News & Politics

Is Washington a Real City?

Define real.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

The Charge: We’re not a real city.

The Defense: Define “real.”

The argument that Washington is a phony town is fairly simple—after all, someone literally invented it. And, like the manmade capitals of countries as far-flung as Australia, Brazil, and Pakistan, it was a pretty empty place for a long while.

Of course, unlike brand-new counterparts—Myanmar’s capital was established barely a decade ago in what was once sugar-cane fields and rice paddies—we’ve had 200-plus years to grow an actual city atop the planners’ grid. Which is why, these days, the allegation leans more on the idea that Washington is a land of transients, lacking the old ethnic neighborhoods of a place like Philadelphia.

And we’re lucky for it. People migrate to cities that are economically and culturally vital. That ambitious types from Kansas or Connecticut move to the Beltway is a sign of health. So is the fact that our major suburban counties are nearly a third foreign-born. Would you prefer living in a place newcomers avoid?

This article appears in our Defense of Washington feature in the March 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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Michael Schaffer has been editor of Washingtonian since 2014. A former editor of Washington City Paper and editorial director of The New Republic, Michael is also the author of One Nation Under Dog, a 2009 book about America’s obsession with pets. A DC native, he currently lives in Chevy Chase DC with his wife and their two daughters.