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You can’t get very far into an argument about life in Washington without encountering a comparison to New York.
Debating zoning policy? Bemoaning restaurant quality? Trying to comprehend the quirks of D.C.’s arts scene, its gay community, its municipal politics? Gotham is, inevitably, the go-to contrast.
This is odd, in large part because there’s one thing fans and foes of the District’s status quo agree about: Washington is not like New York. Just search the city’s name in one of the neighborhood email lists where D.C.’s most mundane arguments fester.
For people who want change, here’s a comment on a Cleveland Park email thread where members were bemoaning the state of local taxis: “In New York, passengers swipe their cards on the touch-screen credit card machine and get a receipt.” By comparison, our crestfallen poster added, the capital city felt like “Kalamazoo.”
For people who don’t want change, New York is also the inevitable point of reference. Here’s a Tenleytown email list member angrily criticizing a proposal that would bring more housing, but no extra parking, to her historically leafy neighborhood: “Get real! This is not New York City, and people who live here like and need cars.”
They are, of course, both right. And so is the guy who complains about the paucity of good Chinese food, and the resident who sings the praises of his quiet backyard, and the scenester who laments the narrower band of nocturnal options. Washingtonians, please! Let’s put aside our endearing tendency to proclaim that our little ’burg is every bit as good as those big, arrogant meanies to the north. This isn’t about that: For a myriad of reasons that need not trouble anyone’s fragile sense of municipal self-worth, our city is not like New York.
Or congrats, depending on your view of things.
But all of this invites a question: Just what are we like? This is not purely trivial. People use comparisons with other places to encourage or discourage policy ideas, to learn from how others handled similar challenges, or to ponder inexplicable quirks in the Washingtonian condition. Forget New York: We went looking for some more apposite municipal comparisons, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Here’s what we came up with.
No matter how many crackheads and campaign cheats D.C. elects as mayor, you’ll never surpass Chicago as most corrupt city in America. We’ve been at it longer. And our politicians have more opportunities to steal than yours.
D.C. didn’t get home rule until 1973. Chicago’s tradition of municipal malfeasance dates back to the 1890s, when aldermen “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and “Hinky Dink” Kenna funded their campaigns by shaking down brothels and holding an orgiastic ball each year. Big Bill Thompson, named worst mayor in American history by a poll of historians (beat that, Marion Barry), was returned to office with the help of $250,000 from Al Capone. In modern dollars, that’s far more than Vince Gray allegedly received from Jeff Thompson. Plus, Thompson is an accountant. Capone was a bootlegger who assassinated his rivals.
D.C. is only one city. Illinois has more governments than any other state—more than 500 in Cook County alone. A former chairman of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District—a sewage board with a $1 billion budget—went to prison for taking bribes from an FBI mole. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy sat on the Norwood Park Township Street Lighting Commission. You have a chairman and 12 councilmembers. We have 50 aldermen. In the last 40 years, one in three have been convicted of some combination of bribery, mail fraud, racketeering, extortion, or ghost payrolling. The most recent indictee allegedly received $40,000 in home improvements for a zoning change.
If you can’t make money in Chicago, there’s always Springfield. Our last two governors—George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich—are in federal prisons. Until Blagojevich was arrested, Illinois had no limits on campaign contributions. To survive in this Wild Midwest, politicians sold everything under their control. When Ryan was secretary of state, truck drivers bought licenses with bribes that ended up in his campaign fund. One caused an accident that burned six children to death. Blagojevich tried to peddle Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat as though he were fencing a big-screen TV. Then there are the guys who don’t get caught. In the 1960s, drivers purchased license plates by writing checks in the name of the secretary of state, Paul Powell. Powell died in a Springfield hotel suite, alone except for $800,000 stuffed in shoeboxes.
And that’s not even modern dollars.
South of the 49th parallel, we’re generally uninformed about most things Canadian. This unfamiliarity extends to Canada’s capital as well. The Canadian comic Rick Mercer—you haven’t heard of him, naturally—once convinced a few gullible American interviewees, including Mike Huckabee, that the Canadian capitol building is actually a National Igloo. But Americans, and especially Washingtonians, should pay more attention to Ottawa. In many ways, it’s the District’s twin.
It’s not only that Ottawa and Washington are capitals. Rather, they’re both the same kind of capitals. Unlike Tokyo, London, or Mexico City, they aren’t the unrivaled centers of gravity of their respective countries. Instead, like Ankara, Brasilia, Canberra, and Wellington, Washington and Ottawa are political capitals but not economic or cultural capitals. They’re government cities, not megacities. Yet both maintain a public profile and a cosmopolitan atmosphere far out of proportion to their size.
Neither the District nor Ottawa were their countries’ original capitals. And while both current capitals contain neighborhoods that were once colonial towns in their own right, they grew up around national politics and for the most part remain places where government is the biggest game in town.
As a result, Washington and Ottawa are both examples of a distinctive North American federal urbanism. Though each has fewer than a million residents, they’re filled with museums, embassies, monuments, and the tourists who come to be photographed in front of them. They feature noble examples of neoclassical public buildings and stylish Victorian houses, as well as large numbers of impressively bland office blocks (the Place du Portage complex in Gatineau right over the bridge from Ottawa is a bureaucratic-Brutalist wonderland, something like the District’s J. Edgar Hoover building at the scale of the Pentagon). Both Washington and Ottawa have adopted an approach to urban growth centered on housing and amenities for the professional classes, leading to a wave of development that boosters breathlessly promote as a renaissance of downtown livability but which bears the unmistakable signs of gentrification.
Belying their stuffy reputations, though, both Ottawa and Washington also encompass urbane neighborhoods and dynamic subcultures. It is thus their shared plight to repeatedly suffer a special kind of condescension that can be glimpsed whenever visiting Torontonians or New Yorkers find themselves shocked to discover recognizable urban life in the national capital.
The similarities don’t end there. Both cities experience harsh climactic extremes (Ottawa’s annual ice age; Washington’s mosquito season). Both cities sit directly across a river from an occasionally hostile political entity (Quebec; Virginia).
But the differences between the two cities are instructive, as they reflect some of the divergences between the two nations they govern. The U.S. Capitol is hyper-militarized and patrolled by snipers, while the mellow grounds of the Canadian Parliament include a sanctuary for stray cats. Washington is riven by social inequality and segregation, whereas Ottawa is a much more egalitarian city, officially bilingual. Ottawa, notably, holds one other major prerogative that sets it apart from Washington: full representation in the national legislature that meets within its borders.
The locals have been tying themselves in knots for years as successive governors moved more and more Alaska state government jobs out of Juneau (population 30,000 and only accessible by boat or plane) to Anchorage (a city you can get to by car that’s also home to half the state’s population). There’s even a term for it: capital creep. And the city’s lawmakers complain about it every time a state job is shifted away.
That kind of kvetching is similar to D.C., where the locals are also resentful that their very survival is dependent on a government they don’t control. Where Juneau’s lawmakers bitch about capital creep, of course, D.C.’s got a much larger beef with the feds. For starters, there’s the fact that D.C. has no real representation in Congress—at least Juneau residents can elect two state house reps and a state senator. Then there’s the fact that some Republicans love casting their small-government ideals aside to try and impose their own social views on the District. Like Juneau residents, there isn’t much folks in the District can do. At least up there they can go snow-machining to blow off some steam.
In early August, the New York Post asked “Is Atlantic City cool again?” in an article that was strictly about the Jersey Shore playground’s efforts to lure young spenders to its casinos, which have lost their East Coast monopoly and are competing with facilities in bordering states.
Of course, the paper didn’t mention anything about the fresh-faced/well-heeled crowd actually wanting to move into A.C., because that notion is preposterous. It’s a one-industry town with a reputation for street crime, an urban core that’s uninviting beyond the boardwalk, and a dearth of amenities (gasp, there’s no grocery store within city limits!). Nearly 35 years of legalized gambling and associated development haven’t changed the fact that if you work in A.C., there are far more appealing places to live.
