“You hear people say stuff like, 'Oh, nobody's really from DC.' It's like, OK — I'm still here.”
That’s what Tarica June, a lawyer who writes, produces, and performs her own music on the side, said in an interview with NPR last year. In her viral music video “But Anyway,” June raps about her experience growing up in Petworth, a DC neighborhood that looks much different today.
“One thing I remember is that even if you didn’t know all your neighbors, you would know, ‘That person is my neighbor.’ At least if you saw them, you would say hello.”
Today, DC might look a lot different from the the city that June knew as a child, but the fact remains: she grew up here.
In fact, there are many people like June who grew up in the District of Columbia. But some people who are relatively new to DC seem to think that’s not the case. They forget that there is a whole population of people who are from the District, and even more who were born and raised in the region.
What so many DC transplants get wrong
It’s obviously a little more nuanced than this, but it can often seem like DC has two distinct groups of people: One is full of transplants, people who moved to the nation’s capital for a job in government or politics. The other is made up of people who were born and raised in the District.
At approximately a third of the city’s population, those born and bred in DC make up a much smaller group than those who moved here. And their number only continues to decrease with time. According to the US Census Bureau, 43% of DC’s population were born in the district at the turn of the twentieth century. In 2012, that percentage fell to 37% (it was at the same number in 2015, too).
In fact, some DC residents seem to forget these people are even here at all. All the time, people ask me questions like, “Where are you from originally? Because we all know no one’s actually from here.” It happens to be such a common sentiment that another popular DC blog called We Love DC wrote an entire article analyzing and debunking the myth.
When people assume I’m not from here, they are right. I moved to DC from New England for a job. But they are also very wrong, because plenty of people who live in DC are from the District. Glazing over their presence discounts their perspectives and experiences, which are just as significant as anyone else’s.
So why is it that DC transplants so often discount the people who were born and raised in the district? Perhaps one reason is simply that it’s easier for DC transplants to socialize with, well, other DC transplants.
When you’re new to a place, you’re drawn to those in the same boat
Moving to a city is not always as glamorous as it sounds. In fact, it can actually be rather lonely. Olivia Laing says it best at the beginning of her book Lonely City: “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation.”
When people go through a new or difficult transition, they tend to gravitate towards those who are most similar to them. It’s safe. It’s easy. And it’s human nature. So when someone moves to the District from somewhere else, it’s logical for them to wind up befriending other transplants.
Many move into group houses with people they meet on Craigslist or know through mutual friends. They grow close to people at their jobs who also moved to the District for work. They build friendships and camaraderie based on shared experience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But it’s best if all Washingtonians band together
However, this socialization becomes a problem when it creates a divide between the two groups of Washingtonians. These groups often seem like two separate cities, existing simultaneously but rarely interacting. And when people come to DC as transplants but lack the awareness that there are other kinds of citizens in the city, they leave out essential chapters in DC’s complex story.
In fact, us DC transplants can probably learn a thing or two from the people who have lived here the longest. After all, they have the most insight into the city’s history and culture because they have lived it. They know not just what DC is, but what it was, and what it can be.
Whether you were born and raised in DC or you have only lived in the nation’s capital for a few years, everyone is entitled to a seat at the table. By definition, a city like DC is always changing. That means that people come and go, places and neighborhoods transform, but no one deserves to be here more than anyone else.
Unfortunately, many of these transformations have caused DC to become less and less recognizable, and in some cases less liveable, for Washingtonians who have lived in this city their entire lives. So what can we do to ensure that DC is a place that all of us can survive, and thrive, together?
There’s no easy solution. But we can start by informing ourselves about the demographics in DC and being open to learning about other people’s experiences.
Dear DC transplants, stop saying that nobody’s actually from here. Introduce yourself to that neighbor you’ve never met. Visit a part of DC that is familiar to people who’ve lived here their whole lives, even if it isn’t familiar to you. Venture outside your comfort zone. You might just discover some extraordinary things.