I lived in Washington DC from 2003-2014. I look back on those years fondly. There were many aspects of living in Washington DC that I enjoyed. Washington DC is a a nerd Vesuvius, a geek maelstrom, a whirlpool that sucks in outliers from the United States and beyond – unusually ambitious, unusually committed to a cause, and/or unusually political engaged. DC changed a lot over the years – it became cleaner, safer, schools improved a little and real estate prices went up – a lot. Eventually I decided to move and it was a hard decision. I had wanted to stay but was trying to think long term – better schools, better services, etc. I knew so many people who said they would never leave Washington DC but did just that after having a child. I decided to skip the middle man and buy a home – but in Virginia or Maryland?
Virginia. I moved to Alexandria in 2014 during the winter – bad strategic planning. My wife and I were in a long distance relationship at the time and she left her overseas assignment to move in with me. We began settling into life in Old Town. The pace of life is much slower in Alexandria than in Washington DC which is both a blessing and a curse at the same time. Then In 2017, I was temporarily assigned to Kyiv (Kiev) and we both went to Ukraine together. Kyiv is an energetic city with great art, music, and in the warmer months, festivals on an almost daily basis. Before we went to Kyiv, we had no idea what to expect. I’ve seen tourism promotions for India, Azerbaijan, and any other number of countries but never for Ukraine. We did not know what to expect and we also did not know we would love it so much that we would decide to live there. If you’ve never been, check out this video entitled “Kyiv is the New Berlin“.
In the past year and a half we were in Ukraine, we would typically come back every six months. It allowed us to see what has changed in Alexandria and not changed. Coming every six months was a little bit like TIVO – skipping the periods where nothing was happening to see the important parts. There were aspects of living in Old Town my wife and I liked and aspects we liked less. One of the best parts of living in Old Town is strolling down King Street. However, each time I visited, more local establishments have closed, often to be replaced by chain establishments – Five Guys, Taco Bell, etc. Doing business in Old Town is unreasonably expensive and increasingly the chain establishments are the ones who have the money for it. This is concerning. If King Street is dominated by chains, then it risks becoming a smaller version of the National Harbor with gaslights and ghost tours. Another unresolved issue is that The Old Town Theatre, which should be the crown jewel of King Street, continues to sit empty as it has since I moved here in 2014.
If you like local establishments, then Del Ray is the part of Alexandria you will appreciate. My wife and I enjoyed walking down Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. It was also nice to be close to a variety of good grocery stores (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans) and some reasonably priced gyms. I’m a little biased, but I think One Life is the best of these. Of course, we appreciated the historical sites and events as well.
Other aspects improved over time. DC’s dining scene took off in recent years while Old Town’s failed to launch. There are signs of hope though. Nasime offers some of the best Japanese food I’ve had anywhere. There are good Vietnamese and Southern options as well. Some restaurants are popping up near the Waterfront which could be promising. The opening of the MGM Casino just across the water also offers up more culinary and entertainment options.
Speaking of entertainment, Old Town has picked up its game when it comes to festivals and other special events capitalizing on Virginia art, beer, cider, and wine. The Alexandria government website got a much-needed make-over and the Visit Alexandria website made it easy to find out what was going on, where, and when.
Voters in the last mayoral elections had put development of the Waterfront on the slow train instead of the express train. That was probably the right decision – residents need to be consulted and comfortable with the pace and extent of change. There are changes taking place – a new hotel, some housing construction, a new restaurant or two, the new Old Dominion Boat Club. The Torpedo Factory Art Center has better signage and is more inviting. Unfortunately, the vacant Robinson Terminals remain eyesores, but one day these will be gone and something can take its place. Development has been measured and not overly dramatic – and that’s ok.
Other aspects of living in Old Town were more problematic. Despite being the second most expensive metro system in the United States, getting to and from work were typically the worst parts of my day – getting stuck in tunnels, being unceremoniously kicked off due to mechanical issues halfway to work, speed restrictions, and often standing up the whole time in a crowded car. I started using Uber Pool which took about the same amount of time and was less expensive. Still, there are a limited number of ways in/out of Alexandria and it doesn’t take much to snarl up traffic. There were times when my 8 mile Uber Pool ride home at the end of the day took an hour and a half. The commute became a major quality of life issue. My colleagues in Kyiv have a hard time believing that their metro is much better than ours – but it’s the truth. Kyiv’s metro, as is the case in the capital cities of so many other countries, is reliable, safe, and inexpensive. Our Metro is different and not in a good way. The high taxes were also a drag. I’m predictably progressive but uncomfortable with Alexandria repeatedly raising taxes because it fails to bring in enough investment to break even.
It’s been an interesting four years. I’ve had some good memories here in Old Town, best of all, getting married at the PX cocktail bar, as well as walking on the Mount Vernon Trail, enjoying some good festivals, and visiting the historical sites – always fun with guests from overseas. While I will be based in Kyiv, I intend to follow events in Alexandria to the extent I can – please feel free to send me any blogs and I would be happy to post them for you. To Old Town, to Alexandria, and to Virginia – goodbye for now. Take care and all the best.