So much for my idyllic future in a depopulated D.C.
Illustration By Robert Meganck
Alice Rivlin, former chair of the control board and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, still enjoys rhapsodizing about the District’s future. Not long ago, I listened to Rivlin mesmerize a crowd of D.C. do-gooders with her prophecies for our collective future. In a confident voice, she spoke of a coming District to be distinguished by vibrant neighborhoods, good schools, a fiscally solvent government, and less poverty.
I listened in disbelief. Supporting Rivlin’s model for the future was what I considered a ludicrous assumption: specifically, that in 2010, the District would have 100,000 more residents than in 2000. I chuckled to myself. Alice, Alice, Alice. You’ve got it backward. In 2010, the District will have 100,000 fewer residents. Of that, I felt confident.
Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau announces the most recent decline in the District’s population. Traditionally, I have greeted the reports by dancing a celebratory jig. The reasons for the depopulation, which started in the ’50s, following World War II, and has continued steadily ever since, have been complex. But its basic trajectory is simple: Time progresses. The District’s population decreases. Q.E.D.
For those of us who have witnessed this phenomenon throughout our lives, it has become an important quality-of-life indicator. The more people leave, the better our lives get. Fewer people means more to go around. More fruits of the District for you and me.
But in December, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the District’s population had more or less stabilized at around 571,822. Between April 2000 and July 2001, the District lost a mere .04 percent of its population: only 237 people. Pathetic. Compare that with Barry’s heyday, in which the District’s population was dropping by an impressive 237 people per nanosecond. That was living.
Sadly, there are many misguided people downtown who see this as a good omen. Before city administrators and urban planners start celebrating—before they start draping the District’s border with velvet ropes and handing out bottles of champagne to every high-rolling suburbanite knocking at the door—let me be the first to say it: This sucks. More people in town will bring more of the things we hate and fewer of the things we love.
My dreams for the future have been crushed. My whole life I have gazed at tattered charts documenting the District’s downward slide in population (802,178 residents in 1950; 763,956 in 1960; 756,510 in 1970; and 638,333 in 1980) and felt my heart go pitter-patter. The possibilities seemed endless. How many more years before I could get season tickets to the Redskins? How many more Saturdays before I could safely hit golf balls off the top of my building? How many more winters before I could eat the snow in the city, anywhere? How many more seasons before the beavers returned to the Mall, the moose to Rock Creek Park, the sunbathers to Wisconsin Avenue?
I’m a reasonable person, and I didn’t expect to inherit the entire city right away. But you can’t argue with the math. Between 1970 and 1980, the District lost roughly 118,000 residents—or about 12,000 people a year. In 1977, the year I was born, there were approximately 680,000 occupants in the city. If everyone had done his part, sometime around New Year’s Eve 2034 I would finally have been rid of every last one of you hangers-on. The city would have been mine.
But now, what chance do I have of realizing my vision? It’s as if I were a WWF wrestler who’d been fighting for my life in a Royal Rumble match and suddenly all the suckers I’d already tossed out of the ring were allowed to climb back in. While you’re at it, go ahead and hit me in the back with a folding metal chair.
All you baby boomers are threatening to dilute the unique flavor of our city. The District belongs to the people who are too old, too young, too stupid, too poor, or too crazy to leave. Your conversations may spice up cocktail parties in Greenwich, Marin, and Boca Raton, but they won’t fly in the District. D.C. die-hards don’t want to resemble the rest of this country. Your success and your worldly knowledge confuse us and make us feel worse about ourselves. So go buy a time-share in Annapolis. Sail around the world. I don’t care. Just get lost.
You extra people will be cramping my lifestyle in countless and unexpected ways, which I can only begin to imagine. My vacations will be ruined. No longer can I look forward to that recurring conversation with the idiot on the airplane.
The Idiot: Where are you from?
The Idiot: Omigod. Really? I live in
Me: Awesome. What part of D.C.?
The Idiot: Gaithersburg.
Let’s face it: That always felt good. But now the idiot will say, “Mount Pleasant,” or “Adams Morgan,” or “Capitol Hill,” even “Shepherd Park” or “Eckington,” and I’ll realize that this person is actually my neighbor. And instead of feeling smugly superior, I’ll have to listen to him talk about D.C.’s amazing turnaround. Yeah, great.
All you newcomers have made a disgrace of the D.C. auto space. Once upon a time, D.C. tags could be affixed only to one of three models: Delta 88, Lincoln Town Car, and rusty Volvo wagon. It was in the D.C. Code. Nowadays, we’re defiling our urban purity by attaching those same tags to 2002 Honda Odyssey vans, Dodge Vipers, and other un-D.C. vehicles. Can’t you guys at least register in Virginia or Maryland?
