By Jacob Fenston
Frontier poet Joaquin Miller spent much of his life adventuring across the wilds of gold-rush California, and writing about it. But for a few years, starting in 1883, he lived just off 16th Street, in Washington, D.C., where he built himself a tiny, rustic log cabin -- a replica of one he’d lived in in Shasta County. Like so many who move to Washington, Miller wouldn’t stay long.
But his cabin did stay, thanks to the efforts of a group of Californians living in D.C. When the cabin was threatened by encroaching development in 1911, the California State Society gathered enough money to save the cabin and relocate it to Rock Creek Park, a few miles from its original location.
Today, the cabin is largely forgotten. But the group of Californians who helped save it is still going strong.
Today, Joaquin Miller's cabin is unused and largely forgotten, sitting next to Rock Creek, in Washington, D.C.
California has a big presence in Washington. The city is home to thousands of Californians, who move to D.C. for work, or for school, drawn, like Miller, by the unique opportunities the city offers. California has the largest congressional delegation, which means hundreds of Californian staffers on Capitol Hill, plus people who come to work for California companies or non-profits. But the transition from the West Coast to D.C. isn’t always easy. One way to make that move smoother is to connect with fellow Californian transplants.
The California State Society is a social and networking club, with more than 300 members, many of them Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists, from both sides of the aisle.
The state society holds social events almost monthly. At the latest one, a holiday party in December, members drank California wine and nibbled California cheeses over fiscal-cliff-small-talk.
Patrick Ahrens, who works in the office of Congresswoman Janice Hahn, said events like this let people reminisce about home, and network at the same time.
“It’s just a chance for Californians to all come together - wherever you are in DC - come together as the California diaspora, the displaced Californians all here in the nation’s capital,” he said.
It’s also a chance to commiserate about the weather. “Last winter was my first winter,” said Ahrens. “I didn’t think I was going to survive because it went below 30. I had to buy my first winter coat, 23 years old.”
Claire Viall, sitting next to Ahrens, added, “And, as Californians, we’re not taught to drive in the snow.”
It’s not just the weather that can make getting used to D.C. a challenge. Lauren Wilson moved to Washington three years ago for a job as a lobbyist, which she loves. But she had a little bit of culture shock - the state society gatherings helped her feel more at home.
“I very much miss Oakland, and the Bay Area. It’s a really hard place to leave. And D.C. is a really hard place to get used to,” said Wilson.
In the Bay Area, she said, people are more accepting. “People just don’t think twice about how people are dressed or different kinds of relationships. And here, it’s very straightforward, very traditional, very vanilla.”
And yet, Washington has a way of sucking people in. Jennifer Poulakidas, a state society board member, moved to D.C. to work in Nancy Pelosi’s office, thinking she would leave in a couple of years. She’s stayed for twenty. But still, she says, she is a Californian.
“Any time someone asks me - anywhere I am in the world - ‘Where are you from?’ I say I’m from San Francisco. I happen to live in Washington, D.C., right now, but I’m from San Francisco, and in my mind, I will be getting back there at some point.”
Many Californians living in Washington say they’re moving back -- eventually. Claire Viall, at the state society holiday party, said Californians typically only last five years in Washington.
“We’re not as tough maybe as the people who grew up on the East Coast. We hold open doors and say 'thank you' and 'please.'”
Back in the 1890s, Joaquin Miller didn’t even last five years. Like many people, he was drawn to Washington by ambition - angling for a political appointment. When it didn’t pan out, he packed up and headed back to the Bay Area. There, he built another house, in the Oakland hills, in what’s now Joaquin Miller Park.