Obamas Breathe New Life Into D.C.

Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 29, 2009

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 [Wes Combs, a marketing executive for the homosexual community] 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.

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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.

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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.

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