Welcome to Washington, D.C., the capital of the richest country in the world, where 20 percent of residents live in poverty and 1 in 25 has HIV/AIDS. Washington has seen a lot of changes in recent years. The process of reclaiming neighborhoods decimated by the King riots, which got a kick start in the 1990s from the influx of young liberals moving here to work for Bill Clinton, keeps accelerating at an exponential pace. Empty lots are turning into condos with chain restaurants and big box stores faster than you can say gentrification and displacement.
But the real growth is out in the suburbs. Thanks to the advent of big government conservatism, or what some call crony capitalism, 12 years of Republican rule in Congress and eight in the White House did not mean that the town fell on hard times. Government contractors, particularly for defense, sprung up all over the Northern Virginia suburbs. So have lobbying firms and non-profits, both inside and outside the District, seeking to influence legislation.
The result is that small towns in Virginia and Maryland are turning into suburbs, and their outlying farms into subdivisions. They’ve got big box stores too, and they are surrounded by giant parking lots. Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Northern Virginia have recently ranked among the ten wealthiest and fastest-growing counties in the country. But thanks to the building boom they are also experiencing an influx of Latino immigrants. Towns where the dining options once consisted of diners and, well, diners, now have pupuserias and pho shacks lining their strip malls.
With Barack Obama due to take office in just over two months, it is an exciting time to be in Washington. On the night he won, U Street (think of it as our imitation of 125th Street in Manhattan), was like a sober Mardi Gras, with drivers honking their horns, drums banging and people, literally, dancing in the streets. The excitement, for a majority African-American city where Democrats win elections by margins Vladimir Putin would envy, was understandable. But what will Obama’s policies mean for cities such as Washington that still struggle with failing schools and high crime rates? And what about metropolitan regions such as this one, where sprawl and its discontents, from traffic to loss of character and open space, threaten to ruin the quality of life that attracted many of its denizens in the first place?
The Obama administration and Democratic Congress will have many opportunities to address urban issues in the coming years. Interestingly, although Obama hails from Chicago and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi comes from San Francisco, urban issues, or any mention of cities in general, was virtually absent from their campaign rhetoric.
Obama and his colleagues are guaranteed to legislate on urban policy whether they frame it as such or not. The transportation bill is up for re-authorization, and how it balances mass transit and highways will determine much of what gets built in the United States over the next five years. Likewise, any climate change bill, which Obama says will be his top priority, will affect how homes are built and how much people drive. Or so we hope.
I will be reporting on these issues that face Washington — both the city and the seat of federal government — for NAC as an urban leaders fellow. I come by my love of cities honestly, having grown up in New York City in the borough of Brooklyn. In college I majored in American Government and Public Policy, and frequently studied issues of urban policy, economy and sociology. Since graduating I’ve been working primarily in journalism, except for an internship with Project for Public Spaces in New York. Almost four years ago I moved to D.C. to be a reporter-researcher at The New Republic magazine. I went on to edit CampusProgress.org, a daily online political and cultural magazine run by the Center for American Progress. For the past year I covered the presidential election and Congress for Politico. I’ve also written for The Nation, The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, Newsweek, In These Times and the websites of The Guardian and The Atlantic. In all my jobs I’ve tried to pay attention to urbanism, even when my editors could not care less about it. I doubt I will have that problem here.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.