Lonely Planet just ranked Washington, D.C. as the #1 Best Place to Travel in the world(!). Coming on the heels of Forbes crowning D.C. the coolest city in America in August, the somewhat unexpected parade of accolades appears to just be starting for the place Sojourners has called home for the past few decades.
Of course, “coolness” is elusive by nature — if it was measurable, it wouldn’t be cool — and the metrics used by both outlets are questionably desirable, if technically true for a portion of the city. Lonely Planet points to a city “whose official religion is national politics,” while Forbes lists “higher influxes of new people” and “most college degrees per capita.”
This shows a problematic tendency to weight Washington the industry over D.C. the city (this post from DCist outlines that nicely). It also largely misses what’s actually great about this place. I’ve found D.C. to be far beyond the House of Cards-meets-Cherry Blossom Festival sketch beloved by press and many residents alike. In my daily experience, D.C. is collaborative, generous, and deserving of accolades in ways that continually surprise.
Based on my very unscientific metrics of personal observation and emotional investment, here are a few things that are uniquely great about D.C.:
1. Group Houses
For a city with a rapidly growing population but tough building height restrictions and skyrocketing rent, quadrupaling-up in homes is the only option for many young adults. Group houses in D.C. provide the culture mashup of a big city with the square footage of a small one. Front porches host game nights, music jams, neighborhood block parties; rooftops boast concerts. Workshops and business ideas get tested in the living room. Craft nights happen over potlucks in the kitchen. Bike repair shops spring up in the backyard. Dance parties spring up everywhere.
At Sojourners, our interns carry on the intentional community model of the early Sojourners days in their group house in Columbia Heights. But whether you’re deliberately eschewing living alone or financially restricted to shared space, houses are where community happens. And for me and many of my peers, these culture hubs are where we find the close friends, diverse stories, new jobs, and creative partners that constantly reshape what D.C. is and can be.
D.C. has opinions. D.C. has ideals. Many of those opinions and ideals are in opposition with each other, which is what makes living here hard and frustrating and fun. But many people in D.C. have a strong desire to improve the world, or the city, or the neighborhood, without falling into national politics-style ideology. There are more than 6,000 registered nonprofits in the D.C. area alone. Rallies, protests, demonstrations, or sit-ins happen every week. On any given day you can overhear a conversation in a coffee shop on the IMF’s stabilizing assistance to countries in West Africa, catch a debate among friends over beers on the CDC’s response to Ebola in the U.S., and then head home to an organizing meeting on affordable housing and tenants rights.
Nowhere else will you find city residents so committed to changemaking on the local, the national, and the global level. It's true that those working on one level can often be ignored or discounted by those working on others, but they're all here.
3. Hobbyist Culture
D.C. has the enviable ability to attract brilliant people who also have oodles of creative talent. And while the city has plenty of residents producing art, music, theater, magazines, and boutique businesses full-time, many creatives I know are people doing it in their spare time, around their day jobs.
These hobbyists are hugely talented in their own right, but the lack of urgency to produce — ie, simply doing something you love for the sheer joy of it — engenders an air of playfulness and creative testing. There are plenty of classes or meetups for particular hobbies, like in any city, but local connectors like Flashband and OpenMasters have also created word-of-mouth, peer-sourced avenues to flex curiosity muscles around shared ideas, talents, and passions. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to play music with a rotating cast of incredibly talented musicians at a wide range of venues. In a more music industry-saturated town, I wouldn’t get invited through the door — in a less-creative city I wouldn’t have found, played alongside, and learned from such high wattage of skill.
As a city of hobbyists, D.C. respects talent and passion while giving untested artists the chance to prove themselves. The hobbyist culture means an ethos of letting you define what your gifts and passions are, regardless of where your paycheck comes from or how you answer, “What do you do?”
... Metaphorically. The actual traffic roundabouts are the worst. But D.C. is a beautiful, small, walkable town. Any detour into a different neighborhood is going to provide the unsuspecting pedestrian with a tremendous diversity of experience. Along two roundabouts lies Embassy Row, whose buildings open their doors every year for a free tour through global cultures. North of two others is Malcolm X park, whose rollicking Sunday drum circle has been happening most weeks, most years, since the 1968 race riots.
Live long enough in D.C. and you’ll get a comprehensive education on socioeconomic and racial identities at play in our understandings of the American dream; on poverty and justice and prejudice and reconciliation and the circular currents of history. For those willing to walk outside the lines and be thrown into unexpected community, it’s a priceless way to learn.
5. 'Sharing' Economy
Until recently, D.C. was regularly ditched by restless changemakers for San Francisco, New York, or the European startup scene. But what a difference a few years makes — D.C. has a blossoming startup scene, many of whom, along with civic initiatives, skillshares, and community networks, are testing the limits of the sharing economy. Pop-up coffee shops share space and off-hours with longstanding neighborhood bar fixtures. Dining groups offer to match a local chef with your home. New coworking spaces crop up monthly, and hackathons on a range of city-specific challenges happen multiple times a year. The city bikeshare — now a national concept — was the first of its kind in the country.
Even groups formed to help support and connect local artists and thinkers, like Listen Local First and Thirst, are regularly showcasing the absolute best of the crop. In other words, if you can think it, chances are good right now that someone else in town is doing it — or would be eager to help you build it.
So that’s one way to see Washington, D.C. Of course it's got entrenched problems. And many corners of Washington are not not square, self-referential, and politics-crazed. But D.C. is pretty great on its own merits. It's a city discovering its own sense of creative, viable community. And living here when D.C.'s collaborative energy is just getting started in earnest makes it an exciting “best” place to live.