Sparky’s Espresso Cafe was a few blocks from my apartment off 14th Street NW, but in the years after I moved to Washington in 2006, it felt to me like home. To get there from my apartment, I needed to walk by a decaying dry cleaner and a homeless shelter. Sparky’s featured people getting their morning coffee on their way to construction sites bumping into people working on laptops. It served nice enough espresso that it seemed cool, but it had just enough dirt on its walls and khaki pants on its customers that it also seemed genuinely less than cool.
Sitting in Sparky’s, you might as well have been in Atlanta or Buffalo or Kansas City. These cities, like the Washington of those years, were small big cities — or maybe big small cities. They offered a dose of cool, along with a serving of the casual and the communal. Their residents enjoyed the amenities of urban life but didn’t, on the whole, seem to be suffering through the effort of performing it.
Today, Sparky’s has been gone for 11 years — replaced first by the more stylish Cork Wine Bar and eventually by a make-your-own meatball chain opening its first location outside of New York. The dry cleaner is now the home of Le Diplomate, the French restaurant that Michelle Obama ate at the night before she had dinner at the White House with the actual French president. The homeless shelter has partly turned into condos that rent for as high as $7,000 a month.
It isn’t just the 14th Street corridor that has transformed dramatically in Washington. From Shaw to H Street NE to the Wharf, the city has, over the past generation, become a substantially cooler place — one with great restaurants, trendy bars and endless rows of glass condos. Much of Washington in 2018 arguably has more in common with the country’s hippest neighborhoods — Williamsburg in New York, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, the Inner Mission in San Francisco — than it does with the less cool cities of middle America.
Like all hip cities, contemporary Washington combines cool with a distinctive local flavor. New York is where cool meets money, Los Angeles is where cool meets beauty, San Francisco is where cool meets technology — and Washington is where cool meets government. That combination has created a class of people unique in American history. If the late 1990s and 2000s produced the hipster as a new type of cool in some of America’s more stylish cities, the more recent past has produced Washington’s version of it: the govster — a person who is able to enjoy the benefits of living in a cool city while also working for the federal government or somehow exercising influence over the direction of national politics.
Life in the capital may be good for the govster, but is it good for the country? Cool cities, after all, thrive precisely because they offer what the rest of the country cannot. Yet capitals have different purposes. If the government is to be of the people and for the people, then the capital must be able to relate to the people — and the people to the capital. A dynamic country may need a little cool in its capital; but have things in Washington gone too far? The question is as old as the republic, and arguably more important than ever.
Washington — like the country that it came to define — was created more than 200 years ago in sin and in democratic principle. Slavery required a capital populated by federal officials accepting of its legitimacy. Maryland and Virginia at the time were two of the three largest slave states in the country, and a capital carved out of their territories would tolerate slavery.
But Washington was also the product of honorable and not just horrifying motivations. The nation’s capital needed to represent America and not be removed from it. This was all the more important because even America’s greatest cities were just a small part of a large republic. The capital that Americans knew best then was London, and London represented England because it was England — or at least a sizable part of it. London had 10 percent of the English population. In 1790, by contrast, the largest city in the United States was New York, with less than 1 percent of the American population.
A mere 5 percent of Americans lived in urban areas altogether, and many — like Thomas Jefferson — were deeply skeptical of them. Jefferson viewed “great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” Realistically, however, only a city could handle a government that would rule a country of nearly 4 million people and nearly 900,000 square miles. And a common sentiment at the time was that, if America were to become the grand country that it was destined to be, then it needed a grand capital to match. According to Kenneth R. Bowling, a leading historian of Washington, many wanted the capital to “outshine Rome, London and all the capitals” that had come before it in its urban grandeur.
Others, however, argued that the trendiest cities would attract the best but would remove them from the rest — that they would be dominated by the richest and most sophisticated few, and would have a hard time attracting and retaining Americans from elsewhere. As Bowling put it, there were those who thought that the “dangers of a magnificent capital were immense.” Indeed, the Republicans of that time — the predecessors in many ways to today’s Democratic Party — campaigned in 1800 against John Adams by portraying him as anti-democratic for being pro-grand-capital.
