Photograph by Susan Seubert
From the May 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Maybe it's the shift of power from Manhattan, maybe it's a new optimism, but the city inside the Beltway has jettisoned its staid image for a wholesale revival of wide swaths of the cityscape.
Washington today is Rome at year zero: the most important place on Earth," says David Von Drehle, who spent many years as a reporter and editor for the Washington Post. "We're talking money and power. As always, this combination attracts the brainy, the bold, the conniving, and the glamorous."
The nation's capital has been shedding its reputation as a dozing, one-dimensional city of policy wonks and lawyers with the advent of a new generation of artists, tech barons, and a younger set that hungers for edgier fare than a stroll on the Mall.
Recent history has laid some of the groundwork for the change: Terrorism and wars have concentrated authority in the capital, and financial decision-making has shifted dramatically from Wall Street to the White House and the Federal Reserve.
And while there aren't scads of fabulously rich people here, battalions of well-heeled lawyers, lobbyists, contractors, and consultants have made metropolitan Washington one of the top five cities for per capita income.
Often we see changes more quickly in other places than in our own backyards. It was high time for me, a 20-year resident of D.C., to get out of my own daily circuit and check out this ballyhooed transformation. It is, I discovered, everywhere.
The city's namesake, the first President of the United States, envisioned a great urban area arising on a providential river. George Washington believed this new federal town, built in the fields, woods, and marshes near the fall line of the Potomac, had the makings of an economic powerhouse. It's been a long haul, but D.C. can now claim its place among the world's great cities.
One of its assets, which it shares with other alpha cities, is that there are many Washingtons, nesting within each other like Russian dolls. The core remains what George Washington commissioned, the "federal" area dominated by hulking government buildings, later interspersed with monuments and museums. Around it cluster leafy parks lined with gorgeous Victorian row houses. This downtown area has great bones, as architects might put it. The spaciousness of the boulevards and the low profiles of the buildings, enforced by strict zoning laws (in general, no building can be higher than 130 feet), give D.C. an unusually European skyline, one closer to that of Paris than that of Manhattan. The city is remarkably bright and airy, given its size and importance. Around this nucleus orbits Greater Washington, one of the most highly educated, traffic-snarled metropolitan regions in America, whose sprawl stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to more than five million people.
In a big, complex city you build a mental map of where it's safe to venture and where you wouldn't want to wander after dark. That map changes over time. As I made my way through the new D.C., it became clear that I had to throw away my old map—and the preconceptions that came with it.
Washington in 2010 is almost unrecognizable from the place I began calling home in 1990, when the city was notorious for its ranking as the nation's "murder capital" and for the mayor who got busted smoking crack. Walking around town, I see streets once lined with boarded-up buildings and weedy abandoned lots now erupting with new life and energy. You can't swing a briefing paper without hitting a swank club or bistro that opened in the last five minutes. Indeed, a generation of local and international chefs—including Eric Ziebold, Ris Lacoste, Michel Richard, and José Andrés (GQ's 2009 Chef of the Year)—have transformed the city into a top-tier dining town, says D.C. restaurant critic Tom Sietsema. That, in turn, has prompted the opening of D.C. eateries by such global food luminaries as Alain Ducasse and Wolfgang Puck.
The tourist map has also become more dense. A decade ago there was no National Museum of the American Indian, no Spy Museum, no World War II Memorial. The Newseum hadn't yet inaugurated its palatial new residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Marian Koshland Science Museum, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, was still just an idea. And the U.S. Capitol lacked a visitors center.
When friends come to town, there are certain places to which I happily drag them. No one ever comes away feeling cheated by the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, with its Gutenberg Bible (one of three complete vellum copies that still exist) and sumptuously adorned Great Hall. From there I shepherd them through a basement tunnel into the 1980 James Madison Memorial Building (the second of three buildings that make up the Library of Congress) for a $5 lunch in the 6th-floor cafeteria—and a million-dollar view of Washington falling away from Capitol Hill. Another expansive vista of the city is found at the new W Hotel—minted from the capital's venerable Washington Hotel—which features a rooftop bar that enables you to watch the President's helicopter land on the south lawn of the White House.
History is powerful stuff here; D.C. abounds with pivotal American moments. But the city has always refreshed itself automatically: By statute, new blood is continually coursing into town. Presidents are term-limited, so at least once every eight years the top tier of the executive branch of government, including several thousand political appointees, turns over. Thousands of government workers come from around the country to do stints at agency headquarters. Diplomats sweep in for postings at embassies. Journalists vie for a turn at the Washington bureaus of national and international publications. Flocks of interns storm the capital every summer.
