I’m going to be on a panel on open government at the U.S. Capitol on March 12 to kick off Sunshine Week.
I’m going to be on a panel on open government at the U.S. Capitol on March 12 to kick off Sunshine Week.
My last day at the Sunlight Foundation was this past Monday, April 30, just over two years since I joined. My final day in the office, in fact, was 12 years to the day after the nonpartisan nonprofit was founded, an Internet era ago in 2006.
I’m glad that the last interview that I sat down for was Episode 304 of Michael O’Connell’s excellent “It’s All Journalism” podcast, taped over at Federal News Radio, almost six years after I first joined his series to talk about open government. I’ve learned a lot about fighting for truth and transparency in the interim, and plan to share more in the year ahead.
I have been incredibly proud to wear Sunlight’s pin on my jacket lapel and speak up for public access to public information around the world, from Congress and the White House to foreign capitols in Europe and South America.
I’m also incredibly grateful for the extraordinary opportunity to not only work on some of the most important democratic issues that we face as a nation and a worldwide community, from access to information and freedom of expression to human rights, but also to advocate for meaningful reforms that create the changes in the world we wish to see.
I’ve seen the projects that I created and nurtured at Sunlight drive national conversations and catalyze oversight, from acting as a transparency watchdog to tracking Trump’s conflicts of interest and reporting on the corruption of this presidency, to the helping to nurture the development and launch of the Web Integrity Project after we started tracking open data takedowns. I talked with hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists about open government and civic technology. And I was proud to convene conversations during Sunshine Week , moderate debates and deliver keynote talks abroad.
I learned a lot about working with Congress as well, from Freedom of Information Act reform to the Open Government Data Act. I’m particularly proud that in 2017, after we called for political ad transparency online in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, U.S. Senators came to us and drafted the Honest Ads Act with us and Sunlight’s allies. In 2018, Facebook, Twitter and Google are all working on implementing versions of the disclosures and disclaimers that we called for, the bill remains in play in Congress, and states are drafting laws based on it. As a native of upstate New York, I couldn’t be more pleased that New York State passed the Democracy Protection Act, on which I worked with Cuomo’s legislative staff.
Government openness, transparency, and accountability matter now more than ever. I will continue to be an advocate in this space for these ideals and the maintenance of the laws that ensure public access, consent and participation aren’t an afterthought in governance. This isn’t just about the United States, but all of us. One of my favorite duties Sunlight was to host and moderate discussions about open government around DC with delegations of foreign government officials, journalists and transparency advocates. I always learned more than I shared.
I hope that Sunlight will endure as a beacon for the public, press and open government movement around the world in the year ahead.
I’m going to continue to live and work on Capitol Hill as an independent writer, open government advocate, parent, neighbor, and engaged citizen. If you’re DC, I may run into you at New America, for a discussion about online comments and good governance.
While I won’t be stepping offline or disengaging just yet, I also haven’t taken a proper vacation since August 2016, staying connected through the holidays and weekends of this unprecedented presidency — so that’s on the docket. I’ll share more about what’s next in the weeks to come.
Thank you to everyone who helped me to find my feet in April 2016 and has collaborated with me over the past two years. I hope to see you soon.
I love visiting the U.S. National Archives. I’m humbled every time and honored to talk with David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, when there’s an opportunity.
In July, I reflected upon how the national creed preserved there belongs to all Americans.
To be an American is to know our history, from slavery to civil war, and honor the patriots who defeated fascism to extend equal justice to all.
To be an American is to know that our rights can never be taken for granted, nor can injustice to one be tolerated lest it be extended to all.
To be an American is to know we have always been a country of immigrants, of second chances, of parents sacrificing to give children their shot.
To be an American is to embrace self-government of, by and for the people, which requires requires more of us as citizens than a biennial vote.
To be an American means putting aside party for patriotism, whether we serve with those who put out fires, heal the sick, or mete out justice.
Our shared history also includes racism, rage & ignorance. Social fabric can be ripped and undone by demagogy. Civil rights suspended by fear.
