comments_image Comments

DC Beltway Is America's Wealthiest, Brainiest, Most Insular Region

Democracy's Capitol is now America's biggest gated community.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock


All politics are said to be local—and so too are vanities, as the Washington Post so reliably reminds us. This week, it did the media equivalent of the smartest kid in the class answering a question before the teacher asked it. It posted a nationwide map of its newest elite designation, super zip codes, where the richest, brightest, most coddled people live.

Here’s how it described one cush cerebral locale, Clarksville, Maryland, where median household income is at least $120,000 and seven out of 10 adults have college degrees. “An astonishing 98 percent of River Hill High School’s graduates head to college,” the Post preened. “Volvos, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs are scattered throughout the student parking lot. Even pets get in on the refined tastes of their owners; in a small shopping center near the school, a shop specializing in organic dog food is next door to the organic grocery store.”

There are all kinds of rankings by zip code of American pecularities. Netflix ranks the most popular movie rentals. The business press is always telling us where the priciest homes are. Or which zips have the highest and lowest taxes, or which zip codes donate more to political campaigns. And there’s the other end of the spectrum, such as where worst crime is, or most foreclosed homes lie, or the poorest place to live. 

But the Post’s latest pat on its subscribers (and advertisers) backs goes further. It tells readers that whole sections of the Washington suburbs are a unique wealthy enclave.

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.  

And then it goes further and touts, with a slightly raised eyebrow, that those who are fortunate enough to live in this rarified paradise almost never have to interact with the rest of dreadful (or less privileged) humanity. They christen this mix of affluent and highly educated people, a “megalopolis of eggheads.”

Zip codes are large swaths of territory, and people from many different walks of life live in them. But many Washington neighborhoods are becoming more economically homogenous as longtime homeowners move out and increasing housing prices prevent the less affluent from moving in. The eventual result, in many cases, is a Super Zip. And because the contiguous Super Zips are surrounded by areas that are almost as well-off, it’s possible to live in a Super Zip and rarely encounter others without college degrees or professional jobs.

“It’s a megalopolis of eggheads,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Frey said Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views.

I’m not sure there’s an everlasting silver lining to Washington’s golden monoculture. The Capitol has always been an old-fashioned company town, the company being the federal government. I have great respect for civil servants, who have to turn sloppy promises by political rulers into some semblence of functional reality. But in the country’s other top concentrations of super zip codes, such as in New York City or Chicago, there is more apparent mixing of economic and educational diversity. The result seems to public life and attitudes that are more grounded in less cerebral pursuits. In D.C., the government shutdown unfolded like a bad Broadway play. In New York, the powers that be did not derail a populist surge electing a mayor who put inequality on top of his agenda. Does place, as so many writers have said forever, shape character and destiny?

See more stories tagged with: