News & Politics

Best of Washington 2021: The 13 People, Animals, and Things to Know in DC Right Now

New arrivals, political and culture news, unsung heroes, and the best—and worst—civic trends

Xiao Qi Ji, one of the best new arrivals in DC. Photograph courtesy of National Zoo.

Best New Arrival

Photograph of Young by Melanie Dunea.

Kevin Young, Museum Director

An exciting addition to the arts scene, Kevin Young is an archivist, collector, and poet now running the National Museum of African American History & Culture, where his wide-ranging interests (political hoaxes, jazz, rare books) meet their culturally omnivorous match. Though he transitioned quietly from his post atop the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture while the Smithsonian’s doors were still closed, Young hasn’t missed a beat: He reopened the muse-um in May, threw out the first pitch at Nats Park on Juneteenth, published his 12th book of poetry, and in the coming months will unveil an all-digital Searchable Museum where you can examine troves of artifacts up close, as part of his mission to expand accessibility.


Best New Non-Human Arrival

Xiao Qi Ji, National Zoo Panda

Sure, there was plenty of bad news over the past year and a half. But one bright spot? The National Zoo’s one-year-old panda, Xiao Qi Ji, whose name aptly translates to “little miracle.” We collectively cooed over the baby bear’s journey from fuzzy stick of butter to rolypoly rascal, and the Panda Cam proved to be better feel-good TV than any Netflix original.


Best Washington Post Personnel Move

Promoting Krissah Thompson to Managing Editor

The Post made a historic appointment in May when it named Sally Buzbee as its first female executive editor. But an arguably more profound change occurred last August when Krissah Thompson, a former editor in Style, became managing editor for diversity and inclusion, charged with retaining journalists of color. For all of the Post’s self-mythology, its top-down culture can be alienating for people who aren’t white dudes, Ivy-educated, or stars of political coverage. Thompson, on the other hand, is known for listening and making square pegs feel heard—and maybe helping them find a way to stick around.


Best Evolution at the White House Press Shop

Photograph of Jean-Pierre by Katie Ricks/Official White House Photo.

Two Queer Women of Color at the Top

The public face of the Biden administration looks a lot different than its immediate predecessor’s, sure, but it’s also poles apart from other predecessors’. All the briefing-room leadership posts are helmed by women, and two are held by queer women of color: deputy communications director Pili Tobar and (shown below) principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Tobar grew up partly in Guatemala, moved back to the US for college, and came up the ranks as an advocate on immigration issues and a press operative for Democrats including Chuck Schumer. Jean-Pierre, an immigrant from the French West Indies and a longtime organizer and operative, became the first openly gay and second Black woman in history to lead the daily on-camera White House press briefing earlier this year. A presidential press operation that reflects America’s diversity is a good look for Washington, and the country.


Best Thing a Long Time Coming

Scrubbing Segregationists’ Names From Local Schools

This region grappled with some of its namesakes before George Floyd’s murder, but the reckoning over race that followed his death last summer sped up attempts to dislodge the names of segregationists such as T.C. Williams (an Alexandria schools superintendent), Cloyd Heck Marvin (a former president of George Washington University), and Woodrow Wilson from local educational facilities.


Best Sign of Life We Never Thought We’d Appreciate

Tourists Are Back

When we asked on social media what readers have loved most about Washington during the pandemic, we were surprised by a common answer: the lack of tourists. Visitors, after all, mean revenue in many sectors, and their absence was acutely felt in some paychecks. But we get it—their scarcity did mean we had the monuments to ourselves. No throngs in the background of selfies. We could walk or jog on the Mall without weaving through seventh-grade school groups. When we most needed to find solace, we could explore our own city in relative peace. Though perhaps we’re ready to share again.


