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.
Well, I’m officially a resident (at least on paper). In a span of under 72 hours, I drove down from Philadelphia, moved into my new apartment, set up four pieces of furniture, unpacked my things, traded in my PA license for a brand new DC one, got my DC parking permit, registration, and plates, and joined the local gym. Although I spent most of the past three days getting settled, I’ve been able to see a good portion of the city and its surroundings. Compared to Philly, DC is notably different in terms of its geography, culture, and city layout (among many other things). I know that I’ll be able to make more informed observations as I continue to live and work here, but for now, here are 5 of my inital thoughts and impressions:
1. DC is bigger than you think it is. Philadelphia proper is huge, but the central area where most students and young professionals live and work is compact. Small block sizes, narrow streets, and a homogenous topography make Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods easy to walk around and get to from anywhere nearby. While DC is spatially half the size of Philly, it feels much bigger. This is thanks to larger block sizes, a less cohesive and navigable grid system, criss-crossing diagonals, and a more varied topographic profile. As a result, neighborhoods feel more distinct and less blended together (with some exceptions). Small services are easy to find and come by, but larger competitors (like big box stores) are pushed farther out. Philly isn’t much different with that last regard, but the big box cluster in South Philly is actually pretty close to the central core. You don’t even have to cross a river. Aside from a combo Best Buy/Target/Bed Bath and Beyond in Columbia Heights, anything big box-y in DC requires a trip to the outer parts of the District, Maryland, or Virginia. It all seems really really far.
2. DC is not car friendly. It is like the entire city was designed to penalize drivers and car owners. Traffic and road construction occur all day every day and everywhere. Private parking is expensive, and street parking is incredibly difficult to find (and when you find it, it’s likely far far away from where you actually want to go). If you need your car fixed or serviced, you have to go into the suburbs or to the far reaches of the District. And let’s not even talk about gas (the going rate varies but right now the average is $4.10). Sure, Philadelphians complain a lot about their cars and parking (ask anyone in town what they think about the PPA), and traffic can be messy at times, but there are also large swaths of the city where residents park their cars in the middle of the road on medians, for as long as they want, and nobody bats an eye. A friend of mine in DC said its only a matter of time before I ditch my car altogether and get a Zipcar membership. That’s not entirely impossible.
3. People look down on Virginia. There’s a certain disdain that residents of the District have for their Northern Viriginia (NoVa, colloquially) counterparts. The digs range from subtle (“You work in Virginia?”) to the blatant (“I feel like I need my passport when I go to Virginia because it is like going to a different country. It is not the same.”). Even here, NoVa residents are referred to as “B&T”, a distinctly New York expression. This relationship is not as bad as say, the way New Yorkers look down on New Jersey, but maybe more on par with how Manhattanites look down on the outer boroughs (particularly Queens). With regards to Philly, nobody really looks down on South Jersey from the city, but residents are quick to tell you that the two are not the same (South Jersey is only good for cheap gas, cheaper booze, and the shore). So far, NoVa doesn’t seem that bad, maybe just a bit far and a tad homogenous and overdeveloped. The only saving grace might be that Fairfax and Falls Church are the epicenter of the region’s best Asian restaurants, so there’s that.
4. You pay for the privilege of living here. Sticker shock is everywhere (see bullet 2 regarding gas). A slice of pizza costs $4 (although to be fair is a very big slice of pizza). A cocktail costs $10. Whole Foods is jokingly referred to as “Whole Paycheck”, and the local Safeway is always overpriced and out of stock. If you need a bag to carry your groceries, it costs five cents a pop. I have yet to find out how much my monthly transit pass is going to cost but I’m guessing somewhere in the triple digits. Philadelphia is so much cheaper in every aspect, although with Center City building and improving, it’s not long until the prices catch up. Still, this is the price you pay to be able to call yourself a DC resident. Don’t get me wrong; I’m going to miss dollar drinks night near Rittenhouse, inexpensive BYOs, and cheap ethnic cuisine off Baltimore Ave, but living in the epicenter of an attractive, intelligent, and progressive community isn’t such a terrible compromise. Even if a small iced coffee and a scone is six bucks.
5. It is really really hot. Like seriously I cannot walk two blocks in DC heat without becoming a puddle of sweat on the sidewalk. I can’t remember if it was ever this hot in Philly but I never felt like I was melting after just stepping outside. I’m worried about my commute to work now since I’m scared that I will show up on day one looking like I got off a log flume. Gross.