There is far more to Wash­ing­ton DC than Capi­tol Hill, writes Jenny Southan

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents -

The lobby lounge of the new ho­tel in Wash­ing­ton DC is filled with peo­ple seated on blue vel­vet couches un­der glit­ter­ing chan­de­liers that would look at home in the Palace of Versailles. A bell rings, and, to a rip­ple of ap­plause, a waiter slices the top off a bot­tle of cham­pagne with a sabre. The glass-en­cased cork flies across the room and skids across the pol­ished mar­ble floor.

Opened in Septem­ber 2016, two months be­fore Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion as the 45th pres­i­dent of the United States, the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel oc­cu­pies the pres­ti­gious Old Post Of­fice on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue. The lo­ca­tion is prime, be­ing on the street that con­nects the White House at one end to the US Capi­tol, home of Congress, at the other. Con­structed in 1899, the build­ing’s pièce de ré­sis­tance is its 96-me­tre clock tower, the third-tallest struc­ture in DC.

Be­neath a row of bil­low­ing Stars and Stripes flags, the main en­trance is blocked off by metal bar­ri­cades (ac­cess is from the side, on 11th Street). I see a man stop to gesture at the gilded Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel sign, and take a photo on his phone. The fact that the Trump Or­gan­i­sa­tion is leas­ing this land­mark from the gov­ern­ment has caused con­tro­versy, but fed­eral agency the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion says the agree­ment is valid.

For a city that is roughly 90 per cent Demo­crat (only 4 per cent of DC’s votes went to the Repub­li­can party), Trump’s win is a bit­ter pill to swal­low, and the fact that his name is em­bla­zoned on a his­toric build­ing hasn’t helped. One lo­cal tells me:“I will not set foot in that place; I will not give him one cent of my money.” De­spite rates start­ing from US$550 a night, none of this has pre­vented the ho­tel’s 263 rooms from be­ing sold out since open­ing. Still, Mick­ael Damelin­court, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel Wash­ing­ton DC, says other ho­tels, such as the Four Sea­sons in Ge­orge­town, are do­ing well too.“We don’t have enough lux­ury ho­tels in Wash­ing­ton,”he says.

With US$200 mil­lion spent on ren­o­va­tions, the ho­tel is ar­ranged around a nine-storey glass atrium, criss­crossed with 19th-cen­tury gold gird­ers. There is a

spa de­signed by Trump’s daugh­ter, Ivanka, a ball­room for 1,300 peo­ple, a Ma­callan whisky tast­ing room and a fine-din­ing steak­house from David Burke.

Up­stairs at the back is the US$20,000-a-night pres­i­den­tial suite, the for­mer of­fice of the post­mas­ter gen­eral. Damelin­court says:“All the build­ings around us be­long to the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and the FBI is across the road so this is very safe – secret ser­vice love this room when you have a head of state stay­ing. There is no traf­fic and you can have snipers on the roof.”Have any pres­i­dents stayed here yet?“No,”he says. Not even Don­ald Trump.“He has a nice house down the road.”


It’s com­monly said one should avoid dis­cussing pol­i­tics in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, but in DC it’s im­pos­si­ble to avoid. I visit Off the Record, a sub­ter­ranean bar in the Hay Adams ho­tel that is pop­u­lar with politi­cians, dig­ni­taries and jour­nal­ists, and or­der a Cor­rup­tion IPA served on a coaster fea­tur­ing a car­i­ca­ture of Trump. The free snacks are great, but the con­ver­sa­tions you over­hear are even bet­ter.

Alexan­dra Byrne is gen­eral man­ager of the 237-room Sof­i­tel Wash­ing­ton DC Lafayette Square ho­tel, which is lo­cated just around the cor­ner from the bar – and the White House.“We host a lot of Capi­tol Hill visi­tors, in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional del­e­gates, diplo­mats, lob­by­ists, ac­tivists and top ex­ec­u­tives of For­tune 500 busi­nesses. This past elec­tion came as a sur­prise for ev­ery­body. The air is rife with dif­fer­ing opin­ions lead­ing to in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sions and de­bates.”

