It's not hard to make the case that the District is less than central to most Washingtonians' lives. The world has turned inside out: Places like Montgomery County and especially Fairfax are now the centers of wealth, influence, technology and politics. Places like the District now teeter on the edge of most regional affairs.
Take money. Imagine a map of the metropolis as a big plate. Imagine each job in the area as having equal weight. Locate them all on that imaginary plate. Now lift the plate, put your hand under it, and try to figure out where your plate of jobs would balance.
Today, that center is within sight of the Tower Club. That's at the top of that building in Tysons with the brick arches, the one that's nicknamed "The World's Tallest Shopping Bag."
Savage capitalism, more than government, is driving the region's growth. Essentially all the 60,400 new jobs created in the area last year were private sector and outside the District. Fairfax, home of the Internet, is ablaze with economic growth 5 percent job growth per year expected for the next seven years. Can you say America Online? WorldCom? The hot residential growth areas are the out-counties, such as Frederick and Calvert, Loudoun and Stafford.
The federal government is hardly the center of this universe anymore. It's still hemorrhaging another 7,600 bureaucrat jobs gone from the region last year. Barely half of the remaining 334,100 jobs are downtown. By now, more agencies probably would have fled to Crystal City, Silver Spring and Suitland, not to mention West Virginia, were it not for executive orders meant to stanch the flow.
Sure, there are Beltway Bandits gorging on federal contracts, but even their sources of wealth lie outside the District. Think of the National Institutes of Health, or the Pentagon. Of the $22 billion the feds contracted out in the region last year, only $4 billion stayed in D.C. Of the rest, $6 billion went to suburban Maryland, and twice that to Northern Virginia.
The result is that by any objective standard where people live, where they work, where they learn, where they shop, where they worship, where they stay (even most of the hotel rooms are outside the District) the center of the region has moved well outside the 19th-century downtown.
This is true without regard to race, color, creed or national origin. The vast majority of all African Americans in the Washington area live where the schools and property appreciation are better: the burbs. More than 18 percent of Montgomery County does not speak English as a first language; 40 percent of all the growth there in the '80s came from immigration. The Fairfax schools deal with more than 100 languages, including Tegulu, Ilocano and Twi.
BACK IN THE '60s, planners wailed and rent their garments, saying if this movement kept up, we'd be planting row crops on Pennsylvania Avenue by now. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. The '80s turned out to be the best decade in this century for old downtowns. The planners told us to go back in and rehab the old cores, and the real estate developers obliged every one of them: Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Chicago. Trenton is coming back.
The planners, of course, implied that doing this would somehow address poverty. This was silly. The Industrial Age was over: The high-paying, low-skilled jobs that originally drew people off the farms to the cities are gone forever. In D.C., all the real-estate renaissance did was make the world safe for associations and lawyers willing to pay a premium for offices within two cab zones of the Ellipse.
More important, perhaps, is that these urban makeovers recast the American downtown as a cappuccino magnet. That's neither trivial nor totally sneer-worthy. Downtowns have turned out to be terrific niche markets. They're good places to be young, and to be single. They're good places for the arts. They're good places to put whatever you can only have one of in a region, such as an NBA franchise. The downtowns are turning primarily into entertainment centers. Even in Manhattan, tourism contributes more to the economy than does the financial services industry.
And that's the first rationally selfish reason for suburbanites to care about the District and its election. The region is supremely fortunate to have the Mall and its Smithsonian museums as crown jewel attractions. They are the big draw into the District for out-of-towners and people with kids, just as clubs and restaurants have lured thrill-seekers to Georgetown and Adams-Morgan.
And now the District has built on that attraction franchise. If you haven't lately, check out the East End the booming area surrounding MCI Center and Pennsylvania Avenue at night. It's hopping. The West End has become Hotel Row, stacked with limousines. An enormous new convention center is on the verge, and there's talk of a baseball stadium.
Those are all things the entire region cares about, and you don't want to see this entertainment renaissance screwed up, the way it was with RFK Stadium and the Redskins.
If the District is going to be the region's ceremonial area, it also needs to be safe. That's another reason to care about this election. Americans have numerous stakes in fixing the pathologies of the underclass.
First, the country needs the workers. As Michael Porter of Harvard has pointed out, the solution to the problems of the inner city is less in redistributing wealth than in figuring out new ways to create it there. The trick may be in seeing the District's labor surplus as an opportunity, not a problem.
Second, you can't assume that urban neighborhoods plagued by unemployment, undereducation, drugs and violence will not affect property values elsewhere. People tried that in Detroit, walling off suburbs like Southfield and Auburn Hills and Novi from these miseries, and it didn't work well enough. That's one of the reasons suburban developers are now participating in the rebirth of old Detroit.
Third, there's doing the right thing. The people in the poor parts of the District are refugees from the Industrial Revolution. Their parents and grandparents came looking for opportunity, but that work is gone. The good news is that the economy and government programs of the last 30 years have been amazingly effective. Consider that there are fewer than 15,000 people living in underclass neighborhoods in the District, according to the Urban Institute. That's a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the total population of the region. We can fix this.
These are some of the reasons the Washington area is going through a grand and historic experiment in regional cooperation today.
ALL OVER AMERICA, old downtowns have faced fiscal collapse. One of the causes, of course, has been a lack of resources. Others include incompetence and venality. Then there were simply choices that turn out to be historically misguided mayors who idealistically believed that government should be the first provider of jobs when the world was headed off in a market-oriented direction.
For decades now, well-meaning wonks have wept and gnashed their teeth over this imbalance. The plight of the old downtowns, they anguish, will not be solved unless the resources of the entire region are brought to bear.
The other way around, however, just might work. That's precisely what's happening here now.
The District is run by a control board, the architect of which is Tom Davis, the Republican U.S. congressman from Tysons Corner. Republican Rep. Connie Morella of Montgomery County also made a point of getting on the panel. Jim Moran of Alexandria is the ranking minority member of the D.C. subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Whether we wish to characterize this as openhearted rescue or cynical neo-colonialism, these suburbanites and their sympathizers have effectively taken over the District. If it goes down the tubes now, they're going to take part of the fall. Keeping track of this election is one way of keeping score.
There's one last thing.
Back in the '60s, historians tell us, when people from Washington fanned out across the nation's campuses to recruit, they effortlessly got the best and brightest. The people with the highest scores, the greatest honors those were the ones attracted to Washington. They were eager and determined to create a better world.
FLASH FORWARD to this election in D.C.
You '60s idealists are now pushing 50. But you remember why you came. Sure, if you're now a high-priced adviser or commentator or secure GS-14, you can inure yourself to the crises of the District. Potholes? Snow removal? Buy a 4x4. Violence? Park it underground. You can insulate yourselves from who's mayor. You know you can. That's not the problem.
What you can't escape is Letterman.
You can't get away from the jokes, the sneers, the shame. You can't get away from the relentless fact that when you travel, you no longer say you're from Washington. You can't stand for the thousandth time the Leno-inspired one-liners. Instead, you say you're from Gaithersburg, and then have to go through the song and dance of where that is and what that's about. What an unholy embarrassment.
And so you care about the fate of the city.
You want to stand tall. You want to be able to square your shoulders, jut out your chin and be able to look your new acquaintance straight in the eye. You want once again to embrace the region. You want, once again, to say, "I'm from Washington," say it loud, and say it proud.
Joel Garreau, a Post staff writer and author of "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," is a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University, where he conducts a course on "progress" that this year focused on the District. This article draws on the work of professors George Cook, Joseph S. Wood and Stephen Fuller and their students.
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