City Paper is not for tourists
I am admiring the cover of a recent New Yorker. Famed cartoonist Edward Sorel has depicted a New York City tour bus full of visitors ogling the natives. He has drawn the visitors as farm animalscows, horses, pigs. He has drawn the natives on the street as more exotic creaturesa unicorn in a black turtleneck, a snake-headed musician, a peacock in heels. The drawing is called “Walkers and Gawkers.”
Which one are you?
I think it happened the last time I was looking for a decent meal after midnight. Or maybe it was the last time I voted, when I found only indistinguishable Democratsall earnest civil rights veterans, all oblivious to the devastation they have wrought here over the yearson the ballot. Or maybe it was when I ventured to a recent Friday-night party, where I waited in line for keg beer and listened to the Wallflowers and Capitol Hill gossip until 11, when everyone went home (softball on the Mall at 9 a.m.!).
At one of these timesat all of them, I guessI started hating Washington.
It’s a deep, organic hatethe kind of hate that sneaks up on you when you’re on the phone with a friend on the Upper West Side and you’re saying, “Yeah, Washington’s still great,” and you realize you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Though I’m not sure exactly when I started hating D.C., I know the precise moment I decided to flee for New York. I was on the Amtrak Northeast Express, returning from a working vacation in Gotham, a week of days spent reporting followed by nights at packed and ridiculously fun clubs, each more unexpected and improbable than anything on U Street or 17th Street or Capitol Hill or…Old Town Alexandria.
I spent too much money, stayed out too late, worked too hard, and had the time of my life. In New York, nightlife is a phenomenon, a third sphere of life beyond career and relationships. People are good at having fun in New York. Here, nightlife is a necessity, an alcohol-intensive, all-too-brief escape from the main eventworkand the secondary eventsex.
True, I hate D.C. for reasons you’ve heard beforeits self-important wonkery, its blind conviction that politics trumps culture, the fucking height limitations.
But I mainly hate its size. If the seat of the American government lay in New Yorkas a fantasy, let’s tuck it into Hell’s Kitchenit wouldn’t matter that hundreds of thousands of humorless federal workers and their attendant lawyers and lobbyists also dwelled in New York: In a city of 7.3 million, they would be drowned out. (Think of London.) Here, they reach critical mass. Government workers make up nearly 40 percent of all District employees. Call it the Dork Classa sea of Gawkers, marking anything unusual and creative and risky with a hard stare as derisive as it is uncomprehending.
Let me stipulate something basic: The Washington- vs.-New York debate is tired and stupid. By global standards, both cities are cosmopolitan, clean, and prosperous. By American standards, they share the ills of urban deterioration: crime, racial polarization, and shrinking populations. Let me further stipulate that Washington isn’t all bad. As the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell wrote a few years ago, “Clearly there are some things about Washington that are better than New York (although, I have to confess, they do not come readily
More recently, Michael Kinsley (in Time) and Howard Kurtz (in the Washington Post) have alighted on Washington’s shortcomings as a new trend. As the Clinton era trudges through its fifth expectation-crushing yearand toward an always-dull Augustthe political literati seem convinced that their cité du coeur has become a wart on the otherwise supercharged and mutating American landscape:
“Inside the Washington Beltway,” Kinsley wrote, “people still swim through swamplike summer heat and humidity wearing dark wool suits and damp white shirts, their air supply constricted by a tight Windsor knot.” (Forget for a moment that Kinsley, who famously posed for the cover of Newsweek in a ridiculous yellow slicker to pimp his move to Seattle and the web magazine Slate, shouldn’t be giving fashion advice. His underlying point is still valid.)
For his part, Kurtz noted earlier this month that the rest of the nation’s media “has adopted a more tabloid sensibility in which Michael Kennedy and Kelly Flinn and Marv Albert loom larger than Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.” D.C., he said, has become “Dullsville.” A few days later, Kurtz’s paper ran a story about how “remote” Washington seems to most Americans these days. Editors breathlessly positioned the piece above the front-page fold as if it represented a new paradigm.
