Book Review: The Newcomer's Handbook to Washington, DC
I am very excited to share today's Book Review of the Week - the Newcomer's Handbook® for Moving to and Living in Washington DC, 4th Edition - from our newest Travel Guides Partner, Newcomer's Handbooks. The Newcomer's Handbooks are incredibly detailed guides to truly learning a city - and preparing to move there! There are in-depth looks at neighborhoods, resources, cultural life, and more - and we know that this month, there is at least one new family moving to Washington, DC!
We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Mike Livingston, the author of the Newcomer's Handbook for Moving to and Living in Washington, DC, 4th Ed. Mike has extensive writing experience - he's a freelance writer and editor, and member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, but only part-time; his day job is in emergency communications at Children's National Medical Center. He's an EMT, CPR instructor and Child Passenger Safety Technician. He combines both jobs ably, and has done a lot of ghostwriting and coaching authors, and had op-eds, book reviews and columns published in the Washington Post, Legal Times and Washington Business Journal. WHAT a great writing CV!
He's also written the Newcomer's Handbook to the United States - check back for that book review in a month or so. But I digress - here's what Mike had to say about his book...
WE: Please tell us about your book, the Newcomer's Handbook® for Moving to and Living in Washington DC, 4th Edition...
ML: There are lots of great tourist guides to the nation’s capital, but this book isn’t for tourists. It’s for people who are coming here to stay, whether for a summer or permanently. It’s about the living city behind the tourist attraction – a city of half a million people, a metropolitan area of three million, real people who actually live and work here and send their kids to school, walk their dogs, buy groceries, go to the doctor, call a plumber and get picked for jury duty. The Newcomer’s Handbook is to help you decide where to live, how to get around, how to buy or rent a home, and where to learn more about your new community.
First Books had already published two editions of the D.C. book in their series of city guides before I signed on in 2000. The early editions were a good start, but they were aimed at an upscale audience and focused on top-shelf neighborhoods like Georgetown, Capitol Hill and McLean. Those are nice places, but they’re not the housing markets where, say, a recent college graduate is most likely to settle. First Books recognized the need for a more comprehensive view of the city and suburbs and they actually advsertised for a new author. They were looking for experienced writers who had lived here for at least five years; at the time, I had lived here for 29 years. I was invited to audition on paper, and Jeremy Solomon and I felt a good fit. I told him I would approach the book as if I were showing a friend around town, and he gave me – within the successful format of the Newcomer’s Handbook series – a free hand to present my home town the way I’d present it in person.
WE: What led to your interest/background in Washington, D.C.?
ML: It’s my hometown. I was born in D.C. and I’ve always lived in the District
or the suburbs. Growing up here, it’s easy to forget that the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument aren’t everyday sights for most people, or that, in most cities, you have to pay to get into a museum. We’re really spoiled here by the caliber and diversity of culture – some of the most diverse neghborhoods in the world. More to the point, there are always opportunities to do good and meaningful things here, as a career or in the community.
Washingtonians do half a million hours of volunteer work every year – to meet someone here who doesn’t do any volunteer work is almost weird. It’s also a brainy city with some of the world’s highest levels of literacy and educational attainment per capita. We may be an opinionated lot, more
conscious of politics than most communities, but people here sincerely feel
like they’re serving the greater good of the country or the world, and many
WE: Your research for this book must have been fun! What were the highlights?
ML: Actually, I already knew most of the fun stuff. The real work behind this
kind of guidebook is the fact-checking, compiling hundreds of useful phone
numbers and web sites. I use the book myself as a reference. People ask me questions like “Where’s the main library in Fairfax County?” or “What are
the hours for HOV lanes on I-270?” and I say, “I don’t know, offhand –
that’s why I wrote it down in a book.”
There’s some general information about restaurants, shops and leisure
activities, including touristy stuff that locals do when we have guests from
out of town, but my main goal is to acquaint readers with the resources that
can provide up-to-date information on demand. It’s not practical to say a
lot about shopping or dining or neighborhood festivals in a book, because
these things change so often. It’s more important to get your bearings in
the information landscape – learn what the newspapers, the internet, the
phone book, the commuter advisory agency and other local resources have to
WE: Washington, D.C. is an interesting mix of tourists, politicos, and permanent residents. Does this have an impact on the city? Can you please tell us about that?
ML: There’s a tendency to think of the population of the Washington area as
mostly transient -- people who come here for a few years and then go “back
home” as administrations and Congresses come and go. Actually, though, a
majority of the adult population is long-term or permanent residents. People
come here for the government jobs -- and the related industries like
advocacy, journalism, tourism and the nonprofit sector -- but, more often
than you think, they stay.
Locals move around locally and change jobs a lot, but no matter what you do
for a living here, there’s a sense of being where the action is. It’s an
addictive place. Novelist Allen Drury wrote about this in effect fifty years
ago -- people move here fully expecting to stay just a few years, but in
that time, they put down new roots here and begin to think of Washington as
WE: Do you still discover new places, in and around Washington, D.C.?
ML: The city is always changing. Restaurants come and go, neighborhoods rise and fall, you meet new people and discover their favorites. If you went to a different restaurant every day of the year, by the end of the year there would be dozens of new ones; if you went to every museum, public and private -- and I don’t think any individual ever has -- then, by the time you
finished, there would be new exhibits at most of them. And that’s not even
counting the acres of parkland, miles of bike trails, the performing arts,
sports – did you know we have a women’s pro football team? And three minor-leage baseball teams in the area? And a different free concert at the
Kennedy Center every evening of the year?
Getting to know the city is not a mysterious process, but it does take a
little effort. Read the Post and the neighborhood paper, read the
Washingtonian, check out neighborhood blogs, talk to people, listen to
people, but above all, get out and explore. Ride around the city on buses,
looking out the window. Better yet, take long walks – some places in the
suburbs aren’t very pedestrian-friendly, but the city itself is a great
walking city. So look around. Notice things and check them out.
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
ML: The one big tradeoff to living in the District of Columbia is that you give
up your American birthright to be represented in both houses of Congress and to have local control over local taxes and spending. No other U.S. citizens
anywhere have this disadvantage, and it’s not just symbolic – the District
has a hard time paying for basic city services because so much real estate
in the city is tax-exempt and because, unlike most any other U.S. cities,
its local budget and ordinances can be reviewed and amended by Congress.
That’s simply not the best way to run a city.
That said, it’s a great place to grow up, to be a young adult, to grow old,
to raise a family. Hardly any other city in the world offers as many ways to
serve good causes and be part of something big, and to make a decent living and learn a lot and explore as wide a range of cultures and activities. If
you come to Washington to scout it out as a place to live, I’d recommend you
skip all the touristy places – once you live here, you can go to the
Smithsonian every weekend. Visit some real neighborhoods – Adams Morgan,
Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, Woodley Park. Take the Metro from one
neighborhood to the next and get out and walk around. Skip the big chains
and eat at local cafes and check out independent music stores and delis and
bakeries. Go to the Kennedy Center for a freebie or to the American Film
Institute, but also try a local nightclub or community theater. In short,
try living like a local for a week or so. You won’t learn all there is to
know about Washington – I haven’t done that myself – but you will know how
much there is to discover off the beaten path.
WE: Thanks so much, Mike! Your book is an extraordinary guide to an extraordinary city. I am very impressed.