In the almost three weeks that I have lived in DC, I’ve asked a lot of people the usual questions: where are you from and what do you do. I’ve met people from all over the country and the world, all of whom are happy to be living in DC. I’ve met people in arts, entertainment, finance, government, non-profits, consulting, and law, to name several. I’ve also asked a lot of people how long they’ve been here and if they enjoy it. Despite small gripes (the cost of living, Metro, the day to day of work), everyone seems to have a generally positive attitude about being in DC . People stay longer than they thought they would; they not only enjoy living here, but wanted to be here. It’s an attitude and feeling that I rarely experienced in Philadelphia.
As I learned in graduate school, cities thrive and prosper because of key industries, sectors, or stakeholders that attract people to move and settle. Think about it. People move to New York for finance, fashion, and entertainment. DC gets those interested in government, politics, and social change. Los Angeles gets the TV/Film/Media set, and San Francisco is a hub for all things tech. When I graduated college, I didn’t move to Philadelphia because of the destination, but because it happened to be where school was. Being surrounded by people who move to the city as a destination as opposed to it being a backdrop, it changes the way that both the city feels and how residents feel about their environment. DC is that kind of place; a destination city where people move because they want to and they choose to do so. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is a city where people move because they have to; because there is something there they need to do that just so happens to be in Philly.
In the recent decade, the profile of DC has shifted tremendously. The city’s population has grown by over 10% since 2000, while the racial and ethnic composition has shifted to become more White, Asian, and Hispanic. The city’s job growth is among the fastest in the nation, with the finance and government sectors particularly strong. Not only are there federal, state, and municipal jobs in the District and in the area, but outposts of major companies with large offices as well. Furthermore, investments in progressive public infrastructure (such as Capital Bikeshare), trendy new restaurants, and the revitalization of once run-down neighborhoods all cater to the needs of young urban professionals who choose to move to DC. A young poli-sci grad fresh out of college may not move to DC with a job in hand, but come here with the hopes of landing a position on the Hill. It’s risky, but not uncommon.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is not a city where people move to in order to start their career. Sure, the city and surrounding area have a few major stakeholders, like Comcast, Aramark, Campbell’s, and URBN, and many people move back in order to be close to family, but most people move to Philadelphia for continuing higher education or to be affiliated with any of the area’s major hospitals. When they finish their studies or residency, most people pack up and move elsewhere for work or just to leave, while few stay behind. This is reflected by the city’s 1.9% population growth between 2000-2012, coupled with its poor job growth, both city and state-wide. It’s incredibly disappointing since the city offers so much; a dense walkable core, fantastic restaurants, beautiful public space, and close proximity to other major urban centers.
A recent article on Business Insider claimed that the city has been investing much more in its public and private infrastructure to keep “new young fans” around and “fuel growth in the job and business sector.” While this is true to an extent, it is that exact industry, urban development, that was responsible for my relocation. The lack of available jobs in planning, architecture, and development forced me to go, and with local firms downsizing, my friends may follow suit as well. What the city truly needs in order to succeed is one key market sector to bring in young upstarts and to make Philadelphia competitive. It is a shame that the city is home to one of the world’s top business schools, yet most graduates flee to nearby New York upon graduation. If Philadelphia could only truly capitalize on the power of that stakeholder and get the nation’s top firms in that sector to set up house in town and take advantage of that educational resource, the city could once again establish itself as a center of industry, bringing more young people into the city and be able to enjoy the wealth of fantastic amenities Philadelphia offers.
I posed this theory to my parents this weekend, and my dad quickly shot it down. “You wanted to go to school in Philadelphia,” he said, “you chose to move there.” True, but if the same program was offered in Portland, or Austin, or Des Moines, I would have moved to any those cities to take advantage of the same academics. It wasn’t the city that pulled me in, but the school, the academics, and the chance to join a powerful network. The location was an added bonus. It’s true that it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia that I truly realized what an incredible city it is, and I definitely didn’t want to leave sooner than I had to, but moving there was never in the game plan nor would it have been if I didn’t decide to go to graduate school. The same could be said for DC, as I have ultimately have had to move there as opposed to wanting to move there. But DC, with its history, its job growth, and its wealth of amenities for young urban professionals, has the elements that a city needs in order to be a destination as opposed to just a background. It may take some time before Philadelphia becomes the destination it so badly wants to be (its restaurant and arts scene are definitely helping), but only when the city can find a way to attract more jobs and firms can Philadelphia regain it’s place as a power player in the nation’s economy.
