DC Ethiopian community – world’s largest outside Ethiopia

Correspondent’s Diary | Economist

From the campaign trail: Washington, DC – ELECTION day broke chilly and grey across the DC area (only transplants call it Washington). Late-morning drizzles turned into the sort of steady, cold, drifting rain that defies jackets and umbrellas to seep into bones. Still, record numbers of voters stood patiently in line. In Virginia, this was expected: it was a battleground state; Barack Obama made dozens of visits; voters clearly felt they could make a difference. And they did: thanks to strong turnout, especially in the state’s liberal north, Mr Obama won Virginia—the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

DC, by contrast, has the three most reliably Democratic electoral votes in the country; they have never gone to a Republican candidate. Its citizens pay federal taxes but have only a non-voting representative in Congress. There wasn’t even a mayoral race to add spice; the down-ballot races were for city council, board of education and the baffling “Advisory Neighborhood Committee”. Still, voters waited. In the end a jaw-dropping 93% of them voted for Mr Obama.

For candidates seeking national political office, this city is the end of the rainbow. They spend their lives working to come here, then spend their time in office disparaging it. Natives don’t mind, though: they’re not really talking about our city. The Washington of grey buildings, grey suits and grey men; of politics and power; of thinktanks and influence and backroom dealings is something entirely separate and removed from the city of DC. The two cities rub up against each other here and there—at Eastern Market, on the Metro, in the beer line at Wizards games (not in the stands, though: the Verizon Centre, where the Wizards play, has a huge and rigorously protected section of corporate luxury boxes)—but for the most part each is content to ignore the other.

When pundits talk about how an incoming administration is going to “change the city”, residents laugh: it might change Washington, but DC will remain the same tree-lined, pleasant, rather sleepy southern town. We didn’t suddenly start wearing cowboy boots in 2000. We didn’t sit around kitchen tables discussing policy into the wee hours in the 1990s. The 1980s may have been morning in Reagan’s America, but crack was eating DC alive: residents grew so weary of being mocked for living in the world’s murder capital that a local band released a song called “DC Don’t Stand for Dodge City.”

These days the crime rate has fallen. The city is noticeably richer, though income inequality remains stark: in 2003 the two largest septiles of household income distribution were over $100,000 (20%) and under $15,000 (19.1%). Still, I moved back here last year—after a 15-year absence during which I lived in five cities in three countries—and the city feels noticeably different than it did when I left: sleeker, more sophisticated, more confident. It won’t do to grouse about progress, prosperity and safety, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the DC of my youth just a little—the rough secret, the dirty gem.

The stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Thomas Circle and Union Station used to be sketchy and dotted with vacant buildings; now it’s upscale condos all the way. When I was growing up, I would not have walked alone in the inner-city neighbourhood where I live; now it’s strollers and minivans as far as the eye can see. The old rowhouses of Shaw have been rehabbed, and the neighbourhood is vibrant once again.

U Street, once called the “Black Broadway”, was, like so much of the city, destroyed in the riots that followed Martin Luther King junior’s assassination, then left to rot by an indifferent federal government and incompetent local administration. Now it thrums at night with young revelers of all races; it is the heart not just of DC’s nightlife, but also of its Ethiopian community—the world’s largest outside Ethiopia.

Video: Celebration on U Street by a mostly Ethiopian crowed

On November 4th that stretch of U was packed with people celebrating Mr Obama’s triumph. The revelry was sustained, sincere, jubilant and loud. Mr Obama’s earliest and most fervent supporters—“eggheads and African-Americans”, as one Clinton hack notoriously sneered during the primary election—comprise a greater proportion of this city than any other, and they were not going to be denied their joy. On November 5th, Washington anxiously wondered what changes its new leader would bring—“Is there anyone in Washington who really knows [the Obamas]?”, fretted one society hostess—but DC went back to work.