I’m currently back in DC, where I lived for a year following my return to the US from Russia. This week has reminded me of many things about the city, the ones I love and the ones I loathe. Rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of everything I’ve seen and done during my week in the city, I think it makes the most sense to give the rundown of all my favorite and least-favorite aspects of this place that I once called home.
Things I love about DC:
1. Independent Bookstores, restaurants, and coffee shops
I love that in DC I only have to visit chains if I want to. In this week, I have successfully managed to frequent nothing but independently owned and operated businesses. The excellent bookstores of Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks have wide selections of publications you actually want to read (as opposed to giant displays of Twilight-themed paraphernalia), and they both have their own cafes attached. For coffee and tea, there are any number of good options, including my new favorite of Baked and Wired in Georgetown. And the restaurants of DC are many and varied, from hole-in-the-wall establishments serving authentic food from pretty much any country you can think of, to places where cuisine is elevated to a high art. Sadly, I can’t afford to eat at the latter nearly as often as I’d like. But it’s nice to know that they’re there.
2. Neighborhoods with personality
A corollary to the first point. Neighborhoods that foster independent businesses tend to acquire a flavor all their own. I tend to hang out a fair amount in Dupont Circle, with forays into U Street and occasionally Adams Morgan. Georgetown is a bit upscale and consumerist for my general comfort, but the presence of the aforementioned bakery and coffee shop guarantees the occasional visit. It’s nice to be able to get to places with such different flavors easily, and know that I’ll have a different experience in each one.
3. Affordable arts and culture
Arts are expensive to pursue in most places, so one of the things that I love about DC is the fact that the arts are accessible to the wider public. The world-class Smithsonian Museum is free, and every night there are free concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. If you want to dance, my favorite studio Joy of Motion has affordable classes and proclaims that “dance is for everyone.” And at Joe’s Movement Emporium, an aerialist friend and I were able to rent practice space this week without sacrificing our firstborn children to pay for it.
Things I hate about DC:
1. Corporate/Political Culture
Remember what I said about all the distinct neighborhoods? That’s only part of the picture. There are large swathes of DC that are soulless corporate blocks where Starbucks-toting suits rush along in briefcases and uncomfortable shoes. These are the places that I try not to frequent–pretty much any area with a high rise. Usually you’ll find a chain coffee shop on every corner, no real restaurants in sight, and people who look too stressed out to be enjoying all the money that they earn.
2. Rampant Social Inequality
DC is arguably one of the most important cities in the Western hemisphere politically. Some of the most powerful people in the world live and work here, or come visit from miles away and stay in fancy hotels. Yet DC also has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods like Anacostia may never set foot outside the slums of DC, even though three international airports and multiple embassies are just a stone’s throw away. The high level of social stratification in the city is a microcosm of the social stratification of the US. At least the capitol is reflective of the country as a whole.
3. Traffic and Transportation
If you drive in DC, you will quickly learn that the traffic is insane, the streets are confusing, and the rules of the road are really more guidelines. Add to that that building interference and CIA scramblers will make your GPS lose signal approximately every 2.5 minutes, and driving in DC is clearly not a walk in the park.
Which brings me to the metro.
This one is more of a love/hate relationship. I absolutely love that the DC metro system exists, and I wish that more cities in the US had good public transit systems. That said…the metro doesn’t function well at all. It’s expensive and takes forever, and after the highly publicized crash in 2009 it came to light that the metro system hadn’t been well maintained in years. There are entire websites devoted to the issues with the DC metro. Though I could rant for ages about it, I think the best illustration of the glories of the DC metro are best explained through humor. Behold: the metro song.