Tag Archives: NW DC

So How Safe is DC Really?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about househunting in DC and our preconceptions of the city as somewhat dangerous. Recently a number of American cities have experienced riots sparked by police actions and racial tensions, but DC has remained quiet – so far. 

The other night R was out till very late. In London I wouldn’t have worried. In London I knew the areas he was likely to be out in, probably knew who he was out with, and generally I feel that London is pretty safe these days, with so many people on the streets that it discourages violent crime.

In DC I started to worry. Especially when 1am came round. I didn’t know what part of DC he was in, and I didn’t know who he was out with. I knew he’d be coming back through Adams Morgan, which is our area and where I usually feel pretty safe, but he’d be drunk – maybe obviously – and therefore potentially viewed as easy prey. Yes, there are plenty of people on the streets in Adams Morgan, but there are also plenty of alleyways and the number of helplessly drunk rich college kids on the streets can attract predators. In the end, it turned out he’d been at a friend’s house in Northeast, had come back via Adams Morgan, stopped in one of the fast food places and had eaten pizza walking up the dark alleyway near our apartment building. Perhaps not the best idea – especially as he was visibly drunk – but as he reminded me, he can look pretty scary when he wants to.

I’m more cautious in DC than I am in London. The number of times back home I got staggeringly drunk and ended at my London Bridge flat hardly knowing how I’d got there is testament to how safe I felt in that city (or maybe I was just younger and stupider back then). If I’m out alone here I make sure not to get drunk and I plan a route home that keeps to streets I know will be busy and well lit. DC is not as crowded as London. One evening, during the snow, I set out to find a pub north of Columbia Heights. It was dark and my phone died, so I ended up overshooting by quite a way. As the street around me became darker, emptier and more residential I started noticing any crunch of footsteps behind me and wishing it wasn’t so slippery so that I could walk faster and get out of there. Eventually I gave up, crossed the road and, attempting to look like I knew what I was doing (in case anyone was watching me) started back southwards. Columbia Heights is deceptive. The bit around the metro, for about 2 blocks, is pretty new and shiny, very well lit and bustling with a range of people. A couple of blocks up and suddenly it’s quiet, dimly lit and you’re into the realm of dark dive bars and seedy chicken restaurants before even this thins out and all you’re left with is pay day loan type shops, liquor stores and boarding houses.

I was fine – on my way back I found the bar – but the friend I was meeting was rather dismayed at how far I’d wandered and helpfully told me about a rape that had happened up there not that long ago. Recently there was another report of an attempted rape somewhere on 16th street NW.

And NW – our area – is actually the safest. Of course things are changing when it comes to the other three quarters of central DC. Capital Hill, a no go area in the very recent past, is now a neighborhood of young families and their young professional lodgers; markets; and the beginnings of cafe culture. NE is becoming increasingly gentrified, numbered street by numbered street. And SE around by Nationals Baseball Park is really nice now – luxury flats by the river. Of course there are still no-go areas. When R’s colleagues were helping us work out where to live when we first moved here,  they said pretty much what I just said about SE being ok now, but R’s enquiry of ‘you mean across the river?’ prompted almost comically horrified reactions of ‘Oh no, not Anacostia!’

If you watch crime dramas set in DC (‘Bones’ for example) they usually find the bodies amongst the warehouses of Anacostia or in the river nearby. But apart from this area, it’s getting harder for such dramas to realistically portray the city as at all gritty. The run-down barbecue place that Frank Underwood frequented in early seasons of DC was actually shot in Baltimore – you wouldn’t find that sort of place anywhere near Congress these days.

DC’s reputation for danger probably mainly dates from the time of the riots. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, riots broke out in DC and lasted for six days. Various bits of downtown DC (like 14th street) were reduced to rubble. Although some of these riot corridors ended just minutes from the White House much of the damage was not repaired until about five or ten years ago. People didn’t live in DC, and the town was developed with that in mind; the metro system was not designed to get around DC but rather to get commuters quickly in and then out again to the leafy suburbs of Virginia, Maryland and NW DC. Conditions in the city for those who did end up living there were not good, and this, combined with racial tension following new waves of Hispanic immigration, led to more rioting, in the areas of Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan, in the early 1990s.

We live in a completely different city now. 14th street is where the hipsters go to eat in shiny new restaurants. People don’t move to the suburbs until they’re choosing high schools for their kids. The metro now attempts to transport the young, fun-seeking population between the hot new bars and restaurant areas, the ball-park and their city-center apartments. While crime exists and there are still places you don’t want to walk at night, the problems of DC are now no different from those faced by most towns and cities.

