Is Washington, D.C. America’s “coolest” city?

by on August 13, 2014 at 5:03 pm in Current Affairs, Food and Drink, Philosophy | Permalink

It turns out we are getting our own branch of Momofuku.  And Forbes recently decided DC is the coolest city in the United States.  As an act of apparent satire, they followed up by naming Bethesda #19.  I say Bethesda is about the least cool town around, Annandale should have done better.

What do I think?  Well, Washington would be cooler if it were breeding its own Momofuku equivalents; northern Virginia did produce or at least refine or perhaps drive crazy the unreliable Peter Chang.  David Chang, the Momofuku guy, did grow up in northern Virginia and ate in the “American-Chinese” restaurants of Vienna, VA, before striking out on his own in New York City, rated by Forbes as the eleventh coolest city in America (doesn’t NYC have to be either #1 or “totally not cool at all”?  Can you really sandwich it between #10 Dallas and #12 Oakland?).

You know, I very much enjoy and admire quite a few Forbes writers, most of all Modeled Behavior.  So I don’t mean for what follows to cast any aspersions on Forbes, but…you know…Forbes itself isn’t actually all that cool, not in the world of media at least.

Can we agree that…Washington really does deserve to be Forbes’s idea of the coolest city in America?

(I thank J.O. for a useful conversation related to this blog post.)

1 Josh M August 13, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Link to Forbes article is wrong.

2 dearieme August 13, 2014 at 6:13 pm

“Is Washington, D.C. America’s “coolest” city?” How would your readership know? Few of them are fourteen.

3 Andrew August 13, 2014 at 6:25 pm

additionally, NYC and Oakland are both the 11th coolest city according to Tyler.

4 prior_approval August 13, 2014 at 10:46 pm

No, the self-referential linking is perfect for this web site.

5 dan1111 August 14, 2014 at 3:59 am

Just give it up. You are not helping yourself or others.

6 prior_approval August 14, 2014 at 11:23 am

Should that have been ‘self-reverential?’ Because that comment was based on the idea that someone actually cares about the linking here. From the perspective of my pre-2000 stint as a webmaster, admittedly.

7 andrew' August 14, 2014 at 6:32 am

I visited the new York times once. Did you know a lot of their links were to things they were interested in? And some, if you can believe it, were to the new York times!

8 prior_approval August 14, 2014 at 11:25 am

I don’t visit the NYT at all – but that is just me, because a surprising number of people think the NYT has something resembling standards, morals, or ethics.

9 msgkings August 14, 2014 at 1:57 pm

So by this logic, you must agree that Marginal Revolution has sufficient ‘standards, morals, or ethics’ for you to visit every single day.

10 Zephyrus August 13, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Riverside? Sacramento?

Oh, Forbes.

11 msgkings August 13, 2014 at 5:21 pm


If you are looking to Forbes magazine for your coolhunting, you’re doing it wrong.

12 Nathan W August 14, 2014 at 11:41 am


13 dearieme August 13, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Is “Momofuku” related at all to a very rude American word? Or maybe it’s not so rude any more?

14 Jan August 13, 2014 at 7:49 pm

It’s a polite greeting among Millennials in the US. We are are a cultural hegemon and one day this expression will be part of your everyday lexicon.

15 Jeff August 14, 2014 at 8:23 am

Only if you’re cool like Bethesda, MD, though.

16 Chad August 13, 2014 at 5:22 pm

The list is, as most Forbes lists are, incredibly poorly designed, impossible to understand, and largely useless. They judge based on 6 criteria: Arts & Culture, Recreation, Diversity, “Local Eats”, Population age 20-34, and 2010 – 2013 Net Migration. New York is ahead of D.C. in five of these criteria, (as it should be), yet is somehow 11th on the list. It makes no sense.

17 Adam J Calhoun (neuroecology) August 13, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Easily the best comic writing on this blog in a while

18 Granite26 August 13, 2014 at 5:43 pm

@Chad It seems to be the case for most of the other cities on the list, too.

19 Dave Anthony August 13, 2014 at 5:44 pm

DC should be automatically disqualified based on the number of insufferable politicians, lawyers, and government contractors.