But who could be surprised by these conclusions? Of course we’re unfashionable, and unfashionably concerned with politics. It’s Washington, for Gingrich’s sake. And that miserable inside/outside the Beltway cliché has become just that, a cliché.
Kinsley and Kurtz are right; they’re just not going far enough. A far more fundamental change has taken place here. Washington, sad to say, has become a bad city on its own terms.
At a Washington party a few weeks ago, after discussing work and politics with everyonein other words, after most of the night had slipped awayone acquaintance, struggling mightily for a new topic, asked about my incipient move to New York.
“Why do you want to move there?” she sniffed. “Your quality of life goes down so much. It’s so charming here.” Another friend added that Washington is “a nice Southern city….It’s all about politics.”
Take the politics part. New York City blasts an open hydrant of political backbiting and intriguethe kind of lively discourse concomitant with a two-party system. And its politicians are also better at what they do. Let’s begin at the top:
Four months ago, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared at a press dinner in drag. Yellow hair, big fake tits, garish makeup. (“Rudy Goes on a Gender Bender,” cracked the Daily News.) He wore a shit-eating grin, but such circuslike feats convey both self-deprecation and a subtle message (I’m tolerant!). In addition to being a good pol, Giuliani also happens to be a skilled mayor: He saved the city a billion dollars in his first year in office by renegotiating labor contracts. And of course, his stunningly efficacious crime-fighting strategies (the murder rate will be in 1950s range by year’s end, if trends continue) are being emulated across the country, including here in the District.
In short, Giuliani is poised to become the first Republican re-elected mayor of New York since 1941 (unless you count John Lindsay, who was elected once as a Republican but a second time, in 1969, on the Liberal Party ticket).
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry could win again next year only because Washington’s racial divide froze during the early ’70s and has yet to thaw. In any other city, Barry would be a washed-up ex-con. His tenure isn’t even a good source of jokes anymore; they’re all spent. This paper should probably retire “Mayor for Life”; we’ve been using the moniker now for 11 years, since he beat Carol Schwartz in 1986. (It’s also a sign of political malaise when the most likely opponent for Barry in next year’s general election will be none other than…Carol Schwartz.)
While Giuliani dresses in drag, Barry seems to have hung up even his Africanized shirts. It’s rare that you see him in anything but a suit fit for, say, a control board member. His idea of a wacky stunt is to don a boater and a red-white-and-blue tie and pass out balloons at the Palisades Independence Day parade. It was Barry in whitefacefunny in a way, but more a subtle fuck you to the white neighborhood than true political theater.
Giuliani’s strength is that he conveys gravitas even as he yucks it up. Not too long ago he met with a group of local students. One of them askedperhaps innocently, perhaps prurientlywhat the mayor “does before he goes to sleep.” “Last night,” the mayor answered without hesitation, sinking back into a lushly cushioned chair in his office, “I listened to the opera La Forza del Destino and read Macbeth.” He wasn’t joking.
A little more than a year ago, a Post reporter asked Barry about his religious life. The mayor told her that he likes “to sit here and do nothing and look out the window” for half an hour every day. I suppose that’s the difference between a mayor who has smoked crack and one who has busted crack dealers.
The political advantage of New York over Washington extends beyond municipal politics. Washington’s discourse surrounding President Clinton is manicureda circumscribed weighing of political and governmental pros and cons.
But when the first family visited N.Y.C. in March, for Chelsea’s birthday, Gotham was aflutter with giggles about the prez sitting through Rent, the overrated megamusical glamorizing East Village sleaze: a stylized vision of heroin, AIDS, and dildos, all for Bill and Hill (and their 17-year-old daughter) to applaud. (Which they did profusely: Clinton called Rent “incredible” more than once.)
And the advantage extends beyond elected officials. It’s probably no accident that the most successful political magazine to appear this decade is published not in the District but literally on Broadway. Though it’s often light as cotton candy, George has overcome skepticism about its start-up to achieve something few new magazines can claima profit. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked
It’s not that George is good. It claims to be “not just politics as usual,” but of course it is. No magazine has chronicled the intersection of money and power (and especially Hollywood and Washington) with better writing or more panting awe. For better or worse, that’s exactly what people want in the post-political age.
