Alex Massie

A local post for local people

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Ezra Klein looks at lifestyle amenities of the sort that bright young white folks like to have in their city and observes that Portland and Seattle score better on this than Washington DC. So far so good. Then he adds:

DC, by contrast, has a lot of white people working in it, but is actually only 39% white, and has a city government that does not derive primary political support from transient white voters. So the character of the city actually does more to represent its inhabitants. Which seems rational. Moreover, the white people there basically have to be there. You don't move to DC because it's awesome, you move because it's where your work is. So there's little need to construct an affirmative agenda to attract residents.

This is a little odd (though I should add that Ezra himself has an update acknowledging that he may be mistaken on this one). As Ryan Avent notes there are plenty of folk in DC who think the city government is more interested in the Kennedy Center set than the people who live on the "wrong" side of the Anacostia. You can make a pretty good case, for instance, that the $650m or so the city is spending on the new Washington Nationals ballpark is a boondoggle for the affluent white middle classes (and the team's mega-rich owners of course) that will have no obvious economic benefit to the city.

Still, Ezra's idea that there's "little need" for the city government "to construct an affirmative agenda to attract residents" is rather odd since that's exactly what the city has been trying to do for the past ten years. Indeed Mayor Anthony Williams' biggest challenges were to a) restore fiscal sanity to the city and b) attract new residents to slow or reverse the city's population drain. Achieving b) and consequently broadening the tax base would help resolve a) of course.

And there is plenty of evidence that the city has gone some way towards achieving this. The population decline has been halted. Anyone who walks through Shaw or Columbia Heights or downtown along Massachusetts Avenue cannot fail to be struck by the number of new condominium and apartment buildings under construction. These are not, I assure you, being sold to black families from Northeast. However, theoretically, at least, the more white people live in DC, the more money there should be to spend on services for the city's poor black population. It's not, or at least shouldn't be, a zero sum game between black and white Washingtonians.

But Ezra also overstates government's role in developing the city. As Megan observes, the government's role is to help create the conditions for development, not to micro-manage it. Once you've implemented creative zoning conditions and sensible tax policies there's little need for the government to do much more. Private enterprise will do the rest. And you can see how that is working in DC: U Street, for instance, is a different place to what it was even five years ago. (And many of the new businesses there are, contrary to the fears of the anti-gentrification mob, black-owned). There are coffee shops (the bloggers' key indicator of progress) where there used to be none: indeed, there are now at least four coffee shops between 13th and 16th St, though two of them are Starbucks  -one of them, as Garance reminds me, part of a partnership between Starbucks and Magic Johnson to bring the company to urban, African-American 'hoods. It's true that Mount Pleasant is still under-served in this regard, but that may change soon...

Ezra also overlooks the other ways DC is changing. The H St NE development of bars and music venues would have been all but unthinkable a decade ago (where once DC had two music venues now there are three. Or maybe even four!). Similarly, DC has quietly become a mid-major theatre centre. Not on the level of New York or Chicago obviously but solidly in the second tier of theatre cities in the country. That's something that's almost hidden from view because the city is seen as such a company town. But a thriving theatre scene is a pretty good indication that the city is itself succeeding. The quality of drama available may vary significantly but that's less important, in this respect, than the quantity: you can't have a theatre scene without a burgeoning and active population - and that can't just be explained by the success and growth of the DC suburbs.

Heck, one of the things that is interesting about DC is how it is really several mini-cities in one. There's the company town and there's the city that bubbles along with little relation to Capitol Hill, there's the city indigenous Washingtonians live in and the one non-natives come to, there's black Washington and white Washington (and, of course, Hispanic Washington) etc etc. These different Washingtons overlap of course and its those overlaps - and the tensions between the different mini-cities - that make this an interesting place to live.

What DC does need, however, are some proper Parisian or Roman style cafes, serving decent food at sensible prices and offering excellent spots form which to observe the world passing by on its business...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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