Monday, January 26, 2009

Is DC "Cool"?

As always after a lull in posts, we feel compelled to offer up some explanation...alas, all I can say is "life". Busy at work and at home, and with a trip to the hospital to boot, makes for not a lot of time to keep the blog updated.

So that's why we thought it would be interesting to come back from our post-cation with a rather simple question: Is DC cool?

We only ask because the Post was asking this question over the weekend. It seems that with the arrival of President Obama, there is talk that DC might become a "cool" city, on par with places like New York, San Francisco or Chicago. But will we, really? And do we want to?

Consider, for instance, some choice quotes from "coolness experts" from the Post article:

"On a recent Washington vacation, he thought the city seemed too empty. "I spent a typical museum week in D.C. with my kids and you walk and walk and walk and it never feels dense," Gloor says. "In Times Square, you could walk on the heads of people."

"The buildings of official Washington make it feel too planned, too stretched out, too grandiose, too impressive. It's not organic enough, according to Gloor."

"...if this cool president manages to make the coolest people want to work for him and flock to the bureaucracy of Washington, he can change the city."

OK, these demand some kind of response. To begin, how can someone classify him or herself as an "expert" in cool? Doesn't that follow the if-you-have-to-ask-you'll-never-know line of thinking?

Next, since when is Times Square the definition of cool? As Mrs. 14thandyou so eloquently put it: "Letting a bunch of advertisers come in and take a dump in the middle of your city isn't cool." No, it's not. Granted, a lot of people flock to Times Square...but they're also typically the type of people bunching up at the bottom of Metro escalators with maps unfolded trying to figure out how to exit the damn Metro station.

And criticizing the feeling of being in a planned city seems a bit absurd, considering that DC is, well, a planned city. We have a Metro stop named after the French guy who laid out our streets after all. Slamming DC for being too "planned" is like getting all up in San Francisco's grill about being too hilly, or Chicago for being too windy. It's part of the city's character; to be rid of something like that would rid the city of much of its charm. It certainly doesn't help the density, but it does help make the city unique.

As to the last quote...well, I'll only say that I have a sneaking suspicion of the type of person being referred to as the "cool person" who might want to come work in our city now that Obama is here. Yeah, they would be the Democratic version of the Late Night Shots crowd, and this city needs more of them like it needs more exploding manhole covers.

Now, perhaps I sound a bit defensive, but that would be a misinterpretation of my stance. Personally, I've never thought of DC as a particularly hip or trendy city. Fashion trends don't begin here, musical movements aren't born here, and no one would mistake Logan Circle for Chelsea. But, come on. We've got the Capitol building and the White House; the National Mall and the Washington Monument; Dupont and Georgetown and Logan and U Street and H Street and Capitol Hill. We've got the National Cathedral, the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian; lots of very educated people doing educated (and not-so-educated) things, cultural opportunities galore and some great restaurants. In other words, we've got a lot. And we've got a lot that other cities don't.

So, is DC cool? Well, it's not New York-cool, or LA-cool, or Miami-cool. But DC has a coolness about it that existed long before Obama got here. It's probably what brought a number of people--such as myself--to the city in the first place. And while I could make do with a few fewer Asian fusion restaurants in Penn Quarter, there's not a whole lot about the culture of the city I would be quick to change. Especially not to meet some coolness expert's arbitrary definition of "cool".


You Street Denizen said...

We'll never be cool except in teh sense of being so uncool that we're cool in an ironic way. If you are unsure, camp out at Federal Center SW in the warmer months and watch all the short sleeved dress shirts with ties.

Scenic Artisan said...

i always thought dc was cool.

but "hip" "trendy" and "in" are not my definition of cool.

neither is times square, or downtown dc.

Anonymous said...

