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2000 Annual Meeting - Fifth in a series of articles in anticipation of the 2000 ASA Annual Meeting

Behind the Monuments: Taking a Sociological Look at Life in the Nation’s Capital

by Samantha Friedman George Washington University

Many of us know Washington, DC through our stays here as tourists or through our work with federal agencies or think tanks in the area. Washington, DC offers its visitors many attractions – museums, monuments, historical sites, art, theater, and fine dining. As sociologists, we turn to the nation’s capital to keep up with the changes in the public policies that impact our research, to apply for federal funds to enhance our research, or to gather statistics and data to conduct our research. But what about life in the nation’s capital? Should that be of interest to us as sociologists?

Despite the fact that there is not a rich tradition of sociological research on the Washington, DC metropolitan area as there is in let’s say Chicago, life in the city of monuments is worth paying attention to as sociologists. While partaking in the ASA annual meeting, focus on Washington, DC as a city rather than as a tourist spot or as a place that houses your favorite governmental agency. There are three themes that characterize life for residents in the area that you will likely notice during your stay.

Since the 1950s, the Washington, DC metropolitan area has experienced rapid growth. Between 1950 and 1970, the land area of the Greater Washington metropolitan area increased from 183 to 523 square miles, while its population almost doubled in size from approximately 1.5 million to nearly 3.0 million residents (Manning, 1996). What is striking about the growth that occurred in the area is that it has only taken place in the suburbs. During this period of twenty years, the District of Columbia lost about 47,000 residents, while the suburbs gained an impressive 1.5 million residents. Since the 1970s, growth in Greater Washington has continued at an unabated pace. Between 1970 and 1997, the population more than doubled, increasing from nearly 3.0 million to 6.5 million residents, again with the suburbs experiencing all of the area’s growth (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998).

During this period, the region has also experienced a surge in economic growth. Indeed, during the 1980s, the employment growth rate of the Washington, DC metropolitan area was the 6th most rapid among the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, and the growth rate for the District itself was the 12th highest (Kingsley et al. 1998). The growth in the private economy has largely been driven by increases in jobs in high-end service industries such as information technology, biomedical industries, and business services. Indeed, between 1980 and 1996, employment in information technology industries grew by 178% in the metropolitan area (Kingsley et al. 1998). Such growth is reflected in a recent study which found that the cities with the largest number of .com, .net, and .org addresses per capita in the United States are Herndon and Fairfax, Virginia, both located in the Washington, DC area (Henry 2000).

It is likely that during your stay in the Washington, DC area you will experience the consequences of the growth that has been taking place in the area, but perhaps not in the most positive way. Although the growth has brought prosperity to many residents in the area, it has also contributed to the amount of time that individuals spend on the road. Indeed, for the fifth consecutive year, the Washington, DC area has been cited to have the second-most severe traffic in the country, just behind Los Angeles, CA, forcing drivers to waste 76 hours a year in tie-ups (Sipress 1999). So, while you are in the DC area for the annual meeting or en route to the meeting, be sure to think about the timing of your travel so that you can avoid such tie-ups. In the larger picture, it is worth thinking about how metropolitan areas like Greater Washington should deal with the sprawl and uneven growth that has taken place between the city and suburbs and the implications that such growth has on the stratification that exists within metropolitan areas and on the environment itself.

In examining the trends in growth in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, another factor that cannot be ignored is the increase in the immigrant population that has occurred since 1965. Between 1970 and 1990, the share of the area’s population that is foreign born rose from 4.4 percent to 9.7 percent in the District of Columbia and from 4.5 percent to 12.8 percent in the suburban areas of Greater Washington (Gibson and Lennon, 1999). Moreover, nearly half of the growth that occurred in the Washington metropolitan area between 1990 and 1997 was due to net international migration (Singer and Brown, 2000).

Today, the Washington, DC metropolitan area ranks as the 6th largest city of immigrant settlement, with over 800,000 immigrants living in the area, which is not far behind 4th- and 5th-ranked San Francisco (1.4 million) and Chicago (1.1 million) (Singer and Brown, 2000). In 1990, approximately 1 in 6 of the area’s residents was born outside of the United States, compared to only 1 in 22 residents in 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998). Greater Washington continues to be an attractive settlement area for today’s immigrants to the United States. According to latest report by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (1999), the Washington, DC metropolitan area ranks as the 5th most common destination for immigrants to the United States.

There are several characteristics that set the Greater Washington metropolitan area apart from other major settlement areas of immigrants, making it a “new” city of immigration. First, as already alluded to, immigrants to the area are more likely to settle in suburbs than in the District of Columbia itself. Indeed, according to estimates from the 1997 INS data, nine out of every ten new immigrants who settle in Greater Washington are destined for the suburbs. Second, the Washington, DC metropolitan area is home to a diverse set of immigrants, but unlike in many other destination cities (e.g., Los Angeles and Miami), no one group dominates the flow (Singer and Brown, 2000). INS data show more than 300,000 legal immigrants chose to live in Greater Washington during the period between 1983 and 1996, with about half of them from the following 10 countries: El Salvador, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Philippines, China, Iran, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and Pakistan. The third and final feature of immigration to Greater Washington that makes it distinct from immigration to other cities is the fact that until World War II, Washington, DC attracted very few immigrants to the region.

