“City Upon A Hill” Revamped: New Perspectives on the US Capital City-State

Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Georgetown, Washington D.C.P

by Rebecca Hopkins, a final-year CAS student. 

When US historian Peggy K. Liss moved to Washington D.C. in 1980 to be close to the national archives, her friends warned her against it. It was a place known for its economically deprived, inner-city feel, its staggering crime rates within a predominantly black migrant community, its sprawling projects steeped in a culture of drug abuse, violence and ‘street life’, and headed by a mayor known for repeatedly sidestepping taxes and facing various charges of corruption. The nation’s capital was seemingly no place for an educated, socially and intellectually elite, ambitious and successful middle-aged woman to settle. It was little more than a small, centralized group of politicians and government officials sat in meetings propelling economic and social agendas which had little impact on the lives of those living just beyond their office windows. Fast-forward thirty-two years and Washington D.C. today is a highly cosmopolitan city sporting a vibrant art culture; couture fashion; fourteen branches of Whole Foods and a fast-growing urban elite of highly educated, middle-class young families choosing the capital as their stomping and, indeed, their nesting ground.

That a small-scale social and aesthetic revolution has rocked the nation’s capital over the course of the last twenty years seems to be the general consensus among today’s Washingtonians. Far from the West Wing-esque image of a city bustling with staunchly ironed grey suits, briefcases overflowing with the latest policy memoranda and catered luncheon conventions galore, Washington D.C. is alive with a blossoming cultural scene. Whether embarking on a gastronomic pilgrimage at the pinnacle of haute cuisine; selecting heirloom tomatoes from locally-sourced farmers markets in Eastern Market; discovering some of the nation’s most promising up-and-coming fashion houses and interior design stores in Georgetown, or scouting out young-thing dads on Capitol Hill (or ‘Stroller City’, as one DC blogger puts it) pushing prams, dog attached, and sipping to-go coffee – definitely not from Starbucks, but rather from Peregrine, one of a host of the District’s latest independent anti-corporatist coffee houses staffed by metrosexual hipsters serving organic coffee and fresh bakes – or revelling in the sights of towering architectural emblems of American wealth, democracy and grandeur on Pennsylvania Avenue, the capital truly represents a beacon of power and progress at the heart of the national map.

Even those who visit D.C. on a purely academic mission to raid the national archives, burying themselves in the sterile underground chambers and almost frighteningly drab canteen with its windowless walls – in which questionably shiny pizza slices and the sense of being enclosed by the aroma of week-old soup reign – of the Library of Congress will be hard pressed to altogether avoid the sense of youthful energy and local charm which define the city-state’s street life. It is the charismatic and compelling combination of professional urgency – this is, after all, where the political cogs of the nation whir, and who wouldn’t be excited by the perpetual possibility of passing the POTUS motorcade on the local bus? Within this, a sophisticated and international village community thrives, rendering Washington, D.C. a veritable honey-pot for vivacious and ambitious young families. It happened, as Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan puts it, ‘all of a sudden,’ when ‘stodgy old DC woke up one day and was unable to avoid the fact staring it right in the face: hipness wasn’t just paying a visit. It was there to stay.’

The Capitol, Washington D.C.

The Capitol, Washington D.C.

So what forces underlay the drabs to riches story of the US capital? Over the last dozen years, the capital has become progressively spruced up, with property values soaring against the national trend. Formerly poor, inner-city enclaves have been transformed, with vast spaces cleared for governmental and business offices and stylish urban living spaces. With investment being pumped into the area a domino effect ensued, sparking a surge of gentrification through an influx of well-off, young professionals and an array of upmarket stores, restaurants and cafes, as well as new cultural venues such as the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, to serve the new crowd in town whilst establishing a vibrant cultural core in the city. Last year, census figures showed that the Washington, D.C. area had gained more than seven thousand people aged 25-34 in just three years. This is the age group that has been responsible for the great majority of the city’s growth in the past decade, and according to The Washington Post this trend confirms ‘what is readily evident in Washington’s crowded sidewalk cafés and bike lanes.’

Yet it somehow seems pertinent to link this scene of nuclear-family bliss, skyrocketing entrepreneurship and a community-wide passion for local eats to the unlikely arrival of one particular family in January 2009. It certainly is hard to imagine that the city would have continued in the same youthful, energetic and vegan direction with the inauguration of John McCain. The much talked about significance of the US’s ‘first black president’ – incidentally, it is rarely noted that Barack Obama is equally of white and black heritage – as a marker of national progress and a sign of a ‘post-racial era’ often seems spurious in a nation where race continues to be a key signifier of difference, with often violently destructive consequences.

However, in this capital city-state, which is fuelled by the energy of a highly cosmopolitan community and where openness to international politics, arts and culture is the order of the day, it certainly seems of consequence that an African-American president is at the helm. Not to mention the additional presence of a charming young family: two radiant daughters with a presidential father who returns home each night for dinner and bought them a puppy for Christmas, alongside a glowing wife whose active leadership in national child anti-obesity campaigns, focus on military-family wellbeing and opening of a communal White House vegetable garden to serve not only her own table but also those of local schoolchildren, makes it near impossible to refrain from a small yelp of affection each time we hear of ‘the Obamas.’

Despite the gut-wrenching tightness of the November election and a precarious economic climate, the American people have spoken, opting for four more years of a president whose energy and eloquent belief in the power of imaginative innovation and community action, the value of local businesses and the potential for cities and individuals to positively transform the society in which they live is reflected in the story of his adoptive home-town. In the coming weeks, the United States will enter a new phase under a new government. The path is unchartered, perhaps unsteady, but if the capital city is anything to go by as a model for the nation’s future temperament, it is certainly a hopeful one.

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