Picking up life again in DC
October 6, 2009 6:54 AM   Subscribe

My friend, a 7-year resident of Manhattan, is relocating to DC (Alexandria). What should he know?

My friend, who has only briefly visited DC, will be relocating to old-town Alexandria in a few weeks. He has lived in NYC for the last several years, and he has thoroughly enjoyed it. What should he know about DC to make this transition easiest and most enjoyable?

BTW he is mid-30s, works in software, is sort of fashionable / borderline extrovert, and in his spare time he enjoys the usual: food, books, art, music, and women. Also, he knows no one in DC.

What should he know? Where should he go? Who should he meet?

What are the things (e.g. cultures, rules, mores, laws, experiences) that most differentiate DC and NYC?
posted by TheOtherSide to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how it is in NY, but he will be asked what he does for a living. A lot.
posted by Pax at 7:00 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Main one, if he hasn't figured this out already, is he'll need a car. Living in old town is maybe as close as you can get to Manhattan-style urban pedestrian life, but you have to drive everywhere around here. And the general work environment, clothing, etc. are likely to be a little more stuffy than he's used to.

Beyond that, DC is in a lot of ways a company town, in much the same way that Los Angeles is. Maybe more so. Especially if you're single and in his age range, it's all about Government. Single people his age typically come to DC to be all about their careers for a while, to get close to power and grab some for themselves. They tend to be intensely and completely about that, 24x7x365, because they know that in four years they're probably going to get kicked to the curb and a new bunch comes in to do the same thing.

As a single guy who's not part of that whole world, on the other hand, this could be good for him. Decent, sane, reasonably attractive guys who are not balls to the wall about policy, power, and position - and actually have room in their lives for a relationship - can be a petty desirable commodity here.
posted by Naberius at 7:10 AM on October 6, 2009

Sigh. pretty desirable even.
posted by Naberius at 7:12 AM on October 6, 2009

Metro officially closes at 3 am on Friday and Saturday and midnight the rest of the week, but at some of the stations the last train goes through as much as 30 minutes earlier.
posted by little e at 7:16 AM on October 6, 2009

Ha, I lived in ye Olde Towne for a while. They love their rules and law-abidingness there (parking, zoning, car inspections, etc). The police are like a homeowners' association. You can't work on your car parked on your own street, or display a for-sale sign. You need to go to the courthouse and get a sticker to belch in public. (I think only the last one is exaggeration.)

To discover entertainment and music, pick up the free weekly City Paper (our Village Voice). DC will be more boring, entertainment-, culture-, and style-wise, than NYC but the DC scene is moving up.
posted by That takes balls. at 7:18 AM on October 6, 2009

Good news: there is a lot of free stuff to do in DC. I just saw this cool sounding Halloween event happening in Old Town.

Bad news: they really do roll the streets up early.

Local blogs I read: DCist, WeLoveDC, Brightest Young Things.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:28 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know how it is in NY, but he will be asked what he does for a living. A lot.

Even more, he will be asked for whom he works and what the political affiliation is.

Depending on the answer, the asker(s) will be very "move along here, nothing to see."
posted by jgirl at 8:12 AM on October 6, 2009

I don't know how it is in NY, but he will be asked what he does for a living. A lot.

Even more, he will be asked for whom he works and what the political affiliation is.

You know, this is so cliched, it's hardly ever true. Been in DC for many years now, and almost never get asked (nor ask) what I do or "which side" it's on. At least no more than you would anywhere else (it's hard not to ask after awhile: it being a pretty important part of who you are).

Shame that your friend is going to be out in Old Town. It doesn't look like it, but it's worlds away from D.C. From the perspective of Manhattan, it might as well be Jersey. Sure, he'll work in D.C., but after awhile, I'll bet he'll spend most of his free time in Virginia. He'll have to drive most places (the nearest Metro stations are not convenient at all to Old Town), and friends in the city will be loathe to come out. I have close friends out there I haven't seen in many, many months.

Sartorially, even the "hipster" culture is probably a couple years behind NY, and out in the suburbs, it's even further.

