A few months in, Alpert began to expand the franchise. His first addition was Michael Perkins, an engineer who had started a blog called Infosnack, synthesizing Metro and other transit data. Then came Jaime Fearer, who was running a blog about Ward 5’s Woodridge neighborhood while going to urban planning school at the University of Maryland. Soon after, Matt Johnson, who’s now working for the Montgomery County planning department, started cross-posting from his blog Track Twenty Nine. Many of the contributors are professionals in the field, writing posts in their free time (nobody gets paid, and Alpert accepts neither advertising nor donations). Members of the club—who adhere loosely to different “beats”—banter throughout the day on an internal e-mail list refereed by Alpert, who encourages e-mailers to write posts about hot topics. Alpert edits every post for clarity and concision, writing headlines, managing copy flow, and catching factual mistakes.
The growing klatch of experts, cultivated and tended by Alpert, has become a one-stop-shop for D.C.-area smart-growth discussion. That’s why Streetsblog hasn’t needed to start an offshoot here as it has in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and why more traditional advocacy groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth don’t have local blogs either.
“David has given us the best in the nation in terms of blogging communication,” says Stewart Schwartz, president of the 13-year-old coalition. “It taps into some very smart people in the Washington, D.C., region. I may not be using the term correctly, but it is a form of crowdsourcing.”
For transit enthusiasts, GGW supplies a degree of wonkery long missing from the public sphere. Metro Board of Directors member Chris Zimmerman has published editorials there; he sees it as a way to get in front of an audience that believes in Metro’s fundamental mission, at a time when newspapers rarely get into how the system works.
“It used to be that you could learn a lot about Metro by reading the Post. That’s not what the newspaper is doing anymore,” Zimmerman says. “…The Examiner isn’t interested in Metro getting better, it’s interested in having something to kick. It’s an ideological mission for them. And I think the Post is just looking for a headline that will allow them to sell past the Examiner.”
But while Alpert digs up information as well as any journalist, GGW is a fundamentally activist enterprise—and you won’t necessarily get both sides. Cavan Wilk, a financial economist who is also a Montgomery County transit activist, has been posting interviews of local politicos who are friendly to his agenda. “I don’t explicitly say it, but I assume my readership thinks that if I interview someone, then I like them,” Wilk says. “And I do not interview candidates that I don’t like, because I would ask them very uncomfortable questions.”
Would that be a bad thing?
“No, but they wouldn’t want to sit through that kind of interview, because they’re going to get that from journalists anyway,” Wilk says. “And I can do things that journalists can’t, because I don’t have to maintain an objective position.”
One evening in mid-August, while Alpert was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, the GGW crew—mostly male, totally white—gathered in a Hyattsville bar for one of its more-or-less monthly happy hours. Alpert had hosted dinners for contributors, but the community broadened after Johnson, who had few local friends when he arrived from Atlanta in 2007, began organizing meetups around the metro area (he chose Hyattsville because there hadn’t yet been any in Prince George’s County).
Upon walking in, I met Malcolm, a reedy young man wearing a tie featuring heads of the presidents, who works for the National Association of Railroad Passengers. A frequent commenter, who introduced himself as “Froggie,” circulated fantasy maps depicting vast new subway extensions. “Sandbox John,” who maintains a website with incremental photos of the progress of the Dulles Metro extension, brought several copies of an early Metro plan.
“Ooh, is that the 1998 map?” asked Johnson, ogling it like a rare baseball card. “I have the 1999.” The chatter moved so quickly from there that I could only catch snippets. The GGWers inveighed against poorly designed Metro stations (New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University bore the brunt of the abuse), debated the merits of pocket tracks (for the uninitiated, that’s a secondary stretch of rail similar to a breakdown lane on a highway), and swapped stories of historic Metro crashes (“And well, you know how the 1000 series performs in accidents…”). At one point, Johnson leaned over apologetically. “You’re witnessing an extreme geek moment,” he said.
The geeks, though, are trendsetters. Alpert’s favorite D.C. councilmember, Ward 6 Democrat Tommy Wells—who stopped by a recent happy hour—has been on a precipitous smart growth learning curve, reading magazines like Dwell, going to conferences on rail transit, and keeping up with urbanism blogs. Running for a second term this year, Wells is campaigning on a smart growth platform; his yard signs feature the slogan “building a livable, walkable city.”