David Alpert celebrated his 35th birthday in the auditorium of Woodrow Wilson High School. The party: a town hall on the District’s zoning rewrite, hosted by the Office of Planning. The guests: skeptical residents of Ward 3.
“Just what I wanted: zoning!” Alpert said as the mostly older crowd milled around, pasting comments to poster boards.
Many of those at the meeting in Tenleytown said they were there because of Alpert and his blog, Greater Greater Washington. The site has advocated for a new zoning code for years, pushing for rules that allow for more corner stores and alley dwellings but less parking. In a post that morning, he had described the meeting as “epic.”
Part news site, part advocacy group, part community newsletter, Greater Greater Washington is like an unending handbook to being an engaged D.C. area resident. It draws more than 100,000 unique visitors a month.
While the blog has attracted an array of contributors, it’s the vision of Alpert — a former software engineer with no formal planning experience — that has shaped the views of citizens and politicians on what a better city means and how to achieve it.
In the process, he’s also become a symbol of the divides in the city between development and preservation, young and old, bikes and cars, black and white. Criticism of the blog often essentially boils down to: Who does this guy think he is?
Diminutive and nasal-voiced, Alpert is not an imposing presence. His power comes from his obsessive coverage of and authoritative take on arcane policy. When he thinks older residents, council members or mayors are wrong, he says so. A well-off white transplant who loves bike lanes, at first glance he fits perfectly the stereotype of the careless gentrifier. And yet he sees his blog as an advocate for the city’s poorest residents, tackling the problems that bedevil them: unemployment, educational inequality, a lack of affordable housing.
Alpert, who studied computer science at Harvard, has always had a political bent, and his career has mixed technology with policy.
“He was known as the best computer guy on campus,” said Michael Passante, a college friend. “What set him apart was that he had a strong social conscience.”
Alpert left college early to work for a start-up. Soon he was a “product development guru” at Google. After a few years, he moved from the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters to its New York office, where he got involved with Drinking Liberally, a social group for Democrats who felt despondent during the George W. Bush administration.
At the same time, Alpert was developing an interest in urban planning. He had started reading New York’s Streetsblog, an influential pro-urbanism site, and reading up on planning history. In 2007, when his wife got a job in Washington and Alpert moved to Dupont Circle, he had already decided to leave Google. He flirted with starting a technology blog. Instead, he launched Greater Greater Washington.
“There’s no reason you need 20 years of residency to know what you think,” Alpert argues. Friends say his ability to ingest and process information is formidable; his living room contains a library of the major urban policy thinking of the past 100 years.
“I take the time to meet with older residents and hear what they have to say. I like to look into historic things,” he said, pointing to a recent post on the history of local government control. “But most people who’ve been here for 30 or 50 years don’t necessarily know the legislative history of the Home Rule Act either.”
Alpert does, now. He sees Greater Greater Washington as a journalistic enterprise; quality and accuracy are paramount concerns. The site has its own style guide and rejects posts deemed too amateurish.
“It’s the quality that David is very good at himself and that he is very insistent on from contributors,” said Matt Johnson, one of the blog’s first contributors. “We have very high standards for what we write.”
Alpert’s tone can be sarcastic — as when he called the fear that the District will become inhospitable to drivers “transportation birtherism” or suggested every apartment building come with space not just for cars but for Ferris wheels.
“He’s rude, he’s snarky, he gets personal on this stuff,” said Linda Schmitt of Neighbors for Neighbors, a group that opposes rewriting the zoning code.
Schmitt has been mentioned once on the blog — in a post mocking “panic” over accessory dwelling units (rental property in residential basements, garages and carriage houses). “Schmitt calls her group Neighbors for Neighborhoods, but maybe it should really be Neighbors for Empty Neighborhoods, or Neighbors Against More Neighbors,” Alpert wrote.
Alpert says he makes a concerted effort to keep both bloggers and commenters from getting personal.
Another group skeptical of the code rewrite is the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a venerable group of D.C. activists who, in the years when the city was shrinking, were instrumental in fighting off a series of highways that would have plowed through its heart. On Alpert’s blog, the group is more often invoked as a barrier to positive change.
“Those people saved the qualities of the city, they preserved and enhanced the qualities of the city for the 28-year-olds who read Greater Greater Washington today,” said Richard Layman, a transportation planner who has been blogging about urban issues in the District since 2005. “And I don’t think people really appreciate it.”
In the zoning fight, Alpert has more than words. Greater Greater Washington has joined forces with the Coalition for Smarter Growth to start a group, Pro-DC, that is urging residents to push for the zoning changes. While the blog’s endorsements have already proved influential in Advisory Neighborhood Commission races, Alpert has expanded his political reach with a new Web site, Let’s Choose DC.
All of the Let’s Choose moderators are white men. But in a city where gentrification and racial tension have long been entwined, Alpert thinks invocations of race or class are often a distraction.
“Certainly we can’t deny that the racial makeup of the district has shifted,” he said. “But I actually think the emphasis on race in the political discourse is obscuring the real issues.” Newer black residents, he says, generally want the same things that newer white residents do. And an emphasis on public transportation over parking, he argues, helps lower-
income residents, who “are one of the groups that is most likely to not own cars.”
Young white bloggers are often lumped together as the crowd backing former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D); Alpert has long been a supporter of Vincent C. Gray (D). He endorsed Gray in the 2010 primary (over the objections of some contributors). When allegations of an illegal “shadow campaign” emerged, Alpert defended the mayor.
Alpert is sensitive to critiques of the blog as too male, too white, too dominated by writers from wealthier areas. Negative reactions from commenters, he said, have scared some writers away from discussing racial divides.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” he said. “I need to rely on volunteer contributors to talk about what they know.”
Contributors say Alpert is always looking for a more diverse set of writers. “I found him to be very genuine and insightful in terms of the dynamics of the city,” said Nikki Peele, a former contributor who writes her own blog about Congress Heights. Blog commenters, on the other hand, could be “a bit harsh,” she said.
Meanwhile, Greater Greater Washington’s scope has been expanding. Affordable housing has always been a concern for Alpert, who readily acknowledges that the changes he champions make D.C. a more expensive place to live. Education and workforce development are getting more attention. And in a recent Washington Post guest column, Alpert called for “environmental justice” in Ivy City, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Discussions of long-standing inequalities bring the blog, with its data-centric, prescriptive style, into new and complicated territory. “If you talk to David about some of these issues, you get these really blunt statements that seem to run over problems,” said Alex Baca, a former Greater Greater Washington editor. “He’s learning. Google’s not really going to teach you how to be super-compassionate or to think about the intersection between race, class and gender.”
Blog posts focused on economic inequality don’t always get the same attention as, say, a map of Capital Bikeshare usage. Alpert and his team think they can change that, in part by framing social diversity as a desirable part of city living for wealthier residents.
“I think that a lot of people actually want a neighborhood with a mix of races and income levels and types of people,” Alpert said.
With an ever-expanding web of writers and side projects, Alpert has considered stepping away from the blog. But it isn’t clear how the site would work without him. Alpert designed the whole back end of the Web site, and he’s still the main editor. And he’s not sure whether any other project would be as rewarding.
While Alpert won’t discuss his finances, he says making money is not, for now, a personal concern. Right now he has the ear of politicians — and a readership that will trudge to Tenleytown for a zoning meeting, whether some longtime residents like it or not.
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