Everybody knows at least a little something about Washington, D.C. It’s the nation’s capital, after all; what goes on here on a daily basis is top-of-the-news stuff. Images of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Potomac River, the National Mall, the White House, and Pennsylvania Avenue immediately spring to mind at the mere mention of this city’s name.
There are others I’d like to introduce to you: cherry blossoms, Black Broadway, the Verizon Center, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Embassy Row, the U Street Corridor, Rock Creek Park. These images illustrate just a fraction of the rich history and diverse cultural experiences this city has to offer.
That’s what this book is about. This chapter, specifically, aims to provide you with a context for understanding Washington, D.C.’s story and personality beyond the headlines, as well as practical information that will be useful to you while planning your trip and upon your arrival.
Washington, D.C., Today
Washington, D.C. is both the capital of the United States and a city unto itself; therein lie its charms, but also a host of complications. Control of the city is the main issue. The District is a free-standing jurisdiction, but because it is a city with a federal rather than a state overseer, it has never been entitled to the same governmental powers as the states. Congress supervises the District’s budget and legislation. Originally, Congress granted the city the authority to elect its own governance, but it rescinded that right when the District overspent its budget in its attempts to improve its services and appearance after the Civil War. The White House then appointed three commissioners, who ran D.C.’s affairs for nearly 100 years.
In 1972 the city regained the right to elect its own mayor and city council, but Congress retains control of the budget and the courts, and can veto municipal legislation. District residents can vote in presidential primaries and elections and can elect a delegate to Congress who introduces legislation and votes in committees, but this delegate cannot vote on the House floor. This unique situation, in which residents of the District pay federal income taxes but don’t have a vote in Congress, is a matter of great local concern. D.C. residents publicly protest the situation by displaying license plates bearing the inscription taxation without representation.
Another wrinkle in this uncommon relationship is the fact that Washington’s economy relies heavily upon the presence of the federal government, which accounts for about 27% of all D.C. jobs (according to a 2014 trend report issued by D.C.’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer), making it the city’s single largest employer, and upon the tourism business that Washington, as the capital, attracts. The city struggles toward political independence, although it recognizes the economic benefits of its position as the seat of the nation’s capital.
Will any of this affect you as you tour the city this year? Yes.
You will find Washington, D.C. to be a remarkably vibrant city. The economic hard times that the rest of the country has been experiencing are muted here.
Income remains higher than the national average, unemployment is lower, at least one-third of the population is between the ages of 20 and 35, residents are better educated than elsewhere, and the people are remarkably diverse: 50.1% African American, 9.9% Latino, 13.5% foreign-born, and 14.9% speaking a language other than English at home. The presence of embassies and the diplomatic community intensifies the international flavor.
In other words, Washington, D.C. is thriving. Restaurants and bars dominate most neighborhoods. In fact, eating out is a way of life here, whether simply for the pleasure of it or for business—the city’s movers and shakers meet over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Washington’s restaurant scene offers an immense variety of international cuisines, from Ethiopian to Peruvian, as well as soul food and regional specialties like Chesapeake Bay crabs served in soft-shell, hard-shell, soup, or cake form.
Theaters, music venues, hotels, brand-name stores, and homegrown boutiques abound. Because of the abundance of jobs thanks to tourism and the presence of the federal government, many Washingtonians can afford to go to the theater, attend cultural events, shop, and dine out. But whatever it is, play, concert, or restaurant meal, it better be good. As well-traveled, well-educated, and, let’s face it, pretty demanding types, capital dwellers have high standards and big appetites. They expect the best, and they get it.
But it wasn’t always this way. About 20 years ago, Washington wasn’t so attractive. Tourists came to visit federal buildings like the Capitol, the White House, and the city’s memorials but stayed away from the dingy downtown and other off-the-Mall neighborhoods. The city had the potential for being so much more, and certain people—heroes, in my book—helped inspire action and brought about change themselves: Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who fought steadfastly for states’ rights and economic revival for the District; former Mayor Anthony Williams, who rescued the District’s budget when his predecessor, the notoriously mismanaging Mayor Marion Barry, brought the city to the brink of financial ruin; and the community-minded developers Abe and Irene Pollin, who used their own funds to finance the $200-million MCI sports center, now called the Verizon Center, in the heart of town (today the wildly successful arena anchors the utterly transformed Penn Quarter neighborhood, now one of the liveliest city centers in the country).
The city’s resident population has grown by more than 7.4% in the past 3 years alone and now stands at approximately 646,449, a size not seen in more than 50 years. (At its peak, right after World War II, 802,000 people called D.C. home.) The growth spurt is especially significant given that the District’s population reached a relative low point in 2002, when the U.S. Census counted 572,000 D.C. residents. Revitalization continues to take root throughout the city—from the Capital Riverfront neighborhood in southeast D.C., where a grand baseball stadium, Nationals Ballpark, opened in March 2008, attracting hotel, restaurant, and housing development; to the Columbia Heights enclave in upper northwest D.C., now a mélange of Latino culture, loft condominiums, and ethnic eateries; to the Southwest Waterfront, where urban planners and developers are capitalizing on the community’s Potomac River frontage and creating a welcoming neighborhood of parks, residential apartments, walkways, new lodging, and eateries. The city’s evergreens—the memorials and monuments, the historic neighborhoods, and the Smithsonian museums—remain unflaggingly popular.
But D.C. has its share of problems, starting with its Metro transportation system, which is in the midst of a much-needed overhaul. Other problems relate to the city’s gentrification efforts, such as the displacement of residents from homes they can no longer afford in revitalized but increasingly expensive neighborhoods. The winner of the mayoral race in November 2014 (most likely the Democratic contender Muriel Bowser; the race took place after publication) has her work cut out for her in a municipality that struggles to provide health care, good schools, safe neighborhoods, adequate housing, and basic social services to all citizens.
Diverse in demographics, residents are alike in loving their city, despite the issues it faces. Visitors seem to share this love, as statistics bear out: D.C. welcomes 18.9 million visitors a year, 1.8 million of whom are international tourists.
Many people—including Washington, District of Columbia residents themselves—wonder how the city wound up with such an unwieldy name. Here’s how: President Washington referred to the newly created capital as “the Federal City.” City commissioners then chose the names “Washington” to honor the president and “Territory of Columbia” to designate the federal nature of the area. Columbia was the feminine form of Columbus, synonymous in those days with “America” and all she stood for—namely, liberty. The capital was incorporated in 1871, when it officially became known as Washington, District of Columbia.
The distance between the base of the Capitol, at one end of the National Mall, and the Lincoln Memorial, at the other, is nearly 2 miles. The circumference of the White House property, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Constitution Avenue and 15th Street to 17th Street, is about 1 1/2 miles.
More than 27% of Washington, D.C. is national parkland, which makes the capital one of the “greenest” cities in the country. The biggest chunk is the 2,000-acre Rock Creek Park, the National Park Service’s oldest natural urban park, founded in 1890.
Every country that maintains diplomatic relations with the United States has an embassy in the nation’s capital. Currently, the number of embassies exceeds 180, mostly located along Massachusetts Avenue, known as Embassy Row, and other streets in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.