Alex Baca works on sustainable land use, transportation, and housing policy in the D.C. region. She has written for Washington City Paper, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington. Views here are her own.
Can increasingly unaffordable urban places have too many trendy restaurants and hipsters? Maybe that’s not the right question.
The tropes frequently leveled at D.C.—square, swamp, “Northern charm and Southern efficiency”—are well known. But until recently, you rarely found the descriptor “cool” among them (despite the efforts of the city’s visitor’s bureau).
That started to change in the Obama era, when the local economy boomed, Millennials arrived, and D.C. turned up atop “cool cities” lists. And last week, George Washington University law professor David Fontana confirmed, in a much-discussed story for the Washington Post, that the city had formally joined the company of the nation’s other redoubts of hip.
Much of Washington in 2018 arguably has more in common with the country’s hippest neighborhoods—Williamsburg in New York, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, the Inner Mission in San Francisco—than it does with the less cool cities of middle America.
This ascendant coolness is “terrible news for American democracy,” because the capital is “struggling to stay connected to the rest of America—for reasons similar to the concerns many of the founders once raised about New York City and Philadelphia.”
Fontana’s flaming-hot take triggered a lot of eye-rolling in my Twitter feed, which is heavy with current and former D.C. residents. All the squalling, though, used the story’s argument to double-down in one of two ways: First, on the oft-made scoff that D.C. is boring, expensive, and simultaneously a lanyard-Republican- and hashtag-resistance-friendly hellhole. Or it got defensive, summoning the unsung merits of authentically actual-cool local D.C. as well-intentioned antidotes to Fontana’s litany of hot restaurants and gentrified ‘hoods.
Which is to say: Even the pushback missed the point. Fontana invokes the founding fathers to indict D.C. for being out of touch. But what he really wants to say, it seems, is that D.C. got expensive—that “Washington was once a city that a middle-class family from Georgia or Rhode Island could send their child to for a summer in college for a job after college—and that child could afford to stay here when he or she wanted to buy a home and start a family.”
It should be noted that there are many cities that are now understood to be too expensive to “buy a home and start a family.” It should also be noted that there are many reasons why those places are too expensive, such as stagnating wages, zoning that prevents dense development, and the rising cost of higher education that’s saddling children of middle-class families with student debt. But mostly, Fontana’s two factors are incongruous: Something doesn’t have to be out of touch to be expensive, and something doesn’t have to be expensive to be out of touch. And none of the above hinges on the fulcrum of “cool.”
I grew up in central Maryland and launched my working life in D.C., which is where I spent my 20s. Leaving the city for San Francisco—which I did in 2014—was something so far out of reach of my own imagination for myself that doing so felt like an out-of-body experience. Now I live in Cleveland, Ohio, a place with which I’ve made an uneasy, though pleasant, peace.
There are things that I would consider cool about every place that I’ve lived. In San Francisco, I’d bring friends first to the Haight Street Whole Foods to buy a six-pack, then to a screenprint-shop-turned-arcade called Free Gold Watch to play pinball. I complained about the crowds at Zeitgeist, favoring the El Rio patio. My bedroom window pressed right up to Bernal Hill, and from there I could walk to work in the Mission. Cleveland is all startlingly wide, empty streets and swaths of vacant land that glow in our perfect sunsets; you can down rail gin and tonics for $2.50 here, and the coffeeshop I’m sitting in now is playing Animal Collective’s Feels. Now that summer has hit, I can have my friends over to hang out on my porch, in the house I own.
The common denominator in all of the above is, you’ll notice, me. In that way, I’m like the unnamed Vassar student who told Ada Calhoun, in her elegy for New York City’s East Village neighborhood, St. Marks Is Dead, “that St. Marks Place died with the fairly recent closing of the Starbucks at Cooper Union. ‘I came back from break,’ he said, ‘and it was gone. We used to hang out there and get cups and fill them with strawberry champagne and feel glamorous. There’s no room for life to be lived there now.’” David Fontana is this Vassar student, too. And so are you.
That’s because “cool” is entirely subjective. Calhoun, who grew up on St. Marks, credits individual perceptions of cool as inextricably tied to our younger “Technicolor years.” For that reason, I think that attempting to inflict what I believe to be cool, or uncool, upon anyone else—even in service of an argument about affordability and access—is a useless enterprise. What’s actually cool about coolness is that it’s inherent to you. Cultural-studies scholars call this authenticity, and in part we react the way we do to the signifiers of wealth that Fontana details because they seem inauthentic.
My D.C., and San Francisco, and Cleveland were and are mine alone, and I am lucky and privileged and honored to have experienced them in the way that I did. More people should have access to more places so that they can, for example, decide if they’d like to dunk on the Wharf—D.C.’s recently redeveloped nightlife district—as a soulless paragon of late-stage capitalism, or if they’d like to eat tapas at Del Mar before seeing Father John Misty at the Anthem.
Fontana employs these consumptive tendencies as the visible manifestation of why D.C. is bad for democracy, but that is a flawed application. He conflates “democracy” with an imagined American heartland of uncool places and people. And his argument has come too late. The city has been expensive for some time, and its systemically disadvantaged residents have struggled with high costs of living and inequitable access to resources long before today’s democracy-deserving “real Americans” could be rebuffed by D.C. rents in their post-collegiate years.