New York City and Philadelphia were the largest and most sophisticated cities in the United States in 1790, and each was subject to criticism. One political leader said that “if there is one city on the American continent which above all others displays English luxury, it is New York, where you can find all the English fashions.” Virginia Congressman Arthur Lee wrote in despair in 1783 that formerly serious, Quaker Philadelphia was too interested in “affecting the vanity, & nonsense of French parade.” These distractions, according to one letter sent to the Continental Congress, were “not very consistent” with what “ought to animate an infant Republic.”
George Washington was the repository of republican virtue, but even he was taken in by New York City culture when it was the capital from 1785 until 1790. (He was the president there from 1789 to 1790.) As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace recount in “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” Washington was known to have Tuesday afternoon and Friday evening events that were, in the words of one observer, “numerously attended by all that was fashionable, elegant, and refined in society” but did not include “the rabble” or “the more coarse and boisterous partisan.” When Jefferson came to New York City to serve as secretary of state in 1790, he seemed to think, according to Burrows and Wallace, that he was the only resident to care about democratic values.
The District of Columbia offered something that no other city could: It would be started from scratch. In theory, a city created anew in the image of democracy would never remove itself from the country it was governing regardless of what type of city it would become. And so, in 1790, this most divisive of debates was settled by an old-fashioned political deal. Southern leaders agreed that in return for letting the federal government assume state debts, the capital would be put in Washington after a 10-year stint in Philadelphia.
Cool had lost. Thomas Jefferson emphasized the democratic bona fides of the relatable capital by walking on foot on its streets to take his oath of office in 1801. The original 153 federal officials who took their positions in Washington that year were from all over and came to know one another by sharing the boardinghouses in the nation’s newest city. Washington was a place where everyone would know your name.
Washington spent the next two centuries transitioning from backwater to merely boring. In its earlier years, the city had so few housing options that members of Congress were forced to sleep on tiny cots in tiny rooms. These rooms were so narrow that one person had to remain in bed to leave space for the other one to get dressed. With such conditions, it was little surprise that few people wanted to live here. Washington appeared in the top 10 American cities by population in 1820 — and then not again until 1950.
Slowly, Washington became a meaningful American city, albeit one unique because of its increasingly complex federal government. The number of federal civilian positions in Washington in 1900 was roughly 14 times what it was before the Civil War, and about 110 times in 1940 what it was before the Civil War. The creation of the modern civil service meant that these positions required and cultivated technical substance. As a result, the city drew wonks from the rest of the country. It also, as always, attracted the hyper-ambitious, the types that Washington would come to know as hacks — the tragically unhip and overly eager former student government presidents. What it did not attract, for the most part, was anyone looking for cool.
At the same time, a city conceived in racial sin continued to be plagued by racism and segregation. Because of particularly rapid white flight, Washington was, by 1957, the country’s first major city with an African American majority. In 1968, as word of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spread, Washington neighborhoods — among them the 14th Street corridor — were wracked by riots.
The city reached a tipping point in the early 2000s. By that time, it had some trendy features like Whole Foods Market and new apartment buildings. Yet the culture of urban hipsters — people who wore trucker hats but had never been in a truck — was still mainly the province of places like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Soon, however, Washington would go from being a cooler place to being one of the coolest places — in 2014, according to Forbes magazine’s annual ranking, the coolest city in the country. Ben’s Chili Bowl defined the Washington of old, but the new Washington was rated by Zagat as the nation’s hottest dining city in 2016. The capital received its first stars from Michelin that same year. José Andrés, one of the world’s most prominent chefs, started in Washington before branching out elsewhere.
Sitting atop this new Washington for eight years was a president who effortlessly combined nerdy with cool: Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy’s Camelot had upgraded the city’s cool factor, but his less than three years in office limited the footprint he left. Obama was equally able to discuss Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” and dance the tango on Argentine television. His chief speechwriter was Jon Favreau, who showed up on People magazine’s list of most beautiful people. So did Sam Kass, one of his White House chefs.
