June 22, 2009

Top Ten DC-isms That Don’t Fly in Manhattan – Part 1

I was reminded of all the quirks that make Washington, DC so much different than New York City while spending this past weekend in the District, where I lived for nearly four years after college. I’m not trying to be all snobby and list reasons why living in Manhattan is better than living in DC because that’s not the case, but I do want to point out some cultural differences. Here’s the first installment of DC-isms I was confronted with/reminded of this weekend:

10. The Crosswalk Countdown Timer

Instead of relying on a flashing red hand or a little blue walking man to signify that it’s okay to cross the street, DC street signals actually tell pedestrians how much walking time remains until the light changes. This is such a great example of how orderly that city is. They also force to rely on their anal infrastructure because when the countdown clock hits 0 seconds the light changes immediately for on-coming traffic. There is no wiggle room for rule-bending. This nearly killed me when I first got to town because I thought it was counting down your time to START walking, not FINISH, so I once casually started crossing a busy street with 4 seconds left…not smart.

Here in New York, everyone knows that the red hand stops blinking when the cars with the right of way get the Yellow light, so you still have a good 2.5 seconds to rush across the street before the cars piling up get the Green light. New Yorkers don’t obey pedestrian signs anyways so it would never be worth the money to upgrade the signal system to the more luxurious and pedestrian-friendly countdown clock. Everyone stands 8 feet into traffic anyways waiting for a gap in cars to rush across the street. It’s like a contest at the crosswalk: Who’s the most daring New Yorker, willing to walk the farthest into the bus lane. Only tourists stand on the curb waiting for the lights to change.

9. The Definition of

Maybe I’m just being naïve, but when I think of New York neighborhoods undergoing gentrification with the addition of rich young professionals flocking to new sparkling condos, the original neighborhood infrastructure was fairly okay to begin with...that’s why the place was chosen to gentrify—since small improvements could be the tipping point for convincing the white bread, middle class to move in. When my friend Carrie lived up on Malcom X Blvd and 129th Street in Harlem, sure there was some crime, but the brownstones were nice, and there were normal neighborhood functional amenities like Laundromats and bodegas already there, so when the sprawling Mormon Church and subsequent Condos were built, sure they were “nicer” than the rest of the neighborhood, but they didn’t BECOME the neighborhood. They fit into the neighborhood.

This weekend, I visited a friend of a friend’s
fabulous luxury building in the area of DC near New York Ave and 5th Street NW, on the outskirts of Chinatown. This area is in the midst of DC’s version of Gentrification, which apparently means “create a new upper crust neighborhood in the middle of nowhere” rather than make an existing neighborhood nicer so wealthier people want to join its current residents.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this building is AMAZING. Twangs of jealousy came over me when I compared the amenities (fantastic roof deck equipped with grills and a pool, artwork throughout, supermarket in the building, etc) to my expensive though crappy UES walk-up, knowing that if I still lived in DC, my fiancé and I could afford this place. BUT, I was definitely put off by the fact that not only is the building flanked by a huge parking lot but also a set of commercial row houses that include a sketchy strip club and a 3 story burned out, windows-boarded-up shack. When that type of scene exists in a neighborhood, it is not gentrification to build a luxury building. Gentrification would be to fix the abandoned building(s) and otherwise increase curb appeal. Instead, what happens in DC is the hyperbole of gentrification that really doesn’t involve the neighborhood at all.

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