How I learned to stop worrying and love the Washington/Baltimore/Arlington Combined Statistical Area
And how to make it work as one city
Cities are fundamental to understanding the geography of human life.
But the “city” as a set of political lines on a map has a tenuous relationship with the city as a set of economic and social relationships. My mom grew up in F
lushing in Queens and would tell stories about going “into the city” (by which she meant Manhattan) from her house. I have friends in the Alamo Heights exclave who describe themselves as living in San Antonio. And certainly, when my dad was living for a few months in Santa Monica and I visited him, I told people I was going to Los Angeles.
We often talk about a metropolitan area (a city and its suburbs) as a unit. Many more people live in the City of Austin than in the City of Atlanta, but Atlanta feels like a much larger city — more pro sports teams, much bigger airport, more corporate HQs — because the Atlanta metropolitan area is dramatically larger than the Austin metropolitan area. By the same token, Jacksonville is only a bigger city than D.C. in the very technical sense that the municipality was merged with Duvall County, so its boundaries are extremely expansive.
In the United States, metro areas are defined by the Office of Management and Budget, which looks at commuting flows between counties and then groups them together into larger areas.
They compute this in a few different ways. There’s the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), the Micropolitan Statistical Area (μSA), and the Combined Statistical Area (CSA). A μSA is basically a one-county metro area — a small city and its surrounding area — while MSAs and CSAs are big cities and their suburbs, with the MSA definition being narrower and the CSA more expansive. In some cases, narrow versus wide is pretty straightforward. My in-laws live in Kerr County, Texas in the Kerrville Micropolitan Statistical Area adjacent to the San Antonio MSA. The San Antonio CSA expands to include Kerr County. And I think that describes the area well — it’s not quite a suburb of San Antonio (when you drive on I-10 past Boerne there’s a distinct gap in development until you hit Comfort, which is very small, and then another one between Comfort and Kerrville), but it’s close. With another decade or two of Texas-sized population growth, it probably will be.
But in other cases, the move from MSA to CSA involves combining two distinct metro areas, which brings us to today’s topic: the Washington MSA and the Baltimore MSA combine to form a single Combined Statistical Area. I used to hate this idea, but I’ve come to accept it. And I think all residents of Balt-Wash should come together to think about how we can make a cohesive metro area work better.
The case for CSAs
Here in the northeast, we are clannish and parochial. If you go from D.C. to New York, you pass through several distinct dialect zones and sports fandoms. Providence has a different set of organized crime than Boston.
You go from hoagie to hero to grinder.
And in that context, to say that D.C. and Baltimore are the same city is absurd. In D.C. we have a popular football team. There is also a robust local tradition of anti-fandom grounded in the franchise’s historic racism, which induces a minority of Washingtonians to root for the local team’s longtime rivals the Dallas Cowboys. But there are no Ravens fans. Or, rather, my one friend who grew up in Baltimore is a Ravens fan, just like people who move here from Boston root for the Patriots. When the Nationals came to town it was a big deal because previously, D.C. did not have a baseball team. We didn’t have the Orioles, because we are not a suburb of Baltimore.
But I did see a truck in my neighborhood recently that was repping the Os and the Capitals. And if residents of Charm City and its suburbs are willing to open their hearts to D.C.’s hockey team, maybe they’d love the Wizards, too, if the Wizards weren’t terrible. Maybe we could all just be one big city?
The CSA makes more sociological sense on the west coast.
If you go by MSAs, the 13th largest city in the country is Riverside, California. Riverside, according to the stats, is bigger than major cities like Detroit, Seattle, Minneapolis, or Denver. But what the fuck is Riverside, California? They don’t have a distinctive regional accent or cuisine. They don’t have any pro sports teams.
The answer, if you look on a map, is that the “Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Metropolitan Statistical Area” is just an extension of the general sprawl around Los Angeles. People there will make wildly overstated claims about Kobe Bryant, and if they want to go to Paris or Tokyo they get a direct flight from LAX. And indeed, the OMB’s CSA version of Los Angeles includes Riverside.
If you go by MSAs further north in the state, then San Francisco and Oakland are part of a single metro area, but San Jose is a separate metro area that includes Palo Alto and Mountain View but not Menlo Park, which is in San Mateo county and therefore part of the San Francisco MSA. The 49ers not only play outside of the City of San Francisco (which is typical for an NFL team), they’re not even in the San Francisco metro area, which seems nuts.
If you go by the CSA definition instead, it’s all one big metro (“the Bay Area”) with multiple activity nodes. And that makes a lot more sense. So I’m ready to let go of my northeastern parochialism and embrace it, in part because of lifestyle changes induced by Covid-19.