Obama might have provided some of the motivation for an infusion of young and stylish people into Washington, but it was the economic situation in the capital compared with the rest of country that truly accelerated the expansion of cool here. The city was becoming more and more polarized, but both parties were creating growth in government that fueled the local economy — at the same time that the rest of the country was running out of gas.
In response to 9/11, President George W. Bush directed enormous sums of money toward national security efforts that required a highly sophisticated workforce. The Sarbanes-Oxley law, passed in 2002, led to complex financial regulatory efforts that demanded staffing to match. The election of Obama in 2008 generated a stimulus bill, the Dodd-Frank law and the Affordable Care Act, each of which was a regulatory undertaking of the first order.
When the federal government generates this many new efforts, there is a corresponding growth in private-sector activities to implement and influence them. Government contracting dollars spent in the Washington area more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, reaching $80 billion, and the amount spent on lobbying more than doubled between 2000 and 2011, reaching $3.3 billion. Washington during the 2000s had the most firms among the fastest-growing companies of any city in America, according to the Kauffman Foundation.
The opportunities that Washington presented were there in the early 2000s, but it was not until these opportunities dried up elsewhere in the late 2000s that Washington went into cool overdrive. Nearly 3 million jobs were lost nationwide in 2008. In the nearly four years after the 2008 crash, New York City lost the most jobs in finance, and Los Angeles was close behind. Perhaps not surprisingly, between 2009 and 2012, Washington had the greatest increase of millennials of any city. One person who moved to Washington was quoted by Time magazine describing the nation’s capital as “a place where a liberal-arts major can still get a job.”
Once cool built up some momentum in Washington, in other words, it never quite stopped. Now the city is struggling to stay connected to the rest of America — for reasons similar to the concerns many of the founders once raised about New York City and Philadelphia.
One of the silliest cliches in American politics is that the country is divided between two types of places: rural and urban. But only 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas. The country is just as divided between two types of urban areas: Around 20 percent of Americans live in the trendiest urban areas — places like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco — which means the remaining 60 percent live in other urban areas.
For a long time, Washington was more like Atlanta or Buffalo or Kansas City. It had theater and restaurant scenes just like these cities did, but D.C. theater and restaurants couldn’t be compared to those in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco. Today, that’s no longer true. And notice how many of Washington’s political elite now move between not just Congress, the White House and K Street, but between Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Favreau, for instance, decamped to Los Angeles after his Obama years. Kass moved to Brooklyn and works on business ventures with San Francisco firms. The exchange of people and businesses goes both ways. Philz Coffee — which started in California and has locations across the state — can now be found in exactly one other place in the country: Washington.
As with the other coolest cities, the rest of America might deep-down admire what Washington is becoming, but it has a hard time relating to it. We want our entertainment and financial and technological capitals to be better than us. We will buy what they sell so that we can be better than we are, even if just for a moment. But we want political leaders to share our values, not be somehow superior to them.
It seems inevitable that cool Washington will struggle to connect with the rest of America so long as it stays on this path. Superstar metropolitan areas are hard for people from middle America to move to and stay in. Some of that is cultural: Moving to Washington used to involve leaving one’s home but not entirely abandoning the ethos of that home; to move here was to relocate but not to defect. But much of the problem is economic: Washington was once a city that a middle-class family from Georgia or Rhode Island could send their child to for a summer in college or for a job after college — and that child could afford to stay here when he or she wanted to buy a home and start a family.
Between 1991 to 2016, though, the average single-family house price in Washington increased 317 percent, approximately 50 percent more than the increase nationwide. In the Shaw neighborhood, which has been at the core of cool Washington, housing prices increased 145 percent in one decade. (Real-estate prices nationwide increased just 50 percent during the same stretch.) One telling indicator of how the city has changed: In 1900, 3 percent of D.C. residents came from New York state. Today, that number is 5 percent. That may seem like a small change, but it came over a period when New York state’s population as a percentage of the entire country shrunk from 10 percent to 6 percent.
