Regionalism, Go Go and the DMV

Published on by dcsteveinwuhan

    Ultimately, the meaning of place is fixed through a social imaginary, or an iconic image. An "urban imaginary" is the way we mentally map out our urban "realities" and how we "think about, experience, evaluate, and decide to act in the places, spaces, and communities in which we live" (Soja. 2000:324). Place is constantly being constructed through narrative. Places have histories intimately connected to their spatial expressions, as socio-spatial constructs. Those socio-spatial processes are contentious processes shaped by power, dominance and conflicting claims to place. The Washington Metropolitan area is the DMV, Meridian Hill Park is Malcolm X Park, and Benning Road is Simple City in Chocolate City (Washington DC), depending on the context of power relations, dominance or subalternity.



     As locations, places can be mapped, making them visible in relation to other places, but their stories, media frozen as text open the possibility to understand the dynamic socio-spatial processes that make them happen. The ceremonial core of Washington provides a fixed set of reference points that organize daily life for inhabitants of the region even if many never venture into its spaces. This urban imaginary in turn fixes a polycentric metropolis where bounded urban forms superseded by regional organization facilitated by a process of neoliberalization and urban restructuring, but there are competing sets of urban imaginaries.


    From the very start, Washington, DC, and its ceremonial core were contentious as Washington manifested differences between north and south, slavery, race, and westward expansion (Abbot 1999). The National Mall and the monuments, museums and government buildings surrounding its urban imaginary, structure and make comprehensible a transient region of movement. Washington is the monumental core, but DC is Ben’s Chili Bowl. 


“If you do a Google search for Washington DC all you get are images of the damn capital and the washington monument, but that shit’s so far removed from the actual lifeblood of the majority of the cities residents. (And if you do a search for, say, anacostia, half of what comes up are just shots of roadside/riverside garbage piles).” (Cocaineblunt 2005).


    The city always was a national hub. But, the transformation of the Washington Metropolitan area, from a modern city to post-modern polycentric cluster of urban nodes means becoming ever more tightly linked to the global flows of power and money and less to the regional or local tributary peripheries. The City center—as site of concentration for command and control—is a concentration of particular services and activities that relate to circuits and networks at scales far beyond the local. In essence, the center city becomes a site for spectacular consumption, marked, mapped and named in relation to other urban centers, a fixed reference point in a system of signs, and an urban imaginary of race and classed spaces.


    Cities like Washington DC that had become warehouses for the poor and disposed during the 1960s are now being reshaped to accommodate what Manuel Castells(2000) calls the “spaces of flows” in a “networked society” of flexible accumulation “It’s always been a small city with the thinnest of borders and recent reverse white flight (Dems in office!) has pushed things even further” (Oddisee, 2010 comment on Cocaineblunt ). I’m actually surprised as to how long it went before the “problematic” areas of American cities were restorated (dunno if that’s a word) and its inhabitants moved way out in the bush to make room for coffee-shops, second hand stores and other meager excuses for urban life middle-class people like to divulge in. (hardköre2006 comment on Cocaineblunt ) 


    Gentrification and dislocation has transformed the city and the region, with a “bizarre and frighteningly segregated social dynamic between the primarily transient white folks and the black majority” (Cocaineblunt 2000). Juan Vulgar notes that,” DC is an anomaly in the fact it’s an east coast city with a very southern edge” (2005, comment on Cocaineblunt ). However, Vulgar perceptively notes, “The spiritual line between DC and Maryland is almost completely indiscernible”.


   DC itself is hollowed out. Many cities in the United States have undergone or are undergoing de-concentration, including Washington DC. Its population peaked in the late 1960s at about 800,000 and then declined as the suburbs grew. “It sounds counter-intuitive but “inner city” and “the outer city limits” can often be used to describe the same place” (DR. NO 2010,comment on Cocaineblunt ). Gentrification is and integral part of global restructuring and that “capital mobility in and out of the built environment lies at the core of the process” (Smith1996). This restructuring is reshaping both the city and suburbs. As a result, the activities and roles formerly concentrated in the center city are distributed and dispersed across an urban area, itself polynucleated and decentralized.


