Washington DC in common with other artificial capital cities, has only one industry – government. It is omnipresent and is run by politicians, bureaucrats and, increasingly, lobbyists. Even the local property market dances to political music.
Here is how it used to work. When Democrats came to town, they preferred to live close to the action, if they could afford it, in pretty, charming Georgetown, where John F Kennedy set up base camp on N street before he moved to the White House. It’s also been my home since 1992. Just six years ago, our neighbourhood even boasted an entire Democratic presidential ticket, John Kerry and John Edwards having (very nice) houses just a block apart on O and P streets respectively.
Republicans were also true to type, opting for suburban charms in the north-west or in neighbouring Virginia and Maryland, closer to their country clubs and more removed from the vicissitudes, including crime, of the inner city. In the olden days, too, bipartisanship was more common than now. Senators and congressmen from both parties thought nothing of sharing accommodation, often on Capitol Hill, to economise while in town.
Meanwhile lowlier staff scattered themselves all over the place, most settling in for the long haul; others, like the 3,000-plus political appointees to any new administration and even more on congressional committees, coming and going, much like the diplomats who enhance the impression of a city for transients. Real estate agents understood these patterns and rhythms.
It is different now, in many ways. For a start, Washington has become, in the eyes of a populist nation, Sodom and Gomorrah, where only bad things happen. Politicians get elected to serve here by running against all it stands for and promising to clean out the stables. In this month’s mid-terms, Senator Harry Reid from Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, was vilified for having bought an apartment in DC, and in the deluxe Ritz-Carlton complex no less (even though a fairly modest one-bedroom flat). But he won, and can keep it.
The collapse of congressional comity means that Republicans and Democrats had better not share accommodation. The arriving Tea Party component would be well advised to sleep in the subway or a Motel 6 halfway to Richmond for the two to three days a week they work here to avoid being corrupted by its evil ways.
But, mostly, it is the city that has changed. Having lost population for 50 years to white (and black) flight from over 800,000 to barely half a million, it is now growing again. It is also getting younger, more hip, with a new generation drawn to what used to be the urban wastelands left untouched for years after the inner city riots of the 1960s. It helps, too, that those choosing to live there can avoid the dreaded suburban commute by car, the worst in the nation after Los Angeles.
Washington’s basic housing stock has long been decent, the deterioration of some neighbourhoods notwithstanding. Gentrification is rampant, even in the ghettos east of the Anacostia River. Neighbourhoods such as LeDroit Park in the near north west sector, built 100 years ago for a black middle class in a segregated city, are coming to resemble an affordable Georgetown.
All over the city “no go” areas (for fear of crime) have become “go to” places to live and for the nightlife – the 14th street corridor, Penn Quarter downtown, even the long neglected H street strip in the near north-east, down which an old trolleybus system will soon run again. A big new convention centre, a baseball stadium and a sports-and-entertainment arena have been moths to the flame of reviving, and changing, the city, just as the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was nearly 40 years back, at least for the well-to-do who fancied a previously unobtainable decent meal before or after a show.
Of course, all this could have happened anywhere in America, but often hasn’t. A key reason is that Washington is somewhat insulated from the national economy, simply because it is the home to the national government and those who feed off it. In the last two years companies all over the country have laid off employees by the boatload but not the federal government (DC’s unemployment, over 11 per cent, exceeds the national average, 9.6 per cent, but it has always been higher and is concentrated in the poor and black areas).
This stability of employment is reflected in the local property market. DC house prices have actually risen by 3.9 per cent over the past year – modest but a far cry from the catastrophic collapses and foreclosure sales in fast-growing speculative states like Arizona and Nevada. The outer suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, where many of the governmental contractors and consultants operate and live, have also been through the wringer, but not the city itself.
It is true that sales volume is off, down 30 per cent over the past year, but at least that means that the risk of a housing bubble, present before the recession, has receded. Though most advertising has moved online, the Sunday Washington Post real estate section now rarely exceeds one page for house sales and one column for Georgetown, whereas it used to run to three and more.
Significantly, it now lists condominium sales before it does houses and devotes a separate segment to the rental market, which has also held up well, with prices up 3.2 per cent on the year. That, of course, reflects the generational shift: two-car families of old are being replaced by young people happy to walk, run, bike or take the subway to work, or rent a Zip car by the hour for the odd trip to the supermarket.
Washington has been my home, three times, for 25 of the last 41 years. I began on Capitol Hill in 1969 when the old AV Ristorante amid the riot-induced desolation on New York Avenue and Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown were the only places to eat when not on expenses (Chez Camille if I was). It really was a sleepy town, run by reactionary southern congressmen, not by its citizens. Now it is a relative cornucopia of choice, buzz and action.
But as I contemplate the autumnal glories from my home office window, and try to advise a nephew likely to lose his staff job in Congress because the Republicans will control the House, there is still this plus ça change feeling. And if you are addicted to politics, the good, the bad and the Sarah Palin, mercifully not here yet, there are many worse places to live.
Jurek Martin was the FT’s bureau chief in Washington