Central D.C. once had a similar rap, too, but it’s now possible to lead an acceptably trendy lifestyle for days at a time without having to venture north of K Street NW. Of course, D.C.’s main industry—educated people doing competitively nerdy things—draws lots of people who want to live close to where they work, and developers smartly took advantage of it over the last two decades. A.C. is a far tougher sell. Because, really, if you’re dealing blackjack hands all day to jerks from New York and Philly, you probably want your home to be in a safe, quiet beach town that allows you to leave it all behind.
In D.C., there seems to be the idea that only whites bicycle, and any government effort to make bike riding easier is some part of The Plan. Bike lanes became code words in the 2010 election, symbolic of Adrian Fenty’s alienation of black voters. The underlying assumption is that black people don’t like bikes.
But when I lived in Guinea, my village—which was 99.99 percent black with me there—was home to plenty of bikes, as they were the best, cheapest, and usually fastest way to get around. The models were usually Chinese cruisers, which were simple and cheap and had plenty of spare parts available. (The bike shop was some dude’s hut, where he kept a couple tools.) Hunters especially liked to use bikes for longer trips into the brush, as their bike racks were handy for transporting game. Warthog, I know from seeing a hunter ride back into town with only a head on his rack, is a two-trip job.
For the better part of a century, show business has defined the master narrative of life in Los Angeles. The city is one of the nation’s largest manufacturing hubs and many of its residents will go a lifetime without any meaningful association to the entertainment sector, but Los Angeles, culturally, is still very much a company town.
Like in Washington, public officials and private enterprise in Los Angeles have traditionally been rewarded for their devotion to and investment in The Industry. And also like in Washington, when insiders trade information or peddle in gossip, they don’t dish about on-screen celebrities, but the power brokers behind the scenes. Scorekeeping is the civic parlor game.
Both cities offer a platform for the gregarious B student to leverage sociability into prosperity. Whether Washington is Hollywood for ugly people is a matter of debate, but the capital has its share of Sammy Glicks looking to hoist themselves over the transom.
Yet Los Angeles has become a more meritocratic place since Sammy conned his way to the top. Today, chance plays a larger role than cronyism, even if the word Mafia is still thrown around (and even if those mafias have gotten more niche, to encompass a “Lavender Mafia,” a “Female Exec Mafia,” and a “Black Mafia.”) But talent has become the most prominent measure because prestigious institutions can no longer afford to make mistakes.
Federal Washington’s pivot in that direction, alas, has been a less fluid motion.
It may be the greatest credit yet to the wit of John F. Kennedy that he unleashed his most famous formulation about Washington life before a European official arrived in Brussels and thought to describe his new home as a mix of Flemish charm and Walloon efficiency.
Indeed, the cities share a common history of abrupt elevation to capital status upon the creation of a new republic, Washington in 1790 and Brussels exactly four decades later. Both countries were more chunks of territory snapped out of an empire by revolution than proper nation-states. Despite their new sovereignty, both remained bifurcated, with an industrialized north outpacing a south notable for softer consonants and relative economic backwardness. Their federal districts were no-man’s lands, torn socially between the two but statutorily denied the ability to fully align with either.
In the late 20th century the legendarily sterile cities found both municipal purpose and a postindustrial economic engine in their cold bureaucracies. The postwar world graduated each to a new supercapital status: Washington of a governmental-industrial complex and the world’s diplomatic hub, Brussels as a regional regulatory center and military control room. The capitals share a border in the land of frightful metaphor—“Washington” and “Brussels” are both spoken to reflect the discontent of the governed—and the realm of municipal challenges. Both have to negotiate tensions between a local, working-class population and a prosperous, well-educated, transient one whose salaries drive the residential real-estate market, as institutions exempt from taxes gobble up choice land. Each city has erected a bureaucratic landscape at the expense of natural features, notably with 19th-century engineers paving over downtown waterways. Brussels, however, pays better tribute to the scars left by unnavigable canals: Abutting where the Willebrooek Canal once ran are not pedestrian towpaths but open streets still vestigially named quais, lined with seafood joints.
