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Who's Your City? Trick Or Treating And The D.C. Region

Richard Florida, the social demographics guru who taught us that, even in this age of globalization and virtual geography, you are where you live, moved out of the District last year, settling in Toronto.

The man who brought us "The Rise of the Creative Class" and other bestselling ruminations on the meaning of our choices about location is back with a book called "Who's Your City?" in which he argues that selecting a city or region inevitably involves deciding who you are and what kind of folks you want to surround yourself with.

So why did Florida move from his lovely house in Northwest Washington clear across the border to Canada's most eclectic city? Simply put, he got a better offer, shifting his base from George Mason University to the University of Toronto. But he also got to move away from a place where his life was divided among three realities--the bustle of Dupont Circle, U Street and other engaging D.C. neighborhoods he cherished, the quiet of his remote residential section of Northwest Washington (he lived in Forest Hills, just off Tilden Street NW), and the relative isolation of Fairfax County, where he worked but swore he would never live. Now, he says, he can have it all--living, working and playing in an urban setting that has the smart people and ethnic mix of the District, without the high crime rate, and with the addition of a sense of community he found lacking here.

Florida is a guy who moves around a lot, perhaps for largely professional reasons, but also because he's a searcher by nature, someone who believes in place as a key to the perfectibility of the human experience. For years, he has preached that it makes sense for young people to go where the smart young people are, and the District comes out on top of any list of magnets for that crowd (18 percent of D.C residents are college graduates, the highest figure of any city in the nation, followed closely by San Francisco.)

Florida looks at a social map of this country and sees us clustering ourselves according to our passions and pursuits. Washington, he writes, is home to 78 percent of the nation's political scientists, "as well as a huge share of economists, mathematicians and astronomers," while New York is where more than half of all fashion designers work and Houston is home to more than a third of petroleum engineers.

But while Washington still top's Florida's list of cities for young singles and is one of the top five for gays, he is down on the District as a place for families with children, preferring places such as Kansas City, Minneapolis and San Jose. (He nonetheless still ranks the Washington area--meaning the suburbs--as the nation's best for families with kids.) For Florida, the great revelation came his first Halloween in Toronto. In Washington, "not a single kid came to our door in three years" on the night of the great candy hunt, he writes. But in Toronto, "our house was mobbed by children of a mosaic of races."

This is where Florida loses me. We lived less than 20 blocks apart when he was here, but our experiences were as different as could be on what he calls the "Trick or Treater Index." Our block has always been a busy one on Halloween, and here's the difference: For reasons that always baffled me, this great bard of urban vibrancy, a latter-day Jane Jacobs (the spiritual grandmother of the smart-growth movement), chose to live in about as anti-urban a city setting as could be had, nowhere near a Metro station, way up on a hill, in a beautiful setting right near Rock Creek Park, but well away from any of the amenities he preaches for in his books. Of course he didn't see kids on Halloween--what halfway intelligent kid would waste his time wandering around in a dark neighborhood of widely separated houses well off the main drag? Just a few blocks away lie street after street that are just teeming with trick or treaters each year.

Florida is surely right about some of the other reasons families with children tend to move out of the District--the lousy schools, the crime rate, weak city services. But I'm puzzled by the Place Man's own decisions about where to live. Toronto is a terrific city, in many ways an urban model.

In the end, however, it seems Richard Florida chooses where to live more the way many of us do than the way he advises in his books: He doesn't necessarily go where the most creative and exciting people are. Rather, he goes where he gets the best job. There's not the least bit of shame in that, but Florida's answer to "Who's Your City?" may well be "whomever's making it worth my while."

By Marc Fisher |  April 3, 2008; 8:00 AM ET
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I'm confused. Isn't Tilden St. in Forest Hills right near the Van Ness Metro?

I think NW DC has a lot of very suburban neighborhoods (or more accurately "streetcar suburban" in that they have late 19th century style suburban densities). But the "communityness" of each of them seems quite different. I'm not sure those community qualities are dependent on Jacobian elements (and she made a point of saying that she was not expounding on what makes a good suburban town). I get a sense that the Pallisades has a good community quality, yet it's nowhere near a metrostop, and it's commerical coordidor has few of the qualities Jacobs expoused (density, mixed-uses, short blocks, etc.)

So if your neighborhood gets hit up for a lot of candy while Florida's didn't. I'm willing to bet it has more to do with the relative quality of the local elementary schools, not the relative qualities of urban design.

