There are singular moments in our lives that irreversibly change our culture and leave a permanent impact upon our nation. The entry of America into World War I was one of those moments. A society that remained isolated from the troubles of the world entered the fray as a colossus and took the role of the most important country in the world. America has recently seen a similar, if more subtle change in our culture: Office rents in Washington D.C. are now poised to exceed those in New York City.
In most countries, the nation’s capital is the center of life. London, Paris, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Tokyo are prime examples. The centers of finance, culture and government in their respective countries are typically
located in one remarkable capital, and the population in its vicinity often comprises a quarter to a third of the nation.
The United States historically has been different. For over 200 years, New York has been our center of finance as well as most of our culture. Chicago, home to thousands of manufacturing, agricultural, and transportation enterprises, has always been known as the “Second City.” Los Angeles became the movie and television capital – thereby completing a trio of world-renowned cities globally recognized as what represents America. Washington D.C. was where our national government was housed.
Most Americans don’t realize that until World War II, Washington was a sleepy little town. David Brinkley, perhaps our greatest television journalist, wrote about this in his fascinating triumph of history, Washington Goes to War. Brinkley detailed how Washington, despite being the capital of the most important country in the world, remained an unsophisticated small town, even after the growth of the federal government brought on by the New Deal.
The city was not prepared for the invasion of staff necessary to manage the war effort. Because men had been drafted into the armed services, the women of the country poured into the nation’s capital to provide the needed help. That millions of women were joining America’s workforce for the first time was itself a monumental change in our society.
Unfortunately, there was not enough housing to accommodate the huge influx of employees, and the government had to build what amounted to barracks to house them. Woman slept four to a room and in shifts. Trailer parks were constructed for additional temporary housing. The critical element here is that even during the Roosevelt Era and World War II, the government envisioned its expansion and the need for hastily-built housing as temporary.
How the world has changed in 65 years! Brinkley, who died in 2003, described a lot of what we see as modern Washington. And while his book chronicles the growth of Washington up until its publication in 1988, there is little hint of what has since become of our nation’s capital and the surrounding area.
The growth of government in the last 45 years has brought staggering development to the area. Northern Virginia has boomed as a bedroom community for employees working for the government as well as employers attempting to squeeze money out of the government. Virginia has seen population growth of over 15% in each decade since the 1950’s, much of that centered in Northern Virginia.
Maryland, to the north of Washington, has also experienced explosive growth, particularly in the counties closest to the Capital. Montgomery County, adjacent to D.C., is the eighth richest county in the country. Its wealth relates directly to the federal employees who live there along with their neighbors whose principal role in life is to extract money from the taxpayers. The fact that the cost of office space in D.C. has become equal to – and will soon exceed – the rates in New York City speaks volumes about how this administration has changed the focus of our society from a privately-run country to a government-run country. More and more companies feel the need to feed at the federal trough and thus move their operations to Washington. A perfect illustration of this trend occurred late last year when Northrop Grumman announced they were leaving Southern California for D.C. This move sounded the death knell in Southern California to an industry that it helped to build – the aerospace industry.
There are some factors that may stop rental rates in New York from diving below Washington. The revival of the financial sector will likely increase demand in New York, and significant new construction in D.C. may ultimately hold down price increases there.
But make no mistake: this event is monumental in American history. The march of government growth has been constant since the 1930s and continues unabated. With the huge expansion of government envisioned by this Administration, Washington will become the center of the universe for our country. God help us when that happens.