"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Washington, DC - The Greatest

An article in today’s Washington Post http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/sunday-review/why-washington-is-doing-so-well.html?ref=opinion by David Leonhardt limns the praises of Washington, DC.  What’s not to like? Unemployment at 5.7 percent, way below that of Chicago and New York.  Housing prices back to their pre-recession levels.  Forbes magazine called it the second ‘coolest’ city in the country:

Second on our list is Washington, D.C. With federal spending strong, the nation’s capital sailed through the recession with low unemployment and an influx of newcomers. Many of those newcomers have, like Houston, been young adults. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, residents in their 20s and early 30s make up about a third of the metro area’s population – 23% more than in 2000.

Washington also scored high thanks to its melting pot of a population, a large selection of local eateries and watering holes, and a host of activities that range from Smithsonian museums to music concerts. Washington reportedly hosts more festivals and events than any other U.S. city, according to Destination DC.

Why is DC so cool? Because says Forbes and other journals, it is the hot place to come – a diverse population, an interesting nightlife, more cityscape restaurants and bars, and especially a high concentration of metrosexuals – young professionals and especially gays who bring a sense of design, theatre, art and single style. It wasn’t always thus.  When I first visited Washington in the late Sixties, I asked a friend to take me ‘downtown’.  She said she wasn’t sure what I meant.  “The old downtown?”, she asked, referring to the 14th Street Corridor set ablaze in the recent riots?  “K Street?”, the power alley which even then was an uninteresting canyon of same-height, bottom-line government buildings.  “Dupont Circle?”, the small neighborhood hemmed in on the East by some of Washington’s nastiest slums this side of the Anacostia River.  There was no downtown, only a few spotty commercial areas with dry cleaners, nail places, a 7-Eleven, and a People’s Drug Store.  Now there is still no central downtown, but a number of lively satellite hip urban areas.

When I first moved here, the only decent restaurants outside of the fried chicken joints and cheap takeout were the overstuffed, dark, overpriced restaurants for  Congressmen and their staff.   They came from Abilene, Paducah, French Lick, Indianola, and Forest and food other than chops, ribs, and mashed potatoes was foreign territory.  Now the food is still a bit Paducah, but architecturally rendered and is different enough to get some of the new Capitol Hill money out and around and get some culinary momentum going.  An ironic holdover from Paducah is pork bellies.  Pork bellies were something Congressman traded on the commodities exchange before they came to Washington; or before that sliced up and made into bacon on the farm. It was not ever eaten in combination with halibut cheeks.  Most of those foodie surf-and-turf combos still lack the finesse required to mix salty, cured meat and delicate seafood, but these dishes are at least palate openers and give a sense that there is a lot more out there.

I used to get my fresh fish down on the floating wharves of the Southwest Waterfront, an old-fashioned fish market where the vendors hawked their wares adding a few dollars for the white folks who came down from Ward 3 to buy something other than spots or croakers.  The Giant at Seven Corners was one of the first chains to offer ‘fresh’ fish, but the fish was always tired, a little off, and dead-eyed; but I learned how to cook fish in every kind of Indian or Thai curry to mask the taste.  Finally came real fish markets and of course Whole Foods.

Life now is good here for the privileged in Wards 2 and 3.  Our primary schools are good because we have taken ‘ownership’ of them.  We now have decent restaurants, upscale orthodontists, an array of the country’s best private schools within blocks, the cultural cornucopia on the Mall, the stateliness of Embassy Row, and Victorian and Georgian architecture which has been preserved and saved from the developers’ bulldozers in the Sixties.

Washington – despite half the city which is uneducated – is still one of the most educated cities in the country:

About 47 percent of the region’s adults have a bachelor’s degree, more than any other major metropolitan area in the country, according to the Census Bureau. In an economy ever more organized around knowledge, Washington’s employers — from biotechnology and Internet companies to retail and health care — have an easier time finding workers who fit their needs. Especially in bad times, employers can have more confidence they are hiring someone they will want to keep.

But Washington’s strengths are a good bet to outlast its weaknesses. High-skill economies can overcome temporary downturns. And young superstars eventually tend to find the supporting cast they deserve.

This can only mean continued economic growth.  The knowledge industry is the industry of the future; and not only that, an influx of highly-educated, savvy, politically-aware and demanding cosmopolites will change the city in ways only dreamed of back when it was a swampy backwater.

For those of us of a certain age, Washington is a city of leafy, safe residential areas parks, the C&O Canal, free world class museums, and – if you are fortunate enough to live in the city, easy driving and parking.  I hate the public transportation system – any bus, metro, or subway, and like getting in my car and driving places; and in Washington you can do it.

When I moved to DC over 35 years ago, I was told it was recession-proof, and now having lived through one, the old adage was true.  Government never quit.  The sluice gates kept open, and despite Ronald Reagan (“Government is not the solution.  It is the problem”), government has kept growing. Even now in Tea Party times, growth goes unchecked.  Thousands of new jobs have been added after 9/11 and every new surveillance program injects new money into the system.  Since those new thousands of employees have to live somewhere, the housing market never really suffered.