Best Transit Update

The Demise of Gate 35X

Gate 35X was the over-crowded bane of many a Reagan National traveler’s existence, with the added annoyance of requiring a shuttle bus to get to the plane. But the infamous portal is no more, replaced in the spring with a 14-gate, 230,000-square-foot concourse years in the making. The new terminal is light-filled, and travelers can enjoy lounge seats near the windows, plenty of outlets for phone-charging, and a food court with appetizing options such as Timber Pizza and Peet’s Coffee.


Best New Local-Government Job

DC Chief Equity Officer

After protests demanding racial justice swept the city last summer, Mayor Muriel Bowser established the Office of Racial Equity to deal head-on with the city’s racial disparities. The new department also means a new position to lead the charge: the District’s first-ever chief equity officer. Currently held by healthcare advocate Amber Hewitt, the role involves collaboration with other agencies to understand how equity issues touch every facet of DC’s government.


Best New Administration Trend

Officials Who Get Out and About

True, the Bidens like to escape to Delaware on weekends, and the VP and her husband seem to crash at their LA place on the regular—but when they’re in town, POTUS et al. aren’t holing up at home as much as the last administration did. The Bidens have hit Le Diplomate and other restaurants, while Kamala and Doug have been spotted walking the National Arboretum, running the steps at the Lincoln Memorial, and dining around the city. Pete Buttigieg and Symone Sanders more than get around, too.


Best Unsung Heroes

Photograph of janitor by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images.

The Janitors Who Cleaned Up After the Capitol Insurrection

Within hours after rioters who broke into and damaged the US Capitol were cleared out, the custodial staff got to work—sweeping shards of glass, scrubbing blood off the floors, removing feces from walls. Beyond putting their health at risk by showing up to work in the midst of a pandemic, many of these employees were Black and Latino and had to clean up a mess made by a mob that had toted Confederate flags into the building and erected a noose outside. Partly thanks to their work, Congress was able to reconvene that evening to certify the electoral ballots.


Worst Civic Squabble

Photographs of crowd by Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters/Newscom.

Loudoun County and Critical Race Theory

Loudoun County has come to symbolize perhaps the biggest culture-war fight in America right now: whether anti-racism has a place in schools. An initiative to boost equity in the treatment of students sparked all-out war in the Northern Virginia district this past year, as white critics essentially accused schools officials of reverse racism, claiming they’re promoting critical race theory—the academic framework teaching that racism is systemic—and harming students with divisive rhetoric. The battle has lured hundreds to school-board meetings, where irate parents and their allies have taken to standing on tables, flicking off bureaucrats, and screaming. Local Facebook forums are neighbor-on-neighbor cauldrons of hate. Police have made arrests during at least one civic gathering. It’s an embarrassment for the region—and for the school district that was the last in Virginia to desegregate.


Best Civic Squabble


Ever since DC allowed restaurants to expand seating onto sidewalks and streets last year, patrons and passersby alike have harbored conflicted feelings. Streeteries have helped keep restaurants and their employees afloat and have provided respite to cooped-up residents desperate both to socialize and to prop up favorite haunts. But not all restaurants have been good citizens, sometimes blocking curb cuts, taking over too much of a sidewalk, or otherwise failing to ensure accessibility for those with strollers or disabilities. The program was meant to carry on until the end of the public-health emergency, but now proponents want streeteries to stay. We don’t envy officials who’ll have to strike a balance among commerce, pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers—but it’s hard to imagine a better debate than one over how to keep up the vibrancy of our cityscape.


Best Surprise Shout-Out to DC Culture

“Da Butt” at the Oscars

Perhaps the most unexpected moment of the 2021 Academy Awards was when musical director Questlove quizzed the celebs in attendance about songs from movies. Glenn Close correctly identified EU’s “Da Butt,” adding, “Shout-outs to Sugar Bear, the Backyard Band, and the whole DMV”—even doing the dance from School Daze. The whole thing was a setup, but who cares, really? EU singer Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott said he was “speechless” about the tribute, and it was a poignant counterpoint to claims by statehood opponents that Washington lacks its own culture.

This article appears in the September 2021 issue of Washingtonian.