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Five Cities for a Fresh Start: Washington, D.C.

This is Part 3 of Five Cities for a Fresh Start. Each week, we'll feature another American city ready for motivated and creative people looking to move. Click here to read the series' Introduction.

Last week, we showcased Louisville, Kentucky, the second in our series on the best cities in America to consider moving as a young, up-and-coming person. For this third entry, we're touching down in Washington D.C., but not to see the sights. This time, we're sniffing around for real-life information: what's it like to live in the nation's capital? 

Yet again, we're using the same set of questions, plus the first one about our preconceptions. Welcome to the Potomac, ladies and gents

Washington, D.C.

0. Our Preconceptions (for Full Disclosure)
Most recently? Three little words: House of Cards. The show's cinematography (dat opening sequence) seems to impress upon viewers that D.C. is a city of beauty, but also of looming power—it's even in the architecture. As far as the city's people go, Kevin Spacey and cast might convince us it's a city of well-dressed sharks, and frankly, that doesn't change the image we had before we binge-watched the show a couple months ago.

Playing second fiddle to the pop culture reference: our actual experiences in the city. Like many people, we've visited the nation's capital as tourists. Then, a lot of us went to college in Virginia at schools 2-3 hours away, so we were close and we knew a lot of people from the D.C. area. In total, we've been there a couple dozen times since the year(s) we started college.

1. What's its story?
Everyone knows Washington D.C. is the nation's capital, but most people don't realize that it was basically built from scratch as a capital city—it didn't formally exist when the Declaration of Independence was signed. James Madison and others realized, in the brief chaos after the Revolution, that America needed a permanent capital city with federal jurisdiction, so it was written into the Constitution—but without saying where that city would be. The placement of D.C. in Virginia, in the South, was the result of the Compromise of 1790 between Jefferson, Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. (In exchange for putting the capital in the South, Hamilton got support for his financial plan, which had the federal government pay Revolutionary War debts for all states, including the heavily-indebted northern states.) Congress officially moved into the city in 1800 and they've been there ever since. 

Credit to DavidRumsey.com for this facsimile.

2. How many people are there, and how do they look overall?
In D.C. proper, there are about 650,000 people, but the city's population almost doubles during the workweek (hence the horrible D.C. traffic). D.C. is certainly the most diverse city on this list—nearly half of the city's residents are black, about 35% are white, 10% are Hispanic, and about 5% are Asian. Those numbers are in flux, of course—recently, the latter three groups have moved into the city in greater numbers. Also, a 2012 Gallup poll indicated that about 10% of the city's residents identify as LGBT, which was the most of any city in the U.S.

3. What's the place like? How's the weather?
Temperate, but temperamental. D.C. can be absolutely gorgeous during the spring and fall, but Mother Nature cuts them short if she feels like having a longer winter or summer that year. Summers aren't awfully hot, but like Louisville, D.C. is sticky and humid and allergenic during those months. Winters are usually mild-ish, but in recent years they've seen some heavy snow and cold temperatures. (At least by their own standards; Virginia, like much of the South, doesn't know how to handle itself when it really snows.)

4. How much does it cost to live there?
Quite a bit—this is easily the most expensive city on our list. As we mentioned in the series' introduction, we didn't want to pick super-expensive places because they'd be prohibitive for too many people. But, at the same time, we recognize that more expensive cities are usually centers of power, so we figured we'd offer such an option.

To the details—the cost-of-living index within D.C. proper is 152, well above the national average of 100. (Though, to put things in perspective, the index for Manhattan is 214.) Within that index, D.C. proper is yet harsher for housing costs—so roommates, smaller spaces, and simpler standards are the way to think here when looking for a place. Your search might also take you to one of the neighboring cities—they're close enough to count.

5. How educated are the people, and what do they do for work?
Sorry, Denver—this is actually the best-educated city on the list. Denver's 35% of adults with a four-year college degree was good—but according to the Post, anyway, nearly two-thirds of Washingtonians have the same degree. Judging strictly by the statistics, you're not going to find another city both this smart and this high-powered in America. As it turns out, this is good news for people seeking serious employment. D.C. has a ton of professional opportunity, whether you want a recession-proof government job (which 30% of D.C. holds) or something in the private sector. Within the private sector, there's lots of business and law, but also options in finance, education, and research. If you're seeking a job with a strong intellectual or legal bent, you can find a vocation in D.C.

