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Washington, D.C. used to be the murder capital; now it's the capital of cool

The city of Washington, D.C., is famous for many things - stately government buildings, vine-draped mansions, museums and monuments - but urban cool is not one of them. The world knows it best as a straight-laced government town. In the 1986 film Heartburn, based on Nora Ephron's book of the same name, Meryl Streep plays an Ephron-like Jewish New Yorker. Forced to relocate to the capital, she laments "You can't even get a decent bagel in Washington."

But, like many other North American cities, including Toronto, Washington is changing. The rising popularity of downtown living has transformed many of its seedier neighbourhoods into hipster havens, chock-a-block with yoga studios and renovated red-brick houses.

New census figures show that young people now make up a third of the city's population and have accounted for almost all of its growth over the past decade. "The surge of young people reflects the city's growing allure to college graduates, who come to take advantage of the strong job market and help transform neighborhoods into lively centers of condominiums, clubs and coffee shops," reports the Washington Post under the headline: Capital Hip.

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You can witness the change at 14th and U Streets, a hub of the popular U Street Corridor. The strip was once known as Black Broadway, after the many clubs and theatres that filled the area. Duke Ellington grew up nearby. But the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 devastated the street, leaving burned-out stores and rubble. Business owners fled. Drug dealers moved in.

Today the dealers have been replaced by hipsters. At Busboys and Poets, a thriving café and left-wing bookstore, people peck away at laptops, sip cappuccinos, eat vegan cheesecake and browse through shelves that hold both The Essential Chomsky and The Indispensable Chomsky. New condominium blocks line 14th Street, while restaurants and clubs have populated the Victorian buildings of U Street. You could almost be in Montreal (but no, not quite). Making fun of the nationwide phenomenon, the satirical paper The Onion recently headlined an article: Line of Subarus Revs its Engines Menacingly on Edge of Un-gentrified Neighbourhood.

In Washington, as in Toronto, there are those who don't like the change. "We're going to stop this trend: gentrification," the city's former mayor, Marion Barry, said recently. "We can't displace old-time Washingtonians." Community leaders note that the city's black population dropped by 9 per cent over the past decade as newcomers came in, bringing it close to dropping below 50 per cent of the total population for the first time since the 1950s, when whites began fleeing to the suburbs.

Despite this, the results of Washington's urban transformation - as in Toronto - has been mostly positive.

The city is experiencing what the Post calls a "historic drop" in its crime rate. Only two decades ago, it was known as the murder capital of the United States; last year it had 132 homicides, 347 fewer than in 1991.

The reversal of white flight has made the city more diverse, too. There is much more mixing in places like U and 14th, where you see a Toronto-like mosaic - South Asian, black, white, Hispanic. It is their very diversity that helps make these districts such a draw.

Washington is far from an urban paragon. Much of the central office district is a monotonous sprawl of wide avenues and cube-like office blocks, the result of a silly anti-urban rule that limits building height to the width of the adjacent street plus six metres. Traffic congestion is awful on the daily dash to and from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The poverty rate is stubbornly high.

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But the old Washington is changing, and for the better. You can even get a decent bagel.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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