Washington publishers haven’t gotten the point. The embarrassing Weekly Standard, begun with some fanfare in 1995, has done more to damage conservatism than improve it. Its writing is stale and its positions are predictably “unpredictable”conservatives wanking off against their counterparts for various ideological indiscretions. And the Hill, conceived three years ago as a muckraking, stylish competitor to the staid Roll Call, has published more fluffsome of it poorly reported fluffthan groundbreaking coverage of Congress. Meanwhile, George (which at least revels in its fluffiness) has no plans even to open a Washington bureau.
(As long as we’re on the topic of magazines, a simple question is in order: Would you rather be a Washingtonian or a New Yorker?)
If Washington’s politics aren’t compelling, isn’t it at least a pleasant Southern town? Forget about it. I grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark. Now that’s a charming hamlet of the Confederacy: People say “Hey there” when they pass you at the grocery store, where everyone knows what okra, chitlins, and grits are.
In Washington, on the other hand, I went to a dinner party recently where the hostess ordered us out of the kitchen and into her more decorated dining and living rooms. Every Southerner knows that the juiciest gossip and most raucous laughter are to be had around the fridge.
So what does this have to do with New York? Everything.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx I would argue that New York actually has a greater purchase on Southernness than D.C.and not just because there’s more Faulknerian eccentricity in one block of the Village than in all of Washington.
Yes, New York’s economy is brutishly competitive. Yes, the city is full of people whose names end in vowels. Yes, you can buy a rubber vagina on the street for $5. But more fundamentally, it’s a city of small townsneighborhoods where you go to stores with people who list “shopkeeper” on their 1040s. (According to the New York Times, the first Kmart in New York City arrived only last year.) In New York, you buy your morning bagel and coffee at a family-owned takeout (New York is probably the only place left in America where it’s actually difficult to find a goddamn Starbucks), your Times at an immigrant’s newsstand, your cannoli for dessert at a real Italian bakery.
Which brings me to food, the centerpiece of Southern life. For five dollars in New York, you can get melt-in-your-mouth falafel, a huge bowl of noodles, or two slices of crispy, not-too-cheesy pizza. For five dollars in Washington, you can get a Pepsi-sponsored glob from Wrap Works.
Granted, the comforts of New York aren’t always delivered with the customary niceties. But New York has a more subtle charm, evinced in small ways at odd times, like when the city’s newspapers call subway riders “straphangers.” (Here we call them “subway riders.”)
Washington’s claim on Southern-style charm is meretricious. Its cordiality has a forced feel: Everyone here speaks in a receptionist’s voice, striving to hide our bilious, cutthroat natures. We’re like lemon-meringue pieendlessly sweet on the outside, infinitely sour on the insideall of us sharing in the myths about why we’re here. Washingtonians always say that you don’t get here unless you work hard and show talent; I think they actually believe it. And then they become angry when they receive their paltry paychecks. If the Beltway is where the nation stores its talent and ambition, why is all the money earned in other parts of the country?
Face it: The only things Southern about Washington are the torpid summers and the racial divisionsand the latter are more resonant of the South of 1970 than the Atlanta or Birmingham of today.
The final myth of Washington’s superiority is the most difficult to refuteand so the most often trumpeted. In Washington, it is said, you can live large for a little. New York is expensive and crowded, and in Washington you can still find a fix-it-up row house near Dupont Circle for a hundred grand.
Fine. If your quality of life is measured by how much space you have to live it, stay here. But if we’re on the subject of economics, New Yorkespecially these dayshas Washington beat hands down. Private-sector employment grew in New York by 48,000 jobs last year alonemore than half the 82,000 jobs created there in all of the six middle years of the supposedly roaring ’80s. By contrast, between 1990 and 1995, more than 23,000 jobs vanished from the District, and although the drop has slowed, it hasn’t reversed.
