I’m told that D.C. is a very walkable city. I hear this all the time in fact. And in one way, it’s true. Distances are relatively short, sidewalks are broad and so on. But that only makes it a good city to walk in when you have somewhere you need to go. There’s another kind of walkable city that D.C. truly isn’t, one suited to flânerie.
There are exceedingly few areas in the District where I want to just stroll for the sole purpose of walking through a city and looking around. The primary reason for this, I think, is the disconnect in most parts of the city between density and street-level use. In downtown in particular, the level of activity on the street is so underwhelming. So many large office buildings use their first floor as a lobby, not as a café or a store. When there is ground-level retail, it’s often a big chain often only open for lunch. It is even more rare to see commerce spilling onto the street – outdoor seating, discount racks on the sidewalk, sandwich boards advertising the day’s sales. Outside downtown, the big avenues also have giant apartment buildings with no connection to the street.
There are all kinds of reasons that D.C. is like this—zoning, the height restriction, L’Enfant’s original plan, the ANC system, and so on. But there’s one very obvious short-term solution—street food. It’s a remarkably fast way to turn a sidewalk into something very vibrant.
Just yesterday, I was in front of Yale-New Haven Hospital. This is a giant institutional building surrounded by the Yale School of Medicine’s large institutional buildings and then brutalist parking lots. But on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, there are probably 25 different carts selling everything from hot dogs to Chinese and Mexican to Ethiopian, Pakistani, Italian and Filipino. There are similar clusters near the School of Management and near the undergraduate areas. Places that would otherwise be sterile are completely vibrant public gathering spaces.
I know that D.C. is trying to repeal all the completely insane regulations that prevent any new street food from getting to us—carts must be less than 7’x4.5’, they must be stored in one of three extortionary depots, they must be right at the curb and parallel to it and more than 10 feet from the next cart, and so on and so on. That’s all on top of the moratorium on opening any new carts at all that was in place until December 2005.
But it’s clearly hasn’t happened fast enough. There is an insane market for lunch in D.C. There are really wide sidewalks. And I think that there is a real desire for a city that feels more bustling, more alive – a city that is more urbane.
The District should act quickly to get cart food and other street vendors out onto the sidewalks, because once they change the regulatory structure, this is a place where the market will respond instantly. Too bad there isn’t someone on the inside who maybe could explain this to everyone?