    This restructuring itself is a partition of the sensible, as the urban center becomes depopulated and urbanized centers emerge in the suburbs. GoGo musicians and rappers reflecting on suburbanization and commodification spearheaded the use of the toponym DMV, to describe the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, a renaming of the Washington Metropolitan area. “Conventional wisdom has always been that the cities are hard, the burbs are soft.” Particularly in the rap world, where kids named Buffy and Brad play soccer while the city is the vital center of everything that’s really real… an archaic construct as mass generational gentrification strikes most major American cities and longtime hood dwellers are pushed outward to the once plaid Burbs” (Oddisee, 2010,comment on Cocaineblunt ).


    The commodification of places fueled by inter-urban competition, mobilizes spectacle, surface difference for an attractive image of sameness harnessed for commercial ends. Competition rewards sameness not difference (Kearns 1993:21). Ironically, the DMV nickname for the Washington Metropolitan area is an accommodation to market forces, commodifying and branding Washington. A new service economy is emerging to replace industrial production in factories as the engine of growth, a service economy that is dependent on synergy. Producing space and realizing profits is an exercise in retail marketing, reshaping the city to accommodate the requirements of a 21st century creative workforce. Urban restructuring to accommodate future creative, specialized service, finance, retail and high technology growth is the key to robust profitability (Hutton 2006). “Sleek, succinct and inclusive, the name has been in common use for several years among the area's -- ahem, the DMV's -- hip-hop and go-go music crowd. It's familiar to listeners of black-oriented radio stations such as WKYS-FM and WPGC-FM, whose DJs decorate their patter with mentions of it.”(Farhi 2010). 


    Neoliberal restructuring extends processes already underway such as suburbanization. Suburbanization represents an aspect of this ongoing process of metropolitan de-concentration beginning in the 1880s; “Urban life has become portable, and thus so has the city” (Gottdiener 1985:4). Much of the regional population is concentrated in suburban Fairfax and Montgomery counties, including former DC residents. Joel Garreau called Tyson’s Corner, the Washington metropolitan regional shopping and office complex an “Edge City” (1991) but the region is more like an “edgeless city” (Lang, Sanchez and Oner 2009). Business activity is not concentrated in a single central business district but rather scattered among several employment centers and dispersed places of employment across the region, or polynucleated (Gottdiener 1985). Residential patterns follow a similar pattern of dispersal. 


    With an emerging privatized government services and DoD related high technology sector, the Washington Metropolitan area in particular, Northern Virginia, has become a new immigrant gateway attracting both skilled and unskilled workers. Prior to 1970, the Washington area was defined exclusively by the black/white binary (Abbot 1999). Since 1970, the Washington Metro area has emerged as the fifth likeliest destination for the foreign-born settling in America (Chacko in Price and Benton-Short 2008). Population growth, spearheaded by transnational migration is related to the polycentric distribution pattern.


    We can no longer think of urban regions in terms of concentric rings but rather a set of interconnected nodes. As a borderland, it is a fertile ground for hybridization and creolization, fertilized by a combination of diversity, education, and sharp antagonisms along race, class and gender fault lines. Radio is one element of a complex media environment encompassing print, television, radio and the internet in relationship to spaces and places of representation. A vibrant music culture of GoGo and HarDCore, techno and EMO exists under the radar along with more acceptable forms of Jazz and Bluegrass. As an emerging immigrant gateway, there are ethnic stations, newspapers, television and venues seeking to serve communities of interest, linking translocally across borders and across the region, a region not necessarily focused on the monumental core or Chocolate City for its social imaginary of place and people.




Abbot, Carl (1999) “Political Terrain: Washington D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis” Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.


Chacko, Elisabeth (2008) “Washington DC.: From Biracial City to Multiethnic Gateway” in “Migrants to the Metropolis: The Rise of Immigrant Gateway Cities” edited by Marie Price and Lisa Benton-Short, 203-225. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press


Castells, Manuel. (2000). “The Networked Society” Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.








Garreau, Joel. (1991) “Edge Cities: Life on the New Frontier” New York: Anchor.



Gottdiener, Mark. (1985)”The Social Production of Urban Space” Austin: University of Texas Press.



Hutton, Thomas A. (2006) “Spatiality, built form and creative industry development in the inner city”. Environment and Planning A. 38. 1819-1841


Kearns, Gerry; Chris Philo edit. (1993) “Selling Places: The City as Cultural Capital, Past and Present”. Oxford: Pergamon Press.


Lang R, Sanchez T and Oner A (2009) “Beyond Edge City: Office geography in the new metropolis” Urban Geography 30 (7), 726–755



Soja, Edward (2000) “Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions” Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.



Smith, Neil.   (1996). “The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City” London, New York, NY: Routledge

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