The good news is that most of the good museums in D.C. are free, and there is a really active arts scene. Every year there's a great art festival called Art-O-Matic that generally takes over an entire office building and lets just about anybody show their work. Gallery openings are pretty common.

The Shitty Paper isn't a bad source of what's going on around town, but I've had better luck with the Onion. And blogs like DCist.
posted by General Malaise at 8:20 AM on October 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

You know, this is so cliched, it's hardly ever true. Been in DC for many years now, and almost never get asked (nor ask) what I do or "which side" it's on.

I've been here 33 years; it happens all of the time. Can depend on your field, though.
posted by jgirl at 8:30 AM on October 6, 2009

It happens all of the time to me at least.
posted by jgirl at 8:30 AM on October 6, 2009

Moving anywhere in your mid 30s when you are not married means to me that you need to be aggressive to start your social life.
The job will either be really good for socializing if it's a large IT consulting company or software company. Or really bad if it's a small government contracting company because his co-workers will be driving back to Loudoun County (or some other Suburbs/Exurbs) immediately after work.
I would join a lot of groups to meet people. Whatever hobbies he finds interesting at Meetup.com, kickball/ultimate Frisbee, etc if he can stand it, a bike group. Anything that meets often. The work life balance in DC is really bad so while meeting people is easy it's hard to actually make plans with them. That's why I think groups with a structured schedule are so good for socializing.
posted by hokie409 at 8:38 AM on October 6, 2009

Old Town really isn't that far from the District and there are metro stops on King Street and Braddock Road, only a few blocks from the neighborhood. It's also a pretty awesome place in its own right.

There's no real simple analogy to compare DC and its environs to NYC, though, mostly because the Kool Kidz aren't priced out of the District like they are out of Manhattan. Orange Line Arlington is kind of recent-graduate fratty/preppy (but I live here and love it), Blue Line Arlington and Alexandria are more for slightly older, relatively wealthy, childless professionals. The closest analogue to Brooklyn, culture-wise, is probably Columbia Heights, Mt Pleasant or Dupont.

Tell him not to stand on the fucking left side of the escalator in Metro stations.
posted by downing street memo at 9:00 AM on October 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Plenty of normal (read: non-power-hungry) people live here, and we don't all judge your worth as a human being by what you do for a living. And yes, please stand to the right on Metro escalators.

I'm a NoVa fan myself, so I think living in Old Town is A Good Thing. Close in and accessible to DC/NoVA/MD, plus a great place to hang out. (Although if he's more of a scenester, he might prefer Adams Morgan or Georgetown for his socializing needs.)

If he likes "food, books, art, [and] music" he will find plenty of free things to do, and thus have plenty of opportunities to meet people, including women.

A lot of DC's ethnic diversity, particularly foodwise, is found (or at least is at its best) in the 'burbs. However, you'll usually have to look past the trendy places to the holes-in-the-wall (yes, a car will help with this). The "trendy" places in DC are usually crap, but there is a lot of good food here if you know where to look.

Basically, he needs to get out and explore his new digs, and find out which parts of the city/'burbs do it for him. Most people see Clarendon and write off Arlington, or see M Street and write off Georgetown, or see Penn Quarter (the old "Chinatown") and assume there's no decent Chinese food in DC (hint: Rockville). Their loss, and I would encourage your friend to look harder and dig deeper before jumping to any conclusions.
posted by somanyamys at 9:13 AM on October 6, 2009

And when I said "Most people," I should have said, "Many people." Mea culpa.
posted by somanyamys at 9:15 AM on October 6, 2009

He should subscribe to Goldstar for DC. It's free and they offer half-price and sometimes even free tickets to all kinds of DC-area stuff: theatre, concerts, sporting events, circuses, lectures, you name it. Not rock concerts as much, but every other kind. For rock, particularly the local indie scene, check out DCist's "Weekly Music Agenda." I can't link this right now because my !@#$@#$ employer blocks blogs, but General Malaise above linked to DCist.
posted by Nicky Diva at 10:42 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Welcome to your friend! Alexandria is a beautiful place and speaking as a Midwest transplant, the DC metro area is one of the most interesting places in the country to live in.

