One of the things I noticed about coming to DC is just how easy it is to buy alcohol. The supermarkets sell wine and beer, the local Whole Foods has a wine bar, and there are dozens of liquor stores everywhere. To the seasoned DC veteran, this may not be news, but coming from Pennsylvania, it’s quite the shock. Here there’s almost no planning involved when I want to pick up a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer, whereas in PA I was had the state owned liquor store hours memorized for the four or so stores that were located downtown. I do appreciate the convenience of free enterprise liquor stores, but it also makes me miss my local BYOs.
To understand why alcohol is so hard to come by in Philadelphia, one has to understand that the state as some of the most restrictive alcohol legislation in the country. As a control state, Pennsylvania only allows the sale of wine and hard alcohol, with no beer sales, in state-owned stores. Because the state owns the stores, it’s able to set the price of alcohol uniformly across the state, and decide what brands stores carry (most carry the same selection although some stores carry greater quantities of high end product). Stores are open usually from 9 until 7, except in some locations that are open until as late as 9:30. Just up until recently, all stores were closed on Sunday, but now stores are generally open from 12-5. Beer, on the other hand, is sold only at bars, restaurants, licensed stores, and distributors. The former three can sell small quantities, such as 6- and 12- packs, but for larger quantities such as cases and kegs, one must visit a distributor. Because a distributor only sells larger quantities, one cannot buy anything smaller than a case (great for parties, not so great for individual consumption). Hours and locations vary, but generally distributors keep the same hours as state stores. Individual outlets, such as licensed stores, are usually open later. Many local residents skirt around the laws by buying alcohol from nearby New Jersey or Delaware, although they risk getting caught by state troopers crossing back into Pennsylvania (but to be fair, that law is seldom enforced).
If the laws sound complicated and horrible, it’s because they are. I would pretty much have to plan in advance any trip I wanted to make to the liquor store, even to buy just one bottle of wine for my apartment. But worse for the consumer is the business that wishes to obtain a license. Doing so is fairly complicated and expensive, and many businesses, particularly restaurants, choose not to invest the time nor money into obtaining a pricey permit. The laws are so arcane and ridiculous, state politicians are actually doing something about it, hoping to reform the laws to make it fairer and easier for consumers and local businesses.
Still, if one good thing comes out of all this, it’s that Philadelphia is home to hundreds of BYOB restaurants, which range from hole in the walls to fine dining. While technically they are passing the cost of alcohol onto the consumer, it’s actually a terrific option for diners; allowing them to bring in the wine of their choice without paying the restaurant markup. Some restaurants even encourage diners to bring hard liquor as they provide the mixers. Thanks to this, Philly’s restaurant scene is known now just as much for its BYOB culture as it is for its amazing food. Of my three favorite meals in Philadelphia of all time, one of them was BYOB, and it was sensational.
In DC, it’s sort of a fair compromise. I can walk out of my apartment and within mere blocks there are multiple liquor stores that sell all the wine, beer, and hard alcohol that I could ever want to drink. It’s a terrific convenience, and I don’t have to make plans in advance to buy booze. However, the city’s looser liquor laws make it easier for restaurants to operate with a license, making my beloved BYO incredibly hard to find. It’s a small price to pay for being able to buy beer and wine in supermarkets and drugstores. On the flipside, it’s why the bottomless brunch is so popular here as compared to Philly, but that’s a post for another time.
Everyone who knows me knows that I have been fascinated by public transit from an early age. So fascinated, that I memorized the NYC Subway System by the time I was five. One of my earliest memories of coming to Washington when I was younger was riding Metro; a system so futuristic and different compared to New York. There were so many things I liked: the cool architecture of the stations with the iconic concrete roofs, the silent humming of the trains as they arrived (even during rush hour), and escalators EVERYWHERE (find me an 8 year old who doesn’t like escalators).
But beyond childhood fascination, I still like Metro despite its current problems (just try using the system on weekends, for example). I thought really hard about whether or not it would be fair to compare Metro to SEPTA, Philadelphia’s public transportation network, but since this blog compares two entirely different cities, I guess it would have to happen. Although in reality, pitting rag tag SEPTA against sleek Metro seems like an entirely unfair comparison. Oh well.
The Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) operates all of Philly’s public transit services: bus, rail, trolley, and subway. For a city of over 1.5 million people, SEPTA operates a whopping two subway lines; a north-south line that runs along Broad Street and an east-west line that runs along Market Street. The two lines meet at City Hall, and unless you are traveling somewhere along Broad or Market, the system is utterly useless. It’s also older, which means low ceilings and a lack of ADA compliant infrastructure at most stations, no countdown clocks, and station announcements that sound like white noise. It’s also the last remaining system that uses tokens (yes, they still exist). There are always talks of plans to improve and expand the system, such as an extension of the Broad Street Line to connect to the airport and the Roosevelt Boulevard Line, but a lack of funding for an already cash-strapped transit agency not only makes future capital construction nothing more than a pipe dream, but fixing current problems a formidable challenge. It’s why SEPTA’s slogan, “We’re Getting There” is so hilariously self-aware.
