It’s Time to Stop Referring to DC as a Transient City

by Borderstan.com June 25, 2013 at 11:00 am 16 Comments

From Rachel Nania. Check out her blog, Sear, Simmer & Stir. Follow Nania on Twitter @rnania, email her at rachel[AT]borderstan.com.

People love this city so much, they even make it permanent. (Luis Gomez Photos)

People love this city so much they even make it permanent. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Most Washingtonians can empathize with my biggest pet peeve. It’s a conversation — And it goes something like this:

New person making small talk (not from around here): Where do you live?

Me: DC.

New person: Oh, like Northern Virginia? (Then they probably mention something about how swell it would be to live near a mall like Tysons, which — purely a reflex — makes my eyes roll.)

Me: No. Like, DC.

Then comes the look of confusion.

“Oh I didn’t know people actually live in D.C…”

When I moved to the area four years ago, I didn’t know people actually live in DC, either. In fact, I was told that no one stays in DC for long.

“It’s a transient city,” I would hear.

Someone once described DC as a layover for the young, well-educated and eager types who want to “change the world” or “dip their feet in politics” before moving out to the suburbs to get married and make babies.

That was only four years ago. And the sad thing is, that sentiment still stands.

What is even more upsetting, is that I often hear that phrase, “transient city,” repeated by people who live in this city that I call “home,” not “hub.”

It’s time to put an end to that misconception. Because DC is not a transient city. It’s an amazing place to live — and especially now.

DC is a city in which one can find a job, start a business and start a family.

District residents can eat at a new restaurant every week, catch live music at an endless number of venues and watch theatre in the same neighborhood where the country’s political theatre takes place.

Without leaving city limits we can kayak on two rivers, cheer on five professional sports teams, go on a hike, take a bike ride and walk among the nation’s monuments.

It’s been ranked as one of the nation’s healthiest and wealthiest cities. And, as we can all attest, one of the best cities for happy hour (interpret that ranking as you may).

DC is rich in history and promises a bright future. It’s creative, it’s vibrant and it’s on the move.

Now, what about that list sounds transient?

In the past, the most “desirable” places to live in the District were often too expensive for those not making millions.

Now, areas formerly viewed as “a little too far from downtown” are attracting younger demographics, along with small and local businesses.

Neighborhoods and communities have always existed in the District. But a sense of community — especially among the young who move here without intentions to stay — is really taking root.

What people used to see as abandoned and disjointed sections of the city are seeing a revival in their playgrounds, their public schools and public works.

It would be naive of me to stand here and say that all of DC is perfect. There are still a lot of problems here. Many neighborhoods in the city need more funding, added jobs, better teachers, access to grocery stores and lower crime rates.

But looking at how much things have shifted in the last several years, I see nothing but hope — and love — for the District.

When I look at this city, I don’t see transient, I don’t see temporary.  I see home.

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  • Anonymous

    “When I look at this city, I don’t see transient, I don’t see temporary. I see home.”

    then you probably don’t have kids – sad to say but for many people, having kids means moving or, at best, living in a neighborhood where 10 kids at a playground go to 10 different schools. definitely removes some of the ‘home’ feeling from a neighborhood.

  • DC Resident

    I’ve lived in DC for about 6 years now and I have never had the conversation quoted above. “Oh I didn’t know people lived in DC”? I’ve certainly never heard that from anyone I’ve talked to. Maybe the author is trying to steer conversations in that direction in order to get the response that confirms her existing view about how people perceive DC? Who knows.

    I also think DC is a transient city. I’ve lost track of the number of people I have been acquainted with who have come and gone in a few years. It must be dozens if not hundreds. Many move away for grad school, others for different jobs, some because of the changing political climate. Some people consider that a bad thing, others not so much – it just depends on your perspective. I think DC’s image issue suffers not from its transience but from how people perceive that everyone who lives in DC works for the political machine.

    • Zapped

      I agree with this and felt the same way when I read the conversation the author presented. I have never heard anyone say they didn’t realize people lived in the city. Really? If anything, I was always told when I moved to DC and lived in Alexandria that I didn’t really live in DC – that living in the burbs “doesn’t count.” That said, I’ve now lived “in the city” for over a decade.

