- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

Perhaps it was the first Thanksgiving dinner cooked in a sublet and served on mismatched dishes. Or maybe you were moving and 10 people from the office showed up to help, saying “that’s just what we do.”

For Marla Graves, a staffer at the Heritage Foundation, the realization that her Washington friends were now like family came when she put one of her buddies, rather than her parents, on a form as an emergency contact.

“I realized I don’t want someone to call my mother back in Missouri when all I need is a ride home,” says Ms. Graves, 35.

Washington has long been a city of transients, loaded with young people and the optimistic political passion that drives them. It is the land of the group house, Capitol Hill happy hours and the office softball team.

Along the way, friendships form and take the place — at least temporarily — of family bonds. What’s more, since people are staying single longer (the average age, according to the U.S. Census is 27 for men and 25 for women and undoubtedly higher in such metropolitan areas as D.C.), social circles have more time to grow and strengthen.

San Francisco writer Ethan Watters chronicled this social phenomenon in his 2003 book “Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment.”

“Washington is definitely a hot spot for urban tribes,” Mr. Watters says. “You get outside of your family and you live in a metro area like that, and it can be hard to figure out. So you band together. And now we have the longest marriage delay in history, so there is momentum.”

On the surface, an urban tribe looks just like a group of friends, Mr. Watters says. However, a real tribe takes on the role of a support network, much like a family.

“There is something about it that becomes quid pro quo,” he says. “If you lost your job, would these friends lend you significant financial support? If you got cancer, would they come take care of you? There are some friendships that have not risen to these levels.”

Brian Phillips, 28, a press officer at a District think tank, has seen his urban tribe develop since he moved to Washington from Texas in 2000.

He says his tribe — largely made up of people who work in conservative politics — can pass the “family” question posed by Mr. Watters.

“The same way my family (in Texas) influenced my decisions growing up, my friends here in a very large way replace that,” Mr. Phillips says. The power of his social group is particularly evident around Capitol Hill, where friends and friends of friends have helped others hear about job openings that the general public might not be privy to, he says.

Mr. Phillips, who now has his own apartment, says living in a Silver Spring group house when he first arrived here was an important part of the urban tribe process.

Technology has enabled his group to remain tight even though some members have moved out of town or taken jobs out of political circles, he says.

“I am still in close contact with a lot of people,” Mr. Phillips says. “You IM, you e-mail. I still have a cell phone with a Texas area code. You get free long-distance. We have Yahoo chats. You still feel like you are a part of each other’s everyday life.”

Meanwhile, there is still the office softball team and the standing “First Friday” happy hour his friends hold each month at Capitol Hill’s Union Pub.

In Washington, a lot of urban tribes start out as people bound by their home state. George Lowe, chief of staff for Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, says he was glad to have that kind of support when he moved to Washington from Anchorage in 1994.

“I stayed on the couch of a former Stevens staffer I knew from high school,” Mr. Lowe says. “Friendships develop quickly.”

Courtney Boone, another Stevens staffer and native Alaskan agrees. “If you are an Alaskan, you are almost instantaneously family,” says Mrs. Boone, 28.

The long hours on Capitol Hill fuel the camaraderie, she adds.

“In other jobs I have had, a late night might be 6 p.m.,” she says. “On the Hill, you look at your watch and say, ‘Oh. It’s only 6’ and keep working.”

There can be two roadblocks in the evolution of an urban tribe, Mr. Watters says. The first, every group will have its own rules for dating others — from looking down on it to encouraging it.

“I’ve seen examples of it across the board,” he says. “Some tribes encourage it. Others recognize romantic jealousy as poison — if you are dating within the group, you had better be serious about it. People don’t want to think you came into the group to poach a mate.”

Mr. Lowe, now 35, married Jennifer Mies, another Stevens staffer, last year. The two met in the office four years ago, and were part of the same group of friends prior to dating.

In Mr. Lowe’s group, that kind of thing is not taboo at all. In fact, he’s lost count of the number of weddings he’s attended.

“I think that relationships that come out of your social group are much more serious,” he says. “I would say in the senator’s 35 years in Washington, there have been 20 to 25 marriages out of this office. Last year alone, we had a reception for seven staffers who were getting married.”

The other natural wrench in the urban-tribe arrangement is simply growing up. The late nights, the communal living, the mere energy of youth are all hard to sustain for years.

“Tribes are always changing,” says Mr. Watters, now 41 and a married father. “People step out of the group, and new ones come in. If you don’t change, and you are just trying to extend the college years, then that is just a sad thing.”

That doesn’t mean the ties have to break, he says. They just have to re-form.

“If it lasts into your 20s, then the stakes are just upped,” he says. “You bring in property, spouses and children. My place in my group is different. My house isn’t one with roommates.”

Melissa Goodman, a 30-year-old lawyer now living in St. Paul, Minn., used to have a strong tribe — comprised mainly of Midwesterners — when she worked on Capitol Hill from 1997 to 2000. The group had the Sunday dinners together, the group houses and the softball team.

Eventually, though, most of her group found themselves back in the Midwest.

“There was this recognition that this is fun in my 20s, but D.C. might not be the place where I want to dig my roots,” she says. “When you are in your 30s, you might not want to be at happy hour three or four nights a week. But even the people who stayed in D.C. have grown up.”

Mr. Lowe says there is still a place for old friends — even as tribe members grow into a more settled domestic life.

“I just came from a wedding in Iceland,” he says. “At the wedding, there were five of us who used to live together, and about 25 of us who were somehow associated with the bride and groom from Washington. That is a great example of how binds continue. All the people who went all the way to Iceland — those are ‘family’ bonds that are incredibly tight.”

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