A tale of two Washingtons: But ours is better than theirs


Johanna Flynn, center, makes her way out of City Hall in a flurry of rice and bubbles with her wife, Allison Kelsey, at right, on Dec. 9, 2012, in Seattle. It was the first day that same-sex couples could legally wed in Washington state. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
January 4, 2013

Okay, their spire is taller than our spire. But ours is marble.

So what if Seattle’s Space Needle has a few feet on the Washington Monument (605 and 555, respectively). Our Capitol Hill (seat of democracy, beacon of freedom to the world) is more famous than their Capitol Hill (probably a very nice residential neighborhood).

Their traffic is getting worse faster than ours. They have more tech jobs, but we read more books (at least, we order more from Amazon).

Our dazzling star rookie quarterback has better hair than their dazzling star rookie quarterback.

Sunday’s wild card game is not just Redskins vs. Seahawks, of course. It’s city vs. city. And in this case, it’s Washington vs. Washington (the other one).

“No, the other Washington is Washington, D.C.,” insisted Josephine Eckert, president of the local Washington State Society, a group for Evergreen State expatriates who live in the nation’s capital. “When we say Washingtonians, we mean people from Washington state.”

Oh, they do, do they?

Well, in advance of the sudden-death match that will send only one city’s team on in the playoffs, let us compare and contrast the real Washington . . . and that other one.

According to stats, quality-of-life rankings and people who have lived in both cities, they are very different places. One is a Starbucks-swilling, bicycle-crazy, Amazon-obsessed metropolis with loosening marijuana laws. The other is Seattle.

In stereotypeology, Washington West is flannel-wear, overcast skies and laid-back vibes. Washington East is button-down shirts, sizzling summers and résumé pride. True?

“It’s true that Washington, D.C., is a place where your job is everything,” said journalist Michael Kinsley, who decamped to Seattle in 1996 to start the online magazine Slate (which is now owned by The Washington Post). He returned last year to a Dupont Circle rowhouse to be editor at large at the New Republic. He found, in the Washington that produced Microsoft, Amazon and Costco, that entrepreneurialism was king.

“Everybody’s got the bug,” Kinsley said. “There’s much less emphasis on what you do. If you just say you’re raising money for a small start-up, that’s enough.”

We’re a bit bigger, with about 618,000 Washingtonians to Seattle’s 609,000. And a lot richer; seven of the nation’s 10 highest-income counties are in the Washington, D.C., area, while Seattle’s King County comes in 86th. But who’s smarter? Seattle wins if you count college degrees within the city limits. But the brainy D.C. suburbs make us the nation’s best-educated metropolitan region, census data reveal.

In fact, on many city rankings (often a scientifically dubious exercise), the two Washingtons have very similar profiles. We are the 43rd most livable city in the world, according the 2012 Mercer survey, and Seattle is the 44th. They rank sixth for walkable neighborhoods; the District is seventh. On the Sperling “manliness” index (with criteria including popularity of power tools and frequency of monster truck rallies), they outman us by five spots (40th vs. 45th; Nashville is No. 1, yet the Titans finished 6-10).

We’re more congested, both on the roads (Washingtonians waste an average of 45 hours in traffic each year, Seattle-ites just 33) and in our sinuses (the District ranks 82nd on the worst allergies list, to Seattle’s 91st).

But, boy, do we top them on violent crime (the District posts 21.9 murders per 100,000 residents, Seattle just 3.1).

But the biggest difference, according to people with feet in both Washingtons, is attitudinal.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D), who has represented his Seattle district in Congress since 1989, says his weekend Washington is much more relaxed than his Monday-Thursday Washington. Coats and business attire are still required in far too many D.C. settings, he said. And people charge from meeting to meeting “like they are running with the bulls,” often against the crossing light.

“People run out into traffic here like they are in a competitive sport,” said McDermott, who walks to the Capitol from an apartment on Eighth Street SE. “In Seattle, people wait for the light to change, and nobody thinks that’s strange.”

That Washington is renowned for its mellow niceness, even on the roads. Drivers are known to come to a stop if an oncoming car wants to turn left in front of them. There are times at four-way stops when nobody goes first.

“Everyone is waving at somebody else to go ahead,” said Janet Vail, a 35-year Seattle resident who went to Georgetown University and makes frequent business trips to the District. “It can take forever; nobody honks.”

In this Washington, they have been known to honk.

“Driving there, I felt like the king of road,” reported the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, a decades-long D.C. resident who spent two years in Seattle working on special projects for Microsoft. “You feel like a New Yorker in Kansas.”

Some impatient, hard-charging East Coasters characterize Seattle’s courteous, deferential style as the “unbearable politeness of being.” Joan Haffey worked for the D.C. branch of a Seattle-based company for more than a decade. She adored her West Coast colleagues but remembers being caught more than once making snarky comments during conference calls with the home office.

“They would never, ever do that,” she said. “Unless they were better at using the mute button.”

The cities are also a continent apart in terms of political intensity. Here, politics and government are the local industry, of course. There, they are an afterthought. Four years ago, the Seattle-Tacoma area posted Nielsen’s lowest ratings for the presidential inauguration. Last week, when this Washington was fixated on the “fiscal cliff,” that Washington wasn’t.

“Nobody was talking about it at all,” Vail said. “The powder, that’s what people were talking about. We’ve had some great snow.”

Nothing may draw a bigger distinction in the two cities than the role of their respective football teams. The Seahawks have a passionate following, and ­CenturyLink Field is known as a raucous stadium. But residents say the NFL, or any professional sport, doesn’t dominate the way it does in this Washington, where thousands of burgundy-and-gold banners fly in neighborhoods rich and poor and from car windows old and new.

One common explanation of Redskins mania is that not much else pulls together the fractious capital, with a history of racial divisiveness, a reputation for transience and a culture of political blood sport.

“In many ways, D.C. has only the Redskins as an even faintly unifying theme across race and class and political outlook” and the region’s sprawling geography, said Fallows, who was on vacation in the South Pacific last weekend during the showdown game with Dallas and had to huddle with his two sons around a laptop with a sketchy dial-up Internet connection to follow the action.

Seattle, meanwhile, has a life beyond football that includes the great outdoors, Microsoft and microbrews.

“If you ask someone in Seattle to list their sources of civic pride, the Seahawks might make the top 20,” Fallows said. “In Washington, the Redskins will almost always make the top two or three.”

Still, the other Washingtonians plan to make their presence known Sunday. Many of those not watching at Penn Quarter (a noted Seahawks bar) will be at FedEx Field. Nate Potter, who grew up on Mercer Island next to Seattle and now lives on 14th Street NW, has his ticket.

“We plan on being loud, proud and present on Sunday,” said Potter, who works as a governmental affairs consultant. “Okay, polite and generally respectful, too. It is in our blood.”

The Democratic mayors of the two cities have a wager on Sunday’s game: The loser will fly the winner’s flag over city hall for a day.

Has D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray ever visited Seattle? “I’ll have to check,” said his spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. “I know he’s been to Portland.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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