November 23, 2004

Potomac Fever Caught Again


As certain of our readers know, we were recently in the nation’s capital for a long weekend, and during those delightful four days we fell in love yet again with the District. We lived there briefly as a younger man, and came to treasure it; and although that experience seems as if it was a lifetime ago, our recent trip brought those memories into the forefront of our conscience. And we were pleased to note that seven years later, we experienced nothing which would sully the memory of those grand times.

We realize our view is not something which all of our readers might share, and this is understandable. For there is no denying that certain parts of Washington are a bit dicey. Still, though, we are not convinced that even these areas are particularly worse than those one would find in any major city. Further, when one performs a cost-benefit analysis of what Washington has to offer, we see the benefits it offers as unparalled when compared with other urban centers.

That’s an argument with which we realize most of our readers won’t agree either. After all, many in our readership will make the case for New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston and any one of one hundred cities. But in our heart, all those come up short when weighed against the District.

We respect New York and all it offers, but we do not particularly care for it: it is too crowded and too expensive for our liking, and grim and dingy to boot. Furthermore, we cannot imagine living in a place where Making It involves trading up an overpriced set of rooms with no view for an extremely overpriced set of rooms with a half-decent view.*

Los Angeles also comes up short in our analysis: for it too suffers from many of those troubles. It is certainly not as self-important a place as New York, and socioeconomic matters seem politely swept under the rug, except when criminals make their presence known; and, of course, once in a while a great cauldron of seething societal rage boils over in an orgy of self-destruction. But based on our three years of living on that city’s west side, we’d argue consumerism and a general state of decadence have triumphed in the extreme, one result of which is the amazing shallowness one too often finds among the city’s wealthier classes.

And then there are the other cities of which one could speak: Boston, a city which to us clings desperately to its past glory; San Francisco, great to visit but not to live; Detroit and Cleveland, which despite some improvements still seem worn out and tired; Las Vegas, so wonderful and horrible at the same time. We could keep going down the list, to the cities of the third rank in we have visited and lived, but there’s no point in that. They have neither the resources nor the population to support what Washington does; and as such they must be judged separately and alone.

We will say, though, that in our mind Chicago does come very close to Washington. It has been forever since we have visisted, but we have only fond memories of the Windy City, and we can only think it has continued to improve, just as all cities seem to have done over the past decade. If we had to rate American cities that we personally liked, Chicago would certainly rank second in our list. And to soften the blows of our criticism, we should note that all of the cities we mentioned do have a lot going for them. Well, maybe Detroit needs some work, but you see our point. Boston has its history and New York is the center of finance; Los Angeles is the capital of entertainment and San Francisco has its cheerful, easygoing hipness. Even Cleveland is making a bit of a civic comeback. But in the aggregate, we give top honors to Washington.

This, naturally, leads to the question of why we like the nation’s capital. We have a dreaded three-part answer for this.

In the first instance, we know these things could apply to any major city; but they still hold nonetheless. Simply put, Washington has critical mass – it has great restaurants and bookstores and a large population of educated people, many of whom are snappy dressers. It is the center of the action when it comes to politics; and as a result, one can have plenty of intelligent argu—ah, conversations—about any matter under the sun. It is an expensive place in which to live, but not absurdly so; and we looked upon our friends’ abodes with quiet longing.

In the second instance, Washington is a well-designed city. Consider: after we left Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, it took us all of thirty seconds to embark upon a Metro train for the city itself. In twenty minutes, we emerged to find our hotel standing less than one block away from the stop. The Metro, of course, is the best subway system in America; but even the city bus system seems both competently run and reasonably safe. We would submit that when a public transport system is convenient enough to make even a fervent devotee of America’s car culture believe that system superior, it has done its job well. We only hope more resources will be put into expanding it.

But not only is Washington well-designed – the city-street grid system alone is proof of that – it is architecturally pleasing. Even the bloody National Airport is rather soothing, with its old-style architecture. But one can find much more there that is simply awesome: most notably, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which will take one’s breath away. (It is right next to the White House and to our eyes, more impressive architecturally. The EEOB used to be the OEOB, O standing for Old, but they changed the name. A pity they couldn’t have revamped the New Executive Office Building while they were at it, as this structure down the way is built in craptacular late Sixties style).

Finally, though, we think the people of Washington are what puts the city first on our list. Everyone we encountered was incredibly helpful and polite during our trip there. Really, we mean, it was downright astonishing. The service we received was generally impeccable; people on the street were cordial; even the teenagers we encountered did not engage in uncivil behavior. Perhaps this is because Washington draws people from all over this great nation to its door; perhaps amidst the rushing about, its citizens have acquired some grand sense of perspective. But God! whatever the reason, we hope and pray Washingtonians keep it up. They do credit to their city through it, and we look forward to the day when we can return there again.

* Yes, New York is bloody well over-priced. Apparently, its City Council lost the memo from back in the day about the war news. As such, it remains in fear of warlike aggression from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, and has thus kept in place its emergency rent regulations enacted some six decades ago. As a result, the “market rate” for apartment homes is artificially higher than it would otherwise be, and we suspect this filters through the city’s entire economy accordingly.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at November 23, 2004 08:01 PM | TrackBack

It was good seeing you this weekend, Ben.

And I agree with you about Washington. It is a wonderful place, and I will miss it when I return to Detroit (which is the likely outcome of my law school adventure).

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at November 24, 2004 01:19 AM

By the way, I must point out that while downtown Detroit is a rather drab place, the powers that be are doing their best to improve it -- beginning next year with a Rockefeller Center-style skating rink in the city's center.

That said, the city will not return to greatness unless more businesses build up downtown, but more businesses will not build up downtown unless more people frequent the downtown area, and more people will not frequent the downtown area unless more businesses are built up downtown. Vicious circle.

The problem -- and what makes the Detroit AREA so great -- is Suburbia. You see, Detroit has some magnificent suburbs (to which I shall likely return in 1.5 years' time). Oakland County, just minutes from Detroit, is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. (I believe the exact title is "2nd richest in per capita income among counties with over 1 million residents.)

This wealth is the product of, and a principal reason behind, southeast Michigan's continued success. Schools, restaurants, museums, theater -- there is a lot to say for Metro Detroit. ;-)

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at November 24, 2004 01:32 AM