Is D.C. Still a Southern Town?

Some say line is shifting

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Snow covers a statue depicting warriros from the Civil War on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol during a powerful winter storm February 10, 2010 in Washington, D.C.

    Washington, said the man who became president 50 years ago this week, “is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” But is it in fact still a Southern town?

    On my many carefree crossings into Virginia from D.C. or Maryland, it occasionally crosses my mind that at one point, this was an international border -- and a hostile one. And two centuries after the site of the federal capital was selected in a deal between North and South, and a century and a half after the Civil War, cultural differences persist.

    Having spent my first 23 years in New England, I am a bona fide Yankee (though like many Northerners, I despise the team with that name). My wife is a Georgia native who spent much of her childhood in North Carolina. So maybe it makes sense that we wound up in a city that straddles the two regions.

    But the whole notion of this region’s “Southern-ness” is changing. In this new war of Northern aggression, places like Northern Virginia are becoming, well, Northern, as they become densely populated extensions of the D.C. metropolis. And D.C. itself, once a sleepy and genteel Southern city, these days feels more like New York than New Orleans.

    The Washington Post took a look at the shift in its Sunday edition, writing that “the region’s Southern accent is becoming measurably less pronounced, linguists say. The Confederate flag doesn’t fly much in these parts anymore. Korean barbecue has taken its place alongside the Southern pit-cooked variety in many neighborhoods, and the ‘sweet tea line’ that once stretched across Virginia has gotten blurry.”

    I asked some friends from all across the country just where “the South” begins today. While a couple of snarky New Yorkers said “Staten Island” and one internationalist said “Panama,” the results were interesting.

    A few stuck to the old model, the Mason-Dixon surveying line that is the northern and eastern border of Maryland. Several said “the South” is the 11 states of the old Confederacy. Others had less formal responses:

    • “I call it at Southern Maryland.”
    • “At the Regal Cinemas movie theater on I-66 toward Manassas.”
    • “Frederickburg.”
    • “That tacky store South of the Border.”
    • “First Waffle House on 95.”
    • “Once you’re out of New Jersey, you’re officially in the South.”
    • “As a Yankee, I used to experience Maryland as very Southern in culture. That was a long time ago, though.”
    • “The Potomac.”

    “The South in spirit begins where the people there don’t view that as a negative connotation,” a Georgia native told me. “Although it’s sad, that’s getting pushed down farther toward Richmond.”

    Someone else similarly said the South begins at “that part of Virginia where you tell them you live in D.C. and they tell you that you are a Northerner.”

    Perhaps the definitive answer came from another.

    Where does the South begin? “Just below the North.”

    Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC