A (Non-Political) Ode to Washington, D.C.

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. TC mark

image: VinothChandar

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  • http://twitter.com/sz_1111 Sam Zender

    Having lived in the Capital for the past 9 months, after living in a small town in rural Minnesota, this post is 100% accurate.  Washington D.C. is a great city, even though people living outside of it’s realm doesn’t imagine it to be.  Like you said though, it’s getting better; much, much better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1092570070 Bertram Lee

    While I completely understand the fact that you see this new revolution in Washington D.C. as a renaissance of sorts, what you fail to mention is the fact that this was created through gentrification. Is D.C. cleaner now? Yes. Has it become a hub for young professionals across the world? Yes. Did the D.C. government systematically do this by pricing out black people who lived in the city for generations? Absolutely. I am not saying this to rain on your parade but just to highlight the fact that this city “shines bright” because of the hard work, struggles and ultimately the expulsion of black people. I say this as a D.C. native who has lived there all of my life and has mixed feelings about its new rise to prominence. 

  • Allie

    As a 4 year resident of DC, I like this a lot. Slowly but surely, I’m coming to feel the same way. One thing, though, that many DC transplants know little to nothing about: local politics. My job works extremely closely with the DC City Council, and if there’s a more corrupt, useless system of local politicians somewhere else in the country, I’d like to find them and compare. (Insert standard joke about politicians here… but seriously guys, it’s bad.)

    • Leigh

       Come to New Orleans (for corruption comparisons)!

  • Dave

    for someone claiming that there is more of a city than Capitol Hill and K St. it doesn’t sound like you get outside of either of those area much, well maybe to Georgetown… 
    This a beautiful and amazing city with a deep and beautiful history and culture and it is being destroyed by the “renaissance”  that is being espoused in this post.

    • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

      I spend most of my time downtown, in Cleveland Park and Columbia Heights, down by the Southwest Waterfront, on H Street and U Street and Bloomingdale from time to time. Good try at labeling me as something I’m not, though.

      • Dls

        You are a transplant. Your big crescendo is that DC is a good place to live because it’s a “thriving society of young, brilliant people”, the young elite who just moved there with no sense of its history. 

        “DC is undergoing a renaissance in which it kicks out the entrenched communities! That’s what makes it great! It was a total shithole before, full of poor folks and crummy politicians, but now my friends and I can comfortably ride our CaBi bikes, so yay!”If the shoe fits, buddy…

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

        “”DC is undergoing a renaissance in which it kicks out the entrenched communities! That’s what makes it great!” Your words, buddy, not mine. My “crescendo”, as you choose to call it, is that most people in DC are working for something bigger than themselves. That happens to be the case if they’re young, old, black or white. That’s the fantastic part about this city and that hasn’t changed. Now, in the 90s, in the 80s, whenever. 

        At least 75% of people living in DC are transplants. But it’s really nice to know that all “transplants” are just mindless K Streeters/Capitol Hill types with no knowledge or interest in preserving this city or knowing its history. Yup, we all suck.

        Talk about missing the point. I appreciate you bringing up the fact that the traditional communities are being priced out (happening everywhere in large cities, not just the District, but it is particularly pernicious here, I’ll give you that). It is a real problem and one that is extremely hard to address, and it’s always great if the conversation can be directed towards those who cannot speak for themselves. But the way you went about it, assuming I don’t know DC’s history or don’t care, made you lose all the points.

      • Andrew Rowland

        Lived in the DC area all my life, and I agree with Emil. It’s definitely getting better, albeit slowly.

      • Someone Less Naive

        DLS is right; the entirety of your florid treatise can be distilled to “DC is full of young people who think they’re changing the world.” How profound! The vapidity of your observation is consistent with someone who’s under 30 and lived in this city for 3-4 years, tops, and as such, it may come as a shock that wiser, longer-tenured people than you hold a slightly different perspective. To wit:

        1) DC is not the exclusive home to young, energetic people who want to change the world. If anything, this place has a relatively LOW ratio of people fitting that description given the unique concentration of lobbyists, overpaid attorneys, and redundant Federal employees living and working here. For every bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Hill intern who thinks they’re making a difference, there are five crusty slimeballs whose sole purpose in life is to peddle influence. Which bring me to…

        2) The people you hang out with aren’t changing the world. They might seem interesting and fun to drink martinis with, but they’re just as worthless as any young, inexperienced kid fresh out of college. Power in this city is on loan by the public and vested in a centuries-old institution known as the Federal government; without it, this place is a swamp (literally). But for the largess of the citizenry, nobody here would have a purpose. Government, by definition, exists to redistribute resources…resources generated by others. Some people get that, but most here walk around like they’re the be-all, end-all of the world. They’re not. 

