Washington Is Cool? More Like Passé

The US Capitol and Botanic Gardens at sunset
Photo: Jon Hicks/Getty Images

Let’s dispense with the ludicrous argument that our nation’s capital is “cool” or even “the coolest,” revived today by Forbes, made previously by the Washington Post and many others. 

I love D.C. It is home. I hope never to leave. It has tapas bars and tart-frozen-yogurt shops and wide boulevards and pretty gardens and arts organizations and go-go and half-smokes and museums. But it is not especially cool, and that is part of the basis of its appeal, for me at least. (A gorgeous, livable city chock full of policy nerds? I’ll take two.) It’s not just that. If “coolness” is a proxy for “gentrification” and the young people and hip businesses that come with it, as per Forbes, Washington certainly did get cooler through the 1990s and 2000s. But in the past few years, that trend has, well, cooled off. Washington peaked. And it peaked years ago. 

There are a number of factors that have contributed to D.C.’s gentrification — and the attendant influx of restaurants, bars, spinning studios, wine shops, arts organizations, and so on — over the past two decades. Among them are a safer urban core, the stabilization of the city’s finances, and young professionals electing to stay in the city rather than moving to the Virginia or Maryland suburbs. But the biggest factor might be the increasing wealth of the entire Washington region, driven by growth in federal spending that has stayed in and around the Beltway. More federal dollars meant more businesses competing for federal dollars. Those businesses attracted highly educated workers. Yet more businesses opened up to provide goods and services to those highly educated workers. And so on.

But military spending is coming down. Legislating has ground to a halt, too. There are fewer federal dollars getting pumped into the Washington area — and the region’s economy has felt a bit of a chill even as the broader economy has shown signs of picking up. The real estate market has calmed and in some cases declined. Year-over-year job growth has proven sluggish, and median incomes have stagnated. Office space is sitting vacant.

In time, the gentrification might quiet down too. People are still flocking to the area, drawn by the excellent amenities and high salaries. But the extraordinary economic growth the region saw during the 2000s, growth that was integral to the transformation of downtown? That’s largely over; those trend pieces have been written; that story has been told. So I’m calling it. Washington is just not the coolest city. It is downright passé. 

Washington Is Cool? More Like Passé