I wasn’t born in Washington, D.C. In that, I join the ranks of most Washington residents. Like some, I never thought I’d like it much here. It’s too hot in the summer. It’s too political. There are no tall buildings. However, after almost four years of living here, and with a slight aside to the love/ hate affair I have with my hometown of Lima, Peru, I can honestly proclaim that I have the biggest crush on this city.
Washington, if cities were princesses, you would be Cinderella: you’re looked over by your larger, more pretentious but ultimately uglier sisters, you do all the dirty work and your metro system may close at midnight (3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays!), but in the right pair of heels, man, can you shine bright.
Yes, like any city, D.C. has its problems. There is still violence in its streets. There is still a gigantic wealth gap: within the same 61.4 square miles, Washington is home to both affluent Georgetown and poverty-stricken Anacostia, and it’s surrounded by very prosperous areas in Virginia and Maryland. There is also a gigantic perception gap in that Washington is seen as a merciless overseer, not unlike the Capitol in The Hunger Games, living off the effort of the rest of the country while oppressing it into submission.
There is truth to all of this, to be sure. But despite what candidates and pundits and naysayers may say, Washington is not just the halls of Capitol Hill or the White House or K Street. It is just a big city in a small town with an even bigger soul. And like New York City in the 1980s and 90s, it is undergoing a renaissance. Streets are cleaner, restaurants are opening on every corner and, most importantly, a sense of community has begun to permeate among its residents and those of nearby districts in Maryland and Virginia.
Beyond the calls for resignations, and the scandals, and the pundits and the politics and the theatrics, there exists here a thriving society full of young, brilliant people whose core reason for living and breathing and working in this town is to make the world better. Whether it’s the young community manager at a tech startup, to the ex-pat taking notes at their embassy, to the communications director at an environmental non-profit, sit down at a bar with anybody in this city and after one martini or seven, if you listen carefully you will hear the same story: that they came to D.C. because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Fact: for every guy trying to win an election at all costs just for the sake of winning, there are at least ten men and women asking themselves, “How can we make [X] better? How can we make it so [X] reaches every corner of this nation so that everyone can benefit?” Call it defense, call it tech, call it health care, call it flight path optimization, call it daily deals. It is an incontrovertible fact that the people in D.C. actually care about something, and they share it every day, from dusk till dawn. This sense of connecting, of sharing, of testing and launching and improving the threads that make the very fabric of our society is ever present among this city and its denizens. For what makes up the personality of a city, ultimately, if not its people?
If Manhattan and Chicago remain this nation’s financial market, if San Francisco and Brooklyn are its creative cores, if Detroit and Houston are its manufacturing engines, then Washington remains America’s grande salon, a forum where ideas are brought forth and discussed. At its worst, it is a zero-sum cesspool where power and privilege are peddled and pilfered at the expense of others. But at its best, the people living and working in D.C. stand by that ancient maxim that government has the unique power to bring people from all paths of life together, and that out of that cacophony of voices, good intentions and actions will prevail.
People of America, people of the world: you may disagree with me. You may call me a naïve idealist fascinated by The West Wing-like imaginary constructs. You may talk of D.C. as a blighted scourge to be eradicated, a cancer to be eliminated. I challenge you to visit. Walk down its streets and avenues. Explore its museums. Discover its culture — your culture. Smell its cherry blossoms. Breathe its history — your history. Troll its bars and speakeasies for that elusive perfect glass of bourbon. Try its food. Meet its people. They’re not monsters, they don’t bite, they (mostly) don’t hatch schemes to live off your tax dollars. No matter where you come from, there is someone here who is just like you. And he or she will probably be happy to see someone like them when they see you. They might even buy you a drink. If they do, listen to their stories, because, and I guarantee this, they will definitely want to hear yours.
As for me, I am writing these words on a perfect spring night standing alone on a small hill, perched on a bright red Capital Bikeshare bike by the Washington Monument, with Congress behind me, Thomas Jefferson to my left, Barack Obama to my right, Abraham Lincoln staring solemnly at me from afar. Beyond them and their politics are my friends, my loved ones, and other great people I have yet to meet. And, for now, there is no place else I’d rather be.