So­nia

In her new, up-and-coming Washington neigh­bor­hood, Jus­tice So­tomayor doesn’t stand on cer­e­mony. She lives.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY IAN SHAPIRA

The So­cial Com­mit­tee at the U Street cor­ri­dor condo build­ing was plan­ning a “pro­gres­sive” hol­i­day din­ner party for its res­i­dents. Peo­ple on the ground floor would pro­vide cock­tails and snacks; hors d’oeu­vres would be on the next floor; and cour­ses 1 to 3 would be on the next three lev­els up. ¶ One per­son, at least, couldn’t make the orig­i­nal date but still wanted to pitch in. ¶ “Dear Neigh­bors,” the new woman on the third floor wrote to the build­ing’s e-mail group. “I hate to miss this get to­gether, but I un­der­stand that if ev­ery­one else can make it, you can’t change it for me. I will con­trib­ute a cou­ple bot­tles of wine be­fore I leave. Warm­re­gards, So­nia So­tomayor.” ¶ Along the UStreet cor­ri­dor — a North­west Washington hot­bed of ur­ban re­newal — neigh­bors and take-out joints are em­brac­ing a rel­a­tively new ar­rival: So­tomayor, the na­tion’s first His­panic and third fe­male jus­tice on the Supreme Court. ¶ So­tomayor, who moved first to staid Cleve­land Park af­ter her 2009 ap­point­ment, now lives side by side with mem­bers of the city’s di­verse class of pro­fes­sion­als in a hip, trans­form­ing Washington neigh­bor­hood once known as the cul­tural hub of black D.C.

“What­ever you do around your neigh­bors, I would do around her. It’s ... like ev­ery­thing has changed and noth­ing has changed.”

When So­tomayor, a former fed­eral judge in New York, lived in Man­hat­tan’s West Vil­lage, she seized on her neigh­bor­hood’s of­fer­ings, go­ing twice a week to a bak­ery on Bed­ford Street for cof­fee and bread­sticks and host­ing friends at her apart­ment for Span­ish or Thai take-in.

Now, So­tomayor is try­ing to recre­ate some of those rhythms in Washington.

Near her sleek U Street area condo build­ing, where prices for units range from $350,000 to a lit­tle more than $1 mil­lion, the staff at the “green eatery” chicken place knows whom to ex­pect when the name on the take-out or­der is “So­nia.” At The Greek Spot, the owner says that So­tomayor some­times swings by on her way home from work for the $9.75 gyro plat­ter.

Other Supreme Court jus­tices — who live in Fairfax and Mont­gomery coun­ties, Ge­orge­town, near Adams Mor­gan or at the Water­gate build­ing — have been fairly in­volved in their neigh­bor­hoods, too.

The court’s pro­ceed­ings are not tele­vised, so they can main­tain some level of anonymity when they ven­ture out. The big ex­cep­tion: Clarence Thomas, who’s been a rec­og­niz­able fig­ure ever since his con­tentious 1991 con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings.

Then there’s So­tomayor. Last month, she took cen­ter stage, swear­ing in Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den dur­ing the in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­monies. Also, she’s been busy plug­ging her new mem­oir, “My Beloved World,” on “The Daily Show with Jon Ste­wart” and other TV shows.

Within her condo build­ing, So­tomayor has al­ready en­gen­dered such af­fec­tion that last month an­other res­i­dent e-mailed the group list to re­mind ev­ery­one about her up­com­ing “60 Min­utes” ap­pear­ance:

“[M]ake sure to set your DVR’s to tape or watch 60 Min­utes who will have our most fa­mous and es­teemed neigh­bor Jus­tice So­tomayor on, speak­ing about her amaz­ing life story from the Bronx to the Supreme Court. . . . 7 PM to­mor­row! CBS.”

Slav Gatchev, 39, who is an emerg­ing-mar­kets fi­nance spe­cial­ist, said he oc­ca­sion­ally runs into So­tomayor in the build­ing. One re­cent night, Gatchev, dressed in sweat­shirt and sweat­pants, dropped off items for re­cy­cling in the garage and bumped into So­tomayor on her way home from work.

They greeted each other. Gatchev told her what he was do­ing, and he asked what she was up to. “She said, ‘I just came back from the White House,’ and I said, ‘Well, guess who had the bet­ter evening,’ ” Gatchev re­called. “She laughed. That’s the point. She to­tally seems to be part of the com­mu­nity. What­ever you do around your neigh­bors, I would do around her. It’s sort of like ev­ery­thing has changed and noth­ing has changed.”

So­tomayor de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

But in in­ter­views with the me­dia about her new mem­oir, she has talked a bit about her U Street life and her motivations for mov­ing there.

She told The Washington Post’s Supreme Court cor­re­spon­dent last month that U Street re­minds her of New York, where she grew up and worked as both a fed­eral trial court and ap­peals court judge.

“U Street is the East Vil­lage,” said So­tomayor, who keeps a place in Man­hat­tan’s West Vil­lage. “The East Vil­lage has been de­vel­op­ing in the last 10 or 15 years, and I’ve of­ten said if I was go­ing to buy an apart­ment now, it prob­a­bly would be in the East Vil­lage. So what did I do? I came to Washington and es­tab­lished a

Slav Gatchev, on liv­ing in the same build­ing as Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor

home in the East Vil­lage.”