In 1989, D.C.-area business leaders gloated when MCI moved its headquarters from New York to Washington. The Post Magazine ran a long cover story that summer positing that the eastern pole of the country’s economic axis now lay “not in New York, but Washington.” The rise of Japan and the 1987 stock-market crash had hurt New York badly, the author wrote, and now it had lost its place as the global financial capital.
Ridiculous. Take MCI: Sure, its headquarters is here, but while the company has grown from 17,000 employees worldwide in 1989 to 55,000 today, its number of D.C. employees has increased from 5,000 to just 5,200 during the same period. Job growth, shmob growth.
And New York was only stumbling in the late ’80s. Today, it clearly dominates financial markets, and Wall Street is fueling a citywide (and for that matter, nationwide) recovery. Washington’s biggest economic news in the last year was that the mayor went to China to personally solicit a duck-restaurant franchise.
But now I’m not playing fair. Of course Washington can’t compete with New York economically, because “the two cities are in no way comparable,” as Carol O’Cleireacain puts it. She’s a visiting fellow (in New York, a “fellow” is a mobster; in D.C., it’s a thinker) at the Brookings Institution who has written about the economies of both cities. She points out that New York is larger than the next four American cities combined, at least when you count within city limits.
Fair enough. But if New York can’t give Washington anything corporealif we can’t move Wall Street here, say, or transfer the 1.5 million residents of Manhattan and sprinkle them across D.C.’s eight wardsour big brother to the north might lend us something at once more important and less tangible: audacity.
Audacity infuses and overlays New York, but consider just one comically outrageous example. For years, nightclubs in New York have been open until the wee hours and beyond. In his book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest recalls a ’70s and ’80s “Nightworld” that ended between 4 and 6, with a few coked-up hangers-on hanging on ’til late morning. As recently as 1989, DJ Junior Vasquez complained to Newsday about city officials’ efforts to close clubs by 2 a.m. “There are virtually no after-hours clubs downtown,” Vasquez said, “and many people like to dance until 6 a.m.”
Today, Vasquezwho achieved some fame by remixing Madonna and, more recently, the Dolly Parton version of “Peace Train”runs a club night called “Arena,” held every Saturday at the Palladium, the converted theater on East 14th Street. And he doesn’t even begin DJing until 3 a.m. At the earliest.
For many clubgoers, Arena begins after sunrise on Sunday. Nightclubbing is out; dayclubbing is in. By 6when, in D.C., you would expect only a few drunk stragglersthere are literally thousands of people dancing and drugging. The doors close to new arrivals at 8, but the party runs until 2, 3, or even 4 in the afternoon. On New Year’s Day, Vasquez played his last record (always Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”) at 6:30 p.m.; he had begun more than 14 hours earlier.
I’ve been trying to understand what’s behind this madness since New Year’s, when I went to Arena for the first time (and left, defeated and exhausted, at 1 p.m.). Drugs are surely part of it, but even drugs get boring (and prohibitively expensive) after eight or 10 hours.
So I asked Kevin Aviance. A 6-foot-2 African-American drag queen, Aviance used to live in Washington but has become famous in New York. (Indeed, if you desire fame and you don’t measure it by the frequency your name crops up in the Reliable Source or the Congressional Record, you need to move.) His is a kind of celebrity that’s probably unique to that city: He makes a living not primarily for what he doesthere are drag queens by the dozen these days (even in Washington)but for how fiercely, and strangely, he does it.
Late last month, Vasquez played a long set to celebrate gay pride weekend in New York. He began at 4 a.m. Monday morning, and AvianceArena’s “hostess diva”took the stage at 6. He performed an original song”Cunty”which consists mostly of his screeching the word “cunty” over and over, ad nauseam, to an intense house beat. Backup dancers held huge letters spelling out the song title, and Aviance danced and posed with a gay pride flag draped around his head. Lateraround 1 p.m., I think, while you were eating lunch at Au Bon PainAviance performed another song while attendants shimmied mylar behind and around him. Even without the aid of hallucinogens, the effect was rather like a waterfall.
