The United States capital really never had a chance. On July 16, 1790, President George Washington signed the Residence Act, which created a special district to serve as the seat of government for the former colonies of England. Creating a city with the explicit purpose of bottling up all of the most powerful people in the nation guaranteed that it would evolve into a breeding ground for the ruthless, the tactless, and the shameless.
Many of the 6 million souls who live in the metro area work for, or alongside, the federal bureaucracy. For some of them, life is a never-ending House of Cards-esque quest for power, influence, controlled substances, and sexual gratification. These people pretend their BlackBerry is a lethal weapon, lord around the city in black SUVs, and can only get hard when they see their name on Politico.
For everyone else, Washington, DC, is a hellishly humid pit of despair with unbearable traffic. The city is swarming with 30-year-olds still trying to show off their entry-level position by handing out business cards for a congressional office or obscure think tank—a job that barely pays the rent. Somehow, they're the lucky ones. The District has been struggling with rampant poverty and crime for decades now, and due to an ossified local government, that's not changing any time soon.
Here are a few reasons why DC is the Petri dish for the virus infecting America:
Washington, DC, Is a Celebration of Itself
Washington is basically an open-air museum of America. There are monuments, historical sites, and gift shops dedicated to patriotic tchotchkes everywhere. A mood of reverence and constant satisfaction permeates the entire town. Pride is great, but it's also that thing that goeth before destruction. For a country that purports to be a haven for reinvention, renewal, and second chances, its capital is preoccupied with patting itself on the back and habitually looking backward. This isn't all that uncommon for a major world power, but maybe a dose of humility would be helpful when the thousands of well-paid politicians and operatives who live and work here can't dig the country out of economic and social malaise.
If you think Rob Ford invented the "shitty mayor who smokes crack" personal brand, you're probably not old enough to remember former DC mayor and current city councilman Marion Barry. Barry is basically a real-life version of Clay Davis from The Wire, but with way fewer charming catchphrases.
During a 1990 joint FBI/DC police sting operation, Barry was captured on videotape with his former girlfriend using crack cocaine. The girlfriend, Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore, was an informant who arranged for Barry to come up to her room at the Vista Hotel, freebase, and then have sex. Once Barry agreed to the evening's festivities, officers stormed the room and placed him in custody. He can be heard on the tape saying, "Bitch set me up... I shouldn't have come up here... goddamn bitch." He served a six-month sentence in federal prison, despite his repeated entreaties for mercy because he said the Feds had had it out for him.
Barry's political comeback started swiftly after his release from custody. He ran for DC City Council, and eventually became the mayor again in 1999. He's been either the mayor or a city councilman ever since then, and has lost only one election in his entire career—the one during which he was locked up. Many of the city's underserved, poverty-stricken residents regard Barry as a hero, so much so that he is often referred to as "mayor for life" and future mayors covet his endorsement. This is despite a laundry list of infractions that continues to grow every year, and an admission in his autobiography that as far as the city's financial problems were concerned, there was "nothing I could do about it." In his first campaign after leaving prison, Barry's slogan was "He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for DC." That might be the most honest thing he's ever said.
Taxation Without Representation
More than 646,000 Americans live within the legal boundaries of the District of Columbia. They are all required to pay federal taxes. None of them have a representative in Congress with voting rights. Eleanor Holmes Norton currently serves as DC's delegate to the US Congress, which is the political equivalent of a season pass at Disneyland; you can enjoy the rides all you want, but you can't tell them where to put the carts that sell turkey legs, or dictate the price of a Pirates of the Caribbean T-shirt.
The irony that the home of the federal government does not have a voting representative in the legislature seems lost on pretty much everyone outside of Washington, even though this scenario was the catalyst for the Revolutionary War. Of course, a city that keeps electing Marion Barry to public office probably isn't organized enough to declare war on fanny packs, let alone a whole country.
District citizens and the city council try in their own special ways to grow awareness around this quirk of the system, such as the cynical license plate seen above, and a resolution introduced yesterday to rename a section of First Street "No Taxation Without Representation Way." As with all social change, passive aggression is the most effective tactic available. I think Gandhi said that.
