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From South Korea to Washington, D.C: Our journey (and house-hunt) begins

February 25, 2017

The news arrived overnight here in Busan, South Korea – we’re returning to the U.S. in July.

My wife, a Navy Lieutenant Commander, was assigned a billet at the Pentagon. The excitement was enough for us to overlook the pre-dawn hour in Korea as we instantly brainstormed about where to live and reminisced about what in the District we missed most.

We first met in D.C. It’s where we always planned to end up. When asked, it’s where we call home. A pair of relatively high rankings on lists of “best places to live” quantify some of the reasons for our enthusiasm:

  • Washington ranked 51 out of more than 200 cities on last summer’s Niche.com list of 2016 Best Cities to Live in America. The Pittsburgh-based website analyzes federal crime data, population data, employment data, and other sources to create its rankings. (See the full list.)
  • More recently, the metropolitan Washington area ranked fourth on the U.S. News & World Report “2017 Best Places to Live.” (See the full list.) This ranking is based on a similar analysis, but includes the Washington suburbs. For a variety of reasons, though, our goal is to live in the District.

In both cases, a vibrant nightlife, social and economic diversity, and various family-friendly factors such as parks and recreation propelled Washington’s favorable rankings. Public schools in the District and the general region received above-average ratings. These positive marks were more than enough to balance out Washington’s challenges – an expensive real estate market and a lingering reputation of having a tough public safety record from its “Murder Capital” days.

But when compared to other cities the Navy could send us, Washington’s rankings on Niche.com and U.S. News & World Report were among the best we could’ve expected. San Diego was close, ranked 55 by Niche and 22 by U.S. News & World Report, but held no special draw. Norfolk – where we lived before Korea – ranked 186 by Niche, and the Virginia Beach metro area (which includes Norfolk) ranked 69 in U.S. News & World Report.

Only Seattle, ranked 21 by Niche and sixth by U.S. News & World Report, seemed better. But for us, Seattle comes with a huge lifestyle caveat: All the Navy installations are across the Puget Sound from all the reasons we’d want to live in Seattle in the first place. (Arlington is also very highly ranked – the top-rated city on Niche.com, in fact  – and would mean a convenient commute to the Pentagon — but it’s too far from our family in Rockville, preferred pre-school, and our synagogue in Cleveland Park.)

Now I concede, these rankings are fun to see, and justify our belief D.C. is a great move, but the underlying data is the real story. The thriving, popular, family-friendly destination represented on these lists is the only Washington my wife knows. She’s a native of South Carolina and first arrived in D.C. nearly a decade ago, about the same time I returned after spending 14 years living elsewhere. We were part of the new wave of residents filling the District before her job pulled us away.

See, in 2008, the District’s population was growing by leaps and bounds. New residents, like us, were drawn to D.C. by the rebirth of such neighborhoods as Gallery Place, 14th Street, H Street, Columbia Heights, and Petworth. Washington reported 672,228 residents in 2015, a 15 percent jump from the 2007 population of 570,681 residents.

This is a far cry from the D.C. I remembered from my high school and college years, when the District was still hemorrhaging residents. A reputation for poor civic management, lacking public services, and a high violent crime rate helped residents to leave; Washington’s population shrunk by 16 percent between 1990 and 1999, cratering at 519,000 residents by decade’s end, and remaining relatively stable during the early 2000s.

When the recent decade-long growth started, a host of new entertainment options arrived with the new residents. The number of restaurants, bars, sporting events, and performing arts venues steadily increased between 1999 and 2014, the most recent year U.S. Census Bureau statistics are available. Over that span of 15 years, the District experienced the following changes:

  • 21 percent increase in performing arts venues. In 2014, D.C. was home to 163 performing arts establishments. Some, such as the 9:30 Club and Black Cat, have been part of the nightlife for decades. Newer venues, such as the Rock & Roll Hotel (established in 2006), have increased the options for going out and have helped breathe new life into neighborhoods such as H Street.
  • 36 percent increase in the number of restaurants and bars. In 2014, D.C. was home to 2,386 restaurants and bars. This growth in restaurants and bars extended well beyond the traditional clusters of Georgetown and downtown. Columbia Heights, H Street, and 14th Street have all seen a flurry of new dining options. Even quieter parts of town boast new restaurants: Black Salt in The Palisades, Ten Tigers Parlour in Petworth, and Brookland Pint in Brookland are just a few examples.
  • 40 percent increase in amusement businesses. These include large stadiums, sports leagues like kickball and softball leagues, and other recreation ventures for all ages. Nationals Park is the biggest example of this venue growth, but the ballpark is just one of the 123 sport businesses in D.C – up from 74 in 1999.

My wife and I now anxiously watch the home listings our real estate agent emails us. We’re imaging our future home, and how we’ll introduce our kids to the Smithsonian, food from around the world, and the performing arts. As our toddlers grow, we expect to join the ranks of hearty parents braving the elements to watch youth team sports at various parks or recreation centers in the city. We just need to figure out how much of a home we can afford in D.C.

This is the first part in a series chronicling the author’s family’s move back to D.C. Continue reading Part 2: Searching for a dream home in D.C., and waking up to reality.