If you’ve ever visited Orlando, chances are you actually haven’t. You probably flew into Orlando International Airport, then drove to the convention center, International Drive, SeaWorld, Disney World, Gatorland, the Holy Land Experience, or—if you arrived from D.C.—the Brooks Brothers outlet near Mall of Millennia. Every last one of those places is outside the municipal limits of the City Beautiful.
That means you missed seeing “the real Orlando,” home to a lot of things that are actually kind of nice: Lake Eola and its historic fountain; the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre; the Orlando Museum of Art; the Orlando Science Center (which also has live gators); the 50-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens; the Vietnamese restaurant district (one of the largest in the country!); and lots of brick roads, tiny man-made lakes, and charming historical bungalows.
OK, so that’s pretty much all you missed. But being a native, I can’t help but feel you missed a lot.
And having left Orlando for D.C. in 2008, I often feel the same way about my new home. You can spend a week in the District, jetting between the Hinckley Hilton and the Mall, and not know you missed anything. You can even spend 10 weeks here—sublet in Arlington, make coffee on the Hill, do intern happy hours near the Capitol—and never set foot in more than one quadrant.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad. The reality is there’s a lot to see and do. (Disney and the Smithsonian museums both require days to explore in-depth). The other truth, one Orlandoans in particular have a hard time accepting, is that the places visitors never see don’t really lend themselves to visiting. No tourist is going to the Looking Glass for a beer when the Fairfield Inn & Suites on 5th and H NW has a bar downstairs; no one who spends two months’ pay to fly their seasonal affective disorder−plagued family to Florida is traipsing through a botanical garden or seeing Cats on tour at the Bob Carr.
People come, they see what sells, and then they go home, where they tell people, “This is what Orlando is like,” or, “This is what D.C. is like.” They don’t mention the Science Center or Johnny’s Fillin’ Station; the Black Cat or Madam’s Organ; because they don’t even know those places exist.
Thank God for that.
It is an unfortunate truth that “y’all” rhymes with “sprawl,” and an even more unfortunate truth that Atlanta is not well-served by its meager, embattled transit system. Georgia’s capitol is surrounded by suburbs, many of them bedroom communities where a high percentage of residents commute into the city for work. Sound familiar, D.C.?
But at least the DMV has the benefit of a relatively robust public transit system; while WMATA has five rail lines, Atlanta’s MARTA system has four that essentially run on two perpendicular lines.
Both cities are mired in sprawl and the traffic it creates. In Atlanta, unless you’re fortunate enough to live and work near a—train station—and that takes some doing! —you need a car. You only sort of need a car in D.C., and if you have a bike and a Metro card you may not need one at all. Which means while D.C.’s rush hour gridlock is legendary, it’s also a lot more optional than in Atlanta, the city where everyone is probably too busy to hate because they’re sitting in traffic.
Washington is just like Boston: Both suffer from too much self-worth, both are midsized East Coast towns with congested, Byzantine street plans—and both responded to their acute public transportation needs with inadequate hub-and-spoke systems, seemingly designed for social displacement rather than transportation.
Whether you personally like your Metro commute or not, the first shortcoming of the hub-and-spoke approach should be obvious in these days of dead trains and weekend track maintenance: There is no redundancy. Unlike, say, London, where it’s possible to chart a half-dozen plausible subterranean routes between South Kensington and West Hampstead, in Boston or D.C., if the Red Line is fucked when you need it, then, well, so are you.
Hub-’n’-spokes systems offer the illusion of efficiency. You can transfer directly from almost any line to almost any other. But in practice they provide over-abundance where it is not needed—D.C. has 12 stations within an easy walk of the White House; Boston 12 within spitting distance of the Commons—and scarcity as the fingers spread further and further apart. Traveling the nine miles from Shady Grove to Glenmont over 32 miles of Red Line track will take you longer than an hour, or three times longer than driving.
