Saturday, February 25, 2012

Welcome to the District, or "First time in a long time"

I've had some trouble conceptualizing how this blog could be useful now that I’ve moved from the ranks of San Francisco public employees to a mere graduate student in America's most politically obsessed and emotionally avoidant city. However, I recently realized that all of the oddity and nonsensical happenings of this town that made it difficult to write about coherently are perfect fodder. Many things about this place are counter intuitive, and neither you nor I probably understand what's happening out here these days, so let's see what we figure out together.

For those of you less familiar with the District, there seems to be three distinct and often competing categorical cultures: First is the iconic "community" of government and NGO professionals that push and pull ephemeral ideas of the State and human security and market development and civil activism and the generation of wonderfully creative acronyms and initialisms like USAID, FTW, INGOs, BINGOs, STATS, NERF, CaPTURE, CHIRP, UNICORN, BLAMMO and on and on and on....

Second is the high-density and overwhelming college/graduate student population ever-present throughout town that dominates the streets after 9pm and drives a sort of high-octane nightlife that spurs the growth of novelty micro-brews, jumbo pizza and cheap live music. If you can imagine getting into a loud argument with a stranger in Adams Morgan about an essay on Kazakh patronage in oil-wealthy caucuses or binge drinking over an RFP, then you're beginning to understand. Yes, this group includes hipsters and interns and those students that spend all hours of a weekend in a library or government archive (because eventually we leave our hovels in search of 24-hour coffee shops and dancing and strange foreign foods that we pretend to understand).

Third is the collection of natives that for whatever reason have remained in DC instead of moving to the burbs and renting out their homes for exorbitant prices. There are many viable reasons for locals to stay in the District, but in all honesty I still don’t know enough about these communities to comfortably give you a narrative that aggregates their experiences into a cozy narrative. I’m working on it, and that’s part of the reason for why I’m picking up the journal again. So be patient.

Now imagine all of these people trying to coexist 

The other reason is that I am now a graduate student in international development studies, and that means I get to learn a great many neat things about economics, international public policy, and the dark inner working of the international development industry. I’d like to try and explain some of that if you’re interested in reading about it, though I expect that I may, from time to time, just throw my hands up in despair over some terrible idea that I’ve learned about (not uncommon so far) and ask you to do the same.

Let’s start with District itself. Five months ago I moved to DC with two friends from the Bay Area in pursuit of the glorious Master’s Degree because I felt a little left out from the American public and wanted more debt in my life. Within hours of my landing, we had an earthquake. And then the next week we had a hurricane. And then we had a heat wave. And then we had more flooding. My flatmates and I finally moved out of our hotel room on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 using a rather conspicuous U-haul, and into a new home that we had found during the hurricane. I remember asking Washingtonians about what agencies were responsible for repairing the roads or responding to storm damage, or who was in charge of community outreach when roads or other infrastructure were disrupted by a storm or construction. In California you’d probably say “Oh, that’s CalTrans”, and “public works”, and maybe “Community affairs/neighborhood services/your council rep’s office” respectively. But the only response that I heard time and time again was “Hmmm, you know, I have no idea.” This didn’t bother me at first, but after several months it did...

A few weeks ago I spoke with one of our neighbors on our block while we were both heading home. I asked him how we could get a permit to put in a little garden area in front of our house on the double-wide sidewalk, the kind that he had in front of his home (Whatever I like little urban gardens, get over it). He didn’t know how. Apparently the patch of open soil was there when they moved in and they just decided to plant things in it. Last week I asked a guy working on road repaving  near our home who was in charge of fixing cracked and uneven sidewalks (that’s responsible risk management right there! :D ) and after a few moments of thinking he replied, “You know man, I really don’t know.” Over and over again I get this. So I started looking into these things – in part as a responsible local and in part as a terrible way to procrastinate on schoolwork – and it turns out, I have a discovered a bureaucratic black whole!

Let’s see if we can answer some these questions. What is the structure of DC local government? Where does its public budget come from? Who regulates our utilities? Where do public services like road repair and tree maintenance come from? Who governs the Metro system? Who governs them? Who is in charge of the District’s social service programs and low-income housing?
Why are there mismatching diagonal streets all across town?! Who is responsible for public panning? And zoning? And permitting for food trucks that really ought to be FAR more abundant at 3AM? And for the love of the gods, who is actually accountable for police oversight in this city? Financing for capital projects? And where are the streetcars that everybody keeps talking about?
As a DC-er, you’ve probably heard about Nationals Coach Zimmerman getting signed for an additional 6 year contract worth more than $100 million so that the team doesn’t relocate to Florida. Cool.

Maybe you’ve heard about the debacle that is the H Street revitalization project and railway construction. Neato!

It’s marginally possible that you’ve heard about the District’s redistricting and the Congressional/Council primaries in April. But heck, none of us even vote here and I only found out because of a half-destroyed sign on a lamp post walking back from a sports bar.

My point is this: I am very curious to learn how this city of more than 600,000 people and $103 billion (GSP) actually functions, and I’ll share what I find. On top of that I promise stories from the world of international development and notable mishaps from my time in DC. Let's make this good while it lasts.

Bonus photo of car spontaneously catching fire on the first day I had my bike yeah!

FUN FACT #1: DC did not have a local government until 1973, but the US legislature still retains total oversight and veto power over the District.
Thanks Constitution!

FUN FACT #2: The District has never heard of “timed traffic signals”, and in accordance with Murphy’s law, you will hit every red light every time.

No comments:

Post a Comment