What’s Wrong with DC?

Ezra Klein ignited a big inside the Beltway cross-blog discussion by positing that Washington, D.C. is much less yuppie friendly than other major cities, notably Seattle and Portland.

What makes DC awesome is the collection of people pulled their for work (and no, the existence of the suburbs doesn’t change the fact that most of us, Matt [Yglesias] and myself included, moved to DC for a job). Defense wonks and political journalists and Hill staffers and health policy types. It’s a city filled with folks I want to talk to. But it’s not a city that puts much special effort into being really livable, or pleasant, for said folks. Seattle and Portland really do seem to put a lot of affirmative thought into building a city their residents will enjoy, and that’s in part because “enjoyability” — as opposed to “Congress is there” — is a big part of the reason people move to Seattle and Seattle needs to keep it that way.

Brian Beutler adds that he

cannot possibly fathom why D.C. lacks the number of book stores, record stores, coffee shops, night clubs, 24-hour restaurants, etc., etc. that you’d expect based on it’s relatively large population of wealthy, single young people. I love my D.C., but I’ve also found that San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Chicago all have way, way more urban perks than Washington does. It’s such a stark difference that I’m starting to believe my peers (and even some of my friends) are allergic to the upshots of yuppiness.

For his part, Yglesias doesn’t think the city’s that bad and that Klein’s analysis ignores D.C.’s suburbs.

There’s no reason anyone has to live in DC as opposed to Arlington or Silver Spring. And, indeed, when the city was at its nadir of malgovernment and crime that’s exactly what everyone did. Just like anyplace else DC needs to make itself an attractive place for people to live, and the past few years of DC repopulating itself (it’s still way lower than its peak population) are driven by just that — lower crime rates, more retail opportunities, more intense development around the newer Metro stations, etc.

Ryan Avent agrees that the suburbs are part of the issue, along with the fact that young bloggers are confining themselves to rather narrow areas of the city. More importantly, though, “the main issue is that the District has not been all that dense, residentially, for all that long (or rather it was, then it wasn’t, and now it is again).” He sees a revitalization occurring rapidly and thinks this problem will go away soon.

Megan McArdle figures that the expectations for nightlife are largely a function of sampling bias. “When I was visiting DC, I always had a great time going out, and always went to a different bar or club. I didn’t realize that when I moved here, I would be going to those same six spots over and over and over again.”

Although I’m now working in the District for the first time, I still live far enough in the suburbs (just far enough outside the Beltway to avoid changing the blog’s name) that I don’t spend many evenings here. Further, as a lifelong suburbanite, I find most major cities to have an excellent concentration of all the aforementioned amenities but to have too much congestion, too little parking, overpriced and tiny housing, and too much blight.

Plus, I’m somewhat older and significantly more married than the others, so my interests and needs are rather different. D.C. has plenty of mid-priced and high end restaurants and, so far as I can tell, a more than adequate supply of businesses selling coffee, books, and alcoholic beverages. Then again, I generally take my coffee to go (when I’m not brewing my own) and order my books online. And Starbuck’s and Border’s serve my occasional needs just fine; I’m no indie snob.

But Matt and others are right: Most people who live in “DC” actually live in its suburbs. Indeed, when I moved up here from Alabama five years ago, I considered myself to be coming to “DC” even though I was going to live and work in the exurbs near the Dulles airport, a 45 minute drive way even in off-peak traffic.

Only tangentially covered in the others’ posts is DC’s unique political status. Until fairly recently, it was run by Congress. Once the District got home rule, it was run by the likes of Marion Barry. They continually make moronic decisions like ticketing people with Virginia and Maryland tags parked on the streets in the evening hours, making it even less desirable to hang around. Compounding that, it has a very lousy tax base, owing partly to the flight of most of its capital to the suburbs but mostly to federal regulations.

Despite all that, the city is undeniably getting more yuppy friendly (often vilified as “gentrification”). Adams Morgan is rather seedy by my tastes but certainly thriving. The Chinatown area, near the Verizon Center, has been completely upscaled in the last decade or so. And even Anacostia should get markedly better with the opening of the new baseball stadium.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jpe says:

    I just went to DC for the first time in many years, and it does seem like a city on the grow. (double-edged sword, that) The nabes for the 20s-30s demographic seem to be in the early stages of gentrification: good bars but little else, and still plenty of sketchiness. The rest of the city reminded me of a Disney recreation of itself.

  2. Triumph says:

    I lived in DC about 15 years ago. My apartment was on Capitol Hill near Eastern Market and I worked in DuPont Circle/Adams Morgan.

    Capitol Hill was pretty mild at the time. Kind of yuppified, but not too bad. Great neighborhood with decent bars and restaurants.

    Adams Morgan, at that time wasn’t rough at all. Great times were had watching soccer at Brazilian bars and eating Ethiopian food.

    The great thing about DC from the single heterosexual man’s perspective is that there seemed to be a preponderance of women and gay men, meaning there were a lot of broads in play.

    Although one drawback was that my Capitol Hill ‘hood seemed to be loaded with gay bars, so it was less fruitful (pardon the pun) for picking up dames. Going to Mr. Henry’s for a pint would open you up to all sorts of come-on’s. But if you headed to Georgetown, there seemed to be more hetero-type places.

    I did venture out to the suburbs a few times (and a few times since) and they seem as dreary and dreadful as suburbs everywhere.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I did venture out to the suburbs a few times (and a few times since) and they seem as dreary and dreadful as suburbs everywhere.

    There are ‘burbs and then there are ‘burbs. Where I live, off the Route 1 Corridor near Mount Vernon, it’s suburbs in the process of renovation. Strip malls, big parking lots, and your typical sprawl. But Old Town Alexandria and a few places in Maryland are definitely little mini cities, with things designed for foot traffic.

    My wife works in Old Town and we’d likely live there but there are essentially no single family homes and even the townhouses are outrageously priced. We’re 15 minutes further out and have much more choice and affordability. It makes the daily commute somewhat harder and makes us less likely to venture into DC for evening events. But life’s about tradeoffs.

  4. Triumph says:

    But life’s about tradeoffs.

    Damn right. I forgot to mention the dreadful and dreary elements of Capitol Hill. One was the heat. The worst was getting on the Metro each summer morning and being drenched in sweat when I got off the Metro at DuPont Circle only to have to walk another 4 blocks to work!

    Also, the apartment was expensive, small, and had a small cockroach problem. Also the gas cap from my pickup truck was ripped off three times in a month before I got a lock for it!

    I also got mugged while walking by the Washington Hilton which was weird for multiple reasons.

    The one advantage of the apartment building was my next door neighbor who was the Washington Bureau chief for some Brazilian newspaper. He reminded me of a Brazilian Chirstopher Hitchens and could always be counted on for smoke. He was like 50 years old, but had this cadre of beautiful Brazilian women in their early 20s always hanging out. It was brilliant!

  5. James Joyner says:

    Crime and hot Brazilian chicks. That pretty much sums up the urban experience.

  6. jpe says:

    Crime and hot Brazilian chicks. That pretty much sums up the urban experience.

    Greenpoint, Brooklyn: crime and hot Polish chicks. Clearly superior.