To get a sense of the dramatic changes in demography and development that have swept Washington, D.C., over the past decade, one can hardly do better than take a stroll up 14th Street, NW, from Thomas Circle to U Street.
Along this route, the backbone of “mid-city” Washington, lies a diverse stretch of buildings and businesses, young and old, newly refurbished and under construction, unequaled in the District. The people one is likely to encounter along 14th Street, too, represent the changing face of D.C. today.
That Washington is rapidily changing is readily apparent to anyone who’s lived here in just the last few years alone. The 2010 Census data, released in late March, confirmed what one can tell from walking down the street: D.C. is getting younger, more populous, and more diverse. What was once known as “Chocolate City” is on the verge of losing its black majority.
The recent influx of well-to-do twentysomethings has transformed the residential, dining and transportation options throughout the city — in particular, in a broad swathe of central Washington that juts out from 14th Street, roughly defined by the Dupont Circle neighborhood to the west and Logan Circle to the east, U Street in the north and melding with downtown more or less around M Street in the south.
This area is home to a unique assemblage of institutions and individuals that exemplify the two sides of Washington: a grand capital city of international renown and import, as well as an intensely local, livable city with