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For those who are not regular browsers of the Atlantic: It’s taken me too long to mention the work being done over at that magazine’s Future of the City blog, helmed by ex-Washingtonian Conor Friedersdorf. It’s a month-long experiment that began about three weeks ago, so you’ve got a little more time participate in the thoughtful discussions it’s provoked.
Of particular interest to City Paper readers are two entries.
Using the example of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the earlier one addresses an issue facing many D.C. neighborhoods: Does the “residential tourism” of mobile 20-somethings weaken communities they inhabit for a few months or a few years before moving on? The young and the adventurous rarely invest in their living spaces, or build strong relationships with their immediate neighbors, or participate in local politics. It’s why Burleith doesn’t want more Georgetown graduate students, and why long-time Bloomingdale residents sometimes come up against newbies just crashing for a few years before moving on.
Friedersdorf, though, questions whether the longer-term residents would even want young transients to engage in a way that would alter a place that they’ll just pick up and leave. In that case, what avenues does a young 20-something even have to become a productive member of whatever neighborhood? Living in different places is clearly a great thing for a young folks’ development, but how can they do so without seeming like a plague of locusts to the communities where they take up residence? The answer, it would seem, is that if you’re only planning to be in a place for a few years, treat it like a delicate ecosystem—learn about it, care for it, but leave no trace.
A later post, which has generated some buzz in political circles, speaks to the subculture of D.C. that Friedersdorf once inhabited: Intellectually honest conservatives not wedded to the electoral success of the Republican party, but still pressured to conform because of the awkwardness of living in such close proximity to the personalities they must clash with in their professional lives. Seeing a writer he disagrees with at a movie, Friedersdorf relates,
“…helped me to clarify my thinking about why it is undesirable that our nation’s professionalized ideological movements are all packed into the smallish gentrified area of a single dysfunctional city. In that setting, work interactions bleed seamlessly into the social scene, and the inevitable career pressure to conform to certain orthodoxies of thought is reinforced and compounded by powerful impulse to be accepted and liked by the folks you see socially.”
This almost—almost—makes you feel sorry for the think tankers and ideological magazine writers so confined in their gentrified areas that they start running out of air. To read Friedersdorf, you’d think D.C. intellectuals were like a herd of wildebeests, stuck in their migratory patterns between traditional watering holes, at the mercy of lions who might ambush them at any moment. As a former herd member myself, though, I think the pressure to conform—or at least to react in similar ways—is created as much by the common set of websites that everyone reads every day as the bars that everyone visits. It’s as possible to be a part of that world of discourse in Philadelphia as D.C., and nearly as possible to escape it in this city that is so much bigger than Friedersdorf would have you believe. And besides, what are you doing criticizing someone if you can’t comfortably face him the next day?
The argument reminds me of one made by another Atlantic writer, Megan McArdle, who complained a few months ago that there were “no houses for sale in D.C.” She makes valid points about the overall economic forces that are make houses hard to find, but is also blinkered in a broader sense: By “no houses for sale in D.C.,” it’s likely she means “no houses for sale in the places I’d want to live in D.C.,” perhaps not noticing the scads of for-sale signs in perfectly livable neighborhoods that aren’t Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, or Capitol Hill.
Both writers treat Washington as if the world ended outside the neighborhoods frequented by the professional elite. It’s fine if you’d rather stay within that orbit, but please at least admit that you’re choosing to ignore the vast universe beyond it. (And yes, I did run into McArdle at a bar once. It was a pleasure.)
Anyhow, interesting stuff, and hopefully more to come in Friedersdorf’s last week.