Everybody Hates Washington

By Caroline Langston 9-29-2009

090929-capitol-buildingThere's one thing these days that it seems you can get everyone to agree on: They all hate Washington, DC. One of my brothers is a stockbroker and a free-market conservative; the other is a reliably Democratic art director (who has donated to the local ACLU auction), and yet more than once, each one of them has called me up and said something like, "How's life in the Bubble?"

I moved to the DC metro in early 1998, and I've heard the exact same refrain through the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations. For liberals, just say "K Street," and cue the image of too-cleanly-cut former prepsters turned lobbyists dining on steaks at The Palm, or the bogeyman of rabid, blond-haired Patrick Henry College students worshipping Strict Constructionism. For conservatives, raise the specter of "social engineering" and a phalanx of godless PhDs being paid by the government to take away your children. Condoms in gumball machines!

As you can see, I can have a lot of fun with this too. For the most part, it's because those stereotypes bear little resemblance to the folks I know here, no matter what their politics or religious convictions are. I know a fabulous intellectual who works at the Family Research Council, and more than a few avowed socialists who are among the best parents I know.

There are a few stereotypes about DC denizens I could proffer: people who 1) cross streets while punching their Blackberries, 2) have international conference calls in the backs of cabs, and throw out twenty-dollar bills at the driver, 3) sit at lunch with their eyes occasionally wandering to the Blackberry open before them. Self-importance is an equal-opportunity affliction.

But then there's the city itself, and that's something different. People from New York, or from party-town places like Austin or New Orleans, invariably complain about how boring Washington is. In the national mind, Washington will never win the kind of funky-hometown accolades that "Charm City" Baltimore is routinely accorded.

Which is a shame, for a number of reasons: The city proper is stunningly beautiful, but even its most drab streets and suburbs seem to pulse with a kind of nervous tension, a sense of being part of a web of mysterious and ineffable connections. And there is also the sense one has of history being unexpectedly encountered: You round the counter and all of a sudden the gleaming stone monument is there, staring back, for a change, at you.

DC is one of the nation's great African-American cities. At the same time, for the past couple of decades it has also been becoming one of the great Latino, Korean, and East African immigrant cities. The inner-ring suburb where I live is a confluence of all these trends: an old white-flight suburb that gradually turned black and is now peppered with the diasporans of the world-including one ex-evangelical, ex-Mississippi Deltan: me.

As in all cities, filling Metro DC's streets are millions of ordinary folk going to work, on foot or in cars, acting out their motions of faith as they move through the grid. May the good in all their efforts be blessed.

The week before last, on the night of the president's alternately acclaimed or derided speech on health care, I, along with our two tiny children, had to take my husband to work in the middle of the night because his truck had died and we hadn't succeeded in buying a new car.

At the very bottom of the night, long after all the commentators had disappeared from the cable TV screens and taken taxis home to bed, our little family sailed down tawdry New York Avenue into the city-past the "no-tell" motels that mostly got re-painted for the inauguration, Peacock Liquors (Cold Beer! First Stop in DC/Last Stop in DC!), and the gas stations filled with scantily-clad refugees from the hip-hop nightclub Love.

And the whole time, all I was thinking was, How happy I am, to be in this place, at this time! After I dropped him off, I pointed my car east again and set out for home, the dome of the Capitol glowing like the Cheshire Cat on the edge of the horizon. This was once a very dangerous city and isn't safe even now, but with my children in the back, I felt brave and unafraid.

The next day we went out and bought a secondhand Volvo station wagon. The Chardonnay and the arugula are coming next, I suppose.

portrait-caroline-langstonCaroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland.

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