Who cares? Well, when good public transportation is scarce, it is a resource that will inevitably fall into the hands of the wealthy. This has happened gradually to Central Square in Cambridge, here in Clarendon, and in many other gentrified “corridor” locations. Even Boston’s notorious Southy has emerged as a middle-class neighborhood thanks in part to its two T stations. Over time, hub-and-spoke public transit becomes increasingly inaccessible to the people who need it most—especially as businesses that don’t depend on foot traffic move to where land is cheaper, out of town and off the Metro. A worker who relies on a twice-an-hour bus to get from the end of the Orange line to a deep suburban workplace has a commute that can be measured in hours, not minutes.
But we, like Boston, are stuck. A more organic system can add lines where and when needed; a hub-and-spoke system scales only outward—putting increased burden on limited capacity. The Orange and Blue lines are barely functional now at rush hour, and when the Silver Line is added to their shared tracks it could make commuting so awful that the boomtowns of Rosslyn, Clarendon, and Balston may as well be West Virginia.
The population in the city is relatively small, while the metropolitan area surrounding it is one of the largest in the nation. Traffic is terrible everywhere. Housing costs are through the roof. And high-tech firms, not manufacturing, are the economic engine behind it all.
Maybe D.C. should give up on trying to be New York and aim for San Francisco, instead. The West Coast city has a couple hundred thousand more residents than the District does, but otherwise, it’s already pretty similar. D.C. planners have been trying to grow a Silicon Valley−like tech scene here, after all—and unlike the Bay Area, where many firms are based in the surrounding area rather than in the city, they’d like to have the jobs downtown. Both cities have fairly low-slung buildings, the legacy of a reaction to a sudden skyscraper boom in San Francisco and of congressional intervention here. Even the tallest buildings in town have some parallels: They’ve got the Transamerica Pyramid; we’ve got the (nearly half as tall) Washington Monument.
Other similarities already abound: They’ve got marriage equality; we’ve got marriage equality. Their football team wears gold and red; our football team wears burgundy and gold. As of last summer, we’ve even got earthquakes. They’ve got Oakland; we’ve got Baltimore. All we need now is to move the Chesapeake Bay a little closer.
Peter the Great founded his namesake city in 1703. It was a folly: The tsar wanted to assert his power with a city of his very own that outshone the rest of Europe. So a patch of land on the Neva River at the head of the Baltic Sea—that technically belonged to Sweden—was built up to channel the canals of Venice, the bridges of Amsterdam, and the architectural stylings of Vienna. But it’s hard to be elegant on a swamp: Thousands of peasants, shipped in from Russia’s rural expanses, lost their lives constructing Peter’s vision of the grandest, greatest European city; St. Petersburg, which has been Russia’s on-again, off-again capital, is said to be built on bones.
Things weren’t quite so gruesome in Washington’s nascent days. But our city was built in 1790 on moist, marshy, middle-of-nowhere land, too. A number of infrastructural issues arose, chiefly in the sewage department. Like Peter the Great, Pierre L’Enfant was a narcissistic, dictatorial terror: Though Thomas Jefferson had offered George Washington a simple, gridded plan for the new capital, L’Enfant pushed his much more complicated series of grand avenues. The L’Enfant plan took its cues from Paris, and those wide boulevards—you know, the ones named after all the states in the country—were meant to create an egalitarian city, where everyone, regardless of status, could peer at the District’s beautiful vistas. L’Enfant was so protective of his plan that he refused to furnish a map of city lots for sale; the whole thing was redrawn by city surveyor Andrew Ellicott, and L’Enfant never received payment. Nonetheless, D.C.’s L’Enfant city, just like St. Petersburg, has come to carry the name of the arrogant bastard who masterminded it.
Second-Tier Dining Cities, Not Third-Tier
Let’s get this out of the way first: New York’s dining scene is tough to rival. By sheer volume of people, there’s more diversity in cuisine, big name chefs, and avant-garde creativity than anywhere else in the country. San Francisco and Chicago generally come next on the foodie’s list of culinary destinations. And D.C.? Well, it’s usually left somewhere in the middle of the third tier.
