by Akim Reinhardt
Less than an hour apart, similar in size and population, and connected by I-95 and a tangled overgrowth of suburbs, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are very much alike. The mid-Atlantic's kissin' cousins share everything from beautiful row home architecture to a painful history of Jim Crow segregation.
But the wealthier parts of D.C. have grown uppity of late, and you can blame Uncle Sam.
Whereas Charm City has suffered from de-industrialization, depopulation, and growing poverty over the last half-century, Washington's economy has grown dramatically with the federal government's rapacious expansion since World War II.
Once upon a time, Baltimore was a major American city driven by heavy manufacturing and voluminous harbor traffic, while Washington was a dusty, lackluster town, the population noticeably undulating with the political season. But after moving in opposite directions for decades, D.C. was poised to surpass Baltimore economically by the 1990s.
The rich cousin is now the poor cousin and vice versa, trading seats at all the family functions. But one thing has not changed: Neither member of America's urban clan ever has or likely ever will come anywhere close to competing for the title of Patriarch. We're not talking about big boy national powerhouses like New York or Los Angeles, or even avuncular, regional monsters like Chicago and Houston.
Nope. It's just D.C. and Baltimore
If Baltimore is the southeastern most notch on the rust belt, the rough, homemade punch hole that allows the nation to let out the its sagging waistline, then Washington is the two-bit company town in the heady throes of a contrived boom. Each town has seen their fortunes headed in different directions of late, but nobody is ever going to confuse either of these old branches on the family tree for anyone's rich uncle. Baltimore's heyday is in the past, while D.C.'s rising glory is transparently artificial.
Like cars used to be in Detroit, like steel was to Pittsburgh, or like the mills that dominated hundreds of towns across America, the federal government's presence in the District is simply staggering. Directly and indirectly it produces a nearly unfathomable percentage of the city's jobs. And no city of serious repute ever puts that many eggs in just one basket.
New York, L.A., Chicago, even San Francisco: none of them will ever end up like Detroit for want of a single industry pulling out. But that's exactly the precarious hold on prosperity that Washington maintains.
Of course the federal government will probably never abandon D.C. for Topeka, but if it ever did, the place would dry up and die. Thus, for now and the foreseeable future, Washington's inability to build a sustainable economy beyond suckling the public coffers renders it a second-tier city.
Kind of like Brasillia, but without the rainforest view.
Nevertheless, D.C. is clearly on the upswing of late. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the District is now laden with nouveau riche accoutrements and drowning in haughtiness. It has caused far too much eye-rolling during the last quarter-century and greatly needs to be put in its place.
This is especially true since most of the really annoying Washingtonians typically aren't even actual Washingtonians. I have always found D.C.'s indignés pleasantly and appropriately humble. Real Washingtonians, like their kindred Baltimoreans, occupy every rung of the economic ladder, but with more of them nearer to the bottom than the top. In general, they seem to have a pretty good grasp on the world and their place in it, and come across as clear-eyed, hardworking people, not counting the obligatory quotient of derelicts and criminals rampaging through both cities.
Unfortunately, unlike Baltimore and explicitly because of the federal presence, D.C. must shoulder an army of smug, grasping, well-to-do outsiders who make the place nearly insufferable. And there's really no end to them.
The fluid nature of politics means that many of Washington's best-paying positions are not permanent. Instead, a goodly portion of the white collar job market is relatively volatile, subject to the whims of electoral cycles and fleeting hot button issues.
Maybe it's what Detroit would have been like if auto workers came and went based on annual production modifications to the Big Three's endlessly changing line of cars.
People from across the 50 states come to the nation's capital to work for a few months or a few years or maybe even a decade, before returning home to wherever they came from. And those who land permanent work or take a shine to the place almost invariably vacate the city itself and head to the hellish orbit of suburbs that encircle D.C.'s broken diamond.
The result, courtesy of the federal government's revolving door, is a steady flow of moneyed transients funneling primarily through the district's northwestern quadrant.
All of this has shaped Washington, D.C. into an intensely annoying place.
Perhaps it's because the town is awash in American imperial hubris. Perhaps it's because so many of the newcomers have never actually lived in a city before. Perhaps it's because, as the seat of federal power, D.C. is a magnet for petty careerists and strivers eager for power and status.
Think Reece Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in the film Election.
But whatever the reason, D.C.'s transient, mostly white, moneyed class has done a spectacular job of cultivating a highly delusional image of both itself and the city where it pitches tents.
The bars close at 1:00. The Metro, a paean to bland, homogenous efficiency, shuts down an hour before that five days a week. Countless perks, including the crown jewel of free museums, are paid for by the rest of the nation.
And yet so many of D.C.'s glorified temp workers and hangers on, who would rather open a vein then enter any of the city's black neighborhoods for fear of getting mugged by an old lady in a church hat, would have you believe they live in a world capital: a mid-Atlantic Paris, a swampy London, or New York-on-the-Potomac.
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. And deep down they know it. So what to do?
How do you attempt to establish your street cred as a world capital when you're actually nothing more than a second-rate city, even by the regional standards of the Northeast corridor, much less the global stage?
Well, you certainly don't do it by comparing yourself to London or Tokyo, that's for shit sure.
Instead you take the coward's way out. You flash the bully's calling card. You shoot fish in a barrel. You find the nearest city that's a little bit weaker than you and try to beat it up.