        3) This place is a lot of fun for single twenty-somethings who like to drink and cavort with other single twenty-somethings. But, those people eventually grow up and their outlook (understandably) changes. Try having a kid or two here, and then see if you can still gush about how awesome DC is. Try buying a house for them and your spouse to live in, and I’ll bet you’re love-fest for Washington is somewhat tempered. Try sending them to school here, and I’ll guess that your glowing attitude is equally attenuated. 

        Yours are the same fleeting thoughts held my many of the other millions of young people to come to this city and think it’s the bees knees; congratulations for expressing your naiveté in a bout of written diarrhea, and don’t act surprised when you don’t feel the same way when the honeymoon is over.

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

        I guess I’ve been lucky enough to meet enough old timers in this city to not completely crush my perception of this city, or of politics in general. But please, keep telling me what kind of people “I hang out with” – I really enjoy people who don’t know me making assumptions about my life.

        Hey, I’ll do the same! I bet you enjoy telling young children Santa Claus isn’t real.

      • Someone Less Naive

        “Don’t judge me!”…cries the guy who penned an narrative of Washington, D.C. that is a broad generalization in and of itself. You obviously haven’t lived here long, and you certainly haven’t heard (or choose to ignore) the valid and numerous perspectives of those who don’t share your embellished view. How do I know this? Because I’ve been here a long, long time and the ONLY people who ever think like you write are newbies who’ve just arrived fewer than 5 years ago. It’s called inferential reasoning. Any yet, based on your narrow, limited experience, you’ve decided to waste bandwidth with some stream-of-consciousness drivel about how great DC is. Pot, meet kettle. 

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

        And yet you’ve come back to this “stream-of-consciousness drivel” more than once now. Nice to meet you, kettle. Sorry for wasting your bandwidth. Looking forward to reading your point of view.

      • ACE

        Please tell us where YOU live and what YOU do, so that we may dissect your decisions and instruct you on to the proper way to manage your life.

        PS- I’ll bet you’re really fun to hang out with.

      • Dave

        As a DC native and current resident (in my 20s, white, live in a half-gentrified neighborhood), I didn’t mind the piece so much.  I agree it’s a limited view of the city, and I agree with what many longer-term residents have said in the comments, but the piece itself was fine.

        But I have to take issue with what Emil says in his comment above.  He writes:

        “At least 75% of people living in DC are transplants.”

        This is factually false.  And if you’re going to post information on the internet in an argument, it should be true.  It should be at least arguably true.  This is inarguably false, by a huge margin.  And in typing it, Emil not only shows a weak commitment to factual accuracy, he also betrays his extremely narrow experience of DC.Most DC residents were born here.  Start with the fact that a (bare, but that’s recent) majority of the city is black, and most black Washingtonians are native.  Add the huge number of native white Washingtonians, the community I grew up with, as well as many Hispanics who were born and raised in the city.  Transplants are undoubtedly a big part of DC, and DC wouldn’t be what it is without them.  They arrive from all over the country and from every graduating class.  Most of my friends are transplants.  I don’t hate transplants.  But they are not as big a part of DC as you think they are.This holds true whether you’re literally talking about DC or whether you’re talking about the surrounding area in Maryland and Virginia.  Most people here, like most people anywhere, are local. DC isn’t born anew with every election cycle.  That’s a myth, and frankly it’s one that hurts DC’s reputation.  When you celebrate DC, and I’m glad you do, you’re celebrating that it’s a real place where real people live real lives.  That requires some continuity between generations, and DC has that.  If anything close to 75% of the people living here were transplants, it wouldn’t.Even as far as transplants go, there’s a difference between spending your twenties here and spending a lifetime.  Someone who moved here at 22 and still lives here in their 50s is different than someone who moved here a few months ago and will probably move somewhere else in a couple years.  DC welcomes anyone who wants to live here, but you’re a real Washingtonian when you feel deeply invested in the city itself, not just in the nexus of the federal bureaucracy, K Street, NGOs, and elite institutions.  Unfortunately, many 20somethings I know have no interest in getting beyond that point, and while they may enjoy the city’s nightlife or cultural amenities, they’re less likely to know the name or record of their council member.

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

         You sound so charming.

      • Dave

        I don’t care if you think I’m the biggest douche in the world.  You still said something objectively false about DC.  You used a number, not me.  Your number erases the majority of DC’s population, which you obviously don’t care about and aren’t willing to defend.  And you wonder why every DC native on this thread is skeptical of you?  It’s because you deigned to write an article about a city you obviously know nothing about.

