Make Yourselves at Home, Obama Family

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Welcome to the neighborhood, President-elect and Mrs. Obama. The last tenant, frankly, didn't much like it here, but don't let that sway you. The house is old and drafty, but it has beaucoup curb appeal, a crackerjack staff that conveys, and the words "24-hour security" -- well, they don't even come close.

First off, Washington is not Chicago. Prettier but equally weather-impaired, the District lacks the ethnic variety of your home town. But there's a hidden complexity here. Don't believe the stereotype about this being a federal enclave surrounded by a largely black and poor population, which in turn is surrounded by affluent suburbs that are home to Beltway bandits.

The Washington area is actually far less transient than you may have been led to believe. The best and the brightest move here in great numbers, but they rarely leave. It's the overperforming Roach Motel of metro areas; they check in, but they don't check out.

The District is fast-changing. The population doesn't grow much, but the composition evolves swiftly, as young single people, black and white alike, move in, and older black families move (and often cash) out, taking advantage of a real estate boom that has been going gangbusters for more than 15 years. Everybody's doing a gut check these days, but you're moving into one of the nation's most stable real estate markets, even in these parlous times.

The District is young, multiracial, brainy (even the cabbies are public radio listeners), a place where wine (No. 1 in the nation in per capita consumption) beats beer (we're middle of the pack). Like Chicagoans, we love politics and sports, though our local franchises, with the curious exception of the hockey team, have long been infected with an incurable virus that wipes out the gene for winning games. Not to worry -- we don't think it's contagious.

Unlike Chicago, Washington has no white ethnic neighborhoods to speak of, no lake (but no swamp either -- another myth), and not much of a sense of humor, sad to say. We love our comedy troupe the Capitol Steps, but Second City they ain't.

If you're thinking about addressing income inequality, you've come to the right place. Even after job, construction and real estate booms, only about half of black adults in the District are working, and more than a third of adults lack functional literacy. Presidents use our city's public schools as a backdrop for occasional forays into education policy; it may interest you to know that actual children attend those schools, which have a remarkable claim to fame: On average, students exit the system further below grade level than when they entered.

Speaking of inequality, you have taken up residence in the only spot in the continental United States where citizens have no vote in Congress. D.C. residents serve in the military, pay taxes and follow laws imposed upon them by a Congress that treats the city as its plaything, yet we have zero say in how those laws are shaped. If that strikes you as the least bit unfair, we welcome your assistance.

But enough about us; let's talk about you. Your security forces are happiest if you never leave the building. Your sanity and the health of the nation demand, however, that you get out often. Alas, you gum up traffic every time you exit the gates in daylight. Commuters grumble at the sight of your motorcade. Solution: Go out at night.

We loved your early forays to the Lincoln Memorial and Ben's Chili Bowl. But don't limit yourself to tourist highlights. Check out the nation's second-best theater town (and take the kids); Signature Theatre's reimagining of "Les Miserables" is a revelation (and poignantly timely), the Shakespeare Theatre is doing "King Lear" (the ultimate depiction of the treachery of flatterers) this spring, and Theater J is mounting a Middle East Festival, including a collaboration among Iranians, Israelis and Americans (could spark some ideas).

Itching for hoops action? Check out high school ball in Prince George's County, which has produced six All-Americans in three years, more than any state except California. Need to get away? Great Falls, Hains Point and the C&O Canal towpath are more convenient and reinvigorating than overrated Camp David. Or pop over to Theodore Roosevelt Island to visit one of the least known but most transporting memorials around.

Don't let the White House crowd limit you to their tired and stuffy restaurant hangouts. Branch out. Start off by inviting George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in to brief you on why a stimulus package won't do the trick, then get into his invaluable Ethnic Dining Guide, which covers local eateries from more than 80 countries, including -- perhaps of particular interest to your family -- Indonesia and Kenya.

It has been decades since a president focused attention on cities; contrasts between haves and have-nots don't make for easy political solutions. But our country's future lies in places like this, and you told us you were about the future. The District gives you plenty of chances to show it -- and plenty of respite from the troubles inside that lonely house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

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