Posted by: Reid | April 3, 2008 9:50 AM

There is a perception that Toronto, San Francisco, Minneapolis and San Jose have many more neighborhoods where one is likely to see "children of a mosaic of races" trick-or-treating, on the soccer field or in a classroom, compared to DC. This may be important to many of Florida's so-called "Creative Class" (or not). Your column didn't speak to that. Any comments?

Posted by: Brooklander | April 3, 2008 9:54 AM

From what I have seen on Florida's website, his city should be LA, so he can be among the shallow silicone bimbos that are his kind of people.

Posted by: Mister Methane | April 3, 2008 10:28 AM

My classmates who grew up in Forest Hills had access to some of the best schools in the city -- Murch, Deal, and Wilson -- so I can't imagine that school quality (other than the general decline of the whole system) is the big defining factor there. However, I do think the presence of kids in a neighborhood is quite cyclical, so it's possible that Florida lived in the neighborhood at a down time. When I was growing up in a "streetcar suburban" part of NW DC (a couple of blocks from Lafayette Elementary), the neighborhood was full of kids who played in the streets on snow days and went trick-or-treating in droves. As our generation outgrew these pleasures and moved on to start our own families, many of our parents stayed on in their houses. Mine are still there, but over a decade later many of that generation of parents have moved out and there are more and more families with young kids moving into the neighborhood. Every Halloween my dad gets to entertain more and more kids with his scraggly black wig. Despite these cycles, the sense of neighborhood in that area remains fairly strong, with neighbors saying hello to each other and offering to lend a hand when it's needed.

All of that being said, who can afford to live in these neighborhoods likely is also an issue. These days those big houses on huge plots of land in the Forest Hills neighborhood are probably prohibitively expensive for many young families starting out. I know that my friends who are starting families right now are doing so either in condos along major streets or far out into the suburbs where they can afford to buy free-standing houses with yards.

Posted by: LB | April 3, 2008 10:39 AM

I live on Capitol Hill and we get MASSES of children on Halloween! As Marc points out, why go to a suburban neighborhood where the house are spaced apart when you can hit up the townhouse community with a different front door every 18 feet or so? Kids ain't dumb -- especially when it comes to candy!

anyway, you can live in an urban environment and provide a great experience for your children! and of course the kids are all different races. I didn't grow up in a racially diverse community and I wonder what impact it will have on my kids. We keep our commute super short -- the more time to hang out at the park with our neighbors on beautiful days-- like tuesday afternoon. Just lovely!

Posted by: gov mom | April 3, 2008 10:57 AM

I'm with the Capitol Hill parent. Here in Glover Park, just north of Georgetown, we have reams of kids of all sizes and national origin. We can walk to the woods, several parks and playgrounds, the grocery store, or Georgetown in minutes. We have an excellent public school (Stoddert Elementary) as well as walkable access to any number of terrific private schools (e.g., Washington International School and NCS). Our neighborhood is safe, friendly, and 5 minutes from downtown, although metro access is a 30-minute walk or a bus ride away. The only downside I see is that our houses are small (in some cases, quite small) and most don't have yards, but we'd prefer to play at the park with friends old and new, anyway.

Posted by: Glover Park | April 3, 2008 2:12 PM

Actually, the nicer neighborhoods always get hit up for candy on Halloween. You can see the cars lined up at every intersection for the people coming in who don't live there.

If makes sense, doesn't it?

Why take your kid to a poor neighborhood for candy they can't afford to buy? Let's hit up the rich folks.

They owe us, right?

Posted by: DC Voter | April 3, 2008 2:42 PM

I'm really perplexed why people think that only DC is diverse. I grew up in Fairfax County and was one of 4 white kids in my suburban elementary school near McLean. Diversity isn't just present in DC, it is all across the region, and one of the reasons why I love calling this area home.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 3, 2008 3:16 PM

James Howard Kunstler's views on the future of Mr. Florida's city paradises are worth noting. A man on the Left whose last non-fiction book was devoted to imagining a world without cheap oil, Kunstler sees a depopulation of cities by the end of this century. Cities produce almost no food but consume much. When transportation costs become much more onerous, big cities must downsize.

Posted by: D Leaberry | April 4, 2008 9:27 AM

Florida's work does not address individual neighborhoods or cities but regions, metro areas. On one of his newer indices, the Tolerance Scale, I'll wager DC is middling, while Toronto is off the chart.

Posted by: Mike Licht | April 8, 2008 7:16 PM

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