The city has changed dramatically even in my lifetime. When I was growing up in D.C. in the 1970s and ’80s, it still felt like a small town. It didn’t have much traffic. It had no outer suburbs. It had few restaurants outside of Duke Zeibert’s or the Palm, owned by New Yorkers, where congressmen went to eat shrimp cocktail. The fashionable went to New York to buy dresses, if they wanted something special; everyone else went to Woodward & Lothrop (“Woodies”), Garfinckel’s, or the Hecht Company, all now vanished, along with Hot Shoppes and Peoples Drug. I mention these long-lost stores, now replaced by national brands, and these dusty restaurants, now replaced by chic bistros, not because they are important but because, like the rowhouses of Uniontown, Douglass’s iron cooking pots, go-go clubs, and the Washington Nationals, they belong to the alternative history of Washington. They are part of not “Washington,” the city of Congress and the Oval Office, but Washington, a real place where real people live.
That Washington has an alternative history may surprise those of you who live elsewhere, especially those who already have strong feelings about Washington, or maybe even hate “Washington,” by which you mean that you hate the federal government, Congress, or perhaps politicians in general. But many of the doctors, shopkeepers, restaurant servers, taxi drivers, and schoolteachers who live in Washington feel just as distant from the federal government, Congress, and politicians as you do. Even for many of the administrators, scientists, and civil servants who work in federal buildings—as well as the clerks, janitors, and secretaries—all of this talk of “Washington” can be pretty unreal and abstract. Most people who have offices in the vicinity of the Federal Center Southwest Metro stop spend their days reviewing grant applications, typing memos, sweeping floors. The amoral “Washington” of Frank Underwood, the glamorous “Washington” of Hollywood movies, the evil “Washington” of the libertarian imagination—that’s just as fictional to most D.C. residents as it is to the rest of America.
But that shouldn’t be surprising, because in this sense, as in most other senses, the people of D.C. resemble the rest of America. There are rich and poor Washingtonians; Black, white, Asian, and Hispanic Washingtonians; old and young Washingtonians; nice and nasty Washingtonians; left-wing and even right-wing Washingtonians. Yet there really is one crucial, unbridgeable difference between Washingtonians and other Americans: You have more power than we do—a lot more power. [Continue reading…]