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DC Narratives: A Friendship Heights Resident Recalls Her First Moments in the District

Since her time at The Catholic University of America, Lauren Maffeo has invested time and energy into Washington, D.C. through her volunteer work. Here, Maffeo recalls her first memories of the District and how she's seen it change since the mid-2000s.

DC Narratives

Welcome to DC Narratives, a collection of first-person accounts commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on the lived experience in Washington, D.C. Read more stories here.

I was born and raised in Natick, a suburb 10 miles west of Boston. My mother was born and raised on the South Shore of Boston; my father was born and raised in New York City. They met while living in Massachusetts, got married, and chose to start their life together in the Boston area. They still live in the house back in Natick where I was born and raised.

I first moved to D.C. for college. I knew in high school that I wanted to attend college in a big city on the East Coast, because by then I had been exposed to Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. through different vacations. I knew that I wanted the energy of living in a big city that was relatively close to home.

When I visited The Catholic University of America in the city’s Brookland neighborhood, I got a strong sense that it was the school I was meant to attend. I can’t be more specific than that, other than to say that I got a feeling on my tour of CUA that I didn’t have on any of my other college tours. So, I moved to D.C.,started college at CUA in August 2007, and graduated in May 2011.

I really think that CUA is special. It’s not very often that you get the small, liberal arts experience in the heart of a big, powerful city like D.C. CUA has an excellent campus that I would classify as a gem within the city. It is rare to attend school in an urban environment and not just have concrete and pavement everywhere. CUA’s campus is the exception — it makes you feel like you are in a safe haven.

My experience in D.C. started a few years before I chose to live here. And I do think those visits to D.C. as a young tourist impacted my desire to pursue an education here. Two of my mom’s best friends live in Northern Virginia, and so when I was young — about 11 or 12 — we started coming down here from Boston on my breaks from school to visit them and see the city.

One of my first D.C. memories involves going to Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. We also visited Arlington Cemetery. I still remember going up to Robert E. Lee’s house and looking out over the entire city. It’s a pretty expansive view from up there. You can see the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument out ahead across the Potomac River. I haven’t been up there in a long time, but it’s a great way to see the D.C. area from a new perspective.

That view makes you realize how small D.C. is. Sometimes – especially if you take public transport — this city can seem a lot bigger than it is. But that panoramic view makes you realize that D.C. is actually quite small. And there’s a lot of diversity packed into this relatively small area.

I graduated from CUA in May of 2011. Then, in September of 2011, I moved to London for two years. I earned my MSc from The London School of Economics and then stayed for an extra year to work. I have dual citizenship to the U.S. and the European Union, so I was able to stay in the UK after finishing my studies. I returned to D.C. one year after graduate school when I received a job offer here. I live in the Friendship Heights neighbourhood, just over the Bethesda border. I’ve lived in this home for two years now, which is longer than anywhere else I’ve lived as an adult. This home is where I’ve put down adult roots, and that’s a great feeling.

London is the most diverse city that I’ve ever been to. You feel like you’re in 100 places simultaneously because you meet people from all over the world. I would be in class at LSE with students from Panama, Romania, South Africa, Australia, [and] Canada. This gives you a broad perspective of the world that you don’t get in a homogenous environment.

Photo by Michelle Goldchain

… But what makes D.C. special is that I think it has the same international feel. This city attracts people from all over the world. LSE itself has a huge base in D.C. -- 14% of all alumni in North America live in the D.C. Metro area. Even thinking about my own house, I live in the English basement of a three-story home, and the family that lives above me is from Spain. And so whenever there’s conversation happening upstairs, it’s always in Spanish.

… Moving back here two years ago was not nearly as daunting as it could have been because I went to college here first. And attending college in D.C. opens up a lot of career options in the city once you graduate. D.C. had a strong job market even through the recession and economic turmoil. So, a lot of my college friends chose to stay here.. And even coming back here after attending LSE was not so difficult. A lot of students study there because they want to pursue careers in government, NGO work, or international relations. If you work in any of those fields, you will likely be based in D.C. So, I was very lucky to have those social networks when I moved back here.

I’ve also invested a lot of time volunteering throughout D.C. I sit on the Board of Directors for Alumni and Friends of The London School of Economics (AFLSE), which is headquartered in Northern Virginia. AFLSE has 18 chapters across the United States that host events for alumni living in those respective cities, and I am also Co-Chair of AFLSE’s D.C. chapter. I also serve as Communications Coordinator for The Table Church, which has locations in Columbia Heights and on H Street. And I served as a community organizer for Startup Weekend D.C. last year for their Flip the Ratio event to encourage more women to pursue careers in technology. So, I feel like I have made as many community investments as possible throughout the six years that I’ve lived here.

The Metro has been my biggest surprise since moving back to D.C.

When I was at CUA as a student, I lived on campus all four years and don’t remember getting offloaded from a train once. It was never a problem to get around on the weekends or to and from internships on weekdays. I never had an issue with the Metro or the Red Line during college, yet it has gotten progressively worse in the two years since I’ve been back in D.C.

… Ever since the smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza last year, there seems to have been a snowball effect where the system has one issue after another, each one more dangerous than the one before. It’s disappointing to see how the Metro has deteriorated. I remember that not long ago, it was a mode of transportation that I could rely on without any question that it would be working Now, I’m more pleasantly surprised when things go right and expect them to go awry.

The main example that comes to mind when I think of how D.C. has changed is the neighborhood where I went to college. When I was a student at CUA, Brookland was considered "up-and-coming." But it’s unrecognizable to me when I go back now.

… There is a big Barnes & Noble in Brookland across from CUA’s campus now. When I was a student,  two student halls stood there. That’s where most of the freshmen at CUA lived. There was no Brookland Pint or Busboys & Poets or Potbelly’s. All of that is completely new and has been added within a few short years.

Two other neighborhoods that come to mind are NoMa and U Street. I had to ask a friend of mine what NoMa was when I first moved back to D.C... She said, "Oh, it’s the old New York Avenue." I was shocked because that area is close to CUA, but it wasn’t an area where people went out a whole lot. There was no Union Market, and H Street was not what it is today. I would say the same for U Street, which has also been built up in a way that I never expected in college.

… Each of these neighborhoods — Brookland, NoMa, and U Street — has residents who have lived there for decades. You can’t forget about those long-term residents while gentrification occurs around you. It’s great to see these neighbourhoods evolve, yet you have to question who benefits from it.

D.C. as a city is very much centered on professional millennials. But the truth is that there are more homeless kids and parents living in D.C. than there are single adults. So, it does make me question how holistic these changes are. I hope they are part of a larger goal to enhance the quality of life for everyone in D.C. instead of creating a wider divide.

… I do think there is a sense of haves versus have-nots in D.C. I also think that most of the new developments in recent years -- from condos to restaurants -- cater to certain residents to the exclusion of others. It’s not to say that these new developments are a bad thing. D.C. is a lot safer than it used to be, and those who have lived here for decades confirm this to me.

I know that my perspective is limited, because I am one younger person who has lived in this city on and off as opposed to investing my whole life here. That said, I do see myself staying in D.C. indefinitely. It is rated the best city for women in technology, the city where the pay gap is smallest, and has more women-owned businesses than any other metropolitan area. It will take something substantial to make me leave when I already have the best.