From the Old Town riverfront to King Street Metro is about a mile, so unless he hates walking, Old Town is perfectly accessible via Metro.

Unless he works in a political/think tank/advocacy/lobbying job or socializes with those that do, he won't be asked about his politics. He will be asked about what he does, but I think that's true for most Americans.

Nthing the do not stand on the left side of the escalators advice.

Also, re food: Tyler Cowen's Dining Guide.

I moved here fourteen years ago after college. First-class attractions and affordable living + friendly people = a great place to live. Downsides are the high cost of housing, sprawl, the traffic and the need for automobile transporation if you want to go to places not covered by the subway (the bus will get you there, but can be slow). Having a car or doing the Smartcar thing are worth it, however (at least on the weekends), as there's tons to see and do in the region.

Also, he should check out the Smithsonian Associates program and the USDA Graduate School for interesting and cheap speakers and classes.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:33 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The most important thing to remember about DC is that it's totally awesome, but you have to work for it. Go out and find things. So many people here are stuck in the Dupont/Georgetown scenes and never find smaller venues or art openings or crazy street art, but I swear to god it goes on all the time.

I have to second Brightest Young Things, to which I contribute. The people who write it are very fun.

Make sure he checks out H St., NE (roughly between 11th and 14th). Now that U St./Columbia Heights is getting high on the gentrification scale, all the best new bars etc. are opening on H St. And the H St. Festival recently was awesome.
posted by awesomebrad at 11:33 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Old Town is a great area. It's got a nice mix of restaurants, bars, stores, etc. Most of the stores close early, but the nightlife isn't bad. It has everything from very upscale locavore gourmet restaurants to 50ยข PBR dive bars. And, at least during the summer, you can take the water taxi over to Georgetown and National Harbor, in addition to the Metro. (Only crappy thing about the Metro, as little e pointed out, is that its hours suck compared to the NYC Subway. You will eventually find yourself stranded somewhere after closing, and this is when you want to have a few cab company numbers in your phone. Red Top or Alexandria Yellow are both reliable and have cars that take credit cards.)

There's a free bus/trolley service that runs up and down King Street (sort of the main drag through OT) from the Metro station down to the waterfront, which is nice when the weather is crappy. Just don't think that King Street is the extent of Old Town; there's a lot of stuff down the little side streets and over on Duke/Prince/Queen (which parallel King) as well. They've started to put up better signage to let people walking down King know what's down the side streets, but far too many people just never look down there.

The Del Ray area of Alexandria/Arlington is considered very hot right now, with it's own mini-downtown area, so that might be worth checking out. Depending on where he's living it might be walking distance. (Many of the more reasonably-priced properties in OT are up closer to Del Ray. Places right near King are frequently megabucks.) I don't think it has much in the way of nightlife yet, but it does have some eclectic little restaurants and shops.

I've never had someone straight-out ask me my political affiliation when out in the DC area, although I do get asked what I do quite a bit. It might be that the answer to that question prompts or discourages a "what party" followup though, so YMMV. But I think the reputation DC has for partisan-ness is, in general, greatly exaggerated. (If anything, I think people talk politics less down here when out socially, outside explicitly political circles, than they do in other places where there's more of a political monoculture.)

Strong agree on Tyler Cowen's dining guide. Yelp also seems to get a lot of use in the DC area, and I've found a bunch of great restaurants just by combing through the reviews there. (I don't think it's quite as useful for bars, though, maybe because that's just a much more subjective call.)

And yeah, walk to the left / stand to the right on the Metro escalators. No joke; that's Serious Business down here.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:57 AM on October 6, 2009

He will be asked about what he does, but I think that's true for most Americans.

It's a lot more common here in DC, though...and even people who don't work in government- or politics-related industries will invariably socialize with people who do. Also, people love bitching about local politics and Metro* and DC's leper status. The tri-state area parallel is somewhat apt, with Maryland (except PG County) = Connecticut and Virginia = New Jersey. (The NoVa / rest-of-Virginia divide is also a Big Deal.) Also also, VA has a weird "independent cities" form of government, so Alexandria is not part of any county.

