Can Obama make Washington the capital of cool?
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Soon-to-be US president Barack Obama shoulders the hopes of millions, but there is one important wish his neighbors in Washington are hoping will be granted -- to make the capital cool again.
The District of Columbia, the site of so much flux in American history, is used to change.
"Every four years in DC there's a chance to take a deep breath and start over," historian Robert Watson told AFP.
And Obama, who won the 2008 election propelled by a mandate of change, could significantly "invigorate the mood" of the capital, according to Watson, director of American Studies at Florida's Lynn University.
Watson, who has authored more than 20 books on American history, sees distinct parallels between Obama's ascension and the arrival in office of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
When Kennedy won the keys to the White House, Washington's social scene had been neglected for decades. He brought with him a "jovial party atmosphere," Watson said.
Similarly the dapper, charismatic Obama may tap into expectations that he can revitalize the district after Bush, who has kept a decidedly low-profile on the social scene.
The country's first basketball-playing president could also serve as a figurehead for a city, long forgotten by Hollywood stars.
"Obama will reinvigorate not only the country as a whole, but DC in particular," said 26-year-old Rich Homann, a server at Korean restaurant Mandu in chic Dupont Circle.
His "progressive outlook should serve to attract our country's best, brightest and coolest," he said hopefully.
Local fashion blogger Rachel Cothran said Washington has been "well on its way to being cool for a while now," but that Obama's triumph "turned on the spotlight for the rest of the world to see."
"There is a real sense here that this is DC's moment. Everyone who is trying to start a business or make a name for themselves feels that the time is now, that you can't dally," she said.
"Obama's message of progress and change seemed to speak directly to the renaissance happening here. There was a tremendous amount bubbling right beneath the surface, and now it has just exploded."
Only six days after arriving in the capital, Obama connected with his new neighbors by eating Saturday lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark Washington eatery -- "Black owned and operated since 1958," as it proclaims on the menu.
Long-time Ben's customer Earl Jenkins, 60, expects Obama to have a big impact on the community.
Washingtonians connect with "his message of hope for things to get better," said Jenkins.
Ben's, located on the historic U Street corridor which suffered looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, sits at a crossroad of change, as gentrification from nearby Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle creeps further east.
Washington's gentrification "has been going on for years," noted Javier Rivas, owner and operator of the Modern Times Coffeehouse at the venerable Politics & Prose Bookstore in northwest DC.
"More and more people are being kicked out" of their homes, he said, with the district experiencing a profound demographic shift as historically black urban communities are pushed further out by soaring rent prices.
Rivas lamented that the district's focus is "never about the people who actually live here," unlike the culture of other 'cool' American cities, such as San Franciscoor New York.
With the city in perpetual flux due to the comings-and-goings of government work, Washington is always about "the people who come here and then leave."
"The rest of the DC population gets forgotten," said Rivas.
Compared to other parts of the United States, Rivas noted however, Washington exists in a bubble that has weathered the economic crisis remarkably well.
According to Forbes Magazine's 2009 list of best US cities for job growth, Washington's employment prospects are certainly attractive, with the area expected to add 30,000 jobs this year in education alone.
With this outlook and rapt world attention as the Obamas come to town, there is hope that some of the benefits could trickle-down to the district's underprivileged.
Obama's inauguration could be a key ingredient in combatting some of the city's problems such as crime and the school dropout rate, Watson said.
He has the potential to be "such a powerful force" for DC's poorer communities, for "school attendance, on disruptive behavior (in schools), even the morale of teachers." It's something to watch over the years, he said.