Do You Live in a Stressful City?


March 22, 2012, Washington, DC: I heard a story on the radio this morning that made me feel calm, cool and collected. It detailed a report out this week from Sperling's Best Places revealing the nation’s most stressful cities. Immediately I assumed the Washington metro area, a region full of Type As and powerhouses, would top the list or at least come close. From my vantage point behind the steering wheel during the morning commute, I concluded my hometown must be full of stressballs and pent-up anxiety. But guess what? I was completely wrong. Washington is ranked #44 of 50 cities rated. Am I the only one surprised?

Sperling's list of stressful cities took into account factors such as commute times, divorce rates, joblessness, crime, mental health and cloudy days. While commute times in the Washington metro area were longer than just about everywhere else on the list, all told Washington ranked less stressful than 43 other metro areas out there. Compared to Tampa, Las Vegas, Miami, Jacksonville and Detroit (the top five), we let it roll off our backs. We're cool as cucumbers.

This place is, in fact, reportedly less stressful than every other city in which I've lived. Chicago came in at #16, St. Louis at #17, New York at #27, San Francisco at #28, and Baltimore at #34. As hometowns stack up, is this really the most peaceful and sane urban environment I've ever experienced? Sometimes that feels far from the case. And yet other times, as I watch my neighbors walking home from a long day at work, or going about their weekend mornings at Eastern Market, or just last weekend walking out their front doors with hot cups of coffee and children in pajamas to watch marathoners run by, I see this place as relaxed and stress-free. Upon closer inspection, they are not the stressed-out Washingtonians I envisioned from a bird's eye view.

In 1965, Russell Baker wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine called "It's Middletown-on-the-Potomac." A witty jab at Washington, the essay painted this place as sane to the point of dullness and boredom. He ended his essay quite humorously -- perhaps earlier evidence of why this place ranks so low on the stress list.

"On the whole, life is well-ordered and calm. The out-basket could be neater, but it is not out of control. We know how to live properly here, you see. In bed by midnight. No indiscretions. Not too much passion. The Washington Senators will finish tenth again this year, but we are above the bush-league despair of small-town chauvinists like the Mets fans.

In spring herring will run again in the Potomac, and on the first warm day in April we will walk to C & O Canal towpath and listen for a whippoorwill. Or drive out to Dulles Airport and look for new expressways. In May there will be the azaleas and, between now and then, any number of very proper dinners with old friends.

In June the nights will be sweet with white locust blooms and the sky will wash the city with soft breezes off the Carolinas. There will be visitors from out of town and we will drive them down to the Culture Center to show how culture stands with us.

What better place could there be to live if you are neither rich, nor adventurous, nor capable in French? In the summer there will be tomatoes in the back yard. Only fifteen minutes from the office."

-Russell Baker, It's Middletown-on-the-Potomac, from The New York Times Magazine, 1965

Do you live in a stress-free place or does your city stress you out? Do you agree with the rankings?

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