Dan Silverman is a D.C. evangelist. Even on this usual Monday, he’s sitting outside Soapstone Market, just north of the Van Ness Metro stop, drinking a Citra Lemon Saison from D.C-based 3 Stars Brewing and wearing a Washington Nationals hat and a T-shirt with the logo of his own D.C.-centric blog, PoPville.
Or at least, it started out as a blog called Prince of Petworth 12 years ago on the once-cutting edge Blogspot site. These days, PoPville is harder to pin down. It’s part blog, part breaking news, part advice community, part press release feed and part platform for the cute dogs, nice crossing guards, cool cars, local crimes, political posters and other D.C. ephemera.
And the man behind the curtain? New York-native, but D.C.-convert Silverman, 43.
“The Petworth of 2006 is miles and miles from the Petworth of today,” he says. “At that time, if anybody knew anything about Petworth, it was in a negative light.”
So he wanted to showcase the better side of his neighborhood — the development, the hidden gems, the people. The readers started to come pretty quickly, he says, but especially when he started covering the 2006 council race to replace Adrian Fenty, who would become the next D.C. mayor. Fenty represented Ward 4, which includes Petworth.
“It’s hard to remember, but back then nobody was doing hyper local news,” Silverman says. “Like, nobody. There were a few early blogs and there were regular newspapers, but nobody was saying like, ‘Oh hey, this restaurant is opening,’ which is my bread and butter.”
The viability — and availability — of hyperlocal news is having a bit of a renaissance. The DCist, which closed late last year, just reopened under the ownership of WAMU-FM. The Washington Post and Washington City Paper were both bought by wealthy businessmen — Jeff Bezos and Marc Ein, respectively — who have infused money and resources into the publications.
But PoPville is not quite journalism, although it’s journalism-adjacent. And Silverman doesn’t think of himself as a journalist. He’s more of a facilitator and voice for D.C. residents, he says. In fact, it’s kind of like his old job — homeland security consultant.
“I helped share information on the federal emergency response level” as a consultant, he says. “Now I just do it on the local level.”
As the blog expanded, so, too, did his sources for news as readers began throwing tips his way. He started out trying to confirm the information he was getting, he says. But he gave up after people he called to confirm would give the information to more established Washington publications.
Silverman’s apathy toward basic journalism is also fodder for his detractors — and he has more than a few, from other local blogs to Washington City Paper to local electronic punk musician Jack on Fire whose song, “Gotta Get That Silver, Man,” blasts him for capitalizing on and being a cheerleader for gentrification.
And, as many a reporter has pointed out and Silverman will readily admit, he’s had a few slip-ups, posting a rumor of a new restaurant that turns out to be false or, more seriously, in 2008 posting about a police investigation of a new 30-member crew of the Bloods gang setting up shop in Adams Morgan. It turned out that the investigation was much smaller than that.
But a handful of mistakes in 12 years surely constitutes a good record, Silverman says.
Amy Eisman, director of the journalism division at American University’s School of Communication, says there’s room for both reported, fact-checked journalism and the type of information Silverman provides.
“I don’t think he pretends to be something he’s not,” she says. “They say transparency is the new objectivity. He has passion and personality and that’s kind of the secret sauce.”
He also knows his audience, she adds. He is a platform for the day-to-day information many residents want to go about their lives. There’s a place for that.
There are lots of models for local news that people are trying, Eisman says, and the more the merrier. There’s no silver bullet yet, so she’s just happy people are trying.
Silverman had a bit of a meandering path to becoming one of the most prominent D.C. bloggers. He lived in Israel for a year right out of college before coming to Washington for a master’s degree in international relations in the 1990s. He did stints at a think tank specializing in Middle East policy and as the D.C. reporter for a Japanese newspaper. It was as a homeland security consultant that he started moonlighting as Prince of Petworth, quitting in 2009 to take the blog full-time.
“It started out of boredom and ‘what the hell?’” he says. “But it became something else very fast.”
Even Silverman doesn’t know how to describe that something else. PoPville is a blog, definitely, announcing new neighborhood restaurants and talking about new housing developments. But it’s also become what Silverman called an “informal advice network.”
It’s given PoPville something of a confessional feel, with the Jewish Silverman as the unlikely priestly center. People will write to him with questions about living in Washington, recent happenings or even confessing, as a Washingtonian article put it, “urban sins” like inappropriate trash removal and questionable parking. The level of anonymity — if someone emails him, Silverman says, he doesn’t post their full name or contact info on the site — also means people tell him even intensely personal stories of divorce, abortion and violent crime in the city.
But mostly — to go by recent examples — it’s readers asking for suggestions for where to have a wedding rehearsal dinner in Adams Morgan (per commenters: Perry’s Restaurant, Mintwood or Roofer’s Union), wanting to find a bar to watch last weekend’s Tony Awards at (“literally every gay bar with a television”) or posing a question about why Bethesda doesn’t have any independent bookstores. (Unfortunately, there’s not really an answer for this one).
The network of commenters and avid readers are really the backbone of the site and what keeps Silverman going. Well, that and his passion for D.C.
“There’s always something going on,” he says. “That’s the beautiful thing about doing what I do. And a lot of people have come to rely on me. So you don’t run out of information when people come to rely on you for everything.”
An army of Susans
Susan Kakesake, a 69-year-old longtime reader who lives in Capitol Hill, said she stumbled on Silverman’s site nearly a decade ago and has been reading it ever since. She feels like it helps her understand the pulse of the city.
“It was interesting just to keep up with the trends and I enjoy his take on things,” she says. “And now whenever I see interesting things on the Hill, I pass them along.”
Silverman has an army of Susans. And during the work week, Silverman typically posts 15-20 times a day, about three-quarters of which comes from the dozens of emails he receives daily.
“My threshold, always, for what I post is, ‘Is it of interest to me?’” he says.
Which is how you get the sort of whimsical series like Sweet City Rides (cool cars), Hawks around Town (just hawks spotted around D.C.) and Archaeological Finds, posts about interesting old items people find while renovating.
That last series? Hardly anyone actually reads it, he says, but he loves it. So he does it.
His particular voice and sensibility keep people coming back. Earlier this year, he started a Patreon page, a site that allows people to contribute to an artist or creator monthly. He has more than 300 “patrons” now and in the comments when he posted the news, people were effusive.
“I have gotten so much from this blog in the last decade, I feel like I owe you at least a few bucks a month in return,” writes commenter binntp.
“Coming from a longtime reader (since “Prince of Petworth” days) and first time commenter: Popville is like an ultra-local digital NPR meets New Yorker meets open town hall on steroids,” writes Sandy Thompson. “I have to have it to know what is actually going on in this city. I’m happy to support.”
Silverman misses the pizza and the bagels of New York, but says he’s a D.C.-er for life now. “Where else am I going to go?” He’s even become a former Yankees fan.
“I was a passionate Yankees fan,” he says, “and I converted 100 percent when the Nationals came here. I won a lottery to get to go to the first game — which is the first lottery I’ve ever won in my life. It was amazing. And I renounced my Yankee fandom.”
To see the city through Silverman’s eyes is to go back in time — like, say, to 2005, when the Nationals arrived.
“I can’t walk five blocks without seeing something different,” he says. “And I have this memory of everything that was there. So when I walk around I have this like visual Google Maps history in my own brain.”
Soapstone Market, for instance, used to be, at least in part, a Pier One Imports store. Silverman bought a chair there once. It didn’t fit in his car and he started carrying it home on foot when an SUV drove up beside him and offered him a ride.
And isn’t that just beautiful? he says. That’s D.C.