A Capital Neighborhood: In Defense of Washington, D.C

By McCarthy, Abigail | Commonweal, December 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Capital Neighborhood: In Defense of Washington, D.C


McCarthy, Abigail, Commonweal


The city I live in - the capital of the United States - has a bad reputation. According to a recent survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a majority of Americans say they would refuse a good job offer in Washington, D.C., if it meant they would have to live within the city limits. An even larger proportion of Americans say they have a more negative impression of Washington than they have of New York City. Washington was faulted for drug-related crime, poor local government and leadership, racial problems, and transportation and traffic problems.

Yet most of the people who live here like the city. It is home. They do all the things people do in other cities - drive car pools, go to their children's baseball and soccer games, shop for groceries, follow the local sports, and fill the city's churches on weekends. Among those who have come to Washington's defense is Geneva Overholser, who came here from the Midwest a few years ago to be the Washington Post's ombudsman, and clearly is glad she did.

"The place is full of interesting people," she wrote in a op-ed piece in the Post, "the Metro is great, the foliage is lush, the monuments are grand, and the fireworks are the best. Neither ocean nor mountains are far away, the historical sites and museums are a rich feast...." She goes on to write of improvements on the political and civic scenes, with worthy mayoral candidates from both parties, a new police chief, a new superintendent of schools, and a new city manager. She refers to the nationally known universities located here.

But there is an aspect of Washington even more likable than those Overholser has listed. Washington is a city of neighborhoods - each a community where people put down their roots, bring up their children, and form life-long ties with neighbors. This is the side of Washington which surprised and impressed a well-known newcomer, Dr. Nils Hasselmo, former president of the University of Minnesota and current president of the American Association of Universities.

"This did not strike me on previous visits to Washington," he said. "Of course, one does not get a real sense of a city from a hotel room. But when my wife and I started looking for a place to live here we noticed the sense of intimacy with which people spoke of where they lived: They said, "We live in Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase or (as we do now) in Woodley Park. On weekends now when we go to the open-air market at one end of the neighborhood or the other, we enjoy the small-town feel."

What binds these neighborhoods are threads of shared connections - often surprising. This last summer, for example, the neighborhood of East Georgetown celebrated Buster Jackson Day. Banners streamed across the street and Mount Zion's church hall was packed to mark the retirement of a man who, in the words of the neighborhood paper, "is beloved by his circle of friends and community as an extraordinary person. …

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