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., 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.

A company town. Today's D.C. 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.

Demographic dance. Washington’s post-recession 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 (and it’s still dropping!).

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 resentment, 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 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 commercial interests without sacrificing decades of community and culture.

Favored by foodies. It ain't quite New York City, but Washington has made great culinary strides in recent years. No longer known only for stuffy steakhouses catering to lobbyists and Capitol Hill power brokers, D.C. now offers options to satisfy the most eclectic tastes. The trend is not limited to restaurants—the number of neighborhood farmers’ markets rises each year—but it's in the city's eateries that the movement toward true foodie-dom has been most pronounced. And top-tier chefs from around the country have taken notice, with many descending on D.C. to catch their share of the wave.

Wolfgang Puck's The Source, adjacent to the Newseum, wows visitors with its posh, three-story dining room and offbeat Asian fusion menu. Top Chef’s Mike Isabella has launched a mini-empire, featuring the Italian eatery Graffiato in Chinatown and the Mexican-inspired Bandolero in Georgetown. Iron Chef competitor R. J. Cooper offers an ambitious 24-course menu at Rogue 24 in the Logan Circle neighborhood. And Johnny Monis, who won the 2013 James Beard award for the best chef in the mid-Atlantic, is at the helm of Komi and Little Serow.

These relative newcomers join D.C. pioneers like Robert Wiedmaier, whose Belgian roots are on full display at the awarding-winning Marcel's in Foggy Bottom; Nora Pouillon, whose namesake restaurant near Dupont Circle was the country's first to be certified organic; and José Andrés, the culinary powerhouse behind Zaytinya, Oyamel, and Jaleo, all near Chinatown.

Staying Fit. 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.

Traffic turmoil. 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 New York. 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 to 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.

What's New

Streetcars: More than 60 years after Washington retired streetcars from Downtown, residents celebrated their return in 2014 with the construction of a new rail line running east from Union Station to the Anacostia River. The 2.4-mile H/Benning line is designed to bring more traffic to one of D.C.'s fastest-growing commercial districts: the bustling H Street Corridor. And that's not all. Ultimately, the system is expected to boast 37 miles of track fanning into all parts of the city—a network that will put Washington in league with Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, when it comes to streetcar options.

Capital Observation Ferris Wheel: Launched in May 2014, this year-round attraction at Washington's National Harbor features 42 climate-controlled gondolas that ascend to 175 feet. Visitors enjoy views of the White House, Capitol, Arlington Cemetery, and Alexandria. Rides cost $15; VIP gondolas are more.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture: This $500 million project, set to open on the National Mall in 2015, will examine all aspects of the African American experience, including slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, and the March on Washington.

The Wharf: Stretching east along the Washington Channel from the Maine Avenue fish market, this 47-acre project, slated to open in 2015, will include residential, office, and retail development wrapped around a waterfront promenade with restaurants, parks, boat slips, and a museum of maritime history.

Updated: 2014-09-23

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