        But hey, I once went to Lima.  Well, Miraflores and Barranco, anyway.  They seemed nice during the three days I spent there.  Maybe I should pitch an article about Lima to Thought Catalog, in which I’ll argue that 75% of the population consists of transplants.  Then when you point out I’m wrong, I’ll make fun of you.

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

        That’s actually not that wrong, considering that out of the 7.6 million people who live in Lima, most have arrived recently from empoverished communities that had been previously wracked by terrorism in the 1980s.

        I still wouldn’t point anything out because (a) I understand that sometimes, throwing out a percentage (in a comments section no less) is less about being accurate and more about making a point that is perfectly open to sincere discussion, (b) I’d be happy that someone wrote an article that in no way had anything to do about numbers and instead meant to evoke a positive emotional response about my home town, and (c) I wouldn’t take a Thought Catalog article written from an entirely personal point of view so seriously so as to challenge its writer on the particularities of the comments he makes ex post facto on Disqus.

        I’d also wouldn’t bother to point out that your assertions on “every DC native on this
        thread is skeptical” and “writing an article about a city you obviously
        know nothing about” are both statistically and factually mistaken.

        But hey, that’s just me. I look forward to reading your piece on Lima on TC.

      • KP

         Sorry, you can’t pull a fake number out of your butt that is actually kind of an insult to the people you’re talking to, then whine when you get corrected.

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

         Not that I was whining, but fair point. To clarify, apologies for using an incorrect statistic.

    • Lilym

      seriously. columbia heights turned into a total megamall shit hole because of the so-called renaissance.

  • Heather

    I just recently moved away from DC, it definitely wasn’t my favorite place in the world, but I’m a west coaster at heart so I can’t complain too much. The only thing I really miss about the city is Sticky Fingers Vegan Bakery in Columbia Heights, man that place was delicious! 

    • Myemail

      Ugh, that place was overpriced and not that great, with sullen service. Perk up, vegans!

  • Guest

    Okay I’m sold. Now how am I gonna find a way to spend some time living there?

  • Sophia

    I LOVED this. This makes me so nostalgic for DC <3

    • Guess-t

      Wow, how insightful. Why not just click the “like” button? It still allows you to share your vacuous thoughts with the world, but doesn’t require taking the time to type.

      • Sophia

        I’d prefer to take the time to type. If I were a writer, I’d rather get positive comments than just ‘likes.’ Why did you bother commenting at all? You could have just flicked your finger and continued scrolling. That doesn’t require taking the time to type, either.

  • Rosa710

    Any advice on where a young person moving from Boston should look for housing in or around DC? I have been told to look in Arlington from multiple sources. Any young wisdom you guys have would be lovely to hear!!!

    • Andrew Rowland

      Look into the Clarendon or Balston neighborhoods of Arlington!

      • Balls

        ugh, no.

    • Cmkesler

       I’ve lived in Eastern Market on the Hill; awesome area, just kinda quiet.  Just moved to Columbia Heights, which is very up and coming, but got mugged in the first month.  Still, its SO much closer to everything, so even with the rats, I prefer it to the Hill.

    • hbz

      Bethesda (MD), U Street corridor, almost anywhere in Northwest on the red line
      (I also transplanted from Boston and it’s a pretty nice transition in terms of the size of the city and accessibility)

    • Lisa

      capitol hill im right by union station and love it. if its a woman there is actually a place for 925/month including food called TMH right on the hill next to supreme court. great place for newbies to the city/while you look for another place bc you meet people from all over.

    • Lilym

      anything truly in the district will be pretty expensive. it depends where you are working and what you like but if it were me i’d stay THE FUCK AWAY from northern virginia. check out capitol hill NE/NW sections.

      • Dana L

        I don’t know, parts of northern Virginia are good, Falls Church, Crystal city, Tysons etc.

    • EnserNG

      Rosa710,

      Before the suburbs, be sure to look in Adam’s Morgan, Columbia Heights, SouthWest for high-rise living, Logan Circle/Center City, Dupont Circle, and near the Stadium for an established to very much up and coming area.  *Listed in estimated rental pricing from least to most.

      Not as much space as further out – but always something happening in each of the neighborhoods.

      In Adam’s Morgan, CH, LC/CC, and DC,  ‘group houses’ are quite common, where young professionals team up to live in mostly historic row homes.  That may be the best option, which will then allow you to possibly move to the area you feel best to call ‘home’ without a year-long commitment.

