First impressions of Washington DC
Airport Security *****
Reception of locals *****
A little background
For those of you who have read my articles overs the year, you'll already know that I grew up in a single parent household in a post-industrial English town living under the official UK poverty line in social housing. With an incredible mom as a role-model, a strong desire to escape that poverty and try and make a small positive change in the world, and the support of Akaal Purakh through those around me, I've started to achieve those goals.
And somehow while doing that I've managed to live in London, New York and now Washington DC. When I first moved to New York 5 years ago, I wrote an article called "First Impressions of New York" (which you can read here), so it only made sense to do the same thing about DC.
Here's the interesting thing. When I lived in New York, I came down to DC on a couple of occasions. Reading my article that I wrote then (which you can read here), this line particularly stood out:
"It's probably not a place I'd spend more than a weekend, and I'd probably only go back out of necessity for work."
Well, I'm back here for more than a weekend because of work, and after re-reading that I wasn't sure how much I'd like it.
Washington DC as the capital of the United States is the result of bargaining and agreement - a compromise that balanced the demands of both northern and southern states. The city is built on the banks of the Potomac River, a large swamp being drained to allow construction.
DC underwent a baptism of fire in its first 100 year. After the US unsuccessfully tried to raid British territory in Canada during the early 19th century, British troops retaliated by burning and looting DC, including burning the White House and the US Capitol. The city recovered but less than 50 years later, DC found itself in the middle of a civil war that threatened to destroy the United States apart, but again survived and recovered.
Since then, the trajectory has largely been one of growth, although perhaps not as quickly as other US cities. DC is one of the world's earliest "planned cities", meaning it didn't grow organically but was designed to be functional and liveable. That has been both a blessing and curse as despite being incredibly functional, it lacks some of the character that most other capital cities around the world have.
This articles looks at my first impressions after my first month.
Living in a swamp
So, that swamp that I mentioned, isn't just a historical fact or a metaphor thrown around against the DC political establishment. It has a real impact on DC's climate today.
I experienced a small part of DC's infamous humidity during my short visit 5 years ago, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught of the DC summer. Perhaps it was a mistake to move over in July, but the humidity is no joke.
Walking around the city during the day is an uncomfortable experience during the summer months. Unlike the drier heat of the UK and Western European summer, walking for a few short minutes can leave you drenched in sweat. People tend to walk under the shadows of adjacent tall buildings, and those walking around in suits never look too happy with the decisions they've made that day.
Swimming pools seem to be everywhere - hotels, apartment complexes, leisure facilities and even outdoor spaces. After a few weeks in the DC humidity, I can see why they are so important.
I hear the humidity improves during the autumn months and it's something that I'm looking forward to. A lot of people move out during the summer, back to their home cities or countries. Next year, I'll probably do the same.
Everything is expensive
London is expensive. The price of rent and everyday items are frequently a source of bewilderment to me and my friends back in the Midlands.
But the expense pales in comparison to DC.
The cost of rentals seems extortionately high, even compared to London. I'm not entirely sure why, but the city is smaller, there are building height restrictions so you can't build up, and the transport network is pretty small so commutability becomes a problem.
Even every day things like a food shop are noticeably more expensive, although I've found that clothing is a little cheaper than it is back home. All in all, this is one expensive city to live.
Homelessness is a real problem
The prohibitive cost is probably one reason for the large amounts of homelessness in the city. I wrote about this 5 years ago and I feel just as strongly now. The mark of a powerful country isn't how rich their richest people are, but it's how it can support the most poor and vulnerable, and having such a huge homeless population on the steps of some of the most powerful buildings in the world is a mark of failure.
Not only are a lot of people homeless, but they suffer from obvious mental health problems. I mentioned this on articles I have previously written on New York and I know it isn't just a DC problem, it's a problem with a country that doesn't have universal healthcare.
It means that almost everyday I go past people that are just shouting to themselves and others at the top of their voices. It's weird because everyone just walks past them like they are invisible and go about their normal day as if this huge problem doesn't exist. You can also really see that in the US one community is treated significantly worse than others as almost all these people are black men, failed by a system that has oppressed them for centuries and then provided little social security to uplift them.
Perhaps it's the poverty or the mental health problems, but crime is disproportionately large in DC. The murder rate in DC is 11 times higher than London and as soon as you step out the small central core of the city you can feel the shift in vibe. There are parts of DC that I've been told to avoid completely. While I've definitely travelled to more dangerous cities over the years, the energy in certain parts of DC matches some of the worst energy I've felt in any other city.
Rats own the evenings
In every large city there are rats, that's nothing new. I saw quite a few in London (including a couple that used to visit my flat), and I saw a few in New York.
Downtown DC is a different level. Most of the downtown area closes in the early evening and streets become deserted. All that remains are gangs of rats darting across pavements and congregating near bins.
And these aren't your usual small little rats, clinging to the sides of the pavements close to buildings. The first time I saw one I was sure I'd just seen a group of cats. They are massive. And they are bold. They'll continue on with their business even if you get close, only running if you make sudden movements towards them.
I wasn't sure how normal this is, but those that have been there for years and decades all speak about the size of downtown rats. Honestly, if you're in DC, take a walk through the streets around the business district in the evening and it'll feel like you've walked into a zombie apocalypse.
In all fairness, the rats don't bother me so much. The insects are something else though. Cockroaches hoard around drainage covers and even find space in people's houses. Coming from a part of the world where it's pretty rare to ever see a cockroach, this has been a big shock.
The city also has a big mosquito problem. While mosquitos in DC are unlikely to spread life threatening diseases, they seem to be everywhere during the evenings. And then there are the spiders. On my first evening, I was sitting outside eating when I felt a tickle on my face and I grabbed a big orange spider and threw it on the floor. These spiders seem to just fall from trees onto unsuspecting passersby, while I've seen bushes outside houses covered in spiders webs.
