On the streets of Washington, DC these days, it’s easy to walk right past addresses that are not famous but from which great things – and barely-employed writers – sprang.
When John Cheever was a hungry young editor on the Federal Writers’ Project, he lodged at Mrs. Gray’s boardinghouse at 2308 Twentieth Street, NW, one block north of Columbia Rd. It wasn't far from his WPA office job.
A friend and coworker soon introduced Cheever to the capital’s social life. At parties Cheever clinked glasses with conservatives and radicals, Cubans and Danes. Back at the boardinghouse where he took his meals with other government lodgers, one older woman routinely denigrated WPA employees and their boondoggling at the dinner table. Cheever would pretend not to hear when she asked him to pass the gravy. Cheever's memories of DC were of humiliation and conformity.
Years earlier, Langston Hughes lived just a few blocks away on S Street, NW, in the orbit of Duke Ellington’s U Street neighborhood. From 1924-26 Hughes combined literary work with a job as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel (now the Marriott Wardman) at 2660 Woodley Rd. There he was “discovered” in 1926 by a white editor, Vachel Lindsay, who dubbed Hughes the “busboy poet” (see the Guide to Black Washington and Busboys and Poets).
During the 1930s, Hughes made friends with young WPA writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in Harlem. And he was good friends with Zora Neale Hurston, co-writing a play with her before they went separate ways.
Hurston herself lived closer to Howard University during her time studying and working as a waitress in Washington years before.
Who knows what yet-unknown creative hits the pavement every morning from another anonymous DC address, looking for work? Bringing reading and jobs together, the DC public library recently put together a good online toolbox for those jobseekers.