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Demystifying DC - part one

For being our common capitol, there’s probably no place in these United States more misunderstood than Washington DC. These misunderstandings are understandable, since the place seems way too complicated to ever fully comprehend. Like most towns, it never was exactly what it appears to be. Nor has it ever been true to its legend. It’s a mystery to most of the country, and remains somewhat of a mystery to itself.

But it’s a place worth investigating. It runs on more than money. Though money plays a stunningly important role here, abject poverty is commonplace. It also runs on truly remarkable dedication. I know, the media and the more ingenuous politicians have never stopped complaining about the cost, the waste, and the most obvious absurdities of our government, and DC, being the seat of that government, gets unavoidably painted whenever their terribly broad brushes take another swipe. And from the distance across a continent, it pretty much all looks the same.

The real DC turns out to be a deeply contradictory place. The very government founded upon opposition to taxation without representation sits within territory without Congressional representation. The license plates here read “Taxation Without Representation.” A blinking tax clock in front of the DC City Hall, just a short walk along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, displays the ever-growing amount of the tax burden borne by the District’s unrepresented citizens.

DC is a Southern city. It’s still generally possible to determine someone’s race by checking their address. Wide swaths seem lilly white. Under gentrification’s pressure, ever narrowing black neighborhoods are displaced to the Maryland suburbs. The Northern Virginia ‘burbs feel like Northern California.

My wife Amy and I, and over a hundred and sixty five thousand other new-comers, moved here last year, further over-burdening an already inadequate infrastructure. Normal morning rush ‘hour’ lasts at least three hours. Evening rush extends well past eight. Many face commutes of over an hour each way on the eight lane parking lot known as The Beltway. Tens of thousands daily cram themselves onto the Metro. Getting from here to there always presents uncomfortable choices.

DC is a small town with broad shoulders. It contains more mausoleum-looking buildings than any equally-sized American city. It has no skyscrapers, since by Federal law, no structure can stand higher than the Capitol dome. DC suffers from an inferiority complex. It’s no New York, no Boston, no San Francisco. It’s, as the old saying claims, good enough for government work, but nobody seems to believe that government work is nearly as good as it actually is; and needs to be. DC is America’s idiot step child, living under constant suspicious scrutiny.

There are probably more smart people here than in any similarly-sized place on Earth, though they sometimes seem to out-smart themselves. PhDs are common as gravel. Ivy League grad student pay as much as thirty thousand a year to gain work experience as interns. Attorneys, scientists, and, with the economic downturn, even MBAs cut their professional teeth gnawing on DC’s bones. A common complement overheard here: You’re really smart; delivered just as if smart was the height of human accomplishment.

DC must be the most multi-cultural city in the country. Foreign languages seem to be the mother tongue. The local English dialect remains nearly indecipherable to my TV English ear. DC feels like a massive anthropological experiment. How many different cultures can be crammed onto the head of a pin?

What’s it like to live here? I’ve learned that wherever I am, I inhabit the same amount of space. From where I stand, I can see across the street and a little way down the block. Beyond that, with few exceptions, the surrounding territory might as well not exist. This principle holds true whether I stand on Capitol Hill or in the middle of Pioneer Park’s bandstand. So moving from Walla Walla to DC represented no grand expansion of my personal territory. Amy and I do, daily, range a bit farther from home here, but we roam within the same-sized personal space. On this level, living here’s remarkably the same.

We drive a lot less, choosing public transportation, which is readily available, affordable, and more comfortable than driving. We walk a lot more and a lot more carefully. Amy does not walk home from the Metro station, since several of our neighbors have been robbed on the dark evening streets. I think nothing of walking the mile to the Metro, then another mile to the Library of Congress, then repeating the treks in reverse.

When we first arrived, my job was to scout prospective neighborhoods, but I found that I could not do this very effectively in a car. I’d hop the Metro then a bus, then walk the streets to get a feel for each place. I quite purposefully refused to carry a map on these excursions. When I did drive, I’d inevitably get lost. I’d get lost walking, too, since there are no horizon-high landmarks like mountains. But getting lost never amounted to any great loss, since it remains the single best way to get found again. In this way, I slowly, sometimes frustratingly, developed a better understanding of the city’s layout than any map could have provided.

We lucked out finding a place to live. After weeks of fruitless searching, ably assisted by a local real estate agent friend of a friend of my sister, and after rejecting many places, we stumbled upon a fine place in Takoma Park, Maryland, just over the extreme Northern DC line. Our search strategy involved seemingly endless—but not aimless looking. We’d quickly decided to find a place near a Metro station to avoid a car commute. After seeing the inside of a few ‘charming’ brownstones, we’d rejected the romantic notion that a narrow hundred and fifty year old row house might provide enough elbow room. Takoma Park is a tiny town surrounded by trackless suburbs; the final edge of settled sidewalks and convenient shops before the cul-de-sacs and cutsie-named developments begin.

Our luck came with a price, however. Our house, much less than half the size of our Walla Walla place, rents for a little over twice as much. Utilities, commensurately more expensive. Real estate, three or four times as much. Buying, unless you already own here, seems eternally out of the question. Not just for us. Most Congress members can’t afford to buy a home here, either. Many can’t afford to even rent while maintaining a permanent residence in their home district, and so share small apartments with fellow members or staffers. Housingalong with traffic, crime, and climate—is just another of the dedication tests everyone here must face. If you cannot swallow these, you cannot stomach DC. Period.>

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