I am proud to be an American because we have overcome fear and injustice in the past. I’m humbled to stand with all who protect and serve today.
Our times ask more of us than apathy. Be informed. Be engaged in a community. Be kind. Volunteer. Serve. And vote.
I’m still processing the death of my grandmother this weekend, on Saturday night. I haven’t shared any updates anywhere about it online. I’ve gone through several stages of grief, from disbelief to numbness to acceptance and deep sadness. You never know how long you’ll have with some one. Some times, they’re gone in an instant.
News of her death was in the Associated Press yesterday, along with local news yesterday.
The circumstances of her passing feel at once banal and extraordinary. My grandmother and her longtime partner, Ben, were driving back home from visiting his son and grandchild, just outside of DC. According to state police, around 6:30 PM he hit another vehicle on the Beltway and lost control of their car, hitting the jersey barriers on the right before veering across the road to hit another on the median and come to a stop.
Passersby pulled over and quietly committed an act of heroism, pulling them both from the car before it caught fire. I’m grateful to these good Samaritans, who may well have saved Ben’s life and tried to save my grandmother.
After the Maryland state police arrived and saw the extent of her injuries, and called in a helicopter to medevac her to the Maryland Trauma Center. Sadly, she passed in flight, despite the efforts of the paramedics and the doctors and nurses in the ER. [Virgil Ruben Carlson passed away from his injuries one week later.]
My sister, thinking of “Mom Mom” this morning, shared an item from the “Fells Pointer,” a publication from the neighborhood that she and my grandfather, Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., moved to in September 1968.
My grandmother not only renovated the 18th century townhouse that she, my grandfather, uncles and a troop of Boy Scouts rescued from ruin, in other words, but became a pillar of the early community of preservationists who moved into the then-decayed houses of Fells Point and then fought to protect the entire historic neighborhood when government officials sought to run an expressway through the area.
As my sister Susanna Brennan Buchta noted in her remembrance of her, our grandmother was both “an indomitable spirit and community activist”:
“…she and her fellow members of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point probably saved Baltimore. Without their efforts to stop the expansion of I-95 straight through our historic Inner Harbor, Baltimore could well have become another Detroit. Instead, we got our ‘second wind’ and a beautiful waterfront attracting millions of visitors and capital to invigorate vibrant neighborhoods.”
These neighborhoods are now the jewels of the Baltimore of today. While the city still has immense challenges, from poverty to crime to urban blight, the revival that began in the late 1960s and fiercely defended by men and women like my grandmother in the “expressway revolt” will endure for decades to come.
Jean Harvey Hepner had just turned 90 as 2014 rolled over. She lived a long, full life, raising 4 children, including my mother, her eldest. She leaves behind dozens of grieving family members and friends, including this eldest grandchild who is grateful for last Christmas, when Mom Mom was able to meet and connect with Allegra, her first great-grandchild, and the six weeks in the summer of 2005 when I stayed with her in Fells Point, finishing renovations that my grandfather had begun in the 1980s.
Today, I’m remembering nearly 4 decades of my life with her, from the wonders of Boxing Day to the fun of egg hunts on Easter to halcyon summer days on the coast of Maine. I’m glad that we had the time to visit the Robert Long House in Fells Point and walk around the beautiful garden that she had painstakingly, methodically researched and planted with the flowering plants and herbs that would have been present in colonial Baltimore, when the house was originally built. My grandmother knew an enormous amount about plants, a passion and knowledge base that she passed on to her children over the decades, along with any number of other things.
One of the most precious gifts she ever gave me was a perfect Meyer lemon from the tree that resided in her sunny drawing room on Fell Street. I made one of the best lemon-butter sauces of my life with that fruit, and reserved the zest from the skin for many deserts and dishes to come to boot. My grandmother would have approved of that thorough use. As a child who came to age during the Depression, she reserved, preserved and even hoarded all kinds of things, from string to hardware to any number of baskets, button and doodads that I found fascinating as a child.
