The New York Times‘s Travel section has once again dared to suggest to its readers that they visit Washington, and with the latest recommendation comes, of course, the usual backlash from proud DC exceptionalists with almost-as-well-known publishing platforms.
The most recent offending passage appears in a piece titled “52 Places to Go in 2016,” the latest installment in an annual Travel-section series in which the Times tries to give its readers a year’s worth of vacation advice. And Washington is No. 26. This year, the paper recommends a vist to downtown DC, which is awash in new developments that “raise the bar”:
The National Mall, studded with landmarks and museums, will soon have one more jewel in its cultural crown: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open late this year. Expect exhibits presenting a nuanced perspective of the African-American experience through cultural artifacts, artwork and personal-history stories. Adding to the appeal of downtown is nearby CityCenterDC, an ambitious 10-acre development project filled with apartments, condos, shops and restaurants, including Momofuku CCDC (the first United States location outside of New York of the celebrated restaurant brand), which opened there late last year.
While the print edition of the Times‘s destination guide won’t hit until Sunday, Washington City Paper and DCist were quick to pounce, blasting the paragraph as another episode in the newspaper’s “haphazard attempts to understanding our city,” as City Paper‘s Jessica Sidman and Matt Cohen write.
Both City Paper and DCist are especially piqued about the inclusion of CityCenterDC, which they malign as “soulless.” Instead, they offer some alternatives for visitors, ranging from the outgrowths of new restaurants in Shaw and Bloomingdale to the collection of small-batch beer and food producers popping up across Northeast DC.
And they’re not entirely incorrect in their assessments of the implausibility of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is unlikely to open before the fourth quarter of this year, and CityCenterDC, where the buildings are derided for having as much architectual charm as new college dormitories. (Although one exception to the criticism of CityCenterDC, as CityLab’s Kriston Capps calls out, is its jagged-edge park that includes a fountain that was cut with a laser.)
But it’s their calling out CityCenterDC for its luxury shops and restaurants where the criticisms fall flat. Yes, Times readers in New York can shop brands like Alexis Bittar, Canali, David Yurman, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Tumi without ever going above 23d Street, and they can eat at one of six Momofuku restaurants without leaving Manhattan.
Consider the typical Times reader, though. Not the more than 60 million people who read it online every month, but the dead-tree crowd. The New York Times Company’s media kit for its flagship newspaper identifies its audience as an overwhelmingly affluent one, with an median household net worth of $1.03 million and annual expenditures of $297,279. Of that spending money, $25,180 goes toward travel, $19,576 is spent on apparel and accessories, while $14,300 pays for leisure and dining. In other words, the Times figures its readers are upper-crusters with oodles of cash to spend on fancy vacations.
And that’s exactly what “52 Places to Go” is built around. While it’s an exercise in cultural tastemaking, luxury—not hipness—is the defining quality. Just look at some of the other entries: Park City, Utah; San Sebastián, Spain; Abu Dhabi; the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, which the paper notes was popularized by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. These are all expensive places to either travel to, stay in, or both.
Washington’s inclusion on this list might be more in line with other domestic destinations like East Bay, California; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and St. Louis, but just because a place does not require a passport stamp to enter does not mean the Times is going to tell you to slum it when you get there. The St. Louis blurb suggests a trip to the famous Gateway Arch, which Missiourians are presumably as tired of seeing as a default destination as Washingtonians are of the Mall. Grand Rapids, with a 40-brewery “ale trail” and a sculpture garden that features installations by Auguste Rodin and Ai Weiwei—OK, that’s legitimately cool and now I want to go there. The entry for the East Bay? It ends with an uplifting note about an upscale mixed-use development in Oakland. That sounds familiar! (Also, it’s called Brooklyn Basin, which will surely comfort the Columbus Avenue swells who make the trip.)
Is a New York Times travel section itinerary for Washington designed to appeal to the locals who already call it home? Not really, because it’s not for us—-any more than the itineraries for St Louis or Grand Rapids are written for folks who live in those cities. The suggestions offered by Washington City Paper and DCist are fine, but they’re also more likely to get their tourist business from out-of-towners visiting their DC-dwelling familiars or the travelers creative enough to go beyond downtown. But for the uninitiated—the many more well-heeled Times readers for whom Washington-as-destination continues to be defined by the Mall, museums, and monuments—a day of shopping at CityCenterDC and a well-timed visit to the Smithsonian’s newest branch is fine as a primer, even if it is completely unimaginative.
And for what it’s worth, Momofuku is run by a Washington expat who can’t refrain from obsessing about returning to his hometown. The Times, City Paper, and DCist all declined to mention that detail. Fig & Olive has a couple New York locations; at least the Times didn’t try to send anyone there!