The Structural Barriers to D.C.'s Hipness: An Anti-Rant

A Washington D.C. neighborhood ended up on a Forbes list of the hippest places in the country, leading to the same old clichéd jokes about the very unhip city.

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A Washington D.C. neighborhood ended up on a Forbes list of the hippest places in the country, leading to the same old clichéd jokes about the very unhip city. As a resident of our nation's capital, I can confirm: The city is not hip and it never will be. (If you don't believe me, see here.) I therefore understand the sentiments of people like Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, whose sarcasm—"Bullshit List Says Washington, DC Is Not America’s Hipness Capital (Yeah Right)"—drives the point home. But rather than beat a dead trucker cap, we're going to take this opportunity to ask new questions: just why won't D.C. ever be "hip"? No matter how hard it tries by rejuvenating neighborhoods like H Street, the strip that landed it the No. 6 spot on that Hippest Hipster Neighborhoods ranking, there are some structural barriers to D.C. which preclude hipness.

It is too expensive. Hip comes with a particular brand of young and creative that flocks to cheap, yet dense with young people areas. D.C. draws young people, as The Atlantic's Richard Florida has explained, but not because of its affordability. Anecdotally, even in the gentrifying neighborhoods, like Columbia Heights, a room in a group house goes for $1,000. But if you want real numbers, both the city and the metro area have some of the most expensive rents in the country, according to a recent National Low Income Housing Coalition Report. As you can see in the chart below, which shows how much a household has to make to per hour to afford a two bedroom at the "fair-market rent," the D.C. metro is in the top ten most expensive metropolitan areas in the nation.

This list is not particularly hip. It's mostly suburbs with economies powered by corporate office parks. So look at the only other "hip" locale on that list: San Francisco. It's currently experiencing a unique tech-induced bubble that has pushed rents and wages up. But for those poets and theater directors who can't afford San Francisco there is always Oakland. Those fashion and media people priced out of Manhattan can rent in Brooklyn, Queens, or even the undesirable parts of Manhattan. D.C. doesn't have that. It has Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Arlington, and Alexandria on its outskirts. They're all fine suburbs to raise families if you can afford it, but they are not hip.

Beyond the rent, everything else is expensive too. D.C. restaurants are notoriously overpricedBack in 2009 the city had the second most expensive average drink price. That still feels true. Unlike New York or San Francisco or Philadelphia, there's no mid-price in the D.C. food scene: it's either the Equinox or Panera.

It's too small and can't get bigger. D.C. has a "height ceiling," which means its buildings, by law, can't get taller than a lot of them already are. That means low supply and high rent, as Josh Barro explained over at The Atlantic. Not only does that lead to our problem above, making everything more expensive (a dry-cleaner that has to pay D.C. rents will charge more than one that has to pay Bethesda rents, for example), it's harder to open bars, restaurants, etc. that young hip people enjoy. "Hip" places get overrun quite quickly with the not-hip people. This phenomenon happens everywhere, but in D.C. the possible places for happening locales is minimal. H Street, that hip corridor that Forbes pointed to, is already losing its grit. I noticed this after a dance bar named Little Miss Whiskeys changed its hip-hop night to standard top 40s hits and Journey. When I asked why, the bar tender told me Yelp brought a "different crowd," which is code for the city's uncool.

The District is also very, very small, with just 61.4 square miles of land. (New York City is 302 square miles; boho paradise Portland, Ore., is 135 square miles) This smallness matters because in most cities, hipster neighborhoods are gentrifying places where poor people used to live. Now, D.C. has plenty of poor neighborhoods. But it does not have a lot of places for them to go once hipsters move in. Gentrification, for better or worse, happens in D.C. Areas such as H and U Street, as The New York Times's Sabrina Tavernese explained last year are glistening examples. And I expect it will continue happening in the district's North East Corridor. One of the hipper bars these days, I hear, is out on Bladensburg Road, further east than the rest of H St.

We have never seen a study of where people who are gentrified out of a neighborhood go, but presumably they do need to go somewhere. For the Hasidic families in Williamsburg, that presumably was to other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens with large Hasidic communities. Most of Brooklyn and Queens is still poor or working class. But, D.C., a tiny district squeezed between two expensive suburban sprawls, does not have much room for affordable housing to grow. And while some D.C. suburbs have seen more poor people move in, it's hard to imagine the wealthy homeowners welcoming those priced-out of some gentrifying neighborhood with welcoming arms. According to the most recent Census numbers, the D.C. metropolitan area includes seven of the ten richest counties in the country. The wall of leafy, expensive real estate surrounding D.C. is not good for poor people or for hip creative types.

No one lives here long enough. Though hip is often synonymous with new and cool, things that stick around also contribute to a city's character, something D.C. lacks because of its transient population. Many D.C. employment opportunities are government-related, meaning a lot of jobs depend on the election cycle. According to Bureau of Labor and Statistics the government is the largest employer in D.C. Even the jobs that aren't directly for the government depend on it somehow. A consulting firm, for example, might work with government agencies. That means that every four or eight years, the city gets a new establishment, which pushes settled people out and brings a whole new crop of newbies in. No base means no neighborhoods. Hip likes to nestle and then settle. There is no settling in D.C. If people do decide to make D.C. their forever home, they usually head for the unhip suburbs.

Many residents are professional squares. Like we said, the young people D.C. draws are often doing government jobs. These people care a lot about government, which as "the man" is by definition uncool. And many of them are Republicans, which, those other hip cities do not have to contend with. It also often means they can't do scandalous (fun and hip) things, because their job drug tests, or involves an FBI background check, or one day they might run for Congress and they don't want a scandal on their hands.

The metro: Too clean, too little. The metro runs on a schedule convenient to commuters. It works like a dream during the hours of 7-10 a.m., and 5-8 p.m. Monday-Friday. But hipness doesn't commute. Hip works odd hours, filling in shifts at the local coffee shop, while making "art" on the side. If it does work regular hours, it rides its bike to work—something D.C. is wonderful at, with its myriad bike lanes and bike share. When hip really needs the subway, for its evening jaunts around town, the D.C. Metro fails. It closes at the very early hour of midnight on weekdays. On weekends it stays open until 3:00 a.m., which is better! But that is also when the city decides to do all of its track work, rendering the Metro too slow to consider using. It also doesn't go a lot of places, meaning people attempting to live in these gentrifying neighborhoods have a hard time getting to the rest of town.

It's also so very clean, a problem the rest of the city shares as far as hipness cred goes. Unlike the New York City subway, which has love-hate relationship with graffiti artists and buskers, the D.C. Metro is uptight. To keep the nation's capital looking good, which is a noble cause, the metro station attendants scold people who break the rules. Once someone told me to stop drinking my coffee, for example. As a result, it all has to be very sterile. It has posters celebrating the Wonk (pictured right via American University) the antithesis to hip. Even D.C.'s underground is not cool.

No promise of glamorous success. Hipsters typically want to amass cultural cred before they get paid real money. In D.C. it's exactly backward: people get rich and then, if they still care about being cool, they spend their money tyring to attain it. The glamour professions don't thrive in D.C. The most famous person in this city is Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed geek who wears Dad jeans.

As you can see, the things that make D.C. unhip aren't a lack of "good restaurants" or "clubs" or even "hip people," but rather things like infrastructure, the government, the economy, and a long tradition of following the rules. It is not a city that could get hip even if it tried. Not that that will stop New Yorkers from trying to make the same point again and again in joke form.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.