By Legba Carrefour
Washington, DC is a city of grand proclamations. We’ve been anointed the gayest city in America, the place for millennials, the place millennials are fleeing in droves, the place millennials fled in droves and then returned to, hip, reviving, fashionable–good God, at one point I had an Instapaper account dedicated to archiving these things and I lost interest somewhere around the twelve billion mark. The tenor of these proclamations is usually grounded first in that the author has noticed DC actually exists, followed closely by the spouting of some sort of homespun common knowledge that DC is a cultureless Federal pit into which the bodies of enough homeless people have been dumped to make the foundation for the construction of a glorious future of condos and bars with infused cocktails.
This week we got the latest entrant in the race to proclaim the identity of our screwy little sort-of-diamond: “Reasons Why Washington, DC Is The Worst Place Ever” from our good friends over at Vice. It sent social media in DC into quite the frenzy. The authors seem to be convinced they touched some sort of great nerve through their original writing, but really, it was a reaction from a people who’ve been beaten down and just finally got sick of it.
While it was refreshing to read an article that doesn’t gush over a bar “frequented by White House staffers” (Marvin. Where I’ve never seen a White House staffer) or make any mention of Ben’s Chili Bowl (which no one from here really likes), it fell squarely into the well-worn category of “crap written about DC by people who aren’t from here or have any meaningful connection to the city community” with a dash of rehashed jokes about DC that everyone here knows, largely lifted from any number of New York Times articles over the last decade since gentrification made Northwest DC (and only Northwest DC, with maybe the exception of H Street Northeast) appealing enough to send a reporter to spend 36 hours here.
Which is a pity. The article is part of an otherwise often interesting series of “Reasons Why [INSERT CITY] Is The Worst Ever” pieces, usually working witty comments into genuine sociopolitical commentary on the how the urban dream has transformed into a depraved nightmare of Uber cabs operated by gun-wielding creative class kids babbling about the sharing economy, too fucked out of their gourds on weaponized buzzwords to remember that when we were wee, sharing meant communism, not charging people’s credit cards through a smartphone middle man to make some tech bro shitcan and his venture capital cronies in Silicon Valley filthy fucking rich. The other pity is that the authors seem like otherwise cool people. One, Sarah Harvard, speaks forcefully against Islamophobia and has written touchingly about kids listening to One Direction while living under dictatorship in Myanmar. The other, Dave Schilling, has written with great humor and wit about racism and has a book out which looks pretty okay. Which is disappointing.
Because here’s the thing: What they wrote was holy shit kinds of racist. No, I’m not suggesting that the authors were racist. I’m not stupid. What I am suggesting is that the whole literary genre of smug DC bashing rests on a core of racism–both of the open bigotry against people of color variety, and the assumption that gentrification will automatically leave behind an improved city variety. It’s a racism that’s been hardcoded into every discussion around these issues, whether or not people are away of it. Not all of this was in the Vice piece, but all of it is shit we’ve heard a thousand times before. This is definitely not meant as an indictment of these two authors, they were merely unfortunate enough to step on the landmine that is this subject. Let’s take a tour.
DC IS UNFASHIONABLE
A frequent jibe leveled at us is that we can’t dress. You can trace this to an article Robin Givens wrote for the Washington Post style section back in the 90’s that bemoaned Federal employees wearing sneakers with biz attire on their commute to work, changing into heels only once they’ve crossed the keycard threshold to the office. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a flattering look. But the only way someone could say that we can’t dress is if they closed their eyes and pretended that all the black people who’ve been here for, like, a while, don’t exist. I can walk three blocks over to Cardozo High School to find the flyest looking teenagers that have ever walked the earth. Last week, I had to go over to Deanwood (Sarah and Dave, it’s in Northeast, near the border with Maryland) because I’m being investigated for food stamp fraud (long story) and stumbled into a Susan Fashion (a chain of stores that seem to only exist adjacent to government benefit offices), where no less than three little old ladies in Sunday hats that could only be described as GRAND (in all caps, yes) fretted over whether they had the proper soldering iron to graft a four dollar fake diamond the size of my fist onto a corset one of them was modeling. On the way back to the Metro, I walked past a rowhouse with a sign out front reading “THOMAS J. FOWLER, ESQ., LAWYER & BARBER.” A few feet away, a middle aged man stood in what I’m pretty sure was a zoot suit, twirling a handlebar moustache. I will beat anyone’s ass for saying we are unfashionable and call my man Fowler to beat the rap.
DC IS HOLLYWOOD FOR UGLY PEOPLE
Aside from the pathetic reliance on beauty standards to judge human value that this jibe implies, it’s also quite stupid. The District of Columbia and its surrounding area is a metropolitan region. Hollywood is a neighborhood, but here, it’s a synecdoche for the entertainment industry. You could say, “The Hill is Hollywood for ugly people” as those are comparable units (that’s also a reasonably defensible, albeit entirely mean and unnecessary, argument). You could be so bold (or so dumb) as to say “DC is LA for ugly people” as these are both metropolitan regions. But aside from that, the people you’re saying are ugly are the federal employees and media hacks who preen and prance every time the White House Press Correspondent Dinner (went once with an ABC News producer I was dating. Fuck awful kinds of boring). You ever look at who goes to that dinner? White people from the suburbs. Not the around 50% of the population that’s black. Are you saying that several hundred thousand black people are ugly? Thanks, Donald Sterling. Glad you have cancer, you fuck. (Incidentally, I learned Donald Sterling has cancer from an article gleefully written by Dave Schilling. See? Guy is pretty okay).
