'Cool' Washington bids Obama farewell

WASHINGTON: Ten days before his 2009 inauguration, Barack Obama stopped at Ben's Chili Bowl, a favorite eatery in Washington's U Street corridor, for a beloved chili half-smoke sausage.

Far more than a pit stop, the nosh marked the beginning of a dual mandate for the president-to-be: leader of the nation and the man who helped make the capital cool.

Once thought of as a town for stuffy statesmen and bureaucrats – and plagued by crime to boot – Washington has had a coming out of sorts in the last eight years, marked by massive urban renewal and an influx of young professionals.

In 2014, Washington was placed atop Forbes magazine's list of "coolest cities," with nods to its abundant entertainment offerings, free world-class museums, diverse population and youthful inhabitants.

By 2016, it even got its own coveted Michelin Guide with stars awarded to a dozen restaurants that are part of a hot foodie scene.

This upward ascendency coincided with Obama's arrival on the heels of his youth-driven campaign, replete with promises of hope and the fresh face of a man who looked nothing like any previous president.

Obama's "circle was everything the new DC saw in itself – cool, cosmopolitan, diverse," Michael Schaffer, editor of Washingtonian magazine, told AFP.

"These trends were all under way before he became president, though they gathered even more strength after it," he said.

Nizam Ali, owner of Ben's Chili Bowl, saw Obama work his smooth magic firsthand.

"The whole world was watching him and he came to Ben's. It was probably the best thing that has even happened to us as far as having a positive economic impact," he told AFP.

The restaurant, located in the historically African-American U Street neighborhood, has a long history, surviving rioting which rocked the capital after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

"I think his visit added value and significance to the whole neighborhood," Ali said.

The transformation of U-street is emblematic of the wider shift the capital has undergone as the city emerges from under the shadow of "hipper" New York.

It now sits squarely in the middle of a mostly gentrified area, and is a key part of Washington's buzzing culinary scene.

"The Obamas embraced Washington, DC in a way that many administrations had not previously," said Robin McClain of Destination DC, which manages the city's convention and tourism scene and spearheaded a campaign a few years ago dubbed "DC Cool" that aimed to renew Washington's image.

"They truly lived in the city, going out regularly on dates and trying new restaurants," she told AFP.

Flourishing capital

The outgoing Democratic president, who hands over the White House to Republican Donald Trump on Friday, bequeaths him a flourishing capital.

According to McClain, the city has US$11.8 billion in urban development underway with projects including the complete transformation of its Southwest Waterfront, new museums, attractions, hotels and restaurants.

"There's a lot of positive momentum in Washington, DC," he says.

But the arrival of Trump, his administration and the new neighbors who are bound to follow in his wake, is awaited with trepidation by many of the capital's vastly Democratic residents.

The New York billionaire, who uses the term "Washington" as an insult, spent his campaign bandying about the city's name with disdain, speaking of it as an enemy of the people.

Residents' apprehensions were echoed last Friday by White House press secretary Josh Earnest, when he told reporters: "I think Washington psychiatrists are going to be doing a brisk business in the years ahead."

For Schaffer, Trump "stands for very different things than most people in the city, and as such won't be much of an advertisement for the new Washington's idea of itself."

Four years under Trump's leadership could indeed cramp liberal Washington's style, Eugene Miller, a former professor of African-American studies at Howard University told AFP.

But, he said, "the city's coolness can't get any lower than Trump's current approval ratings."

A consolation for locals will be the fact that the Obama family will remain in the city, in a rare move for an ex-president.

They will live in Washington's well-heeled Kalorama neighborhood until their youngest daughter, Sasha, finishes high school.

"I guess," Miller said, "we will begin to call him Mr Citizen – or First Citizen which is kinda cool." — AFP