Time was, you couldn't find a description of Washington that didn't include the word "sleepy," or a reference to JFK's slighting remark (which must have been cribbed from somewhere else) about Washington's "northern charm and southern efficiency." But in the last generation, Washington really has changed from a provincial-feeling town to something more like a world capital. The city's restaurants have started to pull foodies down from New York, and instead of just Georgetown and a portion of Adams Morgan, the city can claim half a dozen neighborhoods with real night life and daytime congeniality.
Where'd the money come from? As Annie Lowrey tells the story in the New York Times Magazine, the military-industrial complex – specifically after Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – began bringing a different kind of money into the District of Columbia. Government money went into new national security facilities and beefed up the coffers of defense conglomerates and consulting firms. New private money came in as major corporations began to see Washington as a place to do business. Lowrey could give more credit to the region's homegrown political elite, which has played an important role in making D.C. a more attractive place to work, play, and invest, but the larger portrait she paints – of a city that has grown due to federal largesse – is on the mark.
That’s pretty nice for those of us who live in this company town. But Charles Peters, the founder of our parent organization, Understanding Government, has long pointed out the dangers of this situation. He has sounded the alarm in his Washington Monthlycolumn, "Tilting at Windmills," about how wealth concentrated in Washington corrodes the ideal of public service and expands the self-interest of everyone from legislators to talking heads.
Now, back when Washington was a "sleepy Southern city," it was also a city where people got things done: things like World War II, the Apollo program, and the creation of major social programs. As the city has gotten richer (seven of the country's ten richest counties now ring the capital), it seems like it has also gotten less able to tackle the nation's problems. Washington's politicians work in a world-class city in large part because they've spent a lot of federal money here. It’s time for them to prove that they can match, in professional achievement, Washington's bartenders, restaurant owners, and retail developers. For the next generation, our politicians need to show that this city is world-class at solving problems.