DC IS JUST A BUNCH OF FEDS
Look, we all fucking hate the federal government’s presence. They eat up all our land, they pay no taxes, they have the worst police department in the entire United States (the Park Police), they’ll arrest you for smoking pot in all the good parks even though we’re slowly but surely legalizing, their most significant achievement is the world’s largest suburban lawn (the Mall), if they were in the mood, they could sell us to Spain for a free Netflix subscription since they basically own us, they won’t let us vote, and little smegma-smeared crackers from flyover states threaten to derail our budget every time we suggest doing nice things like paying for poor ladies’ abortions with our own money. So fuck you for equating them to us. Yes, it’s a major employer. So fucking what? I don’t go to LA and accuse everyone of being Hollywood scum. Shit, most of the people who work for Hollywood are, like the people here, just working stiffs trying to make ends meet and, once in a while, work on something beautiful or idealistic, while they get paid crap. But here’s the big thing: The Feds you’re talking about? The obnoxious interns who clog up Craigslist m4m every election cycle, the Senate staffers who talk incessantly about themselves, those people we all hate? Those are weird white people that I’ve never met and none of my friends have ever met. In fact, you look at the demographics of government employment on a map, and it becomes rapidly clear that the highest concentration of government employees (assuming they aren’t working for the city government) is east of the river. So what I’m saying is that by bashing on people for having the gall to work for the government, you’re basically saying that you’re better than black people living in an historically impoverished region of the city with limited employment opportunities. Congrats!
DC HAS NO CULTURE
Clearly. Because Go-go isn’t a cultural activity. Oh, I guess you’re one of those people who say you “listen to all music but rap,” huh? House music? You hate that too? Wait, I’m sorry, you know what? You’re right. We need some people playing guitar music. Oh wait, we have (enough) of that too? Hmm. Performance art? Shit, the most prominent performance artist in the city is the bad-ass Holly Bass. I guess all of this culture is a problem for flaming fucking racists or something. Whatever.
DC IS SOMETHING SOMETHING MARION BARRY
In the 90’s, the city, in legitimate disarray and arrears, was seized by a control board imposed by the Federal government, our de facto colonial rulers. The narrative back then was that DC was too wild, too unruly, too mismanaged, and too whatever series of codewords you want to use for too black. And because it was too black a city, it clearly didn’t have the capacity to responsibly self-govern. Exhibit A: How could people keep electing Marion Barry?
Look, here’s the thing about Marion Barry. He has become an old man, prone to meandering stories, drooling on himself (seen it!), and yes, the odd bit of sketchy political activity (if you remember how he got censured, when a woman he sexually harassed and had on his pay blew up his spot, I went to school with her and she is so awesome). Considering we recently sent two council members to prison for out and out corruption (True story: I was once at a council hearing for some activist crap and tried to use the bathroom. Emphasis on tried. I get to the urinal and realize that none other than councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. is trying to use the same urinal. I say, excuse me. He says, “No, sir! This is the people’s urinal! This urinal was paid for by tax dollars and it’s yours as a citizen of this city!” He then proceeded to pee in the urinal I was going for. Five years later, he wound up in an Alabama penitentiary. Funny how the world works), I’m not really willing to hang the entire hat of our decrepit city government on his back. Hell, our current mayor is currently nearing indictment for campaign corruption. Marion Barry is very clearly not the main problem. He’ll also be quite dead soon, so lay off the guy.
Also, that arrest you keep harping about? In no way shape or form is it comparable to Rob Ford, crack-smoking mayor of Toronto. Rob Ford was caught red handed after a series of drunken fumbles including willfully smoking crack on camera. Marion Barry, yes kids, was indeed set up. And race has everything to do with that difference. Which one of these two mayors went to jail, the white one or the black one?
As for why people in Ward 8 keep electing him to the council (aside from it being their constitutional right to vote. I feel like some people miss that detail): Remember that insane spree of nepotism in government hiring that Barry went on back in the 80’s that made the DMV the greatest threat to sanity known to humanity? It had a lot to do with keeping our unemployment rate down compared to other cities affected by the urban decay of the era and enabled a lot of people to maintain middle-class incomes and build some shreds of wealth. Barry’s own self-promotion about his glory days aside, enough people in Ward 8 clearly have found reason enough to keep sending him back to office.
DC IS RIOT SCARRED
For some very strange reason, most pieces about DC’s rejuvenation (read as: injection of large amounts of development money), feel the need to wax philosophic about the riots of 1968 as some sad event that we are only just now getting over. Given that a half-dozen cities exploded after the King assassination, during a period of time where race riots in major cities were a frequent phenomenon, it’s a bit odd that people only talk about DC and Detroit as “riot scarred.” Usually this gets placed alongside some sort of subtle indictment of the population as having destroyed their own city and set off white flight, along with a celebration of how the influx of millennials is finally bringing life to this dead place. It’s deeply annoying and dead wrong. White flight started in the fifties and was a fait accompli by the sixties, the gutting of the urban core was already well underway by 1968, and the only way a city can be “riot scarred” for forty years until white people move back in is if a significant amount of racism is afoot.
DC IS THE GREATEST CITY ON EARTH, OH YES, INDEED
Hey, we get it. This city isn’t for everyone. But there’s a reason why people get DC flag tattoos: Lots of us are absolutely besotted with this city. There’s something magical about being somewhere big enough to feel cosmopolitan and have everything you want, yet small enough to be known by everyone. Some of us love this city in the dead of August, when the interns and non-profit workers have fled the heat, leaving us alone with our thoughts and our friends and our cute bars and great shows. We love it here. It is the greatest city on Earth and we don’t feel the need to even explain why through some quirky slideshow of landmarks and alternative-looking youth. Frankly, we’d rather you just not be around. But if you insist on coming here, do us all a favor, and just shut the fuck up.
*This piece has been edited to make clear that the current mayor is nearing indictment for campaign corruption.