Obamas breathe new life into D.C.
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WASHINGTON -- Is Washington D.C., the new New York?
That's the word from the cultural temperature-takers -- Vogue magazine and The Daily Beast's Tina Brown, for starters. And yes, the nation's capital does seem a different place -- hipper, happier, more energized -- than it did 100 days ago when Barack Obama moved into the White House.
At least its mayor thinks so.
"It's very much as if someone has taken our fantastically lit city and put a brighter light bulb in it," said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, as he toured a new public school building under construction last week. "The whole city is energized. It's great to have Obama and his family supporting the city, moving around. People are still pinching themselves -- they can't believe it's really true, but it is."
Mr. Fenty -- who is black and, like Mr. Obama, also has a beautiful, accomplished lawyer wife named Michelle -- isn't the only one pinching himself at the thought of the first African-American president.
As the media and various politicos busy themselves today hyping Mr. Obama's first 100 days in office, this city's residents and workers, most of them black and virtually all of them Democrats, seem scarcely able to contain their euphoria.
"20 Reasons to Love Living Here," crowed Washingtonian Magazine's cover this month, featuring a shirtless Obama, rippling pectorals and all. ("Reason No. 2: 'Our New Neighbor is Hot.'")
Maisha Meminger, 32, who was racing to catch a commuter train after a day at her job at the Labor Department, said that as an African-American, she looks forward to going to work these days.
"When the motorcade drives by people are stopping and waving," she said. "People are excited to send their kids to school, not knowing if Michelle Obama is going to show up that day so their children can be thoroughly amazed."
Mrs. Obama has frequently invited children from the city's public schools to the White House. Bancroft Elementary School students, for example, have been there twice to work in the vegetable garden on the South Lawn, much to the amazement of Susan Harris, a co-founder of D.C. Urban Gardeners, who says it's triggered a veggie garden boom in the city.
"The way they did [the vegetable garden] was just right," said Ms. Harris. "When you've got articles on how to grow veggies now in People magazine or the Huffington Post, places that usually don't cover gardening, it's very exciting."
Mrs. Obama has also ventured into some of the city's high-crime neighborhoods, attending roundtable discussions with students at Anacostia High School, and beginning in her first week, has inspected three local nonprofits.
"This is her background, where she came from," said Wes Combs, a marketing executive for the gay and lesbian community. "She wants to see what makes this city what it is."
She's had some fun, too. While her husband hasn't dined out as much as restaurateurs had hoped he would, Mrs. Obama has more than made up for it, sampling hamburgers at a Five Guys Burgers and Fries chain and soul food at B. Smith's in Union Station and Georgia Brown's on 15th and K streets.
With the advent of the Obamas, Washington's social scene, once dominated by Georgetown hostesses, has shifted its center of gravity. The city's African-American elites -- from Black Entertainment Television's Debra Lee to longtime political fixer Vernon Jordan -- "own this town now," Mr. Combs said, noting that the administration's social secretary, Desiree Rogers, is black, as is the new head of the Office of Public Liaison, Valerie Jarrett.
"In some ways, we, the whites, are now the outsiders," he added. "We're not in charge anymore. It's interesting to watch the dynamics, but if anyone is going to bridge the racial divide in this city, the Obamas are going to do it."
At the 54th annual Corcoran Ball last week, Ms. Rogers was seated at the head table, and the crowd was "hands down, more integrated than I've ever seen," said Christina Wilkie, managing editor of Washington Life magazine, which chronicles the city's social scene.
Georgetown's "social Safeway," a local supermarket famous for its bold-faced names holding court in the produce aisle, has been supplanted by the Whole Foods on 14th and P Street, where White House staffers show up every night after work around 9 p.m. or later to flirt in front of the arugula.
Indeed, the city's thriving cultural scene has moved farther east into formerly crime-ridden neighborhoods near the 14th and U Street corridor, site of 1968's worst racial rioting. In the 1990s, spurred on by the city, developers began investing in urban renewal projects and today, the area is bustling with wine bars, condominiums, restaurants and antique shops.
On a recent soft spring night, a group of young Obama administration officials sat outside Posto, a new eatery on 14th Street frequented by Obama aides Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. The officials compared notes -- off the record, of course, since the Obama administration tightly controls its media message -- about who'd been hired and who was still waiting to be placed at a government agency.
On average, these young administration people are younger and more diverse -- racially and in sexual orientation -- than their predecessors in the Bush administration, even as their president has surrounded himself with mostly white males as his closest political advisers.
"It's a disappointment," one young staffer, a Latina, admitted, as she sipped a margarita.
Still, the highest-ranking openly gay administration official in history, John Berry, was sworn in by Mrs. Obama as Director of Personnel, Mr. Combs noted with pride.
Mr. Obama's arrival has created something of a shift in the media pecking order, too. At his first news conference, the president called on Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein, which prompted much commentary in the media.
"There's a lot of status anxiety among people who used to be at the top of the heap, the people at the top newspapers, the top newsmagazines, maybe even the networks to some degree. There's a sense that nobody really knows who's on top," said Tim Noah, the "Chatterbox" columnist at Slate.com, who noted that Politico.com has become a daily must-read in addition to Huffington Post and Slate.
"The main news outlets are always going to be there, they'll always be in the mix, but [calling on the Huffington Post] sent a signal, saying, 'Hey, New York Times, you don't run the show, there are other factors here.' I thought it was refreshing, actually, to shake things up," said Chris Wallace, who hosts "FOX News Sunday" and whose own network has seen its fortunes improve dramatically in the 100 days since Mr. Obama took office, soaring to the top of the ratings heap.
"People are hungry for some place that's going to ask tough questions, the hard questions" of leaders, said Bret Baier, who hosts FOX News' daily special report. "I have lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say, 'I watch your show every night because you get both sides."
And while a lot of Bush administration people have moved back to Texas, conservatives haven't all left town -- as any Republican member of Congress will be first to remind anyone who asks.
On day 95 of the first 100 days -- last Friday -- two prominent Obama critics, William Bennett and Charles Krauthammer, were seen lunching at The Palm Restaurant, a longtime watering hole for Washington's movers and shakers. Camera crews staked out a politician on North Capitol Street. Armenian protesters picketed the Turkish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, and by 2 p.m. Friday, Beltway traffic had slowed to a crawl.
Some things in Washington apparently never change, no matter who is president.
First Published April 29, 2009 12:00 am