Washington isn't so bad after all


WASHINGTON -- When Money magazine chose the nation's capital this month as the "best place to live" in the Northeast, eyes rolled. Imagine that -- a political city continually embarrassed by its resident president, Congress and mayor actually being considered desirable!

This is indeed something remarkable to contemplate.

But putting political occupants aside -- which is a good place to put them -- the city itself has always been a more user-friendly place than New York. And no other East Coast urban rivalry matters.

This is a city of gracious parks, sweeping avenues, world-class museums and historic monuments as well as of men and women. We who are resigned to official Washington's perennial infamy cheer the magazine's bold pick.

Friendly competition

It is finally our turn to stick it to those uppity New Yorkers. The competition between the Big Apple and the federal seat of government for cultural, social and economic pre-eminence has been a standoff for decades. New Yorkers, however, have been more aggressive in defending their miserable, overcrowded existence than Washingtonians have in countering our unflattering image.

The two cities are simultaneously alike and different.

Local scandals in both places are equally horrifying and public schools are equally inferior. But both cities offer top-drawer cultural opportunities.

The economies of both depend heavily on strangers who come to see the sights and be generally looked down on as cash cows to be tolerated but never accepted.

New York fawns over the celebrities of fashion and finance, and Washington, over public officials and television stars. New York houses the United Nations, with which it occasionally feuds over parking and threatens to send out to sea. Washington harbors Congress and the White House, two institutions with which it is continually at odds and can never get rid of.

New Yorkers are certain about the superiority of their views; Washingtonians never know what they think until they take a poll.

Traffic is worse in New York, although Washington is catching up. One day New York will come to a screeching halt in a massive city-wide traffic gridlock, but Washington will always be in motion, somehow.

New York is no longer as dirty as it once was. Washington is still dirty, but it was never as bad as New York in the first place.

Washington's restaurants are now as elegant and expensive as New York's, although a glass of Merlot is not yet $12, as it is in at least one tony Manhattan hotel.

All this matters because there are no East Coast competitors in our urban league.

Philadelphia? Hug the Liberty Bell and you've done the town. Boston? If you don't know a Kennedy, you're nobody. Albany? The excitement left with Nelson Rockefeller.

After some really lousy years, the District of Columbia is thrilled to finally be recognized as someplace special, with more to offer than violence and crime.

The ex-convict who is our mayor, Marion Barry, virtually ruined the city by stuffing local jobs with incompetent cronies, posturing about racism whenever he was legitimately challenged and ignoring basic services such as snow removal.

But Congress finally gave most of his authority to more accountable managers, and he has announced he will not seek re-election. Hooray.

The mood is better, if not yet all the administrative details. The potholes are still here, as are the long lines required to renew drivers licenses.

Things are looking up

But real estate sales have revived, and tourism is thriving. New store chains are invading the inner city. A new sports arena is a hit. The Kennedy Center is enjoying packed houses, after years of ups and downs. The FDR Memorial is attracting even more visitors than the Vietnam War Memorial, the previous top draw.

Four years ago, New York City surged ahead after Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor and immediately tackled graffiti, panhandlers, thugs and other grubby, irritating aspects of daily city life. But since his re-election, he's been cracking down on jaywalking pedestrians, rude taxi drivers and inconveniently /^ located street vendors, looking so dictatorial in the process that he is losing public support.

Mr. Giuliani is even vying with independent counsel Kenneth Starr for the dubious honor of klutz of the month. He is building a $15 million bunker in which he and a few hand-picked aides can hide in case of terrorists, hurricanes and bombs. The mayor will be saved, but everybody else outside his inner circle gets to rely on prayer.

This emergency center is cleverly situated on the 23rd floor of a downtown building, which does not leap to mind as a secure location in a dangerous emergency.

Mr. Barry is still a lot lower on the totem pole of respect than Mr. Giuliani, but Washington will be rid of him soon.

The nation's capital, of course, is burdened not simply with a comic mayor but with hordes of high-ranking political hooligans who help give the place a bad name. Voters elsewhere in the country confuse the innocent locals with the transients who occupy the marble corridors on Capitol Hill and the secret power centers in the White House.

It is a heavy burden to bear, but the seat of government must be somewhere. President Clinton once acknowledged at a press conference that he thought the Washington "atmosphere is sort of abnormal." (Thoughtfully, he said abnormal and not subnormal.)

But if you want to live in or visit a beautiful city that can hold its own with the other great capitals of the world, you'll do what most of us do. We ignore the present human foolishness and enjoy the sights and sounds that provide us pleasure and reflect our nation's history.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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