It does have a very good (albeit expensive) food scene. I’d still rate NY, LA, or San Francisco as better, though.

20 Jeff August 14, 2014 at 8:24 am

Don’t forget the bureaucrats.

21 Roy M August 13, 2014 at 5:59 pm

While this native Houstonian relishes having Houston called the 4th coolest city in America, the rest of the rankings make that a booby prize. As to Dallas being cooler than NYC, a city where Fearing’s is the best restaurant and University Park is the classy part of town, has a coolness factor slightly above Sacramento, aka Sacto and shockingly rated at #14, and considerably below the sleepy, but surprisingly classy, burg known as Ft Worth.

Can we just say that this list is possibly the most wrong thing of 2014, just before John Kerry’s entire public life and the Nation’s coverage of Ukraine.

22 ibaien August 13, 2014 at 6:02 pm

DC is the coolest city for the kind of people who need a list or infographic to keep them abreast of what’s cool.

23 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly August 13, 2014 at 6:23 pm

I’m a native of the D.C. area who now lives in the city proper, and I approve this message.

24 andrew' August 14, 2014 at 6:47 am

The type if people who call it a “slide deck” and keep their appointments in a lab notebook.

25 Ed August 13, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Someone should do a ranking of DC and America’s state capitals on coolness. Just about all of them are uncool. The interesting question is which of them is the least cool.

26 prognostication August 13, 2014 at 6:17 pm

This is a common trope, but there are enough exceptions that I’m not sure the rule makes much sense: Denver, Boston, Atlanta, Santa Fe, Raleigh, Providence, Nashville, Austin, Salt Lake City, and Madison all strike me as worth visiting at least once.

And some would say Montgomery, Phoenix, Boise, Columbus, Saint Paul, and Richmond (and probably others) are interesting enough to visit, too.

27 prognostication August 13, 2014 at 6:18 pm

And doesn’t suck, it’s just not the coolest city in America. I’d be comfortable with it in the teens somewhere, I think.

28 prognostication August 13, 2014 at 6:18 pm

*DC* doesn’t. Not sure how that disappeared.

29 MiloMinderbinder August 13, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Don’t forget Annapolis!

30 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly August 13, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Funnily enough, whoever curated the National Portrait Gallery’s “American Cool” exhibit apparently didn’t see fit to include any paeans to city hosting the exhibit.

I am inclined to believe they were closer to the reality of the situation than is Forbes.

31 alejandra August 13, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Free museums and people from all over the world?? DC is super cool! But of course there are also other cities that have a unique charm such as New Orleans!

32 David H. August 13, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Yes, this Forbes list is a miserable failure, but it got me thinking about how to quantify coolness. Good restaurants are valuable, but to be cool, restaurants also need to be affordable and a little off-putting. If I were doing this, I would generate a list of touring bands that rank highly in RYM, knock out the superstars, and then see what US cities they played in the last 4 years. Each band-visit would count as a portion of coolness for that city, and a partial portion for the immediate vicinity. Also, RYM records which cities the bands came from. That should count for a lot. Then I would look for cities with an outsized and lively gay scene. I’m not sure how the causation works – whether a gay scene adds substantial coolness or whether it follows coolness – but the correlation seems pretty clear to me.

Coolness is unstable partly because it’s much more difficult to achieve in expensive cities. San Francisco and Berkeley are sinking in coolness partly for this reason. A truly cool city needs a critical mass of underemployed creative types who will devote a great deal of time to “the scene”, and this is hard to do when you’re paying $6+ for each of your beers. So, the lower the urban rents and general cost of living, the cooler the city, other things being equal.

OK, Forbes was right that proportion of young people living in the city is important. I also think that trends are important, like: Which cities are gaining young people, and which are losing them?

What else?

33 Jan August 13, 2014 at 7:43 pm

I do think DC would be a top 3 Gayest City, and deservedly, but that is sort of its own listicle.

34 Willitts August 14, 2014 at 12:24 am

Finally, something we agree on.