I think DC is cool because the nightlife is good and there are tons of young, interesting people. But those who think LA is cool might not think DC is... but then again I think LA is fake, trashy, and vapid. So I guess it depends on your definition of cool. For better or worse, it is becoming more LA and NYCish (see Penn Quarter, U Street), slowly but surely. As someone who has lived here all my life, I'm not sure how I feel about that, but it is what it is. Finally, as many of my black friends have pointed out, DC is perceived as a very cool place among the country's African American community. So even while white people in LA might snub their noses at us, black people probably wouldn't.

All this being said, I think it is silly to even care. I like the city the way it is and so long as our schools improve, crime goes down, and the city continues to become world class, then that's what matters... not what some dorky journalists say about it.

cras4 said...

Its my personal life goal to make DC cool. And Times Square shouldn't exist in the same sentence as cool.

Anonymous said...

DC could definitely be a bit more organic. But, I don't think it will happen. I love living here, but the city is full of transplanted control freaks with bureaucratic mindsets. Street performers? WHAAAT? Outdoor markets that sell vegetables and more? OH, DEAR!

Go to any ANC meeting in Northwest. Lots of folks here want DC to retain the feel of a Leisure World community.

Anonymous said...

I Think Dc gets held back a bit by the NIMBY crowd. A diner/Tryst tries to get 24 hour operating hours in the 14th and U neighborhood and the ANC rep practically wets his pants at such an "atrocity". Bars try to stay open an extra hour or two during inauguration and the Churches and ANC go apeshit. The same churches that like to use DC streets as personal parking lots, but protest a bar opening in an boarded up building next to a liquor store that has bulletproof glass. Convert some of these beautifully built churches with such intolerant people into nightclubs ala the former Limelight in NY and DC might go up a few more notches on the cool meter. Having said all that DC is still one of my favorite cities.

Mr. 14th & You said...

"I Think Dc gets held back a bit by the NIMBY crowd. "

I hear you, Anon. It's one of our major gripes. As a member of my neighborhood CDC I try to maintain some perspective, but there are times when the "official" response to what seems (to me) to be a rather benign request comes off as a bit absurd.

Anonymous said...

This is totally incorrect: "musical movements aren't born here."

DC was the epicenter of the hardcore movement in 1980. Sure, people argue there were "hot spots" across the country, but come on, there is no single band more influential over an entire decade of post-punk music than Minor Threat, no single name dropped more than Ian MacKaye, and for that matter, not a single record label more definitive of an era than Dischord.

And then along came Seattle and its flock of musicians who pretty much did nothing but whine about drugs and girls.

I actually agree with Gloor. Very few things about this city are organic, and city planning actually does have something to do with the vibe (I'll save my argument on the impact of the unbelievable economic disparity for another day). It's plotted, it's rigid, and so goes the vibe. There is no overwhelming culture to begin with, which makes a counter-culture pretty impossible to sustain. And there goes the cool.

Mr. 14th & You said...

L'Enfant's city plan had an effect on the economic disparity amongst the city's population? Oh do tell.

Anonymous said...

There are too many nerds here for DC to be a cool city. But, that's okay. Too many lawyers well then that is another thing. Nimby's. I kind of like the fact that we aren't trendy, because for the most part trendiness is not cool. And trying to be cool usually means there are legions of really uncool neurotics running loose. Uptight people are not cool either and there are plenty of those here too. So, I guess coolness comes from being comfortable within yourself and having a sophisticated mindset.

Mikey said...

I've always felt "cool" is in the eye of the beholder. In this post alone we've heard that Times Square is both cool and terribly uncool. (I agree with the latter) This city offers a lot of the things you would find cool. It may not be the same, but Chinatown on a game night has a Times Square neon-flashing sense of cool to it. There are some great Jazz places for another crowd. Plenty of high end shopping for the LA types. I think DC has so many cool aspects that it sometimes gets lost in all it has to offer. As for me, I defy you to go to the Lincoln memorial on a clear night and look toward the capitol building with the Washington monument reflecting in the pool and not think to yourself "COOL".

