Author Jason Reynolds shows us the real D.C.
There are a lot of great writers out there. How many can you point to and say, This voice is shaping the readers of the future?
That's the deal with Jason Reynolds, whose growing body of work for kids and young adults qualifies as a true phenomenon. The D.C.-area native's books include Long Way Down, the best-selling Track series, even a famed take on Miles Morales as Spider-Man. You can look up the foot-long list of awards and honors—among them, a Library of Congress Ambassadorship for Young People's Literature. You might also have seen him in December on Colbert.
That's all to say, the man is a big deal. His books speak to young adults [and others] with a direct passion that reflects Jason's formative influences: poetry, hip-hop, Richard Wright and D.C.'s unique arts and music milieu.
We were so honored that Jason took time to talk to us for our new field guide to D.C. We caught up with him again recently for an armchair tour of his hometown.
Photo courtesy of Jason Reynolds
Of course, D.C. has been through a lot of changes as a city, but what are some things that have stayed constant in your eyes?
"There are certain things that are never going to leave, certain staples that are federal. Like the Zoo, the Smithsonian. That was a huge part of my childhood. The Zoo was a big deal back in the day, and exploring the museums. Because the museums were free. And my mother was very much like, 'We going to take advantage of this.' And so I was definitely a museum kid. And then there's Ben’s Chili Bowl, and some of the old carryouts that we used to go to growing up—get Chinese food from places that are never going close. A lot of that stuff is still around. And there's a mural of Duke Ellington I look at every day. You ride down the street and there's the 9:30 Club is still there. Some of my early concert memories were in that little club."
Photo courtesy of The DCist
What's a quintessential D.C. neighborhood in your eyes?
"Ten years ago, I would've said Petworth or I would've said Shaw. I would've said, you got to walk up Georgia Avenue. There's something still there. You walk up Georgia Avenue, there's Howard University and all the culture that surrounds Howard University.
But I think my neighborhood, Kingman Park. It was always an upwardly mobile, middle-class Black community. You have all these beautiful homes—colorful row houses—and it's a super-diverse neighborhood. My whole side of the block is generational homeowners who are all Black. The other side of the block, new homeowners who are all white and Asian. And that's an interesting thing because that's really what DC is now.
Everybody on this block owns their home and are hanging onto them. We used to have two corner stores. They've been bought out and now are becoming something else—a coffee shop and who knows what else? But the liquor store's still the liquor store. And the projects are two blocks down and that's important. It's a little bit of everything is happening around. And I like that. You can walk right down the street and be on Eighth Street. And you can have Cambodian food or Burmese food or Serbian food, or you can go to the cleaners or you can go shopping. But you're still in this cozy neighborhood. And I like that, man."
Photo of Little Benny & the Masters by Thomas Sayer Ellis
Take us back to an older D.C., the city you grew up in. What's something that stands out?
"I grew up in the ’90s, you know what I mean? Everything felt very, very Black. It was Chocolate City. Go-Go was everything. Whatever you had to do to get there–lie to your mama, whatever it was–you could hold up your T-shirt and hear Big G shout out your neighborhood, your crew. I can't explain it, but that felt like people could see you. That people knew your friends, crew and neighborhood existed in the world."
Photo courtesy of Maketto
Let's say it's a good day. Where do we find you in D.C.?
"I do a little bit of all the things, man. I mix it up. I live in Kingman Park, close to H Street. I would probably walk around the corner. I usually go to Maketto for coffee and a pastry. Maybe I'll do a little work, but usually I'll just read the paper, something like that. If Maketto is packed, I go across the street to Sospeso, because they have fantastic baklava."
Photo courtesy of The Spice Suite
What else is in your orbit?
"I mean, I'm a nerd, right? I work in literature, so D.C.'s good. Over the past 10 years D.C.'s been really good about the independent bookstore. So I walk down the street to Solid State, or I walk around the corner to Politics and Prose in Union Market. I lived in New York for 15 years, so my style of shopping is, you get your wine from the wine person, the fish from the fish person. Everything's real particular for me. In Union Market, I go see The District Fishwife. Fiona makes sure I get what I need: 'Jason, you've gotta try kampachi,' or, 'Jason, you've gotta cook a squid.' I get spices from The Spice Suite. She's all the way uptown. Angel's always got some interesting concoction—spices from around the world."
Photo courtesy of St. Anselm
What's a pure D.C. thing that's fun for you, that brings you a dose of joy?
"I'm a season ticket holder for the Wizards. And so, on game nights, I get down there early enough to pop into Centrolina. Talk to chef Amy, get a good meal. This is a three-night-a-week type of deal. And then I go to the game and I sit with my man—because when you're a season ticket holder, you sit with the same people each night, these old heads. People who've had their tickets for 20 years. You get to talk to these older Washingtonians. Maybe I'll pop into St. Anselm for a nightcap. I'm a big Madeira guy, and St. Anthem has the biggest Madeira collection in the city."
Check out Jason's newest book, a collaboration with illustrator Jason Griffin called Ain't Burned All the Bright, a smash-up of art and text that captures what it is to be Black in American right now.