If this sounds a little cheesy, that’s because it is. But it’s also great fun and, for Aviance, a lucrative career: Last week, his second song, a remake of an obscure ’80s tune called “Din Da Da,” reached No. 4 on Billboard’s dance charts. His recording success comes just as his popularity in New York is skyrocketingbesides Arena, Aviance hosts a weekly party at a Latino club, and the “Din Da Da” video is showing in bars all over town. He has modeled for Dolce & Gabbana, and his album, Box of Chocolates, should be out later this year. He even hosts a monthly party at a club in Paris.
Could any of this have happened had Aviance stayed in Washington? “Oh, no,” he purrs. “It’s not that kind of a town. D.C. is about politics, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reaganit’s not about a black drag queen. It’s a whole other drama.”
For him, the drama here was about crack. Aviance grew up Kevin Sneed, one of nine children in a religious Richmond, Va., family. He moved to D.C. in 1990 and began hitting gay bars. By day, he did hair (and “whatever else I needed to to pay the bills…[which is] none of your business”) and by night, he slowly became Miss Aviance. And a crack user.
It has always been a bitter reminder of Washington’s unique dysfunctionality that crack migrated from New York but really flowered and matured here. Aviance was one of many casualties. “I was a little spoiled brat from Richmond, and when I came to D.C., I met the wrong people and…,” he trails off. But he got lucky. “Drag saved my life,” he says. His unusual act got him noticed in the club world, and he got a cameo in a Madonna video. His career took off.
In no other city in America could Aviance have made this transition. Indeed, Washington probably would have killed him had he stayed here. New York offered not only salvation but fame. “New York,” he says gratefully, “is all blitz.”
Washington will never be all blitz, nor, honestly, should it be. But a little audacity here and there would help. And not just because the city would be more fun. New York teaches that fun is profitable: Nightlife is big business in the city, and the multitude of optionsthere’s a bar on Avenue A, to take a random example, decorated entirely in the style of A Clockwork Orangedraws millions of suburbanites and tourists. (Including daytrippers, 29.7 million people visited New York
in 1995, the most recent year for which figures
They pay cash just to enter the city, and they pay high prices for admission to clubs and drinks inside. (Visitors to the city spent an average of $400 during their trips there in 1995.) This money pays the salaries of thousands of New Yorkers involved in the production of joythe bartenders, singers, custodians, and others who make nightlife work.
There is no production of joy in Washington. The purpose of bars here is to drink, period. At gay bars along 17th Street, even on a weekend night you can toss back a vodka cocktail for a mere $2. Getting trashed and going to sleep is the preferred form of escape.
Yes, D.C. has nightclubs, but too often they are pale imitations of their New York counterparts. Ozone, the gay club on Connecticut Avenue NW, even has a “New York” night every other weekevery other week. It’s hard to imagine a “D.C. Night”: Drag queens dressed as first ladies? A dance remix of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Free drinks for anyone who can name the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee?
On his first visit to New York, in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville sailed into the city up the East River. In the distance, he saw several stately marble buildings of classical design. Intrigued, he went for a closer look the next day. He discovered that the buildings weren’t marble but rather painted brick. The columns were wooden.
I may well have the same experience. New York’s shine will doubtless grow tawdry; its nightlife will come to seem both expensive and cheap at the same time. And I will probably wear that same grimace that New Yorkers share, probably from living so close they can smell each other’s trash and working too hard to buy $5 boxes of cereal at crime-riddled corner stores.
“In D.C., you can fail and still live,” Aviance told me. “In New York, you can’t fail and live.” No doubt he’s right.
But there’s a certain honesty New Yorkers have about the city’s callous and garish naturean honesty Washingtonians lack. Washington, we believe, is still vitaldespite the devolution of federal power, a deficit that may disappear on its own, and the end of the nuclear threat. It’s always been this way: De Tocqueville noted that Washington’s planners had already cleared trees from a huge unpopulated area around the city. They expected 1 million residents, he said.
In 1950, the District’s population reached 802,000, its peak. Today, it’s about 545,000. And it’s about to fall by one more.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Takeshi Tadatsu.