One thing that might be a little disorienting for New Yorkers in the DC area is that there are no skyscrapers. DC feels smaller in other ways too, and once your friend starts meeting people he may discover that some individuals he meets in different contexts also know one another.

If he's a film buff and likes saving money, he might want to sign up for the "I Love Free Movies DC" group on Facebook, but he should be prepared for about a dozen messages a day flooding his inbox (most of which aren't about new screenings).

The Black Cat and the 9:30 Club are the pre-eminent music venues and there are a lot of unusual places (like say the Sixth and I Synagogue) for a broad array performances and public speakers.

*seriously, standing on the left = a Goddamn Fucking Tourist
posted by kittyprecious at 12:28 PM on October 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's a lot more common here in DC, though...

Eh, I doubt it - where ever and whenever I've gone out socializing, I've always been asked what I do (and that includes non-U.S. cities as well). I think it's generally considered a normal and accepted topic for small talk. I agree that it might be a weeding-out question in DC, as in a political response might lead to further political probing. But the new arrival works in software, so I doubt his politics will ever be a topic of conversation (unless he wants them to be a topic of conversation, of course).

Agree with kittyprecious re the building height limitations in DC. Together with L'Enfant's wide avenues, they'll make DC feel small after the canyons of NYC.

Also, Verizon is the only cell phone service that works in the underground Metro subway stations (although more carriers will be added in coming years).
posted by longdaysjourney at 1:24 PM on October 6, 2009

I've lived in the DC Metro area for the last few years (MD actually), and here's a couple impressions I have. The most common question you'll be asked is "What do you do?" but you shouldn't answer that with a job if you don't want to. One of my favorite ways to answer that is to mention hobbies. It tends to mess with people a bit while subtlety saying "There is more than your job." (I don't mean to be a jerk about it, and in work related contexts I give a straight answer).

Use the metro, love the metro. I love the buses less, but plenty of friends use them.

DC (and to a lesser extent the metro areas of MD and NoVA) is really a block by block city. By which I mean that things can change from block to block. Neighborhoods are small, often very atomized, and what might be a great place might not be such a great place two blocks away.

Don't wear a bowtie. There's already too many of those people here already.

There's a lot of free events and things to do here. I'm not sure how it compares to NYC since I've never lived there, but in addition to the Smithsonian and associated events, there are usually a ton of other free events, often put on by earnest young people. As a self-plug, I am part of a group called DC Game Night, we meet weekly and play boardgames and card games, usually in public places (as opposed to someone's home, but we do that too). It's always metro accessible, and you can find us at DC Game Night (currently a redirect to our Facebook page until I find the time set up a website).

Anecdotally, I'm told that DC is a great dating city, especially if you are male.

DC doesn't have good white ethnic food for the most part (Italian, German, etc). That's not to say that you can't find specific places that do it well, but generally there aren't a lot of choices, and most of those choices are terrible. Instead, go for the non-white ethnic places, the Ethiopian places on U St, the Korean places in NoVA, Pho in the suburbs of MD and NoVa. There are some good Thai places, Indian places, etc. But there are four foods that DC does not do well, and a person should never expect to find the good stuff down here. Conveniently, these are foodstuffs that NYC is known for:
1. Pizza (Seriously, our local variety is the disgusting jumbo slice)
2. Bagels
3. Chinese (especially not in Chinatown)
4. Buffalo Wings (chunky wing sauce is an abomination)
posted by X-Himy at 7:06 AM on October 7, 2009

To second kittyprecious, if you stand on the left on a Metro escalator, I will hunt you down like a dog. Oh yes.
posted by X-Himy at 7:07 AM on October 7, 2009

But there are four foods that DC does not do well, and a person should never expect to find the good stuff down here.

Definitely agree on the bagels, although Giant supermarket of all places has a passable variety. People will also moan about the impossibility of finding good Mexican food, but it's there (hidden amongst all the Salvadoran restaurants) and the Well-Dressed Burrito near Dupont Circle is a deserved lunchtime staple.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:01 AM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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