Haunted By History: Tom's Take on Washington


July 24 2012, Washington, DC: Through which lens do you see your city? An architectural lens like Cecille's? A photographic lens like Charlotte's? Do you see your surroundings differently because you're a mother? A neighborhood veteran? A changemaker? Tom Cochran views his hometown through the lens of history. His Washington is one in which walls talk and neighborhoods swell with stories -- a place where a character named Officer Sprinkle chases down villains and a group of watermen set out on a shark hunt down the Potomac River. You couldn't make this stuff up, and he doesn't have to: Tom researches the very true and sometimes unbelievable stories of Washington's past and publishes the nuggets he uncovers on his blog, Ghosts of DC. Though visitors to the nation's capital routinely embark on federal history lessons, Tom insists they are only scratching the surface. The history of Tom's hometown extends far beyond the beaten path; it seeps from corner stores and now-popular restaurants, from apartments and houses throughout neighborhoods that generations of families once called home. Since starting his blog in January, Tom has spent his weekends accessing historical documents from the Washington Post archives, the Library of Congress and the National Archives, digging up dirt about his surroundings.

"I'll walk around and notice a building that I've noticed for years and years, but I don't know anything about it," Tom said. "I'll start by putting in the address and seeing if I can pop up the stories. I'll start looking into the people associated with it."

Among his favorites characters discovered thus far are the members of the Society for the Suppression of Man-Eating Fish and the heroic Officer Sprinkle (pictured below).

"I have almost a borderline bromance with Officer Sprinkle," Tom joked. "You started peeling back the layers of the onion and it's fascinating. I'd love to track down some of his descendants."

"DC is a city where millions of people have lived for over 200 years," Tom added. "A lot of people focus on the White House, the Capitol, the monuments, and don't really pay attention to the fact that this is where people live -- that there are large communities of people from here."

Like many of the city's transient types, Tom himself is not entirely "from here", but he's declared Washington his adopted home. His father a diplomat, Tom grew up in places like Japan and Thailand as well as Washington. He later returned to the city as an adult, living in the neighborhood of Adams Morgan for several years before buying a home in Columbia Heights.

"I wasn't really from anywhere, but I kind of felt like I was from DC," Tom said. "I think having lived elsewhere makes me appreciate the city more."

His appreciation for this place has also deepened the more he's learned of its history.

"I like DC more since I started the blog because now I know a lot more about it," he said. "There were far larger ethnic communities and neighborhoods then: An Italian neighborhood, an Irish neighborhood... it seems like they kinda disappeared. I'm curious to know, Where did the Italians go? Where did the Irish go? We don't really have those communities like New York."

Tom also likes that DC is still a work in progress, including his own neighborhood of Columbia Heights.

"Even five years ago, Columbia Heights wasn't what it is today," he said. "It was a bunch of holes in the ground. You knew something was gonna happen, you just didn't know when. It's unbelievable, it's really dramatic how quick it's grown in such a compressed time frame. In the last decade, DC has changed an unbelievable amount."

"I don't see myself going anywhere," Tom said. "I really like this city. It's a small city and a big town full of really smart, engaging, driven people.  I think it has a great history that not a lot of people know about."