A Brand New Shake Shack and Existential Dread

I do not really like The City. From where I live, in a northern Virginia suburb, this means the District of Columbia, but if I had to hazard a guess—I just don’t like cities, full stop. I genuinely want to enjoy living in urban space. Throughout my childhood, I was dumbstruck by the Metro— I idolized the commuters as serious, smart and important people whenever I ventured into D.C.  from my hometown in rural Maryland. Getting to the nation’s capitol was the pinnacle of career and personal success to my young mind. And to be sure, there is something exciting and fulfilling about being on the train, about navigating the crowded city streets and about walking through the door of my thoroughly modern 11-story office building every morning.

I struggle, too, because I know that in many ways, this is where I am “meant” to be and furthermore, it is probably the best place I can be at this point in my life. I am 25 years old, unmarried, childless, well-educated and trying to build my credibility as a professional writer. I am interested in policy and art and history, and I am making a salary which affords me creature comforts while working a job that gives me the flexibility to embrace the culture all around me on the weekends. I have no right, frankly, to be so dissatisfied all the time. It is a privilege to be in The City.

But I don’t like The City, and in a recent moment of trying to express gratitude, ironically I realized what it’s lacking. It went something like this: “I know how lucky I am. I can walk outside my office and access whatever I need almost immediately. There are so many different restaurants, stores, bars and shops to accommodate my every whim, and I have endless resources at my disposal here.” Basically, you can find anything in The City. Cities have the amenities that you should expect to find in any metropolitan area—Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, a pizza place, a gym, a trendy bar, an event venue—whatever! If you want it, it’s probably on the next corner. This is, in fact, the metric by which up-and-coming small and medium-sized towns define their success: is it big enough to have a Taco Bell? Is it big enough to have a Target? Does it have a Whole Foods yet?

Those things that are universally available are just that, though—universal. They have broad appeal. They have no differentiation or distinction between them—that’s what makes them so successful. A Starbucks in D.C. is a Starbucks in New York is a Starbucks in Chicago. That’s the formula, and it works, in a manner of speaking.

But every day, I’m surrounded by a bunch of corporate franchises—I could find them in any other major city too, so it’s convenient that they’re in D.C. (or, to avoid angering my District friends—it’s convenient that they’re in Arlington, where I actually work.) They’re familiar, but The City isn’t! By virtue of the fact that Arlington is filled with places you could find anywhere, isn’t being in Arlington just like being nowhere in particular? What is there to distinguish one northern Virginia suburb from the rest? As Starbucks is Starbucks is Starbucks—isn’t it true that Arlington is McLean is Falls Church is Reston?

People will object to this perspective, saying that I haven’t embraced The City. They’ll chastise me for being uneasy in a city, because it’s not challenging to live in a small town. Washington, D.C. is diverse, vibrant—there are hundreds of bland corporate chains but there are also new perspectives, dozens of languages spoken, a variety opportunities to learn and grow. They’ll say that there are dive bars and trivia nights and holes in the wall and locally-owned businesses that I’ve simply failed to patronize. They’re right.

But when I go to a “local” joint—do I see the regulars? Do they remember my usual order? Of course they don’t—because in a barrage of overworked, self-important, privileged white people in a rush to get their morning caffeine jolt or their happy hour buzz on, who am I? No one at all.

I’ve written before about how I find comfort in permanence, and there is none to be found in The City. It’s fodder for existential panic. The construction is persistent, the bustle is constant, and it’s unclear how to build a community in a place like that. I don’t object to growth or economic development or modernization per se—although I have been accused of romanticizing small towns, and I’m a bit more of a “NIMBY” than I can reasonably defend, given my otherwise liberal values. I work for a trade organization filled with member companies from towns where the population density is one or two people per square mile—and what we want, what we advocate for, is an opportunity for those members to fulfill their growth potential.

But small towns with a Dollar General or a Target still have a heart—they have things that are distinctly their own, that people can long for and drench in nostalgia. I miss that, more than anything. The local character. The chance to say— this is my home, and I know it is, because that store has been on my block for 20 years, or that restaurant has the best sandwich in the area (and I know the chef! By name!), or we have this natural beauty or quirky local lore that no one else does.

So I don’t really like The City, because there’s nothing about it in particular to like.