6. What's there to eat and drink?
A little of everything—which is great, but unsurprising for a city of its importance, diversity, and wealth. Locally speaking, it's got fresh seafood (e.g. oysters) from the Chesapeake Bay, and since it's in Virginia (lest we forget), you can still find decent Southern and comfort food. You can get as uppity as you want, of course, but let's remember that Frank Underwood frequented a hole-in-the-wall joint (if only Freddy were real).

If you want to skip the tablecloth, there's a growing food-truck scene and plenty of options for quick take-out. Those "cheap" options cost a little more here—a full meal at a food truck is still $15 to $20 in a lot of places—but you're unlikely to come away disappointed. D.C. proper doesn't make a ton of its own spirits, but it does a good job serving everyone else's—Washingtonians are thirsty, and they don't tend to discriminate between wine, beer, and craft cocktails. (And when they offer an unlimited mimosa brunch, they really do mean unlimited. We found out the hard way.)

7. How are the people?
We've mentioned the high education level and diversity already. Now let's talk about age breakdown, because you might find it interesting: D.C. is pretty young overall (median age of 34 is pretty low by national standards), with tons of people in their 20s and 30s—but there are very few kids (people under 18). This should suggest that, while some Washingtonians do settle down and have families, they do it later, if ever (or they move away to do it). The people are cerebral, motivated, young, and forward-thinking—friends and colleagues are welcome, children less so.

It's also worth mentioning the cultural rift between D.C. and the rest of Virginia. Attending college elsewhere in Virginia, the students called the D.C. area "NoVA," for "Northern Virginia"—basically, D.C. and its immediate neighbors. That big urban area—which is busy, dense, and cosmopolitan—makes Washingtonians and Virginians kind of distinct from one another. D.C., while in Virginia, is not a Southern city; Richmond is. You'll see the difference just walking around: Abe Lincoln sits watching the Mall, but Jefferson Davis stands watching Monument Avenue.

8. What's within driving distance?
Since D.C. is right smack in the middle of the Atlantic coast, it's near some of the oldest and most populous cities in the country. To the north, it's 1 hour to Baltimore, 2 to Philly, 4 to New York, and about 7 to Boston. (Of course, all of these are "Google Maps ideals"—Eastern seaboard traffic is a bitch.) D.C. is the southernmost of those big cities, but you can still head south for the beach—4 hours to Virginia Beach, 5-6 to Outer Banks, and 8 to Charleston.

9. What do you get here that you don't get anywhere else?
To state the obvious, it's the nation's (only) capital, and there's something special about that. Partly there's all things 'Murican about that, if you care. But there are tons of fringe benefits to being the capital city; for example, the relative wealth, high level of education, and high level of diversity mean that the city attracts some of the most forward-thinking, high-caliber people in the country. And because D.C. is the capital city, almost every kind of business has an interest in doing work there. So whether you're shopping with friends or shopping for a job, you'll have a wider and richer palette in D.C.—as long as you can pay to play, and as long as you know where to carve out a spot for yourself.

10. What's the final word?
Washington is not an easy place to keep up: it's more expensive, the people are sharp, the hours are often longer, and the traffic can suck. It's a good place to be young, but not a great place to start a family. Such is life in a bigger, more powerful city—but if that's the trade you want to make, and you can find a niche to make yourself comfortable, D.C. might just light you up like the Fourth of July.

There are some who will say New York should have had this spot instead, that as big cities go there's no duplicating New York—and there's a part of us that can't argue with that. New York City is, truly, one of the most remarkable places in the world. But there are also few cities more difficult to survive than New York, and in terms of your love for the place, finding New York City can be like finding Tortuga: you only know how to get there if you've already been.

Just one last little thing, in case there are any self-important Washingtonians reading this: just remember that Trenton, New Jersey—of all places—was the nation's capital before you were. At least, for a short time.

Coming Up Next Week (Can You Guess?)
Next week, we're headed west again. Our next place loves the electric guitar, tacos, and inside jokes—and even though it's unsure of itself, it's growing fast. More next week! 

Thanks for reading Ampersand, a Code&Quill blog. Next week, we'll be covering City #4 in our series Five Cities for a Fresh StartIf you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here. 

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