THE BLOG

D.C.'s Urban Revival Rivals All Others

11/04/2013 11:02 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Almost a year ago now, I moved downtown to 14th Street. With each passing month, my neighborhood becomes more and more unrecognizable, as new restaurants and boutiques sprout up like well-tended wild flowers. But forget the widely reported changes of this past year. The neighborhood I now call home is a jarringly stark contrast to the 14th Street I first experienced a mere three years ago.

During the summer of 2010, I interned as a reporter and endeavored to do a quasi-investigative story on D.C.'s little-known cooling centers. Admittedly embarrassed to reread my amateur writing, the experience of exploring this hitherto unfamiliar neighborhood is worth revisiting.

I remember looking up directions from the White House area to the cooling center, located on the corner of 14th and U. As a broke intern, it was instinctive to walk rather than pay Metro or cab fare. So, armed with nothing more than my laptop, I set out for the cooling center. Upon turning onto 14th Street, I remember feeling unsafe, kicking myself for not having worn something a little more modest than bright yellow shorts and a tank top. I clutched my laptop case, flung haphazardly over one shoulder, and remember the wave of relief I felt -- after walking a couple more blocks -- to see a young mother, pushing a stroller, Starbucks in-hand.

As a disclaimer, it is worth noting that despite being a wide-eyed intern, I was not unfamiliar with city living. Prior to that summer, I had lived in Paris, Milan, Baltimore and downtown Houston. But I digress.

Now, as I sit typing away in my neighborhood Starbucks, across from the emblem of gentrified yuppiedom, Whole Foods, it's funny to think that I would ever feel unsafe in these here parts. Though, as I survey my surroundings, the overwhelming amount of people clad in lululemon is unsettling...

As noted in a recent Washington Post editorial, "The formerly riot-scarred corridor has gone into gentrification overdrive, a boom fueled by investors looking for a safe place to park hundreds of millions of dollars, the relative ease of obtaining a liquor license, and the arrival of thousands of new residents longing to live downtown."

To be true, D.C. is certainly not alone in this kind of urban revival. Recent U.S. Census data found that, in "2010, a total of 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, up from 79 percent in 2000," and that "the population of urban areas grew by 12.1 percent, much faster than the country's growth rate of 9.7 percent from 2000 to 2010."

Unsurprisingly, New York is still outpacing other expanding cities, hitting its highest population ever this year. But, there is reason to believe that the kind of gentrification and urban renewal we're seeing in D.C. is especially unique.

Despite ranking only as America's 12th-largest city, D.C. is America's most popular destination for relocation. In part, D.C.'s newfound cache is a result of its "maturing high-tech sector and many Federal government jobs, which are more stable in recessions," says economist Michael Stoll, professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

However, unlike other booming metropolises, the skylines of which are dotted with multistoried office and apartment buildings, D.C. has some pretty restrictive zoning laws. Namely, the federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910 has stunted the District's skyline for over a century, prohibiting any kind of building remotely resembling a skyscraper. So, because the growing city can't grow up, it has to grow out.

With this hyper-concentrated latitudinal expansion, neighborhoods once on the periphery, like Shaw and Petworth, are now being flooded by the ever-increasing influx of D.C. residents who fund and fuel a quick urban turnaround. In a matter of months, entire neighborhoods are gutted and revamped, electrifying a city once recognizable only by its stark government block buildings, decaying center city and affluent suburbs.

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