35 Larry Rothfield August 14, 2014 at 12:04 am

I like the metrics you’re proposing. Back in the mid-2000s, I was lead author of a report (Chicago Music City) trying to give some quantitative measures for which city had the best live music scene (we looked at the number of unsigned bands, the variety of genres of music, the number of shows by critically acclaimed performers, venue size, ticket price, etc.). Dan Silver in Toronto, along with Terry Clark at the U of Chicago, have also been looking into ways to analyze buzz and coolness.

36 andrew' August 14, 2014 at 6:45 am

Inversely correlated to small children per capita. Parents on net not only produce no cool, they haaaaaaate cool.

37 Thelonious_Nick August 14, 2014 at 11:54 am

I’m a parent with two small children. I don’t hate cool, I miss it. I sure don’t want it around my house, though. Check again in 15 years.

38 Dismalist August 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm

What does all this even mean?

39 Go Kings, Go! August 14, 2014 at 12:23 am

What does anything mean?

40 Brian Donohue August 14, 2014 at 1:59 am

I can help:

Homer: So I realized that being with my family is more important than being cool.
Bart: Dad, what you just said was powerfully uncool.
Homer: You know what the song says: “It’s hip to be square.”
Lisa: That song is so lame.
Homer: So lame that it’s… cool?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I’m glad. And that’s what makes me cool—not caring, right?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we’ve tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

41 Brian Donohue August 14, 2014 at 2:01 am

Take two:

Teen1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen1: I don’t even know anymore.

42 Brian Donohue August 14, 2014 at 2:07 am

Summing up then:

Homer: Save a guy’s life, and what do you get? Nothing! Worse than nothing! Just a big, scary rock!
Bart: Hey, don’t knock the head, man.
Marge: Homer, you don’t do things like that to be rewarded! The moral of the story is that a good deed is its own reward!
Bart: But we got a reward, the head is cool!
Marge: Well, then maybe the moral is, no good deed goes unrewarded.
Homer: Wait a minute! If I hadn’t written that nasty letter we wouldn’t have gotten anything.
Marge: Mmmm… then I guess the moral is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Maybe there is no moral, Mom.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that.
[the whole family laughs]

43 critic August 13, 2014 at 7:26 pm

I believe Forbes raved about the beauty of Gatlinburg, TN. At least Gatlinburg literature claims that.

44 Willitts August 13, 2014 at 7:46 pm

With all due respect, a thriving capital informs me only that the returns to rent-seeking are high.

I don’t want a cool capital. I want it to be a barren wasteland. If I were dictator, I’d move the capital to Salina, KS and ban hotels in a radius of hundred miles. There wouldn’t be a single monument or tourist attraction. The president can entertain elsewhere.

45 geographer August 13, 2014 at 9:46 pm

Burma already did that with its planned capital, nawiypidaw.

46 Willitts August 14, 2014 at 1:58 am

An example of the low decision costs of oligarchy.

The trouble with rent seeking is that the external costs are too damned high.

47 Slocum August 14, 2014 at 7:19 am

Seems plausible, but it’s not a good idea. It appears that the farther out in the boonies a capital is, the easier it is for corrupt politicians and rent-seeking cronies to get away with their bad behavior:

48 Dan Lavatan August 13, 2014 at 8:06 pm

I am going to go with Nome. Juneau is the coldest capital.

49 Yet Another Tom (Though There Are Others) August 13, 2014 at 8:43 pm

The water keeps Juneau surprisingly warm in the winter months. By coldest average monthly temperature among state capitals, it seems to be Bismarck, with average January high/low of 23/2, compared to Juneau’s 33/24.

50 Chris H August 13, 2014 at 9:23 pm
51 Steve Sailer August 13, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Each year Washington DC has an enormous number of pretty good-looking, very well educated young white people. It doesn’t get the most beautiful women or the most creative individuals. It gets people who took very seriously while growing up warnings about their Permanent Records: high ambition conformists. (There are worse things in this world.)

The average is high, but the variance is low.

52 geographer August 13, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Did you have mommy issues growing up? Its the only way I’ll ever fathom your obsession with female appearance and reproductive statistics.

Everyone I know down here in the relevant age cohort is here because of the presence of stable, high paying jobs on the eastern seaboard, not some manifestation of conformity.

53 Dismalist August 13, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Steve, they ain’t good looking, and they sure as hell ain’t creative. Ambition? Maybe financial. Conformists, yes.