“I don’t recognize any of this,” said my father over and over again. We were driving down Columbia Pike just outside of DC on the very first night I was here. When my father lived here in the late 70s and early 80s, there were some small businesses, garden apartment complexes, and car-oriented retail development. Last week, the development typology was entirely different; mixed use complexes with luxury rentals on top of trendy bars and restaurants and brand new and remodeled residential enclaves now co-mingled with those same small roadside stores. Most notably, the Arlington Theater, a local landmark, had been transformed into a second-run cinema and adjoining bar and restaurant. A little piece of urban reuse in suburban sprawl.
My father and I have not led entirely different lives. In fact, our migration pattern so far has been pretty similar. Both of us have resettled in Philadelphia and Washington after leaving New York; him for college and grad school, myself for grad school and now work. Despite returning to both of those cities many times since living there (Philadelphia in the mid 70s and Washington for three years following that), his views and image of those two cities have remained constant, even if the city around him has changed tremendously.
When my father lived in Philly, he was very much a part of the Penn bubble; he lived on campus all four years and barely ventured west of 40th street and east of the Schulykill River (with exceptions for going to the Spectrum, the Vet, and Pat’s, and sometimes other destinations). Part of this was because he was in school, but also partly because other parts of Philadelphia were neither safe nor desirable. Fringe neighborhoods on the outskirts of Center City, such as Fishtown and Northern Liberties, Graduate Hospital, and parts of West Philadelphia were no mans land; gritty crime-addled sections of the city that were decidedly unsafe to walk around at any time of the day. However, a renewed interest in urban development and a steady influx of young urban professionals to these neighborhoods has seen not only their revival in recent years, but has made them into some of the city’s hottest and most desirable enclaves.
Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital are two standout examples of how once looked-over neighborhoods have changed for the better. In the 1990s and 2000s, when Old City Philadelphia hit the “coolness” saturation point (and notoriously hosted this), creatives moved north in Northern Liberties, attracted by lower property values and cheaper rents. Of course, as more and more of these creative types headed north, the elements of gentrification followed: gastropubs, art studios, independent designer boutiques, a trendy bowling alley, and most recently, a high profile multi-million dollar mixed use development that combines new construction and urban re-use (and contains one the city’s most dynamic public spaces). Today, Northern Liberties is the city’s most prominent “hipster” enclave, drawing parallels to Williamsburg, and as the neighborhood hits its own saturation point, the nearby communities of Fishtown and Kensington are poised to become the future center of urban cool. Stalwarts such as Johnny Brenda’s, and relative newcomers like Pizza Brain and Little Baby’s Ice Cream are small previews of what’s to come in future years.
To the south, Graduate Hospital has always been overshadowed by tonier Rittenhouse and Fitler Squares. The lack of formal public space, access to high quality urban services, and a prevalence of street crime made the neighborhood undesirable. In recent years, however, a string of new development projects and a renewed interest in the neighborhood has made it attractive to a new generation of residents. It’s proximity to both Center City and the University of Pennsylvania and its hospital network, combined with less expensive rent, has made the neighborhood extremely popular for young professionals and graduate students. The work of both private developers and non-profit community organizations have been instrumental in attracting more businesses and residents to move into the neighborhood. The centerpiece of this has been the construction of Ultimo Coffee on 22nd and Catherine, a brand new modern townhouse-style building with an espresso bar on the first floor and a barista school on the second floor. Today, as rents in Graduate Hospital now compete with similar properties closer to Center City, Point Breeze to the south might host the next wave of urban redevelopment later on.
In Washington, when I told my father that I was moving to U Street, he was intially hesitant. In the early 1980s, U street was a no man’s land, and much of the area uptown had not yet experienced the wave of renewed urban interest and redevelopment that has come to embody it today. In the 1970s, the intersection of 14 and U was well known as a “center of drug trafficking“, characterized by blight and abandoned real estate. Today the intersection is the future sight of yet another high end luxury rental complex, among several other elements of old and new DC. On any given day, U Street buzzes with activity; people checking out a show at 9:30 club, gay boys throwing back drinks at Nellie’s, or tourists and locals alike waiting in line at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Even nearby Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, which still show signs of its blighted past, are presently home to trendy restaurants, young professionals, and new residential and commercial construction.
So while my father and I will have had the opportunities to grow up in the same cities, the way we will have experienced them will have been vastly different. Mine and his Philadelphia may occupy the same geography, but our versions of the city will always be completely different. I’m excited to see how much more DC has changed since he left. Although I know when he comes back, he’ll no doubt want to re-live out his experience, even if his Washington slowly fades into the past. I know I’ll feel the same way whenever I travel back to Philly.