So, in conclusion: ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know.’

Here and There – Apartment Hunting

(This post is part of series. See also: Then and Now)

When we moved from our first, temporary apartment to our more permanent home in DC it felt like moving to a different world. In the first apartment we experienced Columbia Road and Adams Morgan as a nightmarish warzone of flashing lights, sirens, drunken revellers and homeless beggars. In the second the only thing keeping us awake was the mockingbird in the garden opposite. And yet, in actual fact, we only moved five minutes down the road.

On the balcony of our current apartment
On the balcony of our current apartment

We chose our first apartment (on AirBnB when we discovered we had got the visa to come to America and R needed to turn up at work in about two weeks’ time) based on availability and proximity to downtown DC. We knew that R would be working downtown, and we had heard of Dupont Circle (from the West Wing), so we looked in that sort of area. We had heard horror stories about how DC was dangerous – how you could think you were in a nice area, turn a corner and be in that legendary, dystopian world of ‘the projects’ – so we tried to do our research. The closest affordable option that turned up was in Adams Morgan, which, when we looked it up on the internet, sounded like our kind of place – diverse population, full of restaurants and bars, walking distance from Dupont. The consensus of opinion on the internet was that it was safe.

And although our first experiences were not wholly positive, we had to agree that it seemed pretty much as safe as our area of London.

But it was noisy, and there were the beggars, and the apartment was gated, and it was a full twenty minute walk to Dupont metro (Woodley Park metro was closer, but then it took practically half an hour to get down the ridiculously long and slow escalator), and it was an hour’s walk to R’s work, and walking back was all uphill, and there was no good gym or supermarket nearby… our list of minor complaints was getting pretty long. So we decided to search for a new apartment closer to town. From talking to people, we were confident that the North West was the right place to be (it’s been safest for longest); we just wanted to be less far from the city centre.

Of course, apartment hunting in a strange city is difficult. In a foreign country it’s even harder. We were pretty experienced at finding and renting apartments in the UK – you go to Zoopla, find something in your price-range, contact the agent and give them all your details. They tell you that the property has already been let and your price-range is unrealistic. Or something like that.

In America – or at least in DC – there are similar websites (padmapper for example), but mainly people use Craigslist. This is far more reputable over here than it is in the UK. However, the form your search takes depends on what sort of apartment you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a serviced apartment with amenities like a gym and a concierge, then you can get this pretty easily, usually by contacting the apartment building/company directly. Most of these are downtown: south of Dupont Circle, on 14th Street or in the new waterfront developments in SW/SE. If, on the other hand, you like the look of the smaller apartment buildings in the nice old mansions of NW (19th street and Kalorama for example), you should look for adverts for ‘condos’ on Craigslist. (Condominiums are apartment buildings where each apartment is privately owned by different landlords; apartment buildings are owned and maintained by a single company). Areas differ in terms of what sort of apartments will be more readily available. In the Capital Hill area, for example, many of the rentals on Craigslist will be basements being let out privately by the young families living upstairs. Realtors are rarely used when you’re looking just to rent, so really there’s no-one that will give you this information – we just had to learn it from R’s colleagues and our experience. Oh and nearly every apartment in DC is let unfurnished.

This was all a lot to take in – especially during my first weeks in this country when I was still being challenged by things like grocery shopping. I spent hours on Craigslist and googlemaps, budgeting, making calls… And it always seemed to be raining as I walked down the hill to various condos, waited for agents or building managers, and tried to gauge light levels in first floor apartments. It was a high-pressure decision: we were running out of time in our temporary apartment, and our entire happiness for the next year rested on what apartment we would end up with.

And then, one sunny weekend at the end of April, we found our apartment. It wasn’t much closer to Dupont or Woodley Park metros. It was still on top of the hill. I still hadn’t found a good supermarket or gym. But that five minutes down Columbia Road made all the difference. This part of the road was behind 18th street rather than at the head of it. Rather than eating our weekend bagels on a busy road, we could take them to the park just a couple of minutes away. There were trees, and birds, and the building’s entrance was on a quiet, residential side street. It was perfect.

A year on, we have had no reason to regret our decision. The apartment building is old, but recently refurbished. It’s managed by a company, but we’re not paying over the odds for amenities we’d never use. The management fix things promptly, look after deliveries, and last summer they even hosted an ice-cream social to show their appreciation for their tenants. We also managed to find a good supermarket and a gym that has what we need.

And we’re still enjoying eating our bagels in the park.

Our local park


This post is the second in a series. Read on: Friends and ‘friending’ – social networks abroad