54 Willitts August 14, 2014 at 12:26 am

Transplanted Midwestern heffers in a cosmopolitan city for the very first time.

55 Ray Lopez agrees with Steve Sailer August 13, 2014 at 11:08 pm

DC does have a lot of young white people, given that the city is 50-50 black/white. Not that many Asians, proportionately, unless you are in the George Mason law school area, where there are some Vietnamese. BTW that area, the stops therein, get rated as trendy places for young people, as do the metro stops in Alexandria, which possibly explains Tyler’s reference to Springfield (they have a metro there no?). Georgetown was cool back in the days when I was going out (no need to go out now–people in this part of the world think I look like George Clooney, lol, and will date me though they are less than half my age). DC is indeed above average and with less variance, akin to Lake Woebegon but it’s really true. As for ‘really cool or not’?: they say the same thing about London–it is really cool? I say yes. As for dating, not that you mention it, I would not date a DC girl unless you like a girl that wears sensible heels as the saying goes. Here in the Philippines the girls wear impossibly short shorts with flat heel sandals, some heels if they are short, an’ flip-flops. I don’t even know how American teens or youth dress anymore, but I bet they don’t dress as provocatively as they do here. And nobody even cares, unlike Puritanical AmeriKKKa. As for Forbes lists, they do have a good reputations for lists (“Forbes Richest”), albeit sometimes they try and generate page clicks by being provocative. Nuff said.

56 Luscinia August 14, 2014 at 1:02 am

That’s because the most beautiful women are in Kano and Niamey.

57 Doug August 14, 2014 at 2:13 am

I can think of a much better proxy for coolness than anything Forbes used: proportion of middle-class young adults that smoke weed. By that measure I’m sure DC ranks near the bottom of any of the “cosmopolitan metropolises.”

As for the coolest city in America, I’m not sure which is number one, but I’m sure it’s on the West Coast. (And I say that as someone who’s never lived West of Illinois).

58 prior_approval August 13, 2014 at 10:54 pm

But you don’t offer free checking, do you?

59 Dismalist August 13, 2014 at 10:59 pm

DC has the highest incidence of congenital syphilis in the US, perhaps in the western world. How cool is that?

60 prior_approval August 14, 2014 at 1:49 am

So, something quite likely under a dozen cases per year, using this somewhat recent information? – ‘From 2003 to 2005, the number of CS cases reported annually in the United States decreased from 432 to 339; the corresponding national CS incidence rate decreased from 10.6 cases per 100,000 live births in 2003 to 8.2 in 2005. Subsequently, the number of CS cases increased from 339 in 2005 to 431 in 2008, and the CS rate increased 23% from 8.2 per 100,000 live births to 10.1 during the same period. This increase followed a 38% increase in the P&S syphilis rate among females aged >10 years, from 0.8 per 100,000 in 2004 to 1.1 in 2007 (Figure). In 2008, the P&S syphilis rate among females continued to increase, to 1.5 per 100,000.’

(DC seems to have around 10,000 live births a year, if 2011 was typical)

61 Mesa August 13, 2014 at 11:24 pm

There are those who produce cool and those who consume it. Are the coolest cities those with the highest producer surplus or consumer surplus?

62 Phil August 13, 2014 at 11:46 pm

Tyler, you haven’t been to Toki Underground yet? I am shocked.

63 agm August 14, 2014 at 3:44 am

This post shows the rule about posts with questions as their title is still true: the answer is “No”.

64 T. Shaw August 14, 2014 at 8:33 am

Some are born cool, some achieve coolness, and some have coolness thrust upon them.

65 Doug August 14, 2014 at 9:31 am

Chicago is cooler than most of those cities.

66 Robert Savage August 14, 2014 at 10:43 am

With this article, Forbes has risen to # 1 on the list of Lame Media.

67 Joseph Ward August 14, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Very fitting that we’re named the coolest city by (one of the) the least cool magazine(s) ever.

68 DM August 14, 2014 at 2:20 pm

I lost all interest when I saw Seattle at #2. It’s San Francisco, just a little worse in most categories and a lot worse in the weather category.

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