Where does that leave us? Somewhere around the likes of San Diego and Honolulu, both of which came out ahead of D.C. in Travel & Leisure’s recent ranking of “America’s Best Cities for Foodies.” Meanwhile, not a single D.C.-area chef or restaurant won at this year’s James Beard Awards. D.C.-area restaurants claimed four of the five Beard nominees for best Mid-Atlantic chef, only to lose out to a chef from New Jersey.
With our superior economy and discerning diners, though, the District is becoming a place where top toques want to be. High-profile restaurateurs like New York’s Michael White and Philadelphia’s Stephen Starr have plans to open up here. International chains like YO! Sushi and PAUL Bakery want to make their U.S. debut in D.C. Every week, we’ve got new restaurants opening from ambitious young chefs and revered kitchen veterans alike. It’s time we got a little more credit. We deserve to at least move up to that second tier.
Chicago’s got Grant Achatz, but we’ve got José Andrés. Coi? Michael Mina? Mission Chinese? We’ll see you Komi and raise you Little Serow. Unlike many other food destinations, our dining scene is just heating up. Chicago and San Francisco, watch out.
Back in May, TV showrunner David Simon gathered musicians from the two cities closest to his heart—Baltimore and New Orleans—for a Wire vs. Treme battle of the bands. The Wire delegation even included a go-go act—Backyard Band, led by Simon regular Anwan “Big G” Glover—but perhaps inevitably, the evening’s punchline was D.C. “‘What’s the best thing about Baltimore?” actor and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce bantered from the stage. “D.C. And D.C.’s not even that good.” Backstage, Pierce told a writer from Slate that he’d gone to bed at 9 p.m. on a recent visit to Washington because he was so let down by the nightlife. That’s around the time the area’s atomized go-go clubs would’ve started cranking, but how could Pierce have known? He comes from a town that preserves and honors its indigenous music (and sells it to tourists, too). As far as musicians are concerned, D.C. doesn’t have a Tremé neighborhood, or even a Frenchman Street.
Standing in New Orleans’ Tipitina’s that night, though, the spiritual links between the sounds of Crescent City and Chocolate City should’ve been clear. Brass and go-go are both expressions of increasingly beleaguered local black identities, and both make national murmurs only in brief spurts. They’re also living, breathing sounds—but while brass remains part of the image New Orleans projects to the world, official D.C. has largely chased go-go to the suburbs, honoring it only when its patriarchs die. Speaking of which: At Chuck Brown’s memorial service, politicians promised a Chuck Brown Day, a Chuck Brown Park (which Mayor Vince Gray has asked the D.C. Council to create), and a go-go hall of game. How about some more clubs, too?
Former D.C. transportation boss Gabe Klein fell in love with bikesharing when he visited Montreal in 2009: “I had this romantic love affair with Bixi,” Klein said at a talk at Portland State University in April 2011. Like Montreal, D.C. now has its own smashing success of a public bikesharing system, and Capital Bikeshare, like Montreal’s Bixi, is emblematic of a city changing the way its residents and visitors get around. But popularity isn’t the only thing the two share: The boxy systems—which both look that way because they use the same provider for bikes and equipment—lack dedicated funding.
Instead, they’re required to work with whatever dollars their city councils toss their way each year. Though Bixi and CaBi both have crazy-high ridership numbers (D.C. hit two million rides last month), neither is making money. Annual budgeting out of public coffers isn’t the only way to run a transportation mode: Paris’ Velib claims all its advertising revenue, Minneapolis’ Nice Ride is a public-private nonprofit partnership, and New York’s forthcoming Citibike is funded by—yep—Citibank. For a minute last year, it looked like the D.C. Council was going to allow CaBi to ride on its own by collecting revenue from advertisements to be sold on the bikes and related signage. Too bad it didn’t. Bixi is a cautionary tale: The system nearly went bankrupt last May, and Montreal has been struggling to balance checkbooks and a demand for rapid expansion of its bikesharing system since then.