Seemingly compelled by D.C.'s new groove, the Obamas and their entourage are out and about in the city, visiting schools and patronizing restaurants. The First Couple regularly motorcades to such area locales as Restaurant Nora (known for its early adherence to organic foods) for a "date night," and the President and Vice President have made burger runs to Ray's Hell Burger and Five Guys. Obama's much televised visit to the landmark eatery Ben's Chili Bowl has made it a required stop on Obamacentric tours of the city. But the Obamas are not the reason that Ben's has an upscale offshoot (Ben's Next Door) and valet parking. Such urbane upgrades predate the new President by at least a decade, as inner neighborhoods have gone from edgy frontiers for entrepreneurs to scorching-hot zones of retail shopping and nightlife.
A word about D.C.'s neighborhoods: Many have spent the past four decades in a time warp. The city was devastated in 1968 by riots that followed the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed on 14th Street alone, causing it to recede into a red-light district. Now, suddenly, it is where the action is. On a recent visit I came across an immaculately appointed restaurant, replete with beautiful people dressed in black, where I knew for an absolute fact nothing had been in business just a few days earlier. The place had materialized from the ether.
It calls itself Masa 14 and serves Latin-Asian fusion cuisine. "This is our second night," the greeter told me. He identified himself as Louis Pappas and said he'd been an Obama volunteer in Ohio. When Obama won, he came to town and signed on for a volunteer gig in the administration. "We got him elected; we should follow up."
Local entrepreneur Greg Link has one of the archetypal D.C.-renewal stories. In the late 1990s Link wanted a place in which to open an upscale housewares and kitchen store. Scouting 14th Street, he found and bought a machine shop a few doors down from what's now Masa 14, a building that, since 1969, had been vacant but for vermin. Thus was born the store he named Home Rule. Things didn't go smoothly at first. An impoundment lot opened nearby, and towed cars began appearing by the score, some parked on the sidewalk. "Auto parts were falling off," Link says. "Oil was leaking onto the street. Homeless people were sleeping in the cars. It was a mess." But the impoundment lot eventually closed, and Home Rule was joined by other new ventures, such as the award-winning Cork Wine Bar and Market. Almost overnight any building with four walls and a roof went condo.
This surge of renewal is evident throughout the federal town that architect Pierre L'Enfant sketched in 1791 (with President Washington looking over his shoulder). It's as though the old bricks, baked between the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, collectively decided they must now gaze upon an excellent wine list. Exhibit A: the tony historic neighborhood of Georgetown, where an aging redbrick incinerator has been repurposed as a boutique Ritz-Carlton hotel (speaking of rising from the ashes). A few blocks to the west, a once gritty alleyway has turned into a European-feeling promenade—Cady's Alley—for furniture and design stores. Another nearby transformation: A muddy industrial site by Georgetown Harbor now showcases the gleaming House of Sweden, an ultramodern embassy structure that features a permanent exhibit on sustainable living. And where there once was a place churning out photocopies, an airy coffee shop named Baked & Wired today churns out specialty cupcakes.
The surprise in this case: Same owners. Washington has moved far beyond just copying documents and shuffling papers. It has attracted visionaries, like the innovative San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants Group, which chose the D.C. area as the home for not one, not two, but seven of its boutique hotel-and-restaurant pairings. These are Washington's version of swords into plowshares.
"It's no longer just about Georgetown and Adams Morgan," says my friend Geoff Dawson, a Washington native, of D.C.'s nightlife, naming those two "destination" neighborhoods. "Now we have Penn Quarter and Chinatown over by the Verizon Center arena; 7th Street there is absolutely on steroids. Not only has it become a new residential area with 5,000 people, but you see bright lights all over. The area is the closest thing D.C. has to New York City, and it feels it."
He's right: No area has changed more dramatically than Chinatown, which isn't really Chinatown anymore, but—along with the surrounding Penn Quarter—a jazzy restaurant, nightclub, and sports district. The Verizon Center arena (originally called MCI Center) opened in the 1990s, a gift of the late sports-team owner Abe Pollin, and is still sending out waves of gentrification as it hosts D.C.'s popular Wizards (basketball) and Capitals (hockey) teams.
Dawson himself is opening a new bar called Lost and Found in a onetime book warehouse on nearby 9th Street. On a recent night the first floor was transformed into a temporary art gallery. Two doors down, hundreds of people crammed into Long View Gallery, a spanking new art locale in a space that had been used for storage of vending carts. The alley behind the building is still the occasional haunt of winos and prostitutes, but on this night the art crowd flowed out into it to take turns lounging on a canopy bed set up for the occasion. Yeah, that's different.
More reinvention: Formerly ravaged H Street, in the city's northeast district, has converted itself into a live-music destination with such new venues as the Rock and Roll Hotel and a bar called The Red and the Black. The man behind these ventures, tavern magnate Joe Englert, said he began looking for cheap properties on the strip in 2004. He counted 158 empty or underutilized buildings. Now, as if someone has thrown a switch, the strip is jumping with energy even as it's being polished up. "This area is D.C.'s answer to New Orleans," Englert says. "It's funky and it's local."
