Washington is a great (baseball) town. So is Houston.


The World Series faceoff revealed some additional similarities between the two seemingly-contrasting cities.

man holding baseball balls

The World Series faceoff revealed some additional similarities between the two seemingly-contrasting cities.

Early in the Reagan Administration, when I was a smarmy young journalist trying to make a name for myself, I wrote a controversial op-ed piece in the Washington Post saying that Washington was not a baseball town and did not deserve its own team. Washington and Baltimore were one region, I argued, and Washington residents should root for the Orioles.

My piece raised the ire of no less than Shirley Povich, the legendary sports columnist for the Post — and father of TV talk show host Maury Povich — who devoted an entire column to trashing me, calling my words “the greatest compendium of flapdoodle ever accepted for the written page.”

I wore Povich’s criticism as a badge of honor for many years. Not only had I gained attention from the famous columnist, but I was secure in the knowledge that, no matter what he claimed, I was right: Washington wasn’t a good baseball town and didn’t deserve a team.

Decades later, as a Houstonian of advanced age, I have to admit that times have changed. The Nationals are an outstanding team — good enough to beat the best team I’ve ever seen in the World Series — and Washington is, at last, a really good baseball town. The Lerner family has done a great job of building a strong franchise. Nationals Park is a wonderful place to watch a game, not to mention an important anchor in the urban revitalization of Southwest Washington. And, as we saw after Game 7, the city loves their team.

In large part, this is a testament to how Washington has changed since I wrote my column. For one thing, it’s a lot bigger: The Washington metropolitan area (minus Baltimore) has doubled in size since I wrote my column, from 3 million people to 6 million. (Washington itself has grown by more than 10% since 2010, after decades of declining population.) It’s also more prosperous: Half of the richest counties in the country are in the Washington area. And finally, Washington and its inner suburbs (such as Arlington and Bethesda) have become great urban places, in large part because of development around Metro stations. A lot of urbanists love Washington and wish other cities were more like it.

All of this has added up to constant good news for the Washington area, and not just because of the Nationals. Northern Virginia won the Amazon HQ 2.0 competition by leveraging the region’s strengths. This includes the area’s hip reputation, but it also includes the enormous tech infrastructure that revolves around the federal government and the Pentagon. Amazon may be based in Seattle, but it has more than two dozen data centers located in Northern Virginia, largely because of federal tech infrastructure. As business has become more intertwined with government over the past four decades, Washington has expanded its economy greatly.

At a glance, Houston couldn’t be more different. Yes, it’s a similar size (around 7 million) and also growing fast (around 1 million per decade). But whereas Washington is compact, Houston is sprawling. Washington relies on the Metro, while Houston is a car-oriented city. Houston often seems like the antithesis of Washington in economic terms — a city created by the private sector, not by the government. And Houston was perhaps the biggest loser in the country in the Amazon HQ 2.0 competition, because it was the largest city that failed to move on to Round 2. There aren’t many urbanists saying other cities should be more like Houston.

Though both metros are land-abundant on the fringe, their growth has been driven by very different dynamics. Washington’s urbanization was driven by an enormous federal investment in the Metro — which carries 600,000 people a day — as well as the presence of an enormous office-based employer (the federal government) and latest demand for close-in office and multi-family development driven by Washington’s height limit. (The biggest winner in this competition was Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac, which has emerged as the most successful transit-oriented community in the country.)

Meanwhile, Houston has a more diverse jobs base — with big blue-collar employers around the Ship Channel and big white-collar employers in the central, west and northern parts of the region. And Houston has long resisted a major investment in public transit — though the METRONext bond issue passed last week — even though white-collar jobs are concentrated in a few large job centers.

Of course, the big difference between the two metro areas is the price of housing. The median home price in the Washington metro area is approaching $400,000, which is double the median in Houston.

But it may be that Washington and Houston — like the Nationals and the Astros — are more evenly matched than it would first appear.

As noted above, both are prosperous and successful metropolitan areas. They’re also both diversifying fast in demographic terms. But many of the metropolitan dynamics in the two cities are the same. The core is gentrifying very fast, leading to very expensive home prices and massive displacement of lower-wage workers to inconvenient locations far from job centers. The fringe of both metro areas is growing fast and at pretty low densities that leave residents with no alternative but to drive.

And yet to remain competitive, both metros are pursuing very urban-style development. In metro Washington, something like 85% of all new office development is occurring in areas surrounding Metro stations. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Amazon humiliation, even the powers that be in Houston seem to be gravitating more toward a Washington development model. Recently, the city (working with Rice University) has been working hard to create a high-density, innovation district in Midtown with easy access to rail transit.

In other words, the future of both these successful metro areas appears to be a combination of suburban sprawl to provide inexpensive starter homes on the fringe and heavy investment in the very expensive core of the region, where most of the economic drivers are located.

I think Houston — and other American metro areas — can learn a lot from Washington’s success since I first wrote that column so many years ago, despite the higher cost and the unusual advantage of being the federal capital. Though Washington’s 40-year-old Metro system is now creaking under huge demand and deferred maintenance, there’s no question that the enormous investment in rail transit has reshaped the region and made it more competitive than ever. The deep federal investments in technology have paid off too. And whatever you think of public financing of sports stadiums, there’s no question that Nationals Park — and the involvement of the Lerner family, with deep roots in the real estate business — has helped stimulate new energy in Southwest Washington. There’s no substitute for large investment in public infrastructure to lay the groundwork for broad-based metropolitan prosperity.

I don’t know what the late Shirley Povich would think about all these changes. But I do think it’s encouraging that although many U.S. metro areas are being left behind, revitalization in the urban core is driving so much metropolitan prosperity across the country.

After all, only a few years ago Povich’s beloved Washington was widely regarded as a derelict city beyond all hope. Today, fans from all over Virginia and Maryland flock on a regular basis to a place they never would have ventured to in order to see their beloved Nats. That’s a great accomplishment — even if the Astros outdraw the Nats by several thousand fans per game.

William Fulton
Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892


Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

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