DC is different.
The city is compact
For all the negatives I've described, there are some real positives too. For an American city, DC is incredibly walkable. The city centre is fairly small, and it's easy to walk or cycle between all the famous landmarks, as well as the different neighbourhoods in DC. And that's a good thing, because buses, trains and the metro are pretty poor.
It means you don't necessarily need a car to see the city. Public cycles and electronic scooters are available across DC, but other than around the Woodley Park neighbourhood, it doesn't get too hilly and so it's easy enough to walk around.
The different neighbourhoods are also great to explore, and I'm looking forward to doing a lot more of that. You have the more leafy green areas around Woodley Park and Cathedral Heights, the lively neighbourhoods of DuPont Circle, Adams Morgan and Shaw, the cultural hub that is Georgetown, and the functional districts of Foggy Bottom and Downtown.
You also have a public canal where you can walk or cycle, as well as some beautiful parks, including the large Rock Creek Park which honestly feels like its a million miles from any civilisation but is right in the city. I'm a big fan of these green spaces in cities, and this park hits the mark.
The surrounding area is beautiful
That's not to say DC isn't beautiful, but it is a very functional city. There are pockets of beauty across the city (especially in Georgetown) where tree-lined streets stand in front of beautiful DC townhouses, but on the whole there are a lot of six or seven story buildings that all look the same, while large roads give the city an element of uniformity that breaks up the development of any real character.
But just outside the city in Maryland and Virginia you have some incredible beauty. Great Falls is a beautiful natural park in Virginia, on the doorsteps of DC. If you like nature, it's a great day out, where you can see beautiful wildlife and incredible landscapes including the rapids of the Potomac River crashing against rocks.
The surrounding area is very suburban and residential - the type of American life you might see on TV. Large houses with white picket fences, some draped in US flags line pretty streets that show the best of the US. Out here, cars are a necessity because even a trip to the corner shop isn't a short journey.
Areas like Arlington and Alexandria have their own charm, and while I've only spent fleeting hours there, I'm looking forward to exploring more closely. One place I have spent considerable time is Gravelly Point, a small expanse of green immediately next to Ronald Reagan National Airport. If you love planes, you'll absolutely love this place as you can watch planes landing and taking-off from the airport. I've watched planes near Heathrow, Birmingham and New York, but this is comfortably the closest I've come to them. You can feel the air from the planes as they fly directly overhead, what feels like just metres above you. Plus, it's just a nice place to relax and spend nice evening.
In Maryland I have visited Bethesda, again, a beautiful suburban area filled with large houses and a decent sized high street. It's a commutable distance by car or metro and so a lot of people seem to set up shop around here and then commute into DC. I can see why they do that, although I'd miss the buzz of the city.
You're in the most powerful city in the world
Maybe not economically or socially, but politically, there is no doubt that decisions made in DC reverberate around the world, and that's pretty surreal.
The White House is a short walk from where I've been staying and working, and although it is much smaller than I'd imagined, it is still the White House. On a couple of occasions I've tried to walk from a to b, only to see roads blocked as the Presidential convoy drives past (and believe me, that's a sight to see).
Monuments dot the surrounding area, from the imposing Washington Monument, to the aspirational Jefferson Memorial and the incredible Lincoln Memorial. The walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol building encompasses an area known as the Mall - as vast expanse of land full - largely - of tourists.
A word of warning, don't walk here during the day in the summer as there is no shade, and avoid the reflecting pools in the evening as they are covered in mosquitos.
Just across the river is the Pentagon, and while I knew it had a large footprint, nothing really prepares you for just how large it really is.
Back across the river there are a whole bunch of museums, and unlike New York, most of them are free (at least the Smithsonian ones are). And that's a huge bonus because some of these are highly rated museums considered some of the best in the world. So far I have visited two different Air and Space museums (one in the Mall, and one near Dulles airport), and the National Gallery of Art, so there are a lot more to visit during my time here.
This leads me on to another important point. While the city is expensive, it does a good job of putting on a lot of free events. From parades, to festivals and little evenings out, there always seems to be something happening in the city for free. For example, during the time I've been here the Mall has hosted free music festivals, a space exhibition, as well as various industry exhibitions. Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Art hosts free "Jazz in the Garden" events that are incredibly popular during the summer.
And then there is the zoo, which is also free. I've written about how conflicted I am on the concept of zoos - but where they carry out important research or conservation work, I'm all for them. The zoo in DC is a decent size and houses some of the largest animals in the world, although some of then larger apes in particular didn't seem to be having a good time as kids were smashing against the windows trying to wake them up. It's basically the worst of what I think zoos represent.
There's a Gurdwara
I wrote in my original DC article 5 years ago that I saw groups of Sikhs but hadn't managed to visit the Gurdwara, well this time I did, and it was a great surprise. The "Sikh Gurdwara DC" is part of the Pingalwara Trust is almost directly opposite the Washington Cathedral.
The Gurdwara is relatively small with a uniquely square shaped Darbar Sahib and a balcony that runs along its perimeter. There seems to be active gurmat and kirtan classes, as well as langar outreach programmes for the wider community. There are two further Gurdwaras in nearby Maryland and Virginia that I'd like to visit.
As a Sikh, I've not experienced any issues either in the city or at airports. Sure, people frequently confuse me as a Muslim when they are trying to seem polite, but that's no bad thing - the Sikh community in the US is tiny so its not surprising people might not know much about Sikhi. My goals - as it has been throughout my time writing this blog - continues to be to travel the world, share the message of Sikhi where I can while representing Sikhi to the best of my limited abilities - and in DC it looks like I have the opportunity to do just that.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.