One universal rule in the new Washington seems to be that all establishments must retain at least one brick wall dating to the late 1800s. And someone in town is making a fortune selling stamped-tin ceilings.
The goal of many local leaders has been the retention of that history in the busy swirl of gentrification. Busboys and Poets, a progressive bookstore-café that was opened by Iraqi-American Andy Shallal, is named for African-American poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy in a Washington hotel. A political and emotional center of the 14th Street neighborhood where it joins U Street—a gritty five-block area that has become the nexus of the action—Busboys sits across the street from mural-splashed Eatonville, a sister restaurant honoring a fellow member of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston (hometown: Eatonville, Florida).
A few steps on the other side of Busboys is a newer joint called the Gibson, which opened precisely a week after Obama's election. Manager Tiffany Short told me, "D.C. was really ready for a bar dedicated to classic cocktails." Is that actually true? Or is it simply pretentious? The Gibson fashions itself as a speakeasy, invisible from the street. If you don't have a reservation, you put your name on a list and hope they call you on your cell phone to let you in. The cocktails have names like Relapse, Double Standard, and Boomerang. The menus are confusing (there seemed to be at least three different menus at my outdoor table). And the Gibson demands patience: "We invite you to enjoy the most gracious of drinks, but it doesn't come quickly," one menu intones with what turns out to be great accuracy.
I'm not entirely sold on this new cosmopolitanism. For one, it's been disruptive for longtime residents, who have seen their rents and property taxes skyrocket. Washington has had an African-American majority for decades, and the gentrification has incited political tension and concerns about what will happen to, as columnist Colby King put it, the city's soul. It also can skew silly. And you have to dress better. One night, friends and I went for a pub crawl in Georgetown (we're at the age where "crawl" is very close to capturing our velocity and gait). We wound up at a private club on Cady's Alley called L2, a super trendy place that, I was informed, draws a dressy, international crowd. I looked over our party: jeans. Way too casual. One guy in our group even overheard an employee say, upon seeing us, "Oh, no." The thing about an "Oh, no" is that, once it is uttered, it buzzes around for hours, like a wasp.
The truth is, Washington's constant turnover means that those of us who start to feel like locals will always be a bit startled by the new, hot place.
"Different groups come in and superimpose their own identity," says Katty Kay, a Brit who should know. She came in 1996 as a journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and is still here.
I thought of the scene back at the intersection of 14th and U Streets, where one of the nifty jazz joints, Cafe Nema, doubles as a sports bar. Jazz meets football. And not just American football, which is shown upstairs. Downstairs it's international soccer. Cafe Nema co-owner Harbi Dualeh, who is from Somalia, has been forced to adapt to a new, more affluent clientele as the neighborhood has changed over the past 15 years. "The crowd is more demanding," he said. "They want more on the menu. You have to serve better food."
"People migrating to D.C. don't look alike," says Raj Multani, co-owner of Policy (perfect name for a Washington bistro!), which opened on 14th Street just below U Street in March 2009. "They come from everywhere in the world."
I'm sitting on the banks of the Potomac River where it carves a dramatic gorge just a block from my house in the leafy, close-to-downtown neighborhood of Palisades. Geese honk overhead; cormorants dive into the churning waters. Back in the 1960s the Potomac was so polluted that people were advised to get a tetanus shot if they happened to fall in. The city had turned its back on the river.
But years of tough environmental regulations and savvy management by the National Park Service have changed the picture dramatically. The river now is cleaner. People fish pretty much everywhere along the Potomac Gorge, a 12-mile section extending west from Georgetown that has been called the wildest urban river in America. World-class kayakers practice slaloms in tricky stretches of white water. Sculls slice the currents at dawn and dusk. Upstream from Georgetown's Key Bridge, within sight of the Washington Monument, paddlers enter what is surely one of the most underappreciated strips of national parkland in the country, along the banks of the C&O Canal National Park. The shoreline is undeveloped and lush with greenery, the realm of bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, deer, beavers, and foxes—not five miles from the White House.
Nature is resilient. So, too, is the nation's capital. Just as the sycamore and maple and ash trees survive, so do old buildings once left in ruins. More than surviving, they are thriving with new purpose. Washington's cultural metabolism is running at an all-time high. The place has become something that would astonish the man who first scouted the fields and marshes here.
It took a while, but the old general's dreams have come true.
Joel Achenbach is a writer and blogger for the Washington Post. He wrote The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West. Susan Seubert photographed Portland for the Nov.-Dec. 2009 issue.
Travel Photos From Your Shot
Explore photos of stunning volcanic landscapes and dramatic waterfalls in Iceland.