In June, af­ter three years of rent­ing in Cleve­land Park, So­tomayor paid $660,000 for the U Street cor­ri­dor condo unit. She bought it from a then-De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cial. Af­ter the fi­nal walk-through, seller and buyer signed all the pa­per­work at So­tomayor’s Supreme Court cham­bers, said Wil Laska, the seller.

“It was a neat ex­pe­ri­ence. She’s an ex­tremely busy per­son, and she thought it would be best to do it there,” Laska re­called. “When you sell your house to a Supreme Court jus­tice, you bet­ter make sure all your T’s are crossed and I’s are dot­ted.”

(De­spite her le­gal prow­ess, the Supreme Court jus­tice had “other folks” there to en­sure that she com­pleted the deal prop­erly, the seller said.)

Once the deal was over, he sent an e-mail to ev­ery­one in the condo build­ing, alert­ing them to his suc­ces­sor’s iden­tity.

Bo Trinh, 40, a sci­en­tist who lives in the build­ing, said the jus­tice gave him a ride in her chauf­feured car to Union Sta­tion as she headed to work. Other times, they’ve had a neigh­borly meal.

“When we get to­gether, she does a lot of cook­ing her­self,” said Trinh, who, like many other build­ing res­i­dents, spoke cau­tiously to avoid sound­ing boast­ful and com­pro­mis­ing her sense of pri­vacy. “I’m not really a big po­lit­i­cal per­son, so that’s some­thing I to­tally avoid” in con­ver­sa­tion with her.

Mikko Makarainen, an­other res­i­dent, said So­tomayor achieved pos­i­tive condo karma when she first moved in and needed to ren­o­vate her place. “She slipped a note un­der my door, say­ing some­thing like, ‘I apol­o­gize in ad­vance if there’s con­struc­tion noise,’ ” said Makarainen, a White House an­a­lyst. “She gave me her num­ber, so I feel priv­i­leged by that.”

At the build­ing, where he said she wants ev­ery­one to call her “So­nia,” So­tomayor is good about shar­ing her opin­ions.

“She’s cute,” Makarainen said, “I have a mo­tor­cy­cle, and she tells me to be care­ful all the time.”

At the condo’s hol­i­day party, which was resched­uled, So­tomayor kept con­ver­sa­tion light, Makarainen said, but oc­ca­sion­ally got peo­ple to talk about their lives.

“She did en­gage peo­ple about their back­grounds and how laws af­fect them,” he re­called. Af­ter the party, he said, peo­ple in the build­ing asked each other, ‘ What did you talk about with her?’ ”

Roger Ghatt, a non­profit ex­ec­u­tive who is an­other build­ing res­i­dent, said he tries hard to pre­tend that the jus­tice is sim­ply an­other oc­cu­pant. But that feel­ing lasts only so long. “You go into the mail­room, and your package from Ama­zon is sit­ting next to hers,” he said. “And then I won­der what the jus­tice or­ders from Ama­zon.”

Vic­to­ria Gar­cia Umana, coowner of the restau­rant Chix, said So­tomayor first dropped by last fall, plac­ing an or­der un­der the name “So­nia.” She started speak­ing with Umana in Span­ish. The jus­tice, whose par­ents are na­tives of Puerto Rico, asked Umana where she learned the lan­guage, and Umana asked her as well.

“Af­ter she left, I re­al­ized it was her. It just clicked. So­nia. Puerto Rico. It all came to­gether,” Umana re­called. “Then I ran out to tell her I was so sorry that I didn’t in­tro­duce my­self prop­erly, and she said: ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s nice when peo­ple treat you nice with­out know­ing who you are.’ Then, I wouldn’t shut up to her about how much I loved her.”

Juan An­to­nio San­tacruz, the owner of Ta­cos El Chi­lango, a nearby Mex­i­can restau­rant, said So­tomayor has dropped by a few times for take-out din­ners. Once, San­tacruz said, his boyfriend was there and asked her whether the 1996 De­fense of Mar­riage Act was on the court’s agenda. “She just said that they were def­i­nitely work­ing on the is­sue,” San­tacruz said. “We love her.”

But it’s the peo­ple who live in So­tomayor’s build­ing who en­joy the real face time. One res­i­dent passed along an e-mail that Gail Ross, who is a well-known lit­er­ary agent, sent to the build­ing’s e-mail group with an in­trigu­ing prospect. “I men­tioned to Jus­tice So­tomayor that I’d heard from some in the build­ing that per­haps [a condo only] book­sign­ing was in or­der . . .” wrote Ross, who also lives in the build­ing. “She would sign pre­vi­ously bought copies and talk a lit­tle for us.”

JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN/GETTY IM­AGES

Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor moved this year into a con­do­minium build­ing in the District’s U Street cor­ri­dor. Shown at top, clockwise from up­per left, are: graf­fiti on a stop sign at 11th and V streets NW; Juan An­to­nio San­tacruz, whose restau­rant, Ta­cos El Chi­lango, has served the jus­tice; apart­ment build­ings on V Street; and Chix and The Greek Spot, two more neigh­bor­hood restau­rants So­tomayor has pa­tron­ized.

PHO­TOS BY ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST (TOP) POOL PHOTO BY WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IM­AGES (ABOVE)

Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor some­times stops at The Greek Spot, at top, for the gyro plat­ter, the owner said. So­tomayor, above, ar­rives with other mem­bers of the Supreme Court (Elena Ka­gan is be­hind her) at the West Front of the U.S. Capi­tol on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day, when she swore in Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den.

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