Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The endless D.C. argument

Commenting of mass proportions broke out on the blog DCist yesterday over a Portland, Oregon-based band's negative review of their experience at music venue DC9 in the Shaw-U Street-Howard neighborhood. (Oh, for your own edification, if you even care, every D.C. neighborhood has at least three names kind of going on. For instance, my office is located in Federal Triangle and just south of Gallery Place-Chinatown-Penn Quarter. Oh, and not too far from Capitol Hill. Yeah. Nutty!). Anyway, here's the start of the blog entry:

A recent tip from Dave at Indiefolkforever lead us to a rather unflattering portrait of our fair city. Norfolk & Western, a Portland band that visited D.C. last month, apparently didn't have a very nice time playing DC9 or visiting the U street/Shaw neighborhood in Northwest D.C. As part of a tour journal posted on Local Cut, the
band wrote:
Washington DC proved to be a less pleasant experience for all of us. DC is not the safest city in the world to begin with, and according to my sources, the club we played at was located in a particularly bad area.

I have mixed, convoluted feelings about this band's experience, the discussion that ensued on DCist, and the larger implications of this type of discussion, all of which I will try to explain.

So anyhow, this band appears to have had a bad time in our fair city, and many commenters are taking personal offense. Really, though, who's fair city is it? Not mine. I still consider myself a Chicagoan (or Chicago suburbanite), and I'm guessing most of those commenting have only been in D.C. for a couple years at most, so let's just establish that few of us are authorities on authentic D.C. (which also happens to be an oxymoron).

Anyway, the perennial argument in D.C. ever since hipsters settled the Northwest (NW D.C., this time, not the Pacific Northwest) and continued to move East, centers around how transplants/upper and middle income/white people feel discomfort towards the "real" D.C. People who come to D.C. are viewed with a skeptical eye, with everyone from suburbanites to bands from the Pacific Northwest at risk for getting slammed for not accepting D.C. as it is. Here's one comment on that blog entry that expresses such a sentiment:

[The band's] comment [on their experience at DC9] is unfortunately typical of quite a few other people I have met from the Pacific NW, and also from other crunchy "liberal" places like Vermont and Minneapolis (where I'm from). They think they're all tolerant and progressive, but aren't comfortable with actual diversity. I'm sure they thought U Street is a particularly bad neighborhood, because like 1/2 the people on the street are black.

It is true that a lot of people habor a mental map of the District that redlines most of Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and even some of Northwest (east of 16th Street). DuPont and Georgetown are great, Adams-Morgan is fine if you stay on the main strip, and U Street is "sketchy." Seriously, someone said that last thing to me this weekend. People like that don't make it too far out of Georgetown, which is a shame, because Georgetown nightlife sucks.

Lately though, I've been thinking that it's silly to deride such people for their insulairty. For one, we're all insular to some degree, preferring to stay in places where we're comfortable. Furthermore,do hipsters really want frequenters of Georgetown bars invading U Street? U Street establishments are busy enough as it is. Still, much of the dismissive remarks made about D.C. neighborhoods are ridiculous. I've always hated the word "sketchy," part of the lexicon of the self-sheltered urban dweller because what people often mean when they apply that word is that a neighborhood is different to them, lacking in sports bars, Banana Republics, and yuppy condos.

Still, I can understand the worry about being mugged and think the derision of those who are worried about walking alone on a dark street is unfounded. Some commenters acted like the band was lucky not to get mugged:

As far as their "gang experience", sounds like the guys were just pushing their buttons. I agree it would be intimidating, but come on. They didn't get robbed or anything while they were here.

I've never gotten mugged (*big knock on wood*), but the D.C. residents who try to prove their street cred by deriding anyone who's not comfortable with the idea of winding up in a situation where they are handing their wallet to a scary man whose gun is pointed at them have either never gotten mugged either or are bloviating. No one wants to get mugged, and it should not be acceptable to get mugged. I don't care if you're in the poorest neighborhood in the city; I don't think any decent person --no matter their socio-economic situation--should be accustomed to being mugged. Too often the assumption around here is that in poor or non-white neighborhoods, crime is part of the landscape. Even if those conditions predict higher crime rates, no neighborhood prides itself on high crime, and no neighborhood wants high crime. There is this idea, not just in D.C. but all over, that urban authenticity is predicated on one's exposure to crime. It's unfortunate that crime gets elevated to a character-building experience.

Finally, and this is slightly separate from this particular incident, I get a little fed up when hipsters act as if their conception of D.C. is more authentic than anyone else's. Nothing about the modern conception of the city is authentic. For a long time, city streets were home to cesspools of waste because of inadequate sanitation systems, urban residents lived on top of each other in ramshackle dwellings, and the young and old alike labored long hours in the industrial sector with little time for leisure activities like hanging out at the local music joint. The notion that a city is a place for enlightenment and creativity is relatively recent. I always find it especially condescending when people look down on suburbanites for not living in the city and supposing it is because they are afraid of diversity and creativity. These people forget that for a long time, the American dream was to get out of the city. Only recently is the dream to move back, and it is an increasingly hard dream to attain if one's target is a city like Boston, San Francisco, New York, or even D.C. (That's why Chicago is where it's at, but anyway...).

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