Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

For years, the first (and sometimes only) person to greet bleary-eyed D.C. commuters like me with an enthusiastic “good morning!” and a warm smile was the hawker handing out a fresh copy of the Washington Post Express. Teams of distributors for the local commuter newspaper were stationed at the entrances of various Metro transit stations across the greater D.C. area—until September 13, when the 16-year-old publication’s final issue was released.

The Washington Post cited loss of revenue and blamed the rise of mobile technology—in particular, the free public Wi-Fi that Metro installed in all its underground stations last year, which allowed subway travelers to remain glued to their screens at all times. “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones,” read the final issue’s cover line. A team of 20 journalists was laid off, as were 75 hawkers who handed out copies—like Hassan, who stood outside the Dupont Circle station. Known for his warm greetings, he’d been there every weekday, rain or shine.

Days earlier, I had written that fewer Americans were donating their time and money since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So it was encouraging to see that someone immediately set up a GoFundMe to raise $5,000 for Hassan, and that Washingtonians were (are are still) pitching in. That goal was met before the campaign’s first day ended, and as of this writing, 375 donors have collectively contributed nearly $12,000. (The organizers have since launched another campaign for all the other distributors.)

The end of the Express, and the stories they produced, is in itself also a loss for D.C., as it is for the other cities have fallen victim to the demise of local journalism. But losing the hawkers clearly struck a nerve: In a city becoming better known for the growing divide between elites, gentrifiers, and native Washingtonians, they helped give D.C. a human touch.

That’s often the case in big metropolises where life moves at such a frantic pace that we forget to slow down and thank the people who quietly make the city run. In South Korea last year, for example, I wrote that it was the yogurt ajummahs (aunties who sold cold drinks out of mobile carts) and the women selling rice rolls outside transit stations who are the backbone of Seoul. Back in D.C., the hawkers brightened the long and often dreadful chore of the daily commute. And they served as a reminder that in the midst of all the chaos, a wave or smile can go a long way.

“It is crazy to think how big of an impact such a small gesture can have and for that,” a contributor to the GoFundMe campaign wrote. “I thank you.”

—Linda Poon

What we’re writing:

Smoky Mountains

Autumn is upon us! Here’s a map to help you plan fall foliage excursions. ¤ Bus signs don’t have to be this bad. ¤ Country music is still king in Nashville. ¤ Dublin is losing its David Attenborough mural—and everything else that makes it cool. ¤ A love story in three maps. ¤ Uber and Lyft are finally coming to a city that rejected ride-hailing. ¤ Meanwhile, city folks just love to hate scooters, maybe unfairly. ¤ Parks can gentrify, too. ¤ No, Parisians don’t want a mall at their beloved train station. ¤ Want to know what’s edible in a city? Look for the forage beacons. ¤ D.C.’s newest attraction is a beautiful maze. (And it’s made with crinkled concrete.)

What we’re taking in:

Are you living your best #vanlife? Is anyone? (The Baffler) ¤ The tricky art of digitizing indigenous languages (Slate) ¤ When homes near you cost too much, shop online. (Curbed) ¤ What film best represents your city? (The Yardbarker) ¤ How the school bus became yellow. (Smithsonian) ¤ The ban on billboard boats has something to do with Trump. (New Yorker) ¤ Coming to an economy cabin near you: actual good news. (Conde Nast Traveler) ¤ Mourning the loss of Atlanta’s arts and culture magazine. (Atlanta Magazine) ¤ College town hotels are getting fancy, for the sake of school spirit. (Bloomberg)

Views from the ground:

@oscar_bragos looked up to find window cleaners dangling from a building in Buenos Aires. @davidrosalesb tagged behind a toy vendor in Guatemala City. @shomteoh captures a bird's-eye view of fruit vendors in Bangkok. @kreshna photographed a traffic warden on skates in Jakarta.

Showcase your photos with the hashtag #citylabontheground and we'll feature it on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Perspective

    In a Pandemic, We're All 'Transit Dependent'

    Now more than ever, public transportation is not just about ridership. Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible.

  2. Coronavirus

    The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

    The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

  3. Equity

    What Bigotry Looks Like During Social Distancing

    As reports of harassment and assault against Asian Americans increase, community advocates are finding new ways to tackle the spread of xenophobia.

  4. photo: San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency employees turn an empty cable car in San Francisco on March 4.

    As Coronavirus Quiets Streets, Some Cities Speed Road and Transit Fixes

    With cities in lockdown and workplaces closed, the big drop in traffic and transit riders allows road repair and construction projects to rush forward.

  5. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.