The Capital Fellows
[Out, May 2010]
By Richard Morgan
In 2004, Wonkette, the D.C. gossip blog, reported that MTV had bought a house for a supposed Washington season of The Real World. The notion was thoroughly mocked, then abandoned. Since then, MTV returned to L.A. (for a second time) and New York (for a third) -- even anointing Key West and Las Vegas worthier locales than the nation’s capital. Smart people have always come to D.C. But the smart cool ones? No. The saying was “D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people,” the bland leading the bland. Now, change -- and The Real World -- has come to Washington (and the real world).
Busboys & Poets throbs as the city’s Berkeley-in-a-box café; the phrase “Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be” is etched on a mural there. It’s the opposite of Smith Point, the guest-list-only Georgetown boîte popular during the Bush era with the polos-and-pearls country club crowd (the Bush twins were regulars). The Obama model of art-of-the-possible civic energy is amplified by a White House stacked with the most fuckable intellectuals since The West Wing. But D.C. also has its youngest-ever mayor, Adrian Fenty, a suave fedora-sporting triathlete who was elected at 35. “This is a resilient city,” Fenty, a native son, said during a recent 5:30 a.m. run, steam rising from his pecs. “Our energy has returned.”
Gestalt coolness pervades. There’s widespread running and bicycling culture normally seen in Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo. When Fenty signed the bill legalizing gay marriage in D.C., he referenced the struggle his parents faced in their interracial marriage. Embassies, almost universal Obamaniacs, are festive again. Megablog the New Gay jolts the city’s social scene. Georgetown has a gay student center (the country’s first at a Jesuit campus). After its first-ever gay exhibit last year, the Smithsonian is following up quickly with a National Portrait Gallery show on gay Americans. And there’s a construction boom (remember: D.C. is America’s only recession-proof city) plus a bounty of historic townhouses with cute front gardens and backyards. D.C. has the charm of Brooklyn with the purpose of Manhattan.
“It’s not embarrassing anymore to say you live in D.C.,” says Richard Florida, the author who rethought city coolness with his book The Rise of the Creative Class. “When we measure the gay index, D.C. is off the charts. Of course, you still have preppy dinosaurs living in the formaldehyde netherworld of Georgetown. But that’s ending.” The ’70s had San Francisco, the ’80s had New York, the ’90s had L.A . and the ’00s had London. Now D.C. is the city of the moment, the living zeitgeist.
Fenty, who runs the city while also running 3:36 marathons and raising twin 10-year-old boys and a toddler, is the city’s overachiever-in-chief. “That’s what this is, really,” explains Florida. “It’s coolness by way of earnest achievement. D.C. is full of young, post-careerist people who are more into their work than their résumé. Cool is not enough. You have to also achieve; otherwise you’re just some schmo.”
What’s life like in D.C.’s gay boom? We asked the 26 men in this portfolio to weigh in.
MARC AMBINDER: The bias of D.C. is a bias toward historic events. So Obama was powerful as a new era of possibility, a clearing of the decks. How many big cities get to start over?
ANDREW DIMPFL: D.C. is still growing and changing. It’s that rare place that has the ability to become something different.
MICHAEL DUMLAO: It’s like that moment when you realize your parents are people.
SHEA VAN HORN: Think about San Francisco before it was a dot-com town. Does anyone remember that? Cities can change. But it’s so rare. So it’s really exciting to be in the city at the moment.
SHELDON SCOTT: The happiness of the turnaround is in more respect for D.C. in its better days -- Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, Marvin Gaye -- not the Smithsonian stuff, but the real living history. You can feel the swell.
JUSTIN B. TERRY-SMITH: D.C. is in that Goldilocks sweet spot right now.
JASON WALMSLEY RIOS: With so many big cities, people go wondering what it’ll do to them. In D.C., you have the chance to see what you can do to the city. There’s the energy of people coming to fix things.
MATTHEW LeBLANC: People here are invested in gay policy. It’s not the Movement. It’s definite and personal and normal -- not all Prop 8 and marriage. People think about gay health care, gay churches, gays in the Census. It’s more about the cake than the icing.
ANDREW VANDERLINDEN: There’s a culture of contribution, the betterment of society. There’s an aura of civic duty, pride.
JON LOVETT: It’s a very comfortable place to live. For a lot of people, this is a place where you can come for a few years to do something amazing, something important and expressive and personal. And everyone else is doing that same thing. It’s almost like college in that way.
ED BAILEY: People here are very compressed, purposeful -- jobs, not gigs -- so there’s all the more need for unwinding.
TY COBB: But it’s not just a party for a party’s sake. Your social life and the things you believe in cross more. People here partied when the hate-crimes bill passed. Life here is about the great debates of our time. It’s not just about fighting boredom.
ARI SHAPIRO: It’s one of the friendliest cities in America because nobody’s from here, so everyone remembers what it was like to arrive without knowing people. People are very empathetic; there’s an openness.
HOUSTON RUCK: D.C. leans toward talking with strangers.
BEN LaBOLT: There’s a great sense of community. So many people live in group houses.
COBB: Generationally, we mix better, maybe because being informed makes you age-blind. I mean, my boyfriend is 10 years older than me and our friends range from 20s to 60s.
RUCK: Here, there are so many government jobs, so many high-tech jobs, that you find those rare people: hot and smart. Other cities are mostly just, um, pretty. A great D.C. night is one of great conversation, not just great drinks or great bodies.
ZACK ROSEN: Gay culture here is more thoughtful and intelligent. But let’s not get carried away. It’s only the difference between “I like fucking blondes” and “Here’s why I like fucking blondes.”
AMBINDER: This is a city where you’ll find a gay couple who are tough-as-nails S.O.B. conservative F.B.I. agents who will defend Cheney to the death at your dinner party and then go home to, well, I’ll stop there.
MIKE GOTTLIEB: Revitalization or reurbanization: First it was 17th Street, then 14th Street, now it’s 9th Street. It’s steady. It’s on a roll.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Washington takes on the personality of the chief executive. Bush went to bed at 8:30, rarely went out. The sidewalks rolled up. Now you have a young, hip couple from Chicago. The president pops in at his daughter’s soccer game. He horses around at the commentary booth at a Georgetown basketball game. He’s engaging. When you have someone like that running things, there are fewer roly-poly men chomping on cigars.
HUGH McELROY: It’s not an industry town for the arts, but that’s what makes it better. There’s less pressure, less expectation, more of a sandbox/playground way of life.
SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: You feel better, more special. I know what I’m doing is different from what other people came to this city for.
DREW PORTERFIELD: Gallery districts are nice, but they’re also a way that the rest of that city can ignore the art scene. Here, galleries are everywhere, next to whatever.
RIOS: We’re not a state, taxation without representation, so many transients. So if we’re not going to do it ourselves, it’s not going to get done for us. It’s a scrappy life here. We’re gritty. We’re fighters.
MICHAEL EICHLER: Why isn’t cookie-cutter existence more antithetical to gay life, which is all about open-mindedness?
TERRY-SMITH: Bohemian D.C. used to mean wearing a green tie. Now it’s real. It’s here. It’s OK. Now we can be open. Now we can be counted.
MATTHEW JARVIS: You can’t wait around for the city you want. You have to will it into existence.
VAN HORN: People are more than happy. They’re excited. People are playing. There’s a place in D.C. now for the crazy 8-year-old in me.
SCOTT: With art in our bellies, our appetites only grow. And we’re getting to the point that we can feed ourselves artistically. Look, the Capital Fringe theater festival is in its sixth year. I opened Marvin in 2006. We are not part of Obama’s renaissance; he is part of ours.
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