Expat lives: Neighbourhood politics

Washington DC: home of the White House, the impressive domed Capitol, the Lincoln memorial and all those other iconic buildings featured in such addictive television dramas as The West Wing.

While the NBC series may have glamorised life in the capital – the perfectly formed, snappy witticisms, the well-dressed power players – its central idea is correct. This is a one-story town, in which it seems everyone is a political junkie obsessed with getting ahead. The most commonly asked question at parties – “And what do you do?” – is really shorthand for “and what can you do for me?”

I had visited Washington before, but never lived here, and I have to confess that I wasn’t wild about the idea of moving to the US capital. It’s without doubt a plum posting for a journalist, but I had been living in places that I deemed to be much more exotic: Beirut, Tehran, Seoul. I had relished having to decipher packets in foreign languages at supermarkets and was constantly delighted when I gleaned some new insight into the culture in which I was immersing myself, be it a North Korean idiom or a Syrian television show.

Nevertheless, I sent my flak jacket back to head office and moved to the US in August 2009.

To my surprise, I have discovered that this culture makes me scratch my head just as often as I did in Iran or Korea. Anyone who has talked to a member of the National Rifle Association about the need to have a gun to “keep the government on its toes” will know what I mean.

When I moved to Washington to cover the White House for the FT, I chose to live in the Eastern Market neighbourhood. My colleague Dan Dombey and his family lived there and he raved about it, and when I wandered around the area in those first few weeks, I knew it was for me.

Many of my friends and counterparts live in the north-western part of the city, where the public schools are best, but I felt I didn’t belong there. I found it too homogeneous and “chain-store”. I could handle living in the western hemisphere again for a few years, just not in such a sanitised environment.

I love the Eastern Market area, named for the 140-year-old food market at its epicentre, because it is diverse and feels more real.

Located in the shadow of Capitol Hill, I regularly see Washington movers and shakers in my neighbourhood: Senator Max Baucus walking his little white dog in Lincoln park, health secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the nail salon.

But I also see the city as it used to be: an old African-American lady sitting on her porch greeting each passer-by; the ageing hippies who lived here long before it was cool.

The area also has the advantage of being cheaper than preppy Georgetown or snooty Bethesda. For the rent that I pay for my renovated two-storey house with a little back yard, complete with fish pond and fountain, in a gentrified block, I would be lucky to get a two-bedroom apartment in a fashionable downtown area such as Logan or Dupont Circles.

Even a decade ago, Eastern Market was considered a no-go area, a hotbed of drug dens and shoot-outs. Now, it is becoming increasingly gentrified, its streets lined with Priuses and Volvos, the dollar stores making way for pet shops selling frosted dog biscuits.

The main drag of 8th Street has tapas restaurants and an organic supermarket, while the weekend market, with its outdoor stalls selling everything from fresh herbs to art work, and its indoor foodhall with handmade pasta and fresh fish, draws people from across the city.

However, as Dan warned me after I found my little house, if you are going to fit in Eastern Market, you must get either a dog or a baby. With two cats, the former was ruled out, so I duly complied and had my son, Jude, two years ago.

“The Hill”, as it’s known, is a dream environment for us. We have four great parks within walking distance, where we spend the weekends hugging dogs and hanging from monkey bars.

There is a great community vibe here. This week we went to “Hilloween” – our local Capitol Hill Halloween festival, where hundreds of little Batmen and princesses enjoyed the bouncy castle and foodstalls before returning home for a block party with our neighbours.

This is a relatively new experience for me. While I knew my neighbours in the other places where I have lived well enough to stop for chit-chat on the street, it was nothing like the friendliness I have discovered in my little corner of Washington.

Then there is the neighbourhood email network – the “mommy mafia”, in the parlance of the dog-walker down the street – that makes friends of people who live blocks apart. Need a restaurant recommendation or to borrow an electric drill? Looking to give away a high chair you no longer need? Through the email list, we are all in it together.

But it is also not difficult to find some respite from the granola-making-mommy scene. I am a fully paid-up member, but it’s easy to feel like I’m stepping out of it in the edgy H Street corridor, a nearby strip that could politely be called “up and coming”.

It is still decisively at the gritty end of the gentrification spectrum, but it has funky bars and innovative restaurants, from quirky New American to cheerful Taiwanese ramen.

With the November 6 election approaching, President Barack Obama has visited two of the more chichi culinary establishments on H Street – Boundary Road and Smith Commons – with supporters who won a competition to have dinner with him.

But one of my favourite parts of Washington is the ethnic communities encircling it. Within a half-hour drive of my house I can be eating Iranian eggplant dishes worthy of Tehran or visiting a Korean bathhouse that could easily be in Seoul.

I am not going to pretend that Washington is a dynamic cosmopolitan city, but I can say this much: life is easy and enjoyable here.

Buying guide


● A transient professional population, so potentially a good investment

● Roomy homes, many with gardens

● Easy to get around – good metro


● You need to be in the right area for a good school, or be prepared to pay for private education

● Consistent demand, so prices high

● Not very lively; few would describe the city as bustling or cosmopolitan

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 A 520 sq ft one-bedroom condominium in a developing neighbourhood such as Hill East, Southwest Waterfront or Petworth

$1m A 2,000 sq ft three-bedroom townhouse in an upscale neighbourhood such as Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle or Georgetown

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