Not long after I moved to Washington from Los Angeles in 2005, I found myself telling family and friends why, after a string of moves in my early 20s, I felt I’d finally found the perfect city for me. My explanation went something like this:
In L.A., the chief concerns of too many of the young people I’d met were of the US Weekly variety. Striving for fame, or being “hot” (in eternal opposition to that worst fate of all, “not”). I was never going to be the kind of person who cared that much about my personal hotness, I’d snark, so Los Angeles was ultimately a bad fit.
And I was never going to care enough about being “cool” to make the insane cost of living in New York worth it, either. It was easy to casually dismiss that entire city with yet another not-really-fair cliche, the way only someone in their early 20s can. The reality was that in the summer I had spent there as a magazine intern, I’d never felt more out of place. It seemed as though everyone I met had grown up rich (I hadn’t), my clothes were all wrong, and I couldn’t imagine ever having — let alone spending — the money to keep up with whatever “hip” new restaurant/bar/warehouse-turned-music venue they were all heading to each weekend.
So by the time I’d reached my mid-20s, finding myself in Washington was a genuine revelation. Every new friend I made seemed to be an expert in something: Health policy. International development. Privacy law. The nerdier you were, the easier it was to fit into the post-college, pre-kids, I-moved-here-for-work social scene. In D.C., I’d tell anyone who would listen, nobody really cares whether you’re hot or hip — they care about whether you’re smart.
But as millennials have flocked to the city in record numbers over the past decade, the physical and demographic landscape of the District has palpably changed. The city can’t help but ask itself what it all means. There are crucially important questions wrapped up in this soul-searching. Can we finally settle on a better model for affordable housing? Can more of the schools improve, faster? But as we look at the increase in restaurants, bike lanes, night-life options and other hallmarks of modern urban cool, there is also that admittedly less important, more ethereal question: Is it possible, after all this time, that D.C. is getting — whisper it with me now — awfully hip?
Trouble is, to ask that question is to miss the truth about the wave of young people who have arrived here over the past decade, and the decade before that. Which is this: They don’t care about being “hip,” at least not in the way “hip” seems to be defined in Brooklyn or San Francisco or Portland.
“D.C. is a city of smart people,” said Derek Brown, whose mini-empire of craft cocktail bars started on Seventh Street NW with The Passenger and Columbia Room and has since expanded to Mockingbird Hill and Eat the Rich. “What’s making D.C. cool is the fact that smart people doing things they’re passionate about is cool,” he said. Brown is someone whose passions led him to create at least one drink menu exclusively out of sherry. Not exactly “chasing fads,” as he put it.
The District has always had its own versions of cool, of course, from the young jazz musicians who flocked to U Street in the early part of the 20th century, to the inventors of go-go and the punk scene of the 1980s and ’90s. But what made those scenes vital was that they were different from what was happening anywhere else, and they spoke to locals more than anyone else on the outside. Whenever the District had a moment of hipness, it’s been on its own terms.
For Alexandrine DeBianchi, the networking scene — especially for young black professionals — was more rewarding than in other cities. “I always thought it was cool here because I had an amazing group of black staffers to network and hang out with,” says the former congressional aide-turnedlobbyist-turned-pastry chef of DC Patisserie. She and I are chatting while she sells her signature French macarons at District Flea, the new weekly outdoor antiques and vintage clothing market that’s been spun off from the beating heart of New York-style “hip,” the Brooklyn Flea.
For a food lover such as DeBianchi, it’s been satisfying to watch Washington’s restaurant offerings multiply over the past several years (even just in the past nine months). “People want more than just Ethiopian, Thai and steak,” she says. But even sitting amid so many vinyl records and corduroy jackets for sale, “the cool factor really hasn’t changed” since she first arrived in 2000, she insists. As for the restaurants and bars and music venues, “there’s just more” now, she says. “That’s what I like.”
More. There’s certainly that. If you’re looking to sit outside with a hoppy local pale ale served in a mason jar, Washington now more than has you covered. If you’d rather settle in to a lush lounge with a DJ, we’ve got more of that, too.
Does it help that there are more places to go out at night than there used to be? Of course. Does it matter that much of the city is more walkable and more bikeable and safer than it used to be? Absolutely. But even, or perhaps most especially, the most recent arrivals don’t rank hipness above access to the No. 1 concern of the Great Recession generation: decent jobs.
“I didn’t have an issue getting a job here,” said Tangila Sanders, 29, who elected to stay in the area after graduating from Howard University in 2006, despite watching a steady stream of college friends head to New York. Although she concedes that the night-life options in America’s largest city still offer “more variety,” at this point she no longer bothers making the comparison. “D.C. has everything that it needs, without being too crowded or too much.”
Jane Farrell graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 2011 and came to Washington to take a job doing economic policy research for the Center for American Progress. She’s living in Petworth, where the existence of more “chi-chi” restaurants doesn’t mean something more for her.
“Just because they’re there doesn’t mean I can afford to go there,” said Farrell, 24.
Instead of gushing about the newest small-plates spot, she frets about having to choose from among the many compelling candidates who applied to fill a recent opening in her group house.
“Everyone is just so interesting,” Farrell said.
But just because the neighborhood can support more businesses, do young people who want to move there suddenly care about being cool? Nah. “Overall, there’s a greater interest in public policy or politics or advocacy or social justice,” she said.
In the District, it’s still “cool to say that it’s not cool.”
Mathis is editor of The Atlantic Cities and former editor of DCist.