This is all to say that personal experiences alone, including yours and mine, do not make for credible policy arguments for the general public. Additionally, it’s problematic to wrap your plea for affordability, access, and representation around “cool.” But I suspect I know why Fontana did so. It’s easy to forget that, for many decades, Americans dismissed cities as dark and dangerous and preferred the suburbs. (Many—technically most—still do.) You are likely familiar with the history: government-sponsored white flight, blockbusting, redlining, rinse and repeat. Those who could move did so, leaving politicians and administrators with decimated tax bases and too much infrastructure to handle.
This created a certain cachet of coolness for those able to co-opt it: the fearless and cash-poor young beats and hippies and punks and hip-hoppers whose romantic retellings of their wild years have created an institutionalized sense of what is both cool and authentic in urban spaces. But cities were not objectively better, cooler, or even more affordable in the bad old days. They did, however, have fewer wine bars onto which members of the middle class—who likely never expected to not be able to afford housing in neighborhoods they had been conditioned to expect were their domains—were projecting their own brand of eating the rich.
The attempts to make cities “cool” that both Fontana and a rising leftist discourse selects to skewer has a name. It’s Harvey Molotch’s growth-machine theory, which argued for an economic-development-first approach to revitalizing cities and attracting new residents. Molotch wrote The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place in 1976, before most of us really cared about gentrification, segregation, and poverty the way that we do now. But if you’re mad at tax breaks, or mad at festival marketplaces, or mad about the fact that your city can’t pave your street but can definitely put together a bid for Amazon, you’re mad at the growth machine—a practice that presumes that the often-squirrely execution of “economic development” will produce enough revenue to fund basic services. Maybe this made sense in the late 1970s, when cities were desperate to attract people, businesses, anything. Today, amid a nationwide affordability crisis, it feels outdated at best.
Critiquing visible signifiers of “cool”—Fontana cites brands like Whole Foods and Philz Coffee, plus things as vague as “new apartment buildings”—might seem on its face to be an anti-growth machine treatise. But by valorizing mostly anodyne cultural signifiers, one legitimizes them. And that merely perpetuates the growth machine it purports to tear down.
It’s also a missed opportunity. There are things that happen within the geographical confines of D.C. that are bad for democracy—such as the fact that the District’s nearly 700,000 residents are taxed without voting representation in Congress, or the erosion of federal funding for publicly subsidized housing.
Many District defenders invoke the adage that the go-go swinging, mumbo sauce-swilling real city of locals is “D.C.”, while the congressional clowns live in “Washington.” But that’s a bit reductive. The federal government has substantially shaped the District of Columbia, and the city’s deep segregation is not a tale of two cities. That’s what D.C. is. It’s as complex and varied and subject to a swirl of political, cultural, and consumptive factors as anywhere else; D.C.’s particulars are specific, but not all are exclusive to it.
Fontana writes that, back in the 2000s, his somewhat grubby local espresso spot, Sparky’s, felt like Atlanta or Buffalo or Kansas City. Now that D.C. is fancy, per Fontana, it has no appreciable connection to those places. Yesterday, on WAMU radio’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” he summed up this argument: “Washington is more and more frequented by cultural trends that make it more removed from the rest of America.”
That’s granting an awful lot of exceptionalism to Washington, D.C., at the expense of Atlanta and Buffalo and Kansas City, all of which are also seeing rising costs of living, deeply entrenched poverty, and widening segregation—along with their own new coffeeshops, wine bars, and specialty clothing retailers. That’s because nearly every American city is seeing some sort of discomfiting spike related to housing. And even the ones that aren’t tend to react as if they are.
The logical end of critiquing “cool” in this fashion looks much like Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics In the Cappuccino City. Hyra’s book, as I wrote for City Observatory earlier this year, “operates firmly within the boundaries of the consumptive premise of gentrification, confirming to the popular notion that cocktail bars, restaurants of a particular caliber, boutique shops, and the people who frequent them are drivers of gentrification.” I referred to this point of view as the “cappuccino lens,” reappropriating Hyra’s own terminology—“a way of viewing neighborhood change that allows us as individuals to avoid interrogating—and thus, changing—the structures and systems from which we’ve benefited. It’s an explanation that always points the finger at someone newer, someone fancier, someone richer, someone with even more precious taste.”
Add Fontana’s treatise to the cappuccino-lens canon, which prefers to skewer consumptive tendencies rather than dig into the realities of why cities—not just D.C—are seeing such concentrations of wealth in particular spaces, and why that feels exceptional.
The history of American urbanism is very short and very fraught; perhaps we just don’t fundamentally understand what cities are, or what they can be. But cool is a valueless vector through which to explore this. There’s nothing cool or uncool about big piles of money taking up residence in glassy condos. Rather than decrying the places those condo dwellers go for dinner, we might want to think about imposing higher taxes on them and building more housing in their backyards. Instead, elected leaders tend to fall back on the corporate-friendly approaches left over from the growth-machine era.
The only plausible alternative I’ve seen offered is what legal scholar Richard Schragger argues in City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age—that “efforts to use city policies to grow local economics through business attraction and corporate subsidies” is “an ultimately fruitless pursuit that diverts resources and attention from the more pressing goal of meeting the basic needs of residents.”
A focus on “cool” as a driver of inequality fundamentally reveals to me that we are not prepared to leverage our built environments in the way that Schragger puts forth. It’s tempting to dissect the signifiers of wealth that define so many American cities, but the path to affordability doesn’t go that way. We’re allowing a preoccupation with something as subjective and ridiculous as referendums on coolness to distract us from something more serious—the fact that too many cities still subscribe to an aging theory that threatens to outgrow us all.