From my cor­ner room at the Sof­i­tel, I hear mu­sic blar­ing be­low on 15th Street NW.“From the moun­tains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless Amer­ica, my home sweet home.”It’s com­ing from an SUV pulling a float with a gi­ant Trump sign on the back lit up in lights. The so-called“Trump Unity Bridge”is not the cre­ation of a lo­cal, though – it’s a hard­core fan from Michi­gan named Rob Cor­tis, who has taken it upon him­self to drive the length and breadth of the coun­try in a show of sup­port.

Over on 14th Street NW, there are on­go­ing an­tiTrump demon­stra­tions. Brian Ken­ner, deputy mayor of plan­ning and eco­nomic devel­op­ment, says:“We tend to be a lit­tle more pro­gres­sive than typ­i­cal US cities – we were one of the first to le­galise sub­stances, for ex­am­ple – so [the elec­tion] was a lit­tle shock­ing, but I think that

has done noth­ing but con­tinue to gal­vanise the res­i­dents of the Dis­trict of Columbia.”He adds:“We want to make sure that whether you have been here five min­utes, five years or five gen­er­a­tions that you feel wel­come.”


Wash­ing­ton DC oc­cu­pies a 177 sq km plot of land wedged be­tween the states of Mary­land and Vir­ginia. It is a com­pact, low-rise city with grand neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture ar­ranged around the Na­tional Mall, which stretches be­tween the Lin­coln memo­rial in the west and the Capi­tol in the east. When it was founded in 1790 by Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, its four ten-mile bor­ders cre­ated a neat square. It was de­signed as a fed­eral en­tity dis­tinct from the rest of the US.

Even to­day, when ev­ery one of Amer­ica’s 50 states has a demo­cratic voice in the form of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress, the cap­i­tal’s 670,000 cit­i­zens do not. It is part of no state and has limited home rule. It has never had a se­na­tor and it wasn’t un­til the 1960s that peo­ple were given the right to vote in elec­tions. All DC has is a non-vot­ing del­e­gate, Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton, who serves ex­clu­sively in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives but is not al­lowed to vote on the is­sues of the day. As a con­se­quence, res­i­dents have lit­tle say on is­sues re­lated to health­care, the en­vi­ron­ment, so­cial se­cu­rity or gun laws.

It’s no sur­prise to hear that lo­cals have been cam­paign­ing for Wash­ing­ton DC to gain state­hood. The cause has most re­cently been spear­headed by Demo­cratic mayor Muriel Bowser. Af­ter a meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Trump in De­cem­ber, she said:“He is a sup­porter of the Dis­trict of Columbia, he’s fa­mil­iar with the Dis­trict of Columbia and he wants to be sup­port­ive.”But whether or not he is will­ing to con­sider grant­ing her wish re­mains to be seen. Un­til then, cars will con­tinue to drive around Wash­ing­ton with li­cence plates read­ing:“Tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

This sense of dis­en­fran­chise­ment has no doubt af­fected Wash­ing­to­ni­ans over the decades, and has only been height­ened since a re­turn to Repub­li­can author­ity. Ken­ner ex­plains there has never been a Repub­li­can mayor of DC.“We have al­ways been un­der one party – and that is the case to­day,”he says.

With this in mind, you can un­der­stand why it has been a ne­ces­sity for the city to forge its own iden­tity, sep­a­rate from pol­i­tics.“Wash­ing­ton DC’s en­ergy can be felt in mul­ti­ple forms – we ac­tu­ally op­er­ate fairly well re­gard­less of who the pres­i­dent is,”Ken­ner says. El­liott Fer­gu­son, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Des­ti­na­tion DC, agrees:“Pol­i­tics are sep­a­rate from the Wash­ing­ton DC that we pro­mote.”


Up un­til 20 years ago, Ken­ner says DC was“very much a fed­eral town driven by fed­eral jobs”. But over the past seven years, job growth has solely been driven by the pri­vate sec­tor and, in the past five years, statis­tics sug­gest up to 1,000 peo­ple a month (many of them young, un­mar­ried and ed­u­cated) are mov­ing here from other parts of the US.“If you were to call us a state, we would be one of the fastest-grow­ing states in the coun­try,”he says.