Ryan Anderson said...

Well well, shame on you 14&You for forgetting about hardcore music. That's a shame. It's good anonymous reminded us, because that really is a significant cultural contribution from LOCAL DC.

Which I think provides a good example of some of the attributes of what "cool" really is. Mr. Times Square says cool but what he actually means is that it appeals to a mass market. Which, who cares, right? We already have too many tourists in the summer.

To me, cool (when it comes to cities) boils down to a culture that is both dynamic and local.

Whether it's NY, SF or Austin, TX, a cool city has a high level of artistic activity (per capita). If you have a certain density of graphic and performing artist, chefs, musicians, authors, designers, etc. you reach a critical mass of creative activity that's pretty cool. The culture sustains itself.

And though you might be tempted to lament that the "best" artists are in NY and LA so we can't compete, the reason they went there in the first place is because they wanted to join the existing, celebrated creative class. The vast majority of those artists came from somewhere else. Reaching a critical mass of cultural activity starts a self-reinforcing loop.

Once you have a dynamic creative class, it will, hopefully, develop a local aesthetic with distinct language, signs, traits and styles. "LA Punk" has its own sound and fashion and slang that you find elsewhere only in imitation. The Bronx means something different to hip-hop culture than Atlanta. The bands on Dischord in the 80s sounded like a slice of DC life that was unique. The Ruby Tuesday on 14th Street, however...

Part of DC's problem as I see it are, ironically, the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center and the like. Proportionately speaking we have a huge creative culture, but an overwhelming number of them are national institutions. Because their emphasis is the national culture, they do very little to help DC develop a local sensibility. They make that work even harder by focusing a huge chunk of the local audience on the external, rather than internal.

DC is, however, getting better. The local art scene is growing, there are new galleries, theater groups, bands, etc. And I think Obama coming to town will only help that trend. Democrats value uniqueness and individuality to a greater extent than Republicans, who conversely appreciate conformity to a greater degree. When it comes to making DC cool, the next 8 years should be fun to watch.

Elsie said...

I love this post, thanks

Mr. 14th & You said...

"Well well, shame on you 14&You for forgetting about hardcore music. "

Well, OK, mea culpa, I did neglect bands like Minor Threat that were of course integral parts of the hardcore scene in the early 80s. But my overarching point remains: by and large DC is not a "trendsetting" town. Hardcore may be DC's own contribution to the nation's musical consciousness, but in and of itself it hardly qualifies the city as particularly musically trendy. I like Bob Mould too, but I don't know if that makes me particularly cool... :)

EdTheRed said...

How can folks mention Hard Core and forget Go-Go?

I mean, I love me some Minor Threat and some Bad Brains and all, but Chuck Brown is a musical deity.

Otherwise, great post!

Anonymous said...

I think that the very fact that this conversation has emerged on many DC oriented blogs suggest that DC is getting cool. Definitely not cool yet; I mean, seriously, have you seen the condos on 9th and M? They look like they were designed by an eccentric old lady with a penchant for gardening.

As America's economy becomes more mixed (read: Socialist, for you republicans) This city will be attracting many, many more people, including more of a creative class. I think this is an extremely exciting time to live here (and glad to be a homeowner). Now, if only I could convince my fiance to move back here from NYC to start a hip architecture firm. but that's a personal problem and I digress...

PoorLilRichBoy said...

Wow, I was all ready to write a huge response but Ryan Anderson took the words right out of my mouth.

Anonymous said...

Although it can seem uptight and frenetic at times, at other times, there is a very laid back and chilled out vibe that can be felt in neighborhoods like U street and Adams Morgan. When I think of DC, I think of jazz, the African-American community, the Ethopian expat community, art galleries, the 9:30 club, bars in Dupont Circle, and those gloriously postmodern Metro staton ceilings. DC is definitely very cool, and this is coming from someone who lives in San Francisco. (I'm actually looking for an excuse to move back ASAP).