Washington, D.C. Feature

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Washington, D.C. Today

Classically majestic and stunningly beautiful, the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court stand at the heart of Washington, D.C. They are powerful, steadfast symbols of the stability and strength of the nation. But the city that revolves around this axis is in a constant state of change, lived on a more human scale.

Washington, D.C. Today

… is a company town. And because that company is the federal government, business tends to be good even in the worst of times. At no point was this trend more apparent than during the recent recession, when the housing market tanked, private businesses struggled, and unemployment rates skyrocketed across much of the United States—yet D.C. emerged from the mess as one of the wealthiest cities in the country. The reason is no mystery. Federal employment tends to remain relatively stable even in times of economic turmoil, and with hundreds of thousands of federal employees living and working in and around D.C., the area was insulated from the downturn in a manner that most other locales could only dream about.

… is in demographic flux. Washington's postrecession economic boom has only accelerated the demographic face-lift that was already transforming the city in recent years. This shifting tide is highlighted by several recent population milestones: an increase in the number of residents, a decline in the District's black population to below 50% for the first time since 1960, and a median age that has fallen below 34—more than three years younger than the country as a whole. Hardly unrelated, the trends reveal that, after years of fleeing D.C. due to high crime rates and underperforming schools, more and more suburban families are opting to live in the city where they work. These younger professionals—mostly white, mostly drawn by the government and related industries—have helped bolster Washington's economy, but not without a price. Indeed, the gentrification—heightened by enormous stadium projects like Nationals Park—has reached deep into the traditionally black areas of Northeast and Southeast, stirring resentments, driving up costs, and pricing many longtime residents out of their childhood homes. (Indeed, for all the enviable economic gains Washington has seen in recent years, the city also has one of the widest income gaps between rich and poor of any spot in the country). The changes have flown largely under the radar but are starting to get more attention as local officials seek ways to strengthen local commercial interests without sacrificing decades of community and culture.

… is sports-hero obsessed. Not everything in Washington revolves around politics. In fact, the city's infatuation with its sports teams sometimes leaves the impression that what happens on Capitol Hill is inconsequential relative to the Redskins' playoff chances, the Nationals' run at the World Series, or the Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes. The interest has grown exponentially in recent years, as those three teams have attracted some of the best players in world in their respective sports.

The Redskins football team remains the preeminent draw, and that trend was only reinforced in 2012 with the arrival of rookie quarterback sensation Robert Griffin III—aka RG3—whose combination of on-the-field heroics and off-the-field class won over Washingtonians like no other D.C. athlete has in decades. The Nationals squad has two wunderkinds of its own in pitcher Stephen Strasburg and slugger Bryce Harper, who anchor a scrappy young team that made a surprise playoff appearance in 2012. And Capitals fans have practically adopted Alex Ovechkin, the explosive Moscow native who has twice been named the best player in hockey. These players have youth, tremendous talent, and a near cultlike following. Now Washingtonians are eager for them to bring home a championship as well.

… is fitness crazy. Long agitated by D.C.'s unflattering designation as "Hollywood for ugly people," Washingtonians have fought back in recent years with a surging interest in fitness and health. Quite aside from the numerous gyms popping up all over the city—and ignoring, for a moment, the countless joggers constantly circling the Mall—local residents have adopted a slew of activities to get outside and stay in shape. Like to play kickball? There are teams scattered all over the city. Enjoy Ultimate Frisbee? There's a league for that, too. Rugby? Got it. Even bocce—the age-old Italian sport of lawn bowling—has inspired a passionate following and launched formal competitions around town. The District's many parks and green spaces cater perfectly to that game of pickup football (or fútbol), and the city's wild embrace of bike sharing has been complemented by the creation of bike-only lanes on some of its most traveled thoroughfares. Add a long list of burgeoning indoor crazes to the mix—everything from yoga to Pilates to Zumba—and you've got a city intent on shedding its wonks-only reputation.

… is stuck in traffic. It's official: The roads around D.C. are among the most poorly planned in the country, snarling traffic at all hours and creating the nation's longest commute outside of Los Angeles. Spend an hour in gridlock on the Beltway—or 30 minutes in a cab just to get across town—and you'll understand why more locals are flocking to the Metro and even bike sharing to get around the city. Visitors to D.C., it is often suggested, can preserve both time and sanity by doing the same.

D.C.: Just the Facts

THE PEOPLE

Population, city: 632,323

Population, metro area: 5,860,342

Median age: 33.9

Ethnic makeup: African-American 49.5%; non-Hispanic white 35.3%; Hispanic 9.5%; Asian 3.7%; multiracial 2.5%

Infant mortality rate: 12 per 1,000 births (worst in the U.S.)

Literacy: 81% (est.)

Crime rate: 61.1 offenses per 1,000 residents

Type of government: Limited representational democracy with no voting members of Congress; elected mayor and nine-member council

Workforce: 337,523 (67.2%)

Per capita income: $43,993

Unemployment: 8.6% (February 2013)

Major industries: Government, law, tourism, high-tech, higher education

Official motto: Justitia Omnibus (Justice for All)

Official food: The half-smoke, a large, smoked link sausage most famously found at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street

THE LAND

Land area: 61 square miles

Nicknames: The District, D.C., Inside the Beltway

Latitude: 38 N

Longitude: 77 W

Elevation: From sea level to 420 feet

Natural hazards: Lobbyists, motorcades, lack of congressional representation

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