      My group of friends, for the most part, has stayed solid in that decade, with brief interludes in other city, but with most of them returning to DC at some point. I think there is certainly an aspect of DC that is transient in nature (college, congressional interns, political hacks, etc.), but I don’t really think that is any different than other major cities. People come. People go.

      I think it also has a lot to do with class distinctions. If you cross the Anacostia, you’ll see neighborhoods where generations have lived in the same neighborhood, or even the same block. But for many, “those people” don’t count as the “real DC.”

      People should think before they speeak.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. DC is currently, and will probably be for a while a transient city. It attracts all the Type-As, movers-and-shakers, and politicos from all across the country. That’s just the nature of the city … for now. But the point of the article is that DC shouldn’t JUST be considered a transient city anymore. There are so many great things happening in this city … and none of them seem “transient” to me.

    … and I’ve totally had that conversation before. The misperception is out there.

  • M

    I too have never heard anyone say, “Oh I didn’t know people actually live in D.C.”
    It’s usually more like, “Oh, you actually live IN the District.” Anyway, I’ve been here over 10 years and it definitely is a transient city. Usually they are here to put together a six-figure resume or grad school and then it’s off to NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, etc. I’ve seen them come and go. Often it is a relief, as I have grown weary of hearing how much better everything is in NYC. Fine. Enjoy your $3500/month 300 sq.ft. studio.

    There are some folks commited to sticking around but they flee to the ‘burbs once their kids approach school age unless they can afford private school. The schools are getting better but they are still aweful. Really, from what I can tell, the only one’s that stay are 1. gay (w/o kids) 2. rich or 3. empty nesters/retired.

    • Zapped

      Or anyone living in NE, SE, or SW. But again, people seem to think they don’t count.

      • M

        Zapped – do you think the reason we are not discussing folk in SE might be because this site is of, by, and for the people of a specific area of NW???

        You seem to be suffering from altitude sickness. Perhaps you should step down off your soapbox, oh pious one.

        • AlbuterolGonzales

          True, this blog is indeed about a small portion of NW, but your comment definitely reads as one intended to refer to the city as a whole. And that’s obviously just not the case across the entire District.

  • TomDC

    How often an average person in DC moves is a published stat.

    And I think it’s just over 1 year.

  • Colin

    Don’t see any data to support the idea that DC isn’t transient, and anecdotally I have known plenty of people to pack up and leave after only a few years here. Have also never had a convo with someone who didn’t realize people actually live in the city.

  • Tania

    As an actual Washingtonian (7th generation), I get, “I didn’t know people are actually *from* DC.” And I also get a lot of assumptions about my probable lack of education or ability to comprehend the outside world (one neighbor assumed I bought my car used from someone who went UC Berkeley because I have a Cal license plate holder). I like all the new people who want to stay, but I’m not kidding myself about the fact that there’s always lots of population churn here. Come… stay for as long as you like. Just leave it better than you found it and we’ll all be happy about it.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s some actual data on transience: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/16365/how-transient-is-washington/
    It seems that we’re pretty comparable to NYC, Boston, and Atlanta for the 25-34 year old range, and we fall in the middle of major cities for the 35-44 year old range.

  • SAF

    Indeed, this city is, and always has been, far less transient than many people think.


  • population guy

    The truth is, Washington is not an especially transient city, and is considerably LESS transient than most southern or western cities in the country, like Phoenix or Las Vegas. Census Bureau statistics on migration and mobility (from the American Community Survey)back this up. Why does everyone think DC is so transient? Certainly there are many people who move here for 3-4 years and then move on to NY or some other city. But that’s what happens in all large cities: many young people move in, and eventually some leave. People also like to claim that DC is transient because of the changes in the White House administration every 4 or 8 years. That’s just plain silly. Sure, there are a few very high profile migrants moving into/out of the city when there’s a change in administration, but in a city of 630,000 people the impact is negligible.

  • Dno

    I’m with the author. Her experience has been similar to mine, except that I’ve never heard anyone question that people live in the District. People move here with designs to move on like any other big city. But most of my good friends that stayed at least 3 years have decided that this is where they want to be, for all the reasons Rachel pointed out, even if their career here is not exactly where they’d like it to be. And people who have moved on, even just to the burbs, often tell me they miss living in DC.

  • dcdc

    the notion of new parents leaving the city en masse is outdated.


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