My father is a native Washingtonian, born in the District of Columbia in 1926. He lived there until 1950 when he married my mother. My father still likes to think of himself as a Washingtonian. However, he is not. He has spent most of his life living elsewhere. He has spent 25 of his 79 years living around the place of his birth.
I, on the other hand, spent my formative years far away from Washington. I ended up here in 1978. My brother, a recent college graduate let me stay with him rent-free. This was a good deal, for I had only a few hundred dollars left to my name. I had just recently graduated college. I was 21.
I have been here ever since. That is 28 years or there about, by my reckoning. I have beaten my father’s time as a Washingtonian. If anyone in my family has a claim to being a Washingtonian at this point, it is I. While I may end up spending my retirement years somewhere else, there is no denying it. Move me anywhere around the country, and I will not pick up the local values. For better or worse, I am now a Washingtonian through and through.
Heck, I was a Washingtonian even before I knew the term. Growing up I was one of these kids riveted to the CBS Evening News with Walker Cronkite. Stuff going on out there was heaps more interesting than stuff not going on at home. Our local newspapers lacked much in the way of hard news, but Newsweek opened my eyes to the larger world. So while chance seemed to bring me to the Washington area, I feel like I was destined to live here. This is home. This is where I belong. As strange as it seems, the Washington area fits me like a glove.
I once rhapsodized in a blog entry about Endwell, New York, the place where I spent my formative years. I still get a deep sense of peace and wholeness when I spend time in Endwell. Who knows, I may retire there. Yet with every visit back I realize that my nostalgic feelings do not meet the reality of the place. For the Triple Cities is overall a sad and depressed place. It is not necessarily a bad place to live, but it has little get up and go. It has no energy.
The same cannot be said for the Washington area. If you want energy, Washington is the place. I realize most metropolitan areas have their energy too. As energetic as the Washington area is, it does not have the frantic feeling of New York City. My father remembers a Washington that was segregated and more sleeping than alive. That is no longer the case. The Washington region is where things are happening.
Obviously, it is the center of our federal government. The political environment here is a 24/7/365 thing. Congressional recesses may sap the energy of the region a bit, but not much. For there is always something going on in Washington. In addition, while the federal government and everyone that feeds off it certainly accounts for much of its energy, there is more to the Washington area than just the federal government and the talking heads.
It seems to be true in every city that locals will attest, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes”. In the Washington region, if you do not like the local landscape, wait five years. I am quite confident that if I were to move away for five years and then tried to find my way back to my old house, I could get lost. Because to be a Washingtonian is to deal with constant change. You have to accept that unless you live in a historic district, the place that you remember fondly will look quite a bit different in just a few years.
This is especially true for those of us living in the suburbs. The landscape is constantly changing. Developments go up. Roads and interchanges are widened. Real estate gets more expensive. Traffic becomes increasingly more oppressive every year. Little backwater towns like the Reston of my early memories have blossomed into virtual urban centers with skyscrapers, pricey condominiums and boxy office buildings. When I drive from place to place, I have to consciously remember how the roads are laid out today. That exit I used to take it not necessarily there anymore. There may be a cloverleaf where there used to be a ramp. There is good money to be made making local maps, because they require such frequent revisions.
I am amazed by our education levels. A graduate degree is almost expected in the Washington area. People are constantly going back to school to add a degree or refine their education. Just as our landscape is constantly changing, so do we residents assume we must constantly change too. Yes, most of us are political animals. You must be to survive in this area. Not being political in Washington is like not drinking beer or eating cheese in Wisconsin. Politics are in your face all the time. Yet this is not a bad thing. Most people think Washingtonians are out of touch with the real world. The truth is we are very passionate creatures. It may seem crazy to care about, say prescription drugs for the elderly, but we do passionately care one way or the other about it. We may be wrong to want to change the world, but it is our nature to not be happy with the status quo. Things can always be done better, and we want to be actively involved in making it happen.
There are of course many cosmopolitan activities in and around Washington. You can go to the symphony, take in fancy plays and attend seminars at the Smithsonian. However, unless you live close to the city, these are not realistic options for most of us during the week. Why? Because it takes too long to get there to make it worth your while, particularly if you live outside the Beltway. In addition, our cost of living continues to skyrocket. Real estate prices are reaching crazy levels. The government rate for a hotel in the nearby suburb of Reston is $180 a night. Consequently, economic forces require many of us to live further and further out, where land is somewhat more affordable. The price is to endure soul-draining commutes through the second worst traffic in the country.
It must seem odd to sing the Washington region’s praises given these facts. Yet the people keep streaming in. The commutes may be long, the real estate prices may be stratospheric in many communities, but jobs are here. Moreover, we are not talking just government jobs and those living off the government economy. There are great jobs to be found here. In particular, if you work in the information technology field, losing your job is not necessarily the end of the world. Unlike being a displaced autoworker, you have options in this area. Another company is likely hiring just down the street. Except in Washington itself, our unemployment rate is amazingly low. Combine the low unemployment rate with some of the best paying jobs in the country and the omnipresent tech industry and it is not surprising that growth continues unabated despite the horrendous traffic and real estate prices.
I am vested now. I have my spot in the suburbs. I realize there is little I can do about the increasing traffic. Yet I am in no hurry to leave. The incessant franticness and frustrations of living in this area are second nature to me now. I arise every morning with a little adrenaline flowing through my veins. I can understand why others would be appalled by the thought. Nevertheless, if you are going to change the world, you need the adrenaline. You have to embrace it. You have to surrender to it. Our tools are connections, wile, cunning and a certain amount of fearlessness. After a while, it becomes second nature. Just as our neighborhoods rarely stay the same for long, neither are we content to stay the same. Our missions may all be different, but we press on ever forward. That is our modus operandi.