And I was never going to care enough about being “cool” to make the insane cost of living in New York worth it, either. It was easy to casually dismiss that entire city with yet another not-really-fair cliche, the way only someone in their early 20s can. The reality was that in the summer I had spent there as a magazine intern, I’d never felt more out of place. It seemed as though everyone I met had grown up rich (I hadn’t), my clothes were all wrong, and I couldn’t imagine ever having — let alone spending — the money to keep up with whatever “hip” new restaurant/bar/warehouse-turned-music venue they were all heading to each weekend.
So by the time I’d reached my mid-20s, finding myself in Washington was a genuine revelation. Every new friend I made seemed to be an expert in something: Health policy. International development. Privacy law. The nerdier you were, the easier it was to fit into the post-college, pre-kids, I-moved-here-for-work social scene. In D.C., I’d tell anyone who would listen, nobody really cares whether you’re hot or hip — they care about whether you’re smart.
But as millennials have flocked to the city in record numbers over the past decade, the physical and demographic landscape of the District has palpably changed. The city can’t help but ask itself what it all means. There are crucially important questions wrapped up in this soul-searching. Can we finally settle on a better model for affordable housing? Can more of the schools improve, faster? But as we look at the increase in restaurants, bike lanes, night-life options and other hallmarks of modern urban cool, there is also that admittedly less important, more ethereal question: Is it possible, after all this time, that D.C. is getting — whisper it with me now — awfully hip?
Trouble is, to ask that question is to miss the truth about the wave of young people who have arrived here over the past decade, and the decade before that. Which is this: They don’t care about being “hip,” at least not in the way “hip” seems to be defined in Brooklyn or San Francisco or Portland.
“D.C. is a city of smart people,” said Derek Brown, whose mini-empire of craft cocktail bars started on Seventh Street NW with The Passenger and Columbia Room and has since expanded to Mockingbird Hill and Eat the Rich. “What’s making D.C. cool is the fact that smart people doing things they’re passionate about is cool,” he said. Brown is someone whose passions led him to create at least one drink menu exclusively out of sherry. Not exactly “chasing fads,” as he put it.