Summer Is Hell
The urban myth that Washington was built on a swamp has been debunked more often than the rumor that James Franco had sex with Lindsay Lohan, but that doesn't mean that it's not humid as shit during the summer. It's so hot in Washington this year that the Department of Public Works announced they'd be picking up trash an hour earlier than normal this week, presumably to keep their employees from shuffling off this mortal coil while knee-deep in your soiled condoms, fast-food wrappers, and old issues of Us Weekly.
The Poverty Rate Is Out of Control
In 2013, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported on US Census information that revealed that 18 percent of Washington residents live below the poverty line, which is defined as making $23,492 a year or less for a family of four. The child poverty rate was around 30 percent in that same year. In DC's Wards 7 and 8, the rate is as high as one in three people. Ward 8 is, of course, the City Council district represented by Marion Barry—a man who has on numerous occasions been censured by the Council for accepting cash bribes from city contractors.
Washington Post city beat writer Mike DeBonis found in that same Census data that while poverty rates remain disturbingly high, average income in the District continues to rise. The median income rose from $54,000 to around $63,000, which DeBonis reported was twice the rate of inflation. In that same year, income inequality in DC was higher than in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The plutocrats in Washington seem to be tightening their grip on the city more and more every year.
Where You Went to School or Where You Work Determines Your Social Class
Like most cities where there's a dominant industry and a surplus of competition, it's common to believe that your career or alma mater makes you a better person—which is dumb, because Arianna Huffington went to Cambridge, and Donald Rumsfeld went to Georgetown and Princeton.
This is the attitude that allows individuals to coast on their reputation, their family connections, their wealth, or all of the above. When was the last time the president didn't have an Ivy League education? Reagan? OK, maybe a bad example, but the point is that DC rewards those who are already successful, and as shown by the poverty stats, doesn't really give a damn about those who haven't made it. So if you aren't a big shot, it's helpful to pretend you are.
The city is full of the kind of people who claim they’re best friends with Senator Ron Wyden, because they know a person who has a business card of another person, who is mutual friends with his neighbor. Worse than that are the people who say that they’re hanging out with Representative Keith Ellison when they’re actually sitting eight rows back at some pep rally for immigration reform.
Washington DC Is Just Los Angeles for Ugly People
The same rules of status, image, and networking apply here as in LA. Washington is consumed with who is eating at what restaurant, who is dating whom, what kind of home you own, and how powerful your publicist is. But instead of celebrities drunk-driving and trying not to be noticed in public, we have Mitch "Turtle Face" McConnell. DC's ruling class isn't going to be on the cover of French Vogue anytime soon.
Today, the US Patent Office canceled the trademark registration for the Washington Redskins football team. In a 2–1 decision, the Patent Office found that the nickname is "disparaging of Native Americans." Trademarks that are found to "disparage or belittle other groups" are not permitted by federal law. ESPN reported that this also happened back in 1999, but the courts overturned that ruling due to a technicality relating to the age of the person who filed the complaint.
This decision comes after years and years of contentious debate over the merits of the name of a football team. If you have elected officials wasting time bitching you out about your sports-team mascot instead of fixing the all-you-can-eat buffet of misery plaguing America, you should probably just suck it up and pick a different mascot. Might I suggest a cute animal like a beaver, or an indigenous creature of the Washington, DC, area, such as the "disgruntled Senate page"? Who wouldn't want to get season tickets to see the Washington Pagers, or sport merchandise bearing the logo of a harried 18-year-old in a suit covered in flop sweat? That's a continuing resolution that I would happily vote "yea" on.
Topics: Washington DC, Marion Barry, DC, District of Columbia, Washington, Nation's Capital, Barack Obama, president, President of the United States, Embassy Row, Eleanor Holmes Norton, worst place ever, No Taxation Without Representation, Crack-smoking mayor, mayors who smoke crack, Rob Ford, House of Cards, Arianna Huffington, Mitch McConnell, Ronald Reagan