Not only that, the  IT, hi-tech business has been hot.  While not exactly Silicon Valley East, the Dulles Corridor is holding its own.  Hi-tech, like government, does not seem to have a downside.

Neighborhoods are being gentrified and that has mean renovated housing, repaired streets, and spruced-up parks.  As the white incomers have children and want to send them to public school, at least at the beginning, the schools will improve.  My children attended one of the better public primary schools in DC, and it was so good because of the thousands of extra dollars the parents poured into resource teachers, enrichment books, upgraded playgrounds, etc. not to mention the time spent harassing teachers and school administrators.  DC Schools loved it – they didn’t have to spend any money on a population which never voted their way – and could ‘invest it everywhere’, often in wigs and fancy cars. 

Washington still, however, is a segregated city.  We have our own Green Line, Mason-Dixon Line, Line in the Sand called Rock Creek Park. To the west of the Park are the white, affluent neighborhoods of Northwest; to the East are the poor, black, inner city slums that have persisted since Emancipation.  One evening I was driving back from DC’s small Chinatown where we ate dim sum.  I took a wrong turn and headed up 9th Street way too far.  Quiet in the back seat.  “Daddy, there are no white people here”, said my young daughter, her first lesson in Johannesburg apartheid-like DC.  The east-west busses are all black; the north-south ones all white (except in the early morning when the Salvadoran maids come down from Gaithersburg to service the homes of white families.

For those of us who have lived here for some time, the frustration at the lack of progress and improvement in inner-city neighborhoods is maddening.  After 35 years the schools are little better than they were then.  Crime comes and goes.  We were Murder City during the crack epidemic, but crime remains endemic in black neighborhood with relatively little spill over across the park.  Marion Barry is still a Councilman for one of the inner-city wards and still the impassioned advocate for public sector jobs, social programs, and municipal largesse. To give him credit, he is a survivor in the old-school of New Jersey politics – Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink Kenna had nothing on the best of the DC ward politicians had nothing on him.

While we are used to scandal (Marion Barry was but the most popular example; and the current mayor is embroiled in controversies with only tacky rides and perks in play), the rip off of the teachers’ pension plan by one corrupt employee took the cake.  None of us would have minded so much if she had used the thousands she skimmed off poorly-paid teachers for art, or a season’s ticket to the Kennedy Center, but she used it on cheap wigs.

The inner city – that dysfunctional, obstinately poor and crime-ridden cluster of neighborhoods across the River – shows no sign of dissipating.  As a matter of fact, many black families who are forced out of their old neighborhoods because of rising rent, go back there, or to close-in Maryland suburbs which are acquiring inner-city characteristics.  The move is not up, for sure.

Yet, the demographics are changing, and Washington is no longer ‘Chocolate City’.  When I moved here in 1977, the black population was 78 percent, and now it is under 50.  With this demographic shift will come more gentrification and with it a decrease in ward politics, walk-around money, corrupt politics, and indifference to public services.  In fact, DC started to get on a good footing when Anthony Williams, the appointed former Financial Overseer of Congress became mayor and injected some rational sense into the District.  But he was too white (Yale B.A., Harvard Law School), and kept too tight a fist on municipal purse strings, and didn’t last as mayor.  Adrian Fenty was another great white hope (he was half white), but his school reforms and yuppy bike lanes got him booted out after one term. He was, like Williams, too white (Oberlin, Howard Law), too reformist, too out-of-the-traditional-mainstream.

None of us have any idea of what will happen to the racial divide.  I talk in racial terms here in this post because that is the city we live in.  It is not subtle.  Marion Barry brought it out in the open and all of us knew when, after he was re-elected with not one vote from the white wards, he said, “Get over it”. I know of only one place in DC where there is complete, open, easy, and gracious integrated life – the Georgetown Waterfront. I have never seen more mixed-race couples, mixed-race friends, more integrated socializing as I do there.  Black-owned yachts tie up next to white. Black and white socialize at the outdoor bars and restaurants.

Income is the great equalizer, and the black middle class (Washington has always had one of the highest proportions of this demographic) will come back even more wealthy and better-educated, and will move into the same neighborhoods gentrified by their white lawyer colleagues.  

I never liked Washington, and as a Southern New Englander living half way and not far from Boston and New York, I was as close to a city boy as one living in the quiet suburb-farmland areas of Central Connecticut could be.  Washington in the early 70s was not a city.  My kids however, loved it; for when they were young teenagers the go-go, hip-hop, rave and club scene was in its hey-day.  They loved the diversity, the excitement, the big-city pulse with the Iowa neighborhood feel.  Now it is my home.  Connecticut is long gone, and I have been accustomed to the easy driving, the gym at the top of the street, the Whole Foods and specialty fish market down the street, the frequent drives to the Mall museums.

The author of the Times article started off by saying that there was some correlation between the success of the baseball team, the Washington Nationals and the success of DC.  I’m not so sure about that; but it sure is fun watching a young, energetic, and promising Washington team.  He also says that, by the way, Washington is so successful because of ‘stimulus money’ – i.e. the constant flow of taxpayer dollars into everybody’s coffers and pockets.  Well, not exactly a parallel situation, but we get it; and although we hate paying taxes, we sure like being the beneficiaries of others’ largess.

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