I blame Mayor Williams and his squeaky-clean, service-oriented style of city government. If Barry were still running the show, the only people left in town would be city workers, city contractors, and ANC commissioners. That’s 200,000 people, tops.
Another co-conspirator in the banishment of my ideal D.C. is the national economy. Sometime in the late ’90s, the Clinton economic expansion washed up in D.C., washing out all hopes of a bright future for myself. Property values surged, crime went down, and moving vans actually dropped off furniture in town.
In a town of 571,000 people, it’s hard to run into any famous people. But imagine a Saturday in the District with only 200,000 people: Go to brunch. Watch James Carville drink a bloody mary through his nose. Go to the playground. Watch Kwame Brown get pushed around the basketball court by some neighborhood kids. Go shopping. Watch Jim Graham and Mayor Williams play tug of war over a discounted bow tie. Go to a nightclub. Watch Cokie Roberts dance the cha-cha.
My $500-a-week paycheck would stretch a lot further in that world. I wouldn’t be stuck renting some overpriced apartment—I’d be a real estate mogul. I’d own a town house in every ward of the city, an apartment complex, a video-game arcade, a few historic buildings, and a cache of vacant properties on Florida Avenue. I’d have my own booth at Butterfield 9, a sky box at the MCI Center, a picture of me on the wall at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Only a few months ago, the legend of Boss Gillette seemed poised to bitch-slap the legend of Boss Shepherd back into the footnotes of the history books. And now I have nothing. Nothing but neighbors.
I’m not the only person who will suffer. Think of the poor, beleaguered local arts community. If there were only, say, 200,000 people ignoring the Millennium Arts Center and its off-the-hook showcase of local talent, well, you could perhaps blame that on the declining population. But when there are 571,000 people milling about and not a single one can pick the Millennium Arts Center out of a police lineup, well, that’s got to be tough on the ego.
Ditto for the Kennedy Center. That place feels abandoned no matter how many people are inside. And if its in-town constituency shrank further, it might have better luck wringing aid from the feds.
Of course, some local institutions will never change. Whether there are 571,000 occupants or 571, don’t expect Kojo Nnamdi and Mark Plotkin to alter their witty banter for our sake. Some commentary on the D.C. Politics Hour—in particular, any information concerning Plotkin’s self-heralded stint as a collegiate athlete, waving his racket around on the tennis courts at George Washington University—will remain relevant no matter how many people live in the District.
But there are other moments in local media that I have fantasized about for years, which are now in jeopardy. With all these extra people and their cars, will Dr. Gridlock ever take a vacation, let alone retire? And will the Washington Post Metro section be able to focus exclusively on stories about baby animals at the National Zoo? The recent coverage of the baby elephant and the toddler tiger had my hopes riding high. But with all the extra Homo sapiens running around, I’m beginning to fret that the Post’s comprehensive zoo coverage might head in the wrong direction.
Furthermore, all the extra inhabitants in the District will flood our tax coffers with cash to update municipal equipment. Am I the only person nostalgic for the days when Department of Public Works employees, in the heyday of depopulation, ambled about with brooms and dustpans to clean the streets?
DPW crews now clean up leaves with a coordinated, hi-tech attack. They have a leaf vacuum that circulates through town accompanied by a dump truck of sorts. Before the crew hits the streets, the DPW advises residents to simply place all their excess on the curb. Then the crew comes by and gobbles it all up. It all works very efficiently. It is a very sad sight, one that could encourage even more people to move here.
There’s so much tax revenue floating around these days that mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock can say, with a straight face, that the mayor’s office is working hard on an emergency plan for the entire city. The entire city? Please. The old emergency plan had nothing to with the city or its inhabitants. It was designed for the presidential succession crew. You didn’t need the threat of terrorism to set it in motion. All you needed was a snowstorm in the forecast, and suddenly the mayor’s staffers would be racing around, packing swimsuits, buying tiki torches, booking charter jets, and scrutinizing the office copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to Jamaica.
But all may not be lost. There are some positive signs on the horizon. All this discussion of a national economic slowdown has really put the pep back in my step. Recessions in D.C. are a riot. And if the unemployment rate keep rising, and the real estate bubble bursts, we might get back to the all-important task of emptying out this joint. I have three proposals to hasten this public priority: (1) Quadruple the councilmembers’ annual salaries so as to hasten a budgetary crisis. (2) Legalize crack; outlaw coffee. (3) Require convicts to serve a mandatory minimum of two years teaching home room in a D.C. public school; families, after all, are the prime culprits of repopulation. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration By Robert Meganck.