The Metamorphosis of Washington, D.C.


The following comment from Glenn Reynolds’s most recent column in USA Today gave me thought:

Over the past few decades, Washington has gone from a sleepy town with restaurants and real estate priced to fit a civil servant’s salary to a glittering city with prices that match a K street lobbyist’s salary.

This is just a tiny comment, almost throwaway in the larger article. As Mr. Reynolds himself would say, read the whole thing. But this is what I want to focus on – mostly because I can confirm it.

My grandparents – on both sides of the family – lived in the suburbs of D.C. In my very early childhood I lived in northern Virginia. Until about the mid 1980s I spent rather a lot of time in the city. The huge variety of museums, monuments and memorials – nearly all of which are free admission – made it an excellent place for a family to take children. Even after we moved to Alabama in 1985, we made regular trips back to the area. We spent almost every Christmas there, and more than once I spent a week or so visiting grandparents in the summer.

My maternal grandfather passed away in 1992 and my paternal grandmother passed away in 1995 (my paternal grandfather passed away before I was born). At around the same time, my cousins were rapidly graduating from high school, then college, then starting families of their own. As you can imagine, our trips became less frequent. But my maternal grandmother still lived in the area until she passed away last weekend, so we still made it up there.

Long story short: I can tell you from firsthand experience that Mr. Reynolds statement is absolutely true. In fact, we were in DC just this March for the first time in a couple of years. My wife and I distinctly noticed how the city had changed even in that short time. The city, even the touristy areas, are distinctly less family friendly than they used to be. Police are more common – far more common – and less friendly. Security theater is more omnipresent (I was denied entry into the Air & Space Museum over a MacGuyver/Boy Scout style Swiss Army Knife).

But these aren’t the only changes. As Mr. Reynolds notes, the city is considerably more expensive than it once was. This change is less recent. My own anecdotal experience says that the big increase came in the late 1990s and early 2000s – especially during the run-up to the housing crisis of 2008. Beyond my grandparents, I’ve had other family in the area. One relative recently sold their home, and I peeked at the listing price. It was mind-bogglingly high – yet not out of line, given where there house was. Yet I also know what kind of house the same price would get you here in North Alabama, and the difference is staggering.

I also know that there’s no way this particular family member could have paid that kind of price when the house was originally bought decades ago. In line with Mr. Reynolds’s comment, this was a dual-income family but both were civil servants. It’s a good house, and always was. Even when they bought it, it was probably a stretch on their income. But the new price simply isn’t one that a young civil-servant family could afford, even on dual income (an older civil service couple, nearing the top end of the pay scale, perhaps). The cost of living in the area has simply changed that much.

Washington D.C. and it suburbs are now truly the home of elites – serious elites. Not the top 10%, not likely even the top 5%. The only people who can comfortably afford it are the top 3%, or maybe higher.

It’s not a good thing that our capital has turned into that. The residents of the city are decision makers for the entire nation, yet they live a life that is completely divorced from what the rest of the nation experiences. Brexit, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are all symptoms of a populace that’s tired of being ruled by people who don’t know and often don’t like us.

We don’t like you, either. And we’re more numerous, and we can vote.

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