By Christina Bruce
The last “first” time that Belinda Garza and Matt Hartwig met, they were at an engagement party, seated at opposite ends of a large table. Noticing a tall and handsome stranger, Belinda elbowed her friend and whispered, “Who’s that?” She also noticed how much fun the guests on his side of the table seemed to be having. “I loved the people on my end but wanted in on that party!”
First impressions can count for a lot, but not in this case. Garza and Hartwig already met more than once over the years, but those meetings never quite registered until that fateful party. As Garza says more than five years later, “Timing is everything.”
Timing also turned out to be key in finding the airy, slate-grey row house in Northwest Washington D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood that they now share with 7-month-old daughter, Graciela and Spot, a three-year-old Bluetick/Coonhound mix (they think).
While living in Columbia Heights, a busy neighborhood about a mile south, they knew they wanted to find a place “that was big enough to allow us to grow,” says Harwig, an Iowa native who’s director of communications and external affairs at BP America (Garza, who hails from Texas, is vice president of government relations at the Spanish language cable network, Univision). The pair wasn’t initially familiar with Petworth, but after much searching, they finally settled on this four-bedroom house because it had a yard and was close to the Metro, which made for easier commuting. “It turned out to be a really good move,” Hartwig says, “because in the year and a half we’ve been here, it has really changed.”
He means for the better. Petworth is one of several neighborhoods in D.C. that’s seen a transformation as a result of the city’s landmark growth in recent years. New restaurants and businesses (including “an actual bookstore that sells books,” Hartwig wrily notes) have popped up within walking distance—and for the couple, so has a community.
“The neighborhood is changing so much, and so quickly, that all the residents are really active in what’s going on,” Garza says. D.C.’s growth has led to the development of New York-style enclaves with their own identities. Says Hartwig, “Each neighborhood is developing its own vibe. This one feels very family-oriented. You still have a nice mix of new people with longtime residents, who have seen the neighborhood go through all kinds of transitions.”
The couple have come to rely on the neighborhood’s active listserv, which advertises everything from schools to goods for sale. But it was Hartwig’s love of basketball that led them to part ownership in a nearby diner. Coaching the son of entrepreneur Paul Ruppert, who owns the aforementioned bookstore as well as local haunts like the upscale pub Petworth Citizen, Hartwig got to know about his latest project, a diner called Slim’s, which is slated to open this August. Ruppert told Hartwig he’d be opening up 45 percent of the diner’s ownership to the community, and Hartwig and Garza decided to take a stake in it—they felt the neighborhood could use a place that was open late, something not common in early-to-close D.C.
Ruppert also owns one of the couple’s favorite new places for a date night, the cozy, popular Japanese-French restaurant, Crane & Turtle, four blocks away from their house. “Small seating, open kitchen, great menu, small plates, good wine,” enthuses Garza.
Homegrown ‘hood-within-‘hood events such as Grant Circle Social, a monthly outdoor gathering, help keep them connected with neighbors. “People take their dogs, or take their kids,” Garza says. “We take them both,” says Hartwig, adding that the get-together is a nice way to meet neighbors, “because there are a lot of new, particularly young, families moving in.” Hartwig is also on the board of Petworth’s weekend market, featuring farm vendors, live music, and crafts,
Baby Graciela can also be seen about town at “many a happy hour, many a brunch,” Garza says. Hartwig jokes that he’s posted Graciela’s picture at Petworth Citizen on Instagram with the hashtag #babyinabar, a nod to the early after-work drinking scene where strollers are not uncommon.
It’s possible that Graciela’s active social calendar has contributed to what Hartwig calls her “baby FOMO”: Fear of Missing Out. Both Graciela and Spot—a rescue from local nonprofit Lucky Dog who also frequents the nearby dog run and has play dates with other local canines—like to socialize. Spot plunks himself in the middle of the group when visitors are around, while Graciela defies bedtime and makes baby-chat with new acquaintances.
Rock Creek Park, the four-square-mile urban oasis a short drive away, is a favorite for weekend mornings. “When it’s warm, we come back through the farmer’s market on Saturdays, get some coffee and some fruit and pastries, and then we get started with our day,” Garza says.
It wasn’t so long ago that she and Hartwig would have been just getting to the gym at that hour, she recalls. But Graciela and Spot aren’t on the same timetable: “They don’t know what a weekend is yet.”
Photographs by Jeffrey Morris