But on the plus side, SEPTA offers lots of supplementary service to go places the subway doesn’t. Trolleys run underground from Center City into West Philadelphia, serving the universities and the surrounding neighborhoods. The regional rail system, which runs daily, serves most of the outlying parts of the city, and good portions of the surrounding suburbs. There are buses that run on pretty much every street downtown and along major routes heading out, and another subway, the PATCO, connects Philadelphia to South Jersey. In the three years I have lived in Philly, I have only been sidelined by subway trackwork a handful of times, and for the most part, the trains run on time. Finally, it appears that tokens will in fact be replaced by a smart payment system that will actually give SEPTA one of the most advanced payment systems. So for what its worth, SEPTA’s improvements are coming, albeit one small step at a time.
Metro, on the other hand, is the nation’s second busiest rapid transit system and serves large swaths of DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. Originally built in the 1970s with additions continuously built in recent years, it’s a modern system with futuristic stations (complete with escalators galore), quieter trains outfitted with rubber wheels, and easy to read and identify signage and wayfinding. The map, for example, can be easily understood by anyone with its bold lines and clearly marked transfer points. It’s also a distance-based system, which makes short trips around central DC cheap (while making longer trips out to the suburbs more expensive). Personally, I love how the grooves in the concrete in each station provide just enough space to install sound panels to reduce station and train noise.
Of course, Metro isn’t perfect. The identical stations may work from a branding perspective, but can truly throw off unfamiliar travelers and tourists who are trying to find their way. Constant elevator and escalator outages make travel for those who depend upon those services painful and annoying (there are at least several elevator outages along the system daily). The growth of daily ridership has put enormous strain upon the system, making rush hour into the city (and out of ) the city a painful ordeal. Even with the introduction of Rush+ service, congestion along the Orange, Blue, and Yellow lines continues to be a problem.
But Metro’s biggest downfall is it’s inability to decide whether or not it is an urban or suburban system. Metro’s extensions out into sort-of far-flung suburbs like Shady Grove and Vienna offer commuters a reliable means to travel into the city, but add traffic and strain to fellow commuters who travel short distances within the city or nearby. Additional commuter rail services like MARC and VRE help somewhat to alleviate traffic by serving Washington’s more distant and less Metro accessible suburbs, but the service is far less frequent and more expensive. So whereas SEPTA keeps short and long distance commuters separate by two different modes of transportation, Metro mixes both its long and short term riders in one mode, creating more traffic and congestion for all in its stations and onboard trains.
Of course, one thing that both SEPTA and Metro riders can agree upon is talking about how much their rapid transit system sucks and how terrible their service is. Popular DC blogs like Unsuck DC Metro and Fix WMATA routinely post about Metro’s deficiencies and operation issues. This post about getting a SEPTA pass exposes how antiquated the city’s payment system is and how many unnecessary hurdles one has to cross to use the system. Both cities have pledged to improve their respective networks. Philadelphia’s 2035 plan includes provisions for major rapid transit expansion, and the new Dilworth Plaza will greatly improve City Hall Station’s aesthetics. Metro’s new silver line is set to open next year, providing initial service to Tyson’s Corner and ultimate service to Dulles Airport and Loudon County. So while both systems provide slightly different functions and have quite the age gap, they may not be as different or as inequal as one might initially think.
However, nearly 20 years later, I still prefer my abundance of escalators.
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.
“There are plenty of apartments in DC,” said my dad when I told him that I had accepted my offer and would be moving to DC. He had lived in Arlington for three years during the Carter administration while attending law school. “There’s such a high turnover of students, staffers, and young professionals. There are lots of places to live and you won’t have too much trouble finding a place.” He swiftly moved back to New York upon graduation during the summer of ’81. My dad wasn’t too far off with his assessment of the DC housing market. It’s true that there are a lot of apartments available, and the high turnover of young people in America’s most transient city means there’s always something opening up. But the city’s physical and legal limitations make the market incredibly complex and competitive. It also makes for some very expensive housing stock; stock that in most other cities would be a fraction of the value the DC market dictates.
On par with New York and San Francisco, the DC market is among one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Rent has been climbing steadily, with the median rent in the District doubling between 2000 to 2010. Like the two cities mentioned previously, DC has a number of factors that contributes to its astronomically high median rent. As a major industrial center (government), it is the premier destination for those going into public sector or service work (just as New York is the premier destination for finance, and San Francisco is the premier destination for tech). DC also has size constraints; the district itself is just under 70 square miles, still larger than SF (at 46) and Manhattan (at 34).
