Friends from other cities ask: "What's it like to live in D.C. these days? Are you thinking of leaving?"
The questions always catch me by surprise. Fleeing D.C. might give me false peace of mind, but in reality my family would be at risk of other dangers -- every city, suburb and small town, no matter how high they rank on quality-of-life surveys, has its own unique hazards -- albeit more mundane than terrorist attacks.
And anyway, I'm from here.
It's been a long time since I've been able to say that. I graduated from high school in Northwest Washington 20 years ago this May. Like a sociologist eager to study exotic cultures, I headed to New England, fascinated by people speaking with accents and drivers who knew how to brake in snow. Life -- getting an education, falling in love, getting a job -- took me to New York City (three times; eight apartments), Boston, New Hampshire, West Philadelphia, the New Jersey shore, Chicago and Minneapolis.
I considered staying in each place. They all had temptations. But no place ever felt quite like D.C.
I grew up in the 1970s on Klingle Street in Wesley Heights, a leafy, hilly, uniquely privileged little neighborhood near American University. I thought all museums were free until I went to college. On my street, whether the house was a bungalow or a three-story Colonial with a pool in the back, the kids went to the local Horace Mann Elementary School.
Childhood in Wesley Heights offered a kind of political science education that money cannot buy. The privilege I experienced had nothing to do with financial wealth -- it came from my neighbors and what I saw them doing with their lives. I learned what the Vietnam War and the Pulitzer Prize were when a dad on my block, Neil Sheehan, was feted for writing "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam." Jody Powell, President Carter's press secretary, used to stroll the neighborhood in the twilight holding hands with his daughter, my friend Emily. I babysat for Sen. Jim Sasser and have a vivid memory of the former senator from Tennessee shaking me awake with a tuxedoed arm as I lay drooling on his silk couch one night when he and his wife came home after midnight. Running headlong down a red-carpeted hallway in the White House with another friend whose mom wrote speeches for Rosalynn Carter, I almost tripped over the first lady. "Ha, girls," she drawled with a smile as if she'd known us all her life.
Charlie Fenyvesi, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and newspaper reporter, lived across the street. One night, Mr. Fenyvesi didn't come home. Mom unraveled the mystery: Mr. Fenyvesi was a hostage in the B'Nai B'rith building. She explained what "anti-Semitism" meant. The block erupted in joy when Mr. Fenyvesi came back unharmed. More than 25 years later, I can still recall much of the narrative he wrote in the paper describing his ordeal as a hostage. Breathing this rare air felt as routine to us kids as skating on the canal when it froze solid, walking neighbors' dogs in Battery Kemble Park, and watching the fireworks dance around the Washington Monument from our perch atop Mount St. Alban each July.
Two years ago, finally drained of the desire to explore new urban frontiers, my New Yorker husband and I searched for an ideal place to settle down and raise our children. After hearing me talk about my memories of growing up in Washington, he announced that if I was lucky enough to still have a place in my heart that I called home, we should move there. So we came to Washington.
Much has changed in D.C. in 20 years. Even in Wesley Heights kids don't walk to school alone anymore. Not many writers can afford houses there these days, either. But the week I moved back, I stopped by Horace Mann. My fourth-grade teacher was still in the same classroom. Even though I'm now in my late 30s, I was surprised that Miss Carolyn Dickey didn't recognize me. Through a curtain of tears I managed to explain who I was, and she threw her arms around me as if I was still 9 years old.
Last summer my children went to National Child Research Center in Cleveland Park, where my blessedly forward-thinking mother sent me in the late 1960s when "early childhood education" was a phrase that didn't exactly roll off people's tongues. A woman who still works in the kitchen remembered the time the class monkey bit my father's thumb. I remember it as the first time I heard Dad swear.
On our first Easter morning in our new house, after giving birth to two children in strange urban hospitals, I had a baby girl at Sibley Memorial Hospital. Sibley -- the place I drove my younger sister dozens of times when she'd broken yet another bone playing yet another sport in high school. For once, my sister had to visit me. She lives back here now too.
We moved back just in time to experience firsthand the horrible events of September 2001. The unimaginable truth that terrorists had flown a plane into the Pentagon and had perhaps aimed another at the White House changed Washington forever. It didn't change how I feel about D.C., though. In fact, what's more troubling to me are the problems here that haven't changed since I went away 20 years ago: the crime, poverty, segregation, local political corruption, the abysmal public schools in the neighborhoods that most need good ones. To me, our refusal to tackle local, solvable problems is far more demoralizing than the anxiety that accompanies living in a city at the top of international terrorists' hit list.
What makes Washington home far outweighs the risks my friends from other cities worry about when they imagine living here. My kids are growing up in the complex cultural and political petri dish I did. Our family's mundane joys include frequent trips to the world's most fascinating museums. I'm glad they're still free. We stop at the zoo on a whim to see if the pandas are awake. There's a gem of a public school six blocks from our house, filled with teachers who've been there two or three decades and students whose faces reflect the city's population and whose voices speak native languages ranging from Greek to Croatian.
The air in D.C. is as rare as ever. Despite the criticism of Washington as a transient city dominated by callous political insiders, the Washington I know is filled with people -- like my childhood neighbors -- who use their talents to improve our world, even if, perhaps, some of them simultaneously overlook the problems inside our city limits.
All this in a city where spring starts in early March (well, most years) and steadily builds into an explosion of cherry blossoms, daffodils and azaleas that make headlines on the national news but are too commonplace for locals to comment upon.
Recently, busy with three kids and a full-time job, I hired a local landscaper to bring order to our front yard in Georgetown. We live on another street filled with literary and political big shots who (mostly) act like nobodies. One afternoon, my dirt-covered forty-something gardener rang my doorbell insistently. When I opened the door, he bobbed with excitement.
"Guess who I just saw?" he asked. "Who?" I inquired, hoping for a glimpse of Britney Spears or Madonna or at least Michael Jordan. "Bob Woodward!" he shouted. "And he said hello to me!"
This is why I came back to D.C. In all my itinerant wanderings, I never found another place where people are as thrilled to meet a journalist as others are to meet movie stars. D.C. natives will never be able to rival the frenzied self-importance, the street savvy and shiny good looks of New Yorkers. My trusting, wholesome Midwestern neighbors in Minnesota and Illinois probably haven't been seen here since the 1950s -- or maybe the 1850s. And in New Hampshire, you will never see slugs laid out on steamy sidewalks like you do in D.C. on humid August days.
Leave Washington? No way. I love it here. And I'm from here.
Leslie Morgan Steiner works in the advertising department of The Washington Post and lives in Georgetown with her husband and three children.