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Washington, D.C. Is Truly America's Paris

05/20/2013 05:44 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2013
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Having grown up and graduated from college on the East Coast, many of my close friends are dispersed somewhere between Washington, D.C. and New York City. So, naturally, I find myself traveling up and down the eastern seaboard pretty frequently. This past weekend, while in New York City visiting friends, I noted a particular distinction between "The City" cohort and those of us in the District.

While we are all relatively strapped for cash, paying obnoxiously high rents to live in two of America's most bustling metropolises, the young 20-somethings of Manhattan are more often asking for it. A handful of my peers living in Manhattan are paying somewhere around $1,600 per month to live in a shoebox and commute to work in Long Island, Connecticut, or New Jersey.

"What's the point of a reverse commute?" I asked. "You're paying sky-high rent to live in New York, only to leave every day and spend an hour commuting to work outside The City."

This inquiry almost always invites a response along the lines of, "I just so love New York," which, as a D.C. resident, strikes me as a bit odd.

In the two years I've lived in Washington since graduating from college, I have never once met someone who justified living here for pure love of the city, with a whimsical, "Oh, you know, I just love D.C." Sure, I've met people who enjoy living in the District, but they're here because of their job, not in spite of it.

It makes some sense. After all, New York is the city that has inspired songs from Frank Sinatra and poems by Maya Angelou. D.C. inspires partisan bickering.

"D.C. is a city without a soul," one of my New Yorker friends once remarked. And yes, for those who have little experience inside the Beltway, Washington traditionally evokes the lackluster image of government block buildings sitting in a swamp that is swarming with politicians in bad suits. Not exactly the stuff of romance.

But, contrary to the opinion of many New Yorkers, Washington is quite a romantic, cultural hub. Indeed, it is fittingly referred to as America's Paris.

In this comparison, the similar urban layouts of D.C. and Paris are often referenced, as the streetscape of D.C. was designed by French-born American architect, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, whose design is very similar to that of Baron Haussmann's restructured City of Lights.

Under Napolean III, Haussmann leveled Paris, overlaying her winding streets with expansive boulevards to make it easier for troops to move through the city and harder for rebels to hide in the shadowed alleyways of Old Paris. Like Paris, D.C. was designed so that, if ever attacked, the army could move easily through the city to confront the enemy. Not only are the boulevards reminiscent of Paris, but so too are the bridges of the Potomac and the sidewalks on which charming outdoor cafes can sit without the disturbance of traffic.

Also, like the Paris detailed in David McCullough's Greater Journey, D.C. attracts expatriates en masse. While the expatriates that journeyed to Paris in the early- to mid-twentieth century were often of the artistic variety, those that gravitate to D.C. today are almost exclusively motivated by something politically oriented. Nevertheless, the breadth of international residents cultivates quite a robust culture inside the Beltway.

If I am to be vindicated in my insistence that D.C. is one of America's charming cultural hubs, it is in this data. According to U.S. Census Bureau data published in March, the District's population expanded to an estimated 632,323 residents in 2012, growing at a rate of 2.2 percent in the year between July 2011 and June 2012.

While America's Paris does not yet boast of residents who are captivated exclusively by its charm, it may very well soon. Until then, I'll enjoy my sweeping boulevards and sidewalk cafes.