(Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski)
It certainly wasn’t the first time someone dropped their basket of organic sundries at the P Street Whole Foods and ran out. But it wasn’t the long line or the lack of non-vegan cream cheese that pushed Danny Harris over the edge, it was an existential crisis. He felt a sense of disconnect to the world around him that he’d never before experienced. “You can walk into that place and when you’re conscious of the people around you, you notice they’re very similar. They’re coming from work, or maybe going to work. They might have a yoga mat or a gym bag. They have their iPhones. They’re buying quinoa and organic tomatoes. They’re living in the same space, but they’re not interacting,” he said. “So, for many reasons mostly related to the lack of the connections I felt with people around me, who were mostly very similar to me, I had this panic attack.”
A blessing in disguise, though, this led Harris to make a life-changing decision. “I decided I wanted to interview I stranger every day,” he said. And so he started People’s District, a blog that allows Harris not only to get to know some of the strangers he comes across who he says he “sees more often than his family,” but also to showcase the endless variety of faces that give this city its soul. “It started as therapy, really,” he said, pointing out pretty much how all blogs start. However, since its humble inception in 2009, it’s become much more. Not only is it now Harris’s full-time career, but it's appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times. But perhaps most importantly, his blog reiterates the importance of storytelling in our lives, and maybe even inspires us to tell our own. I sat down with Harris at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe to find out more.
SCOUT: DC definitely has the ability to drive one to the edge, but what specifically was different about feeling disconnected here, rather than say in New York?
DANNY: I felt like when I was in New York, I wanted so badly to immediately be a New Yorker. You can be there for only a few days and immediately feel this connection to the place. In Washington, I didn’t really have that and I saw that many people around me didn’t have that either and I really struggled with that idea.
SCOUT: Why do you think that is? Is DC just more introverted or shy or just filled with a bunch of self-absorbed assholes, maybe we’re lame…
DANNY: People make all kinds of comments about what DC is or what it isn’t. I’m intrigued that you can talk to 10 people in this city and they’ll describe how this city is divided in 15 different ways. There’s NW versus everything else, there’s federal versus local, there’s Washington versus DC. It’s hard to see it some of the time. Who represents Washington?
SCOUT: I have no idea…
DANNY: I don’t know who it is. I don’t necessarily think there has to be somebody. Maybe Kojo Nnamdi.
SCOUT: Yes! He’d be a pretty cool spokesperson. And speaking of people, or rather TO people, talking to strangers can be a bit, I don’t know, not always comfortable for everybody. Have you always been an extravert?
DANNY: Yeah, but this is different. I guess as a kid I’d be the one on the playground organizing the games or whatever, but here I’m the white kid in a segregated city and I’m going to neighborhoods where people say I’m not supposed to go and talking to people…
SCOUT: Do you get hostile responses?
DANNY: Actually, it’s been amazing to see how quickly people welcome me into their world. There was this woman I met on H Street NE, a grandmother walking around with her grandchildren. We were walking kind of next to each other and she turns to me because her grandkids said something and she says, “Kids these days know nothing about Washington. Isn’t that ridiculous?” I was like, “Well, hey, I’m doing this project…” And so we spent the next few hours walking around NE together and then she invites me into her house to drink iced tea and show me pictures and talk more about her life.
SCOUT: That’s fantastic!
DANNY: Yeah, it’s incredible. Also, a lot of people tell me stories that they don’t tell other people.
SCOUT: Do you think that’s because you’ll give them Internet fame?
DANNY: I really don’t think so. I think it’s often because no one generally asks. I mean, even for myself, I’m fortunate enough that you’re asking me, but a lot of people don’t get that opportunity. In doing so, you see there’s a beauty in storytelling.
SCOUT: Is it fair to say this whole thing changed your life?
DANNY: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I quit my job at [the Department of] Treasury in February 2010, and people ask me now, “Well, how do you pay the rent?” One of the really great things is that there’s a wonderful value of using this process to help organizations, like Bread for the City or fundraising campaigns… Even now I’m doing a project for Serve DC to do a storytelling campaign around 9/11. Stories are at the center of so many things. But what I really want it to be is more of a movement, so that it’s not just about telling stories, but about encouraging people to interact. Hopefully it doesn’t have to take Hurricane Irene, and earthquakes, or terror to create more of those moments.
We hope so, too, and we think with Harris at the helm it won’t need to. He’s working on incorporating more tools into his work in DC and expanding his blog to other cities. And if all that weren’t enough to keep one man busy, Harris also DJs. He’s a mainstay at the Fatback and On and On parties, and also DJs at various venues around the District. Keep up with it all by following him on Twitter or Facebook and, hey, don't forget to say “hi.”