You mock Richmond for being full of hicks. You dismiss Baltimore for being poor. You caricature the relatives you most fear being associated with, vainly hoping to distance yourself from them, praying that a good lampooning will allow you to elevate yourself by stepping over them.
A classic example of this shallow smarm reared up a couple of weeks ago when Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher authored a travel piece on Baltimore. The article's tone is so drenched in arrogance, the prose so dripping with condescension, that you quickly forget you're reading newspaper of national standing.
Fisher opens by saying he didn't want to come to Baltimore. He closes by saying he doesn't want to live there. In between are a string of failed jokes, a smattering of backhanded compliments, and a stunning degree of naïvité given the guy only had to drive an hour to get there. You can't read it without cringing.
Indeed, the bubble gum-cracking prose reveals a shocking bubble mentality. It's all very embarrassing.
Now, before you think I'm just a Baltimorean who's getting all defensive about some snooty, big-city scribe dissing his town, it's important to remember two things:
1. I'm not actually a Baltimorean. Yes, I've lived here for a dozen years, but I was born and bred in New York City, 3rd generation. So when I say D.C. is merely an overgrown administrative center, chock full of provincial social climbers desperate to believe their minor urban outpost is a global showpiece, I actually know what I'm talking about. Ironically (or not) Fisher's also from New York City. He even attended school in the same neighborhood as me, though he went to a fancy pants private school while I knocked heads at the local public schools, which is maybe why he comes off as a unctious prick, whereas I'm more apt to just say, “Fuck you.”
2. While I really do like Baltimore, and have always preferred it to Washington dating back to the late 1980s when I began visiting both towns fairly regularly, I am by no means a Baltimore apologist. Just last month, I published a warts-and-all salute to Baltimore at my website and at Press Box Magazine, that was genuinely affectionate but pulled no punches about the city's many problems. It earned me quite a bit of flack from defensive Baltimoreans who, scarred by the constant jokes at their expense, thought I was beating up on them when I was not.
So allow me then to take aim at Marc Fisher and The Washington Post, and know that my barbs are tipped with neither ignorance nor envy.
Now here's the thing. What Fisher's piece truly revealed, in all of its ironic glory, was not Baltimore's supposedly quirky shortcomings and buffoonish little victories, but rather Washington's own provincialism.
Look, as a native New Yorker I know just how provincial actual world capitals like New York, Rome, and London can be. But that's an especial kind of arrogance, a sort of imperial provincialism. And it's the exact opposite of the inferiority complexes that plague almost-but-not-quite places like Texas, Chicago, or Washington.
New Yorkers and Parisians aren't boorish because they're trying to make a point. Quite the opposite. Their brand of provincialism is born from simply not caring what anyone thinks about them. Worrying about that wouldn't even occur to them. They're tops and they know it. They insult you like a rich person insults the help: They don't even know they're doing it. Because you don't matter.
And so when The New York Times publishes one of its precious little travel pieces, it too can be horribly condescending. But when they patronizingly say, “Gosh, isn't this place oh so quaint,” they actually mean it. There's no subtext, no hidden agenda. They're not trying to get a leg up on anyone. They really are the world's true Cultural Lords, reveling in kitsch and exotica, and treating every other place they deign to visit as, at best, a charming side note.
As a native New Yorker, Marc Fisher probably understood this once upon a time, but one of two things seems to be clouding his perception.
One possibility is that he lacks the self-reflection to figure this out. I doubt that's the case since he is a former foreign correspondent. You'd think someone with that background has a pretty wide perspective. But given the intellectual opacity and laziness he showed in the piece, I'm hardly ruling it out.
The other possibility is that he's been lost in the wilderness for so long, primping and preening for the nation's almost great newspaper, that he's drunken the D.C. Kool-Aid. That he's bought into the hype and really does think Washington is something to write home about on something other than a postcard from White House gift shop.
Either way, his supercilious and uncreative article merely revealed his own insecurities. The effort to establish his city's status by putting a poor cousin in its place was tediously predictable.
At the end of the day, his piece and the minor regional firestorm it set off are nothing more than the public indulgence of a tawdry family squabble. An uncomfortably loud argument in the 7-11 parking lot.
But if D.C. were really so very different from Baltimore, then folks like Fisher wouldn't have to go to such lengths to point it out. After all, such pompous and petty petitioners, slathered in the whorish makeup of their own self-importance, are only fooling themselves.
That's why TV shows that supposedly take place in Washington, like Veep with Julia Louise Dreyfuss and House of Cards with Kevin Spacey, or countless similar movies, typically create a very convincing but cheaper version of D.C. by filming in Baltimore.
Because nobody can tell the difference, and nobody gives a shit.
Now take your seat at the children's table and shut the fuck up.
P.S. Last week I was in Las Vegas, a city that knows exactly what it is. While there, some friends and I went to the fights.
On the under card, Washington native Gary Russell, Jr. dismembered his Russian opponent in a unanimous decision, despite severely injuring his hand early in the bout. And for all 10 rounds I whooped and hooted and hollered my support for Russell, cheering him on, and shouting “D.C.!”
Cause I've got no beef with the real Washington. Us and them are just kissin' cousins after all, far more alike than we are different.
And Gary Russell, Jr. is the real D.C., not Marc Fisher, Tracy Flick, or the endless parade of poaching careerists who've never heard of him.
You know. He's actually from there.
Akim Reinhardt's website is The Public Professor.