      As with any city, DC has its drawbacks – but there are tons of things to do and see, from museums, to government facilities, to bars and more.  The huge clubs are gone, but there are a decent assortment of night-life locales, but things tend to end earlier than in some cities.  It really is what you make of it – get out and volunteer at one of the *numerous* organizations with which you are ideologically inclined to get hooked into people and events in which you will find interest.

      Best of luck to you – truly hope that you enjoy your stay.

      Nikk

      • EnserNG

         Oh… one place that always had great listings was the Washington City Paper – that would be a great place to look for ‘younger’ listings, rather than more of the professional type buildings and such of the Washington Post, et al. 

  • Teresa

    Love this, and totally agree – my husband has lived all over the US and also in Europe – and he says his favorite city he’s ever lived in is DC. We love it here. Thanks for this post – sharing :-)

  • Angus

    “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.”

    “Unique power”?  Well that’s certainly the liberal religion of centralization.

  • SA

    this is everything i’ve ever tried to explain to people about DC and more.  coming from someone who has lived in a plethora of large cities (new york city included), thanks for this!

  • http://allirense.com Alli

    When I first moved to DC almost five years ago I loved it. Then I liked it. Then I started working for congress, and I hated it. Then I stopped working for congress, and I still hated it. Then I tolerated it. Then I was okay with it. I feel like DC is my husband, and I don’t like him at all anymore, but we have to stay. For the children.

  • Hayley

    Love this, and you’re right about the renaissance. Remember what JFK said of DC of his time, ““Washington was a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

  • http://blonderthanyou.wordpress.com suicide_blond

    ive lived here most of my life (school aside) … and dc…well..i have always loved her…  i am happy to say that im no longer a singular voice of affection at parties… its refreshing to hear her new suitors line up with praise… she has her bad angles …but who among us doesnt…. lets concentrate on the positive :-)
    xoxo

  • ACE

    I love this. Don’t know much about DC, but it’s nice to hear some representation from cities other than NYC on this site!

  • Jchrisrowe

    I’m a lifer, and I’m fucking sick of all these “ooo D.C. is so hip, nobody ever knew!” articles that the internetz is spouting these days.

    New York is New York.  Chicago is Chicago.  Washington, D.C. is Washington, D.C.  This article reads like some tourist dribble.

    • Johnnie

      Dude has only lived in the city for four years.  It doesn’t sound like tourist dribble, it is tourist dribble.  (Though, what’s dribble?)

  • BrazlnQT

    DC=Hollywood for ugly people!!

  • Lilym

    child, you don’t live in DC, you live in WASHINGTON. fuck man have you even been to the northeast quadrant?

    • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

      Who calls it a “quadrant”?

  • Myemail

    Living in DC is like paying NYC prices with none of the benefits. When people aren’t busy being pretentious dullards who only care about where you went to school or where you work (I work for the government, why the fuck else would I be here), they’re breathtakingly rude and inconsiderate. And are kind of physically unattractive and poorly dressed (yeah, I’m superficial). Everybody just looks so…dour.
    I moved there and asked around about what was a “cool” neighborhood. People told me to move to Columbia Heights. You know what’s there? A goddamn Target and Best Buy. Now that’s hip.

    The less said about the weather, the better.

    I was very happy to leave. 

    • Stef

      If the only thing you know about Columbia heights is that there’s a best buy and a target, then you don’t get out much.

      • Myemail

        I went to all the overpriced, poor quality, yuppie bars in that hood. Multiple times. It’s an unimpressive area. 

      • pesto

        Woah there buddy……. they also have a Chipotle.

    • Escapist

      This comment reasonates with me far more than the article.   DC is a failure of urban planning in a swamp with a culture that can be best described as a parody of New York yuppies.

      I can’t wait until I move.

  • Anonymous

    This really makes me miss living in DC. It’s a place for “nerds” to feel free, & revel in their activism, wild child times, and love of education. It’s amazing how much more there is to the District than the touristy stuff–which I avoid at all costs! Like the residential neighborhoods that can start feeling like a true community (Eastern Market, etc.). :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashisme123 Ashley O'Donnell

    This really makes me miss living in DC. It’s a place for “nerds” to feel free, & revel in their activism, wild child times, and love of education. It’s amazing how much more there is to the District than the touristy stuff–which I avoid at all costs! Like the residential neighborhoods that can start to feel like a true community (AdMo, etc.). Maybe that’s just me. Either way, there are pluses and minuses to every place, but it’s all in how your experiences shape them.

  • pesto

    2 more months until I’m home. God I miss that weird smell the metro gets in the summer. I’ve even started missing the brutal humidity. That’s how you know you’ve got it bad.

  • Johnnie

    “It is just a big city in a small town with an even bigger soul.”Yeah.

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