In making plans to dine while you are in the area for the ASA conference, you may want to venture out to the suburbs. Although there are a number of restaurants in the District that offer ethnic cuisine, some of the best restaurants are actually located in the suburbs. Below are some such restaurants:

Bombay Bistro (Indian), 3570 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax, VA; (703) 359-5810
Galaxy (Vietnamese), 155 Hillwood Avenue, Falls Church, VA; (703) 534-5450 (closed on Tuesdays)
Neisha Thai, 6037 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA; (703) 933-3788
Tara Thai, 4828 Bethesda Avenue, Bethesda, MD; (301) 657-0488

Although growth in the Washington, DC area has brought prosperity to many, the benefits have not been equally distributed among the area’s population. Residents in the region that extends west of 16th Street, NW in the District and west of I-95 in Maryland and Virginia have, for the most part, been benefiting from such growth (Orfield 1999). Indeed, most of the middle- to upper-income families live in that half of the region and most of the job growth has occurred there. In contrast, the region east of 16th Street, NW and I-95 contains most of the area’s poor and minority families.

Indeed, Greater Washington is a racially segregated metropolitan area, and 16th Street, NW creates the racial divide. In 1990 about 68% of blacks would have had to move within the area in order to be evenly distributed with their white counterparts (Frey and Farley 1996). Blacks are not only unevenly distributed but are also geographically isolated, living in predominantly black neighborhoods. In 1990, an average black individual living in the region lived in a neighborhood that was 66.7% black (Denton 1994 ).

Race differences in economic well-being are also notable. In 1990, the poverty rate of blacks in the city was 20.2% which was 2.6 times larger than the poverty rate of whites. Poor blacks in the Washington, DC metropolitan area are more concentrated in the District itself and in high-poverty neighborhoods than their poor white counterparts. Indeed, 61.1% of the region’s poor blacks lived within the city compared to only 14.1% of poor whites, and poor blacks were 25 times more likely than poor whites to live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 30% or above (Turner and Hayes 1997).

Despite such polarization that exists in the area, there are some signs that indicate there has been some improvement in the economic circumstances of blacks within the area. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of poor blacks living in the District dropped substantially by 12,000, lessening the concentration of the black poor in the city (Turner and Hayes 1997). During this period the number of tracts with a poverty rate of 20% or more also declined in the District and in the surrounding suburbs (Orfield 1999). Since almost all of the mid- to high-poverty tracts are predominantly black (Turner and Hayes 1997), such a decrease in the number of poor tracts signifies an improvement in the quality of life for black residents in the area.

Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in the area have also helped to revitalize many of the distressed neighborhoods within the District. For example, the East of the River CDC has been instrumental in renovating housing stock and bringing capital into Anacostia, the southeast portion of the District where unemployment, poverty, and high school drop out rates are the highest in the city. Currently, East of the River is involved in completing the renovation of housing in the Washington View community, which is a 509-unit apartment complex that has been overrun by blight and decay for decades. East of the River has supported economic growth in Anacostia through a variety of programs, including the distribution of microloans. Since 1995, it has loaned nearly $400,000 in loans to local businesses, helping to create and retain jobs in the area.

It is likely that you will notice the segregation that exists in the Washington, DC metropolitan area during your stay. As you venture out of the conference hotel and take a walk through some of the neighborhoods surrounding the hotel, you will soon realize just how segregated the area is. If you are interested in learning more about the revitalization that has taken place in the District, one of the tours that is available during the conference is a tour of the neighborhoods that the East of the River CDC has helped revitalize.

While engaging in the sociology that takes place during the roundtables, presentations, and posters at the ASA conference itself, sociologists should try to use their sociological imagination as they navigate around the nation’s capital. There’s a lot happening behind the monuments that is worth thinking about, especially since this is the city in which the country’s lawmakers reside and make decisions about our country’s future.

Denton, Nancy. 1994. “Are African Americans still hypersegregated?” Pp. 49-81 in Residential Apartheid, edited by Robert Nullard, J. Eugene Grigsby III, and Charles Lee. Los Angeles, CA: CAAS Publications.

Frey, William H. and Reynolds Farley. 1996. “Latino, Asian, and Black Segregation in U.S. Metropolitan Areas: Are Multiethnic Metros Different?” Demography 33:35-50.

Gibson, Campbell J. and Emily Lennon. 1999. “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990.” Population Division Working Paper No. 29. Washington: US Bureau of the Census, Population Division.

Henry, Shannon. 2000. “Digital Capital: Bear this in Mind: Domain is Destiny” Washington Post May 8th. Financial Section.

Kingsley, G. Thomas, Kathryn S. Pettit, and Christopher Hayes. 1998. “Washington Baseline: Key Indicators for the Nation’s Capital.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Manning, Robert. 1996. “Washington, D.C.: The Changing Social Landscape of the International Capital City.” Chapter 28, In Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in America, Silvia Pedraza and Ruben G. Rumbaut (eds.). Washington, DC: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Orfield, Myron. 1999. “Washington Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability.” Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Singer, Audrey and Amelia Brown. 2000. “Immigration to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Region.” Unpublished manuscript submitted to The Encyclopedia of Immigration.

Sipress, Alan. 1999. “Curse of the Beltway: 4 of the Worst U.S. Jams.” Washington Post November 23rd. Metro Section.

Turner, Margery Austin and Chris Hayes. 1997. “Poor People and Poor Neighborhoods in the Washington Metropolitan Area.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1998. State and Metropolitan Area Data Book 1997-98. (5th edition) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. 1999. Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1997. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.