But perhaps the most limiting feature is the city’s height restriction laws that limit the height of construction. Most people believe that the city’s official height restriction is that no building can be built taller than the Capitol. While this is generally observed, it’s not a part of the city’s official bylaws. The zoning actually states that no building can be taller than the width of the street plus 20 feet. It’s why the streets in DC feel so open and spacious (something I hope to cover in more detail later in this blog), and also explains why housing is at a premium. With a cap on development, there’s a finite amount of space available for new construction and new housing units.
Philly, by comparison, has a much less competitive housing market. Aside from the major universities and hospitals, and perhaps a couple of key employers, the city lacks a core industry that makes it a destination beyond higher education. The city itself is also huge; at 143 square miles, it’s over twice the size of DC, making more land available in the city proper. And since the city repealed its long standing height restriction law back in the 80s, developers (both residential and commercial) have taken advantage of the new freedom, building higher and higher, changing the city’s skyline. More space and a lower demand means an apartment in a great neighborhood can be found for cheap, whereas the same apartment in a similar neighborhood in DC can be twice the price.
Luckily my search was short, although most of the two days I spent looking for housing were excruciating. I walked from building to building, becoming more and more disappointed with each property. The choice became simple: pay out the nose for a small studio in a bad building with a great location, or somehow wrangle a roommate to share a two-bedroom to offset the rent and get a better building. Tired and running out of time, I did what I should have done in the first place: ask friends for insider connections. And an hour after doing that, an email landed in my inbox with a room available in a good apartment for a great price in a terrific neighborhood. It’s not a complex; there’s no fitness center, pool, roof deck, or parking garage, but I have a great clean place to sleep, a plethora of bars and amenities at my doorstep, and a city just waiting for me to explore the minute I walk out my front door. I love it. And all for less than I was expecting to spend on rent!
So while housing in DC can be a bitch, and it’s certainly more expensive than Philly, there are places available and people to talk to to get you the right apartment in the right location at the right price. You just need to know where to look.
A story usually starts with a beginning, but this one, this new blog, starts with an ending.
For the past two years and nine months, I have been fortunate enough to call Philadelphia home. I moved here two months out of college for grad school after spending the summer back home in New York. I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I knew nobody in the city and my only previous impression were the trips I made here with my dad when I was younger. I could tell you where Penn was, and Pat’s. But nothing else.
Moving to Philly, however, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Since coming here I have fallen head over heels in love with this town. My friends back home in New York complain that it’s nothing like New York, but that’s what makes Philadelphia so damn wonderful. Despite being the nation’s fifth largest city, being within spitting distance of New York and DC, having a slew of universities, and four major sports teams, Philadelphia feels small town and provincial. It is a city of neighborhoods, of stories, of great food and simple living. It is very not like New York and I love it for that reason. I came here thinking I would leave immediately after school, but I didn’t want to. The city, it’s manageability and easiness among many other things, lured me to stay.
But like all good things, my time in Philly is coming to a close. After taking a job here that lasted six short months, I was once again looking for work. I’m an urban planner, and despite wanting to stay here, there were simply no jobs available in my field. Three months after I lost my first job, I found my next job with a better firm, but unfortunately, would require me to pack up and take off. Luckily, that move won’t be too far; I’ll be easing my way down the Northeast Corridor to our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. Although I am moving out of Philly, my time here isn’t quite finished. My boyfriend of over two and a half years has a couple more years of med school to go, which means I get to come back to Philly quite a bit between now and 2015.
The attitudes that Philadelphians have towards their neighbors in New York and DC, and vice versa, inspired me to start this blog. Washington and Philly do have a lot in common; both are large centers of business, both have deep roots and connections to the development of our nation, and both face high degrees of racial and ethnic segregation. But while Philadelphia is provincial and blue collar at heart, Washington is worldly and enlightened. In Philadelphia, it isn’t uncommon to find families who have lived in the city or metro area for generations, with large ethnic enclaves spread across the city. Washington is famous for being transient; where college grads and other professionals come to work for a short period, then relocate elsewhere to move onto the next stage in their career or settle down. Philadelphia is grungy, hipstery, and trying to find its place in the American industrial chain of command. Washington is, and forever will be, the nexus of government and social change. In Philadelphia, you’ll find lots of local coffee shops, fixie bikes, dive bars, and excellent restaurants across all price ranges in all neighborhoods. Washington’s signature characteristic is a Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Chipotle, and Panera within 1 block of every Metro stop (or so I’m told, but I’m hoping it’s more diverse than that).
So as I prepare to leave Philly behind and start the next chapter of my life in DC, I hope to continue to explore and talk more about the major differences and similarities between the two cities. While I am sad to leave this town, I am excited for a change of scenery and to explore a brand new city. I hope you’ll join me as I take this journey, continuously comparing The City of Brotherly Love and The District.