants, children and young adults were officially adopted during the ceremony today, 19 year-old Natasha’s case struck home for Ann’s coworkers at the Child and Family Services Agency, where she works as a CFSA supervisory social worker.

As of September 2014, CFSA stated 1,120 children are in out-of-home foster care, and almost a quarter of them are, like Natasha, between the ages of 18-21, of which only a small percentage of them are adopted. The statistics were not in Natasha’s favor.

They met accidentally in 2013. Natasha says she was ill and being cared for at her former social worker “Miss Molly’s” home when Ann stopped by. They got to know each other that day, and from then on Natasha says her and Ann were inseparable.

Half a year later, Natasha says she was surprised when Ann told her she had cut through all the CFSA “red tape” prohibiting her from adopting within the system. Natasha was finally getting adopted. 22nd

Although CFSA agents are usually prohibited from adopting children within the foster system due to a conflict of interest, Natasha and Ann became the exception, and today everyone rejoiced with them.

To help other children in the D.C. foster system, Natasha says she plans to start a nonprofit called Voice, where she can inspire others like her to get through similar situations she found herself in before she met Ann, like crime and abuse.

“This is a close-knit community,” says Natasha of the D.C. foster care system. David McDermott and Charles DeSantist, who adopted 21 month-old twins Lily and Jasmine today, actually helped Natasha find the job she she has now cleaning houses in northwest D.C.

McDermott said in an interview today, it was finally starting to feel normal having four babies in the house. In February 2015, it will be two years they’ve had the whole family together.

Today, Natasha has her high school diploma and a job: two things she says she didn’t think she’d have before meeting Ann.

Tech Overload by Robin Dienel

Accessing the news digitally has never been so easy, and so difficult.

The news is a wide-reaching, all-encompassing creature. It can lay upon a bedside table, pop up in the upper-right corner of a computer screen, project from a family room wall, or even materialize embedded on a lens in a pair of glasses. Due to an abundance of different devices and browsers clogging the digital world, developers are debating on how to exactly design the news for audiences today.

Designing Responsively

In the ageless rivalry of old vs. new, the battle between adaptive (old) or responsive (new) web design takes center stage.

Adaptive design uses multiple, individually designed sites specific to the browser and device the page is opened on, while responsive design adjusts a singular website’s size to the device it’s opened on.

Before 2011, developers were compressing websites from desktop to mobile versions, whereas now they are expanding websites from mobile to desktop, says Yuri Victor, senior user experience director at Vox Media, in an interview.

VOX, the newest editorial site founded by former Wonkblog editor at The Washington Post Ezra Klein, covers politics and news for Vox Media. It opened for online viewership on April 6, 2014, with a completely responsive design.

Spot responsive design:

  1. Open VOX in a desktop browser
  2. Minimize the window to be the width of an iPhone
  3. Watch the different boxes move vertically into one column
  4. Open VOX.com on a smartphone
  5. Notice it looks the same as the minimized version on the desktop
  6. That’s responsive design

“For news organizations, I don’t see the benefit in adaptive design,” said Victor, who works mostly with VOX's website. His latest work was designing a “Create Your Own Hyperviolent John Oliver Headline” generator for the website. )Yes, that’s a real thing.)

Victor went on to say it’s much easier to make a new site, like VOX, responsive, than it is to take a current site and convert it to a responsive design.

For example, the Washingtonian magazine's website uses an adaptive design. Melanie Bender, their senior director of digital products and adjunct professor at American University, says in an interview they use Google Analytics to determine which platform their viewers are accessing their website on in order to decide what to design for.

“We’re looking at data for how many of our users are using a desktop...how many are using a tablet or mobile device?” she says.  Once a product has less than half percent of their user base, Bender says they stop designing for that device since it takes time to individually develop and test each platform design.

SPOT adaptive design:

  1. Open washingtonian.com in a window on the desktop
  2. Minimize the window to be the width of an iPhone
  3. Notice the site is cut off after a certain point while you’re minimizing it
  4. Now open washingtonian.com on a smartphone
  5. Notice the site resized to fit within the width of the smartphone, but not the minimized browser on the desktop
  6. That’s adaptive design

Other news sites, like The Washington Post, have tackled this mobile internet boom by converting their articles to responsive design while leaving their homepage as is. This, in part, is a response to the growing number of people accessing articles through social media applications on their mobile devices.

A February 2014 study by The Nielson Company measured that U.S. adults spend an average of 34 hours per month accessing the internet on mobile devices. In addition, 86% of their smartphone internet time is captured by apps, like Twitter and Facebook.

“If you’ve targeted like an iPhone screen [with an adaptive design], or that size screen, and then somebody opens it in Facebook or Tweetbox, that size is going to change because they [Facebook and Tweetbox] automatically add padding and borders and headers and footers and then all of a sudden all this time you spent making something specific for a certain size no longer works at that size,” says Victor. “With responsive, it doesn’t care. The equation runs in the background, does what it needs, and everything should look fine.”

But what does this mean for testing these different designs?

Test! Test! Test?

In the “golden age” of web design testing, developers only had to test their designs on the five major browsers: Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.

Today, a comprehensive test involves over 34 browsers and countless device combinations. The cost of owning all these devices is enormous, and the time it takes to test on these products is endless. But, there are alternatives.

DC Device Lab opened in northwest Washington, D.C., in 2013 and is currently the biggest open device lab on the east coast.

Mariesa Dale, founder of D.C. Device Lab and adjunct professor at George Mason University, was in the process of finishing a website project for Marriott in 2012 when she went searching for a few different devices to test the new site on.  She was advised by fellow D.C. developers to travel "way out" (about 38 miles south) to Sterling, Virginia, to the AOL Fishbowl Lab to pick up a box of devices.

“I thought, this [D.C.] is such a vibrant tech community, I can’t be the only developer who wants one of these,” says Dale in an interview.

She then took two months off work to build the lab in a small corner of Canvas, a co-working community she currently works out of in northwest D.C., with funds she received from the city, as well as monetary sponsorships and donated devices from local businesses. The lab now contains over 30 donated devices from Samsung and Microsoft that developers can use to test their designs on for a rental cost of $5 per hour.

But the news doesn't sleep!

Although this is a very cost-efficient way for developers at non-profits and start-ups to test their designs, the pace of the lab, which is only open during work hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., does not work well within the 24-hour news cycle. When deadlines are pressing, designs need to be tested. Quickly.

To do that, many news sites use virtual emulators, like BrowserStack. These are online programs developers can use to test their sites aesthetically at any moment of the day, which Bender says is more realistic for news sites.

When asked if news organizations would use something like D.C. Device Lab, Bender says, “I know the nature of the work and the late hours and insanity of finishing projects, so I think [we won't] because internet based emulators and services provide instantaneous feedback.”

Both web-testing strategies have their drawbacks for news sites. Virtual emulators inhibit developers from testing the tactile functions of their sites, like link buttons on touch screen phones, while device labs present the obstacle of time to a fast-paced news cycle.

“I think we’re 75% of the way there,” says Dale. “We need to solve the problem of, you know, having a physical lab but maybe in your own virtual space, so you don’t actually have to travel somewhere to get to it.”

Samsung is doing something similar to what Dale suggests. They’ve started a remote testing lab in San Francisco where developers can hook into real devices virtually through a browser, like a virtual emulator, which Dale considers “some piece of the puzzle” to the open device lab movement.