The fear is not just that cool Washington will increasingly struggle to relate to America, but also that America will struggle to relate to it. Can people who live in Atlanta or Buffalo or Kansas City fully connect with a metropolitan area where the median home value is half a million dollars? In Kansas City, when the Royals won the World Series in 2015, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to celebrate. Washington has always struggled to keep a baseball team, and now that it has one — and the team is good — it still sometimes has difficulty attracting enough fans to compete with the fans of visiting teams.
Of course, long before Washington was cool, politicians were seeking to exploit any gap between the capital and the rest of the country. In 1964, in his speech nominating Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan referred to Washington as a “far-distant capital.” But not many shared Reagan’s skepticism of D.C. A full 77 percent of Americans trusted the government “in Washington” (as Pew Research Center always did and still does put it) to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. Today, that figure is 18 percent.
And so it has now become de rigueur for political figures to affiliate themselves with other places to signal that they can relate to what Americans are facing. President Trump has referred to himself as representing the “citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” He was not only affiliating himself with an American city rather than a foreign city, but with a regular city — as opposed to a city known for defining global cool.
Cool Washington has so far survived the Trump siege. Washington has neither featured an exodus of govsters nor the closure of places that govsters frequent. The progressive cool are out of government but still in Washington, and are spearheading the resistance. The owners of Cork Wine Bar on 14th Street NW, for instance, have sued Trump, alleging he has violated the Constitution's emoluments clause.
The conservative cool are either working for Trump or in the civil service — or in private-sector D.C. jobs that will allow them to quickly return to government once the Age of Trump has passed. While much of cool Washington has rejected them, they have not rejected cool Washington. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, for instance, is facing scrutiny in part for using lights and sirens to rush through the streets of Washington to make it to dinner at Le Diplomate.
The discussion about what Washington is and what Washington should be has become miserable because it is a highly politicized monologue. Trump and Republicans talk about “draining the swamp” and “coastal elites” for the purpose of rallying people against Washington. To them, the cool are the enemy of the people, not citizens who — like all groups of Americans — should be considered partners in democratic government.
For many progressives, on the other hand, to criticize the place of Washington is to criticize the idea of government. But while progressives recognize that place causes poverty or prosperity, they often struggle to consider the possibility that place might also cause politics — that the culture of the city that governs the country might be an impediment to fixing the nationwide inequality that progressives rightly despise. Is it possible that white households nationwide have 12 times the wealth of black households in part because the country is governed by and from a capital in which whites have 81 times the wealth of blacks?
The solutions, such as they are, to the growing coolness gap between Washington and the rest of the country are far from simple. The federal government will always feel somewhat different because it is so distant. One idea would be to bring more of the capital to the country. America has weighed this option before: In the late 19th century, the country debated relocating major parts of the federal government to St. Louis; in the middle of the 20th century, there was a similar discussion about Chicago. Franklin Delano Roosevelt temporarily relocated 30,000 federal officials to metropolitan areas in the Midwest during World War II.
In our Internet age, large organizations take advantage of the talent nationwide by locating important positions across the country. These companies place their technology people in Silicon Valley, their financial people in New York City and their lobbyists in Washington. They have realized that talented people are everywhere, and these talented people can work together across distances. The federal government could learn from these companies. While 85 percent of federal employees live and work outside Washington, rarely are the most important federal officials located elsewhere.
Short of moving federal offices out of Washington, though, there is one thing that can happen right away: We can at least acknowledge the problem and try collectively, as Washingtonians, to have some self-awareness about it. Mayors like Los Angeles's Eric Garcetti and New York's Bill de Blasio have talked about the problems that a city's trendiness can cause; national political leaders of both parties should broach the same discussion about Washington. We should all be willing to consider the possibility that the forces of wealth and coolness are distorting Washington's relationship with America — and that what is good for Washington as a city might, in the end, be bad for it as a capital.