I still have an index card, somewhere, inscribed with her simple, spectacular recipe for Maryland crab cakes, although I stopped needing to consult it long ago: some skills, once your grandmother teaches you to do them, become engraved in your memory for lifetime.
I miss you so much already, Mom Mom.
Frager’s Hardware, a Capitol Hill landmark beloved by generations of Washingtonians, was ravaged by a fire last night. Across my neighborhood, people are waking up to the reality of a devastated community hub. Mike Debonis captured the intensity of last night’s events on a liveblog at the Washington Post.
— DC Fire Fighters L36 (@IAFF36) June 6, 2013
The Capitol Hill institution has been part of the fabric of residential life for generations of Washingtonians. For many residents, Frager’s was part of home. Thankfully, no one was killed in the blaze, although two of the dozens of DC firefighters to responded to the 4-alarm fire were slightly injured bringing it under control.
As the fire burned last night, people already began calling for Frager’s to be rebuilt, just as Eastern Market and the Tune Inn were after fires swept through them. Frager’s general manager Nick Kapalanis vowed to rebuild Fragers and DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray said the city would support him in the effort.
What was inside of the scorched walls of those buildings is gone forever. While the owners, city and community of Fragers’s can — and many hope, will — build a beautiful new hardware store to serve the community between the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River, the contents and character of the 93-year old institutions are reduced to smoldering rubble. Something irreplaceable lies in ruins.
Walking around those crowded, claustrophobic aisles and basement felt like shopping in an unfamiliar city center preserved from a previous century, similar to the medieval city centers of Europe or Boston’s North End. I loved it. I spent years in renovating old houses in greater Boston and instantly appreciated how special this neighborhood hardware store was.
Over years, you might learn what was where and how to navigate to it, but you were always better off asking one of Frager’s employees, who always knew where anything a given need for a given weekend project or months-long remodeling effort might be. In many ways, Frager’s staff acted much like London cab drivers, using “the knowledge” to help residents get from Point A to Point B in their journey.
Frager’s was one of the best examples of an iconic American institution that in many ways exemplifies our national character: the neighborhood hardware store. We’re a nation of tinkerers and fixers, backyard hobbyists and garage mechanics. Our basements, barns and workshops hold multitudes of weekend projects, finished and unfinished, with boxes and cans of the extra parts and fasteners that we might need in the future.
Tom Bridge, writing for “We Love DC,” captured this sentiment well this morning:
I can only think of one thing to do today: appreciate your neighborhood and city institutions. By fire or by tragedy, they may leave before we’re ready. This city is full of many beautiful, incredible places like Frager’s, places that can’t easily be replaced or rebuilt, that are unique to our place and our time, special threads that hold together neighborhoods and communities. Our communities need places like Frager’s the same way they need schools and fire stations and hospitals. They’re just not the same without them.
Help Frager’s rebuild if you can, or help make sure your own institutions stay healthy in your community, it’s doing DC a good deed, and that truly matters.
In recent years, Home Depot and Lowes have offered a bigger, brighter options to consumers, standardizing and automating the sale of building supplies. As any long-time customer has learned, however, it’s a rare “big box” retailer that achieves the service, function, feeling and forum of a local hardware store like Frager’s, embedded within a community.
Fragers, down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has provided all of those bits, bolts and much more to thousands upon thousands of DC residents for nearly a century.
This morning, Frager’s is closed. It may be rebuilt, bigger, brighter and more beautiful, but it’s going to be many months before this burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill heals. Our mental maps are left to trace the contours of a landscape that now only persists in our collective memory.
Postscript: a reader emailed and shared a link to donate to the Frager’s Fund. To make a contribution, just click the “Donate” button and write “Frager’s” in the dedication section. The fund is administered by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF), a registered 501(c)(3) that helped rebuild Eastern Market after it burned in 2007. CHCF will also use the funds to support the 65 Fragers employees displaced by the fire. Contributions are tax-deductible.
For more on the morning after, read “Fire at landmark hardware store prompts DC to remember Fragers.”