One of the great fallacies about Obama-era Washington was the idea that the 44th President was responsible for DC’s renaissance. On the surface, it made sense. A city whose reputation involved boxy suits and expense-account steakhouses was now home to a polyglot class of cool young newcomers. It all seemed to coincide with the arrival of a cool young President and a polyglot cast of political newcomers. How could it not be related?
A few things were wrong with the explanation. For one, the city’s square reputation has always been a bit overstated. Whatever happened right after 2008 was only building on decades-long trends that had rendered the capital more artsy, more bougie, and more cosmopolitan. Obama’s contribution to the tweeing of Washington had more to do with economics (Uncle Sam kept hiring during the Great Recession) than with his purported coolness.
Yet two years after his exit, it’s hard to argue that the city’s vibe is the same. Yes, we still overpay for hot restaurants and bid up condos in once-unlikely neighborhoods. But the fashionable celebrity visitors—and the out-of-town reporters doing trend pieces on Washington’s new hipness—are harder to find. Locals fancy ourselves more than just a federal village, but our biggest mascot is still the person at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When that person is a septuagenarian who launches Twitter attacks on LeBron James and climate science, it represents something of a brand challenge.
Now, though, the aftermath of the midterm elections might offer relief to those who like it when people elsewhere think of us as cool. (Admit it: You’re one of them.) No, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer won’t magically become hip avatars. It’s the congressional nobodies, or rather the folks who might once have been congressional nobodies. Not long ago, getting famous enough to be recognized was tough even for veterans. In 2019, social media and a nationalized political environment mean the fashion choices of rookies like Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are big news.
Ocasio-Cortez, a twenty something from New York, is a particularly energetic Twitter presence. Soon after her election, she noted that affording a DC apartment would be tough for her before her congressional salary kicked in. Fairly quickly, José Andrés, the chef/activist, offered her a place to stay. In a pair of December tweets about underpaid Capitol Hill interns and staffers, she explained she’d been in a local dive bar and was surprised to find Hill employees working second jobs there. Sure enough, the conversation in Washingtonian’s office turned to the question of just where this AOC-frequented bar was. And there it is: They’re admired by kitchen celebs! They drive curiosity about no-name bars! After two years of star turns for Devin Nunes and Wilbur Ross, politics has brought us at least a few people who seem kind of hip.
It won’t be long before we give them credit for finally, totally, for the first time in 200 years, making dowdy old Washington a cool place to be.
This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Washingtonian.