DC is one of the wealth­i­est parts of the coun­try but is seek­ing to diver­sify its econ­omy away from the pub­lic sec­tor – the gov­ern­ment is a key em­ployer, ac­count­ing for 14 per cent of jobs. Tourism is a ma­jor earner – more than 21 mil­lion visi­tors came in 2015, spend­ing US$7 bil­lion. New op­por­tu­ni­ties are also open­ing up in high-tech, health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, green tech and me­dia.“We have a very ac­tive start-up scene,” Ken­ner says.

I meet lo­cal In­sta­gram­mer Lau­rie Collins (oth­er­wise known as @dc­c­i­ty­girl with 42,000 fol­low­ers) on a sun­rise pho­tog­ra­phy tour of the cherry trees – a gift from Tokyo in 1912 – around the Tidal Basin reser­voir. Through the lens of her cam­era, Collins man­ages to cap­ture a great deal of beauty in DC: the Jef­fer­son Memo­rial framed by pink-blos­somed boughs; a re­flec­tion of the wed­ding-cake dome of the US Capi­tol; and the pep­per­mint vaulted ceil­ing of Union Sta­tion, which is un­der­go­ing a US$7 bil­lion re­vamp, to be com­pleted by 2020.

Collins says:“DC has changed in so many ways. Cer­tain neigh­bour­hoods you would never be caught dead in are be­com­ing re­vi­talised. Peo­ple are mak­ing the ef­fort to raise their chil­dren here, rather than mov­ing them out to the sub­urbs once they reach school age. Oth­ers are in­vest­ing in neigh­bour­hoods by bring­ing their busi­ness into the city, mak­ing it eas­ier for us to shop, eat and en­joy lo­cal en­ter­tain­ment here in our own back­yard.”A ma­jor new at­trac­tion is the Smithsonian Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, which opened on the Na­tional Mall in Septem­ber 2016.

Along­side es­tab­lished ar­eas such as quaint Ge­orge­town and up­mar­ket Kalo­rama, where the Obamas now live, there is the Bev­erly Hills-style City Cen­tre re­tail com­plex, un­veiled in 2014 (be­fore this there were no de­signer stores, peo­ple tell me). The big­gest up­com­ing pro­ject is new-build “wa­ter­front city” the Wharf (, just south of the Na­tional Mall – phase one opened this au­tumn. Even­tu­ally there will be 1,400 apart­ments, a yacht club, three ho­tels, a con­cert hall, four piers, 75 restau­rants and shops, a con­fer­ence cen­tre and a mile-long prom­e­nade.

Mean­while, hotspots such as H Street NW and Shaw are now home to trendy ven­tures such as All Pur­pose pizza (allpur­, cocktail bar Columbia Room (columbia­ and Kin­ship restau­rant (kin­, which serves in­ven­tive New Amer­i­can cui­sine.

Ken­ner says:“Peo­ple are find­ing an au­then­tic Wash­ing­ton ex­pe­ri­ence that did not ex­ist a few years ago – peo­ple are not de­mand­ing Star­bucks cof­fee but lo­cal chain Compass. When they go to bars, they don’t tend to or­der a Miller Light; they want a DC Brau.”

This is ex­actly what I do when tak­ing a seat at the W ho­tel’s rooftop bar, POV. The sun is go­ing down and there is a perfect view of the White House and the nee­dle-shaped Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment. I think of the Latin in­scrip­tion painted in­side the dome of the Capi­tol: E pluribus unum –“Out of many, one”– and won­der how long it might be un­til a 51st star is added to the US flag.

Visit busi­nesstrav­ for a re­view of the Sof­i­tel Wash­ing­ton DC Lafayette Square. sof­i­, wash­ing­

Clock­wise from above: The re­born neigh­bour­hood of Columbia Heights; the White House with Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment be­yond; and the lobby lounge of the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel

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