DC’s not quite an urban paradise yet, but we’re getting there

One of the flaws many politically-oriented sorts in D.C. have is the tendency to focus on national issues at the expense of not seeing the importance of local developments. I know this is a problem I have, and my participation here in D.C. Blogs is a way to help remedy that. Another good example would be the American Prospect’s Ezra Klein, whose comments about DC’s ethnic makeup not attracting amenities for yuppies touched off a big firestorm.

DCIst’s Sommer Mathis sums up the brouhaha nicely, and I think Ryan Avent gets to the core of why DC is not an “urban paradise” on the same level of Seattle or Portland:

Many of the dense areas of the city were hardest hit by population loss during the city’s long downturn; much of the population that stayed lived in detached, single-family homes away from today’s popular core. Plus, since housing supply is slow to catch up to the number of people who now want to live in the core, housing isn’t cheap and shops skew toward a wealthier crowd.

In the past ten years I’ve lived here, D.C. has made enormous strides toward rebuilding itself into a true urban center, with businesses, shops, residences, and amenities that would encourage more people to live in its boundaries. But DC is still very much a commuter city, in that its primary business–the federal government–is staffed and populated by people who do not live in the city itself. As such, the things that Ezra wants are still more likely to be found in quasi-suburban areas like Silver Spring and Alexandria–the former in particular has been almost totally remade into a typical (white) young urban professional’s paradise.

But that’s the thing about D.C.–it’s not typical. I can look out my window from leafy, sleepy Woodley Park into Adams Morgan, still one of the primary hubs of D.C. nightlife. I can go one Metro stop into Dupont Circle and enjoy an incredible range of independent bookstores, coffee houses, bars, and restaurants. If you head to Gallery Place, the whole area looks so much like Times Square at night now it’s insane–and if you walk a few blocks west, there are office buildings going up everywhere. These professional centers will all need social, cultural, and other amenities to ensure people keep coming back here to work. But that takes time. And given the average non-DC’s first thought about the city is still “Hey, didn’t they elect a crackhead mayor?,” I’d say we have some work ahead of us still.

There are a lot of things that will contribute to DC’s rebirth as a true urban center–older singles, gay couples, retirees, and empty-nesters moving back to the city, as well as the ever-expanding costs of living in the ‘burbs. But until that day comes, if you want your culture, your coffee shops, and your bookstores in D.C., ya gotta get out there and fight for them. Support local businesses, shop locally, and show Fenty and company that you want to put your money into your city and make it everything it can be.