Putting down roots in a place of transience

I mentioned in my last post that my wife and I are buying a house. This has been a big step for us, though after having a child nothing seems like quite as big a step as it did before. Longtime readers may recall that we’ve bounced around quite a bit during the course of our married life. Over the past 10 years we’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, Boston, and now D.C. We’ve been here for about 4 years, and until very recently, we were ambivalent about sticking around.

As anyone who’s lived here can tell you, it’s a strange place. The seat of the federal government with all the good and bad that entails, a meeting of sorts for North and South (I believe it was JFK who called Washington a “city of northern charm and southern efficiency”), and a place of transience–people coming and going as the political winds shift or opportunities for career advancement come and go.

But it’s also a very stimulating place–intellectually, culturally, and historically. There are thousands of smart, interesting people doing smart, interesting things, and some of them are even trying to make the world a better place (honest!).

And for a place made up in large part by transplants and transients, there’s a surprisingly widespread and genuine local pride and a commitment to improving the city among those who’ve decided to make the District their home. I don’t want to paper over the very real issues that have arisen from the incoming population of affluent professionals and ambitious climbers existing (often uneasily) beside a population of longtime residents who are largely African American and working- or middle-class. But it remains that D.C. has been experiencing something of a renaissance over the last decade or so, and it’s a pretty exciting place to be. The “other” D.C.–the city that doesn’t appear on the morning talk shows or as the symbol of everything that’s wrong with America–is a quirky, interesting city with it’s own unique local culture. (Though one inextricably bound up with the federal government.)

In some ways though, all of that is less important to me than simply the decision to put down roots somewhere. I’m well aware that there’s a paradox involved in choosing to put down roots. Localists and traditionalists often bemoan American mobility and rootlessness. But for may of us, returning to the place (or places) of our birth and upbringing simply isn’t an option, for a variety of reasons. I love Western Pennsylvania, but a lot of it’s been devastated by Reganomics and Clintonomics and Bushonomics (and meth and heroin), and there’s just not much to go back to.

The thing is that having a family makes me want to be embedded in something larger than myself. Religion is a big part of this–even when I have my doubts, I want my family to be part of a community that tries to live by the gospel, because it’s the best story I know. But it also makes me want to commit to a secular community too–a city, a neighborhood, schools, places of business, people I know and live with day in and day out. Surprisingly, D.C. enables a pretty “localist” style of life. Apart from work, I spend the vast majority of my time in our neighborhood, and almost every place I go is within walking distance (including church). I’m constantly running into people I know at the store, the farmer’s market, or just on the street. So, maybe I’m putting more meaning into it than it merits, but buying a house here feels like investing in all that–deciding to be part of it, for me and for my family.

6 thoughts on “Putting down roots in a place of transience

  1. A wonderful comment, Lee. The best localist writers and thinkers have always recognized that the virtues of “place”–of neighborhood, of community–are not necessarily tied to the circumstances of a place. Many people have found great permanence and productivity in the midst of the busy-ness of city life; indeed, that was kind of Jane Jacobs whole point: that a metropolis is, and needs to work to make sure the people who live there don’t forget that it is, a network of “polises,” or in other words, places, neighborhoods, etc. I loved it when we lived in DC, because I felt that, all around us. I’m glad that you can feel it a little too. (Incidentally, where exactly have you bought the house?)

  2. I’ve only always lived on the west coast and the closest I’ve come to D.C. has been watching episodes of The West Wing, so it’s interesting to hear about it 🙂

  3. Camassia

    Yeah, I’ve gotten the same impression from my time in Washington. In some ways, it’s like a college town but with a wider age distribution. Even the conversations you overhear on the bus tend to be interesting.

    And yeah, I’m wondering too: where is your new house?

  4. Russell, you’ve reminded me that I, embarassingly, have never read Jacobs. Guess I’ll have to remedy that.

    Our house is in Southeast DC, Ward 6.

  5. Michael Westmoreland-White

    Well, setting down roots in an internal colony which doesn’t have homerule is doubly weird. I hope you’ll become an activist for D.C. statehood.

  6. I’d settle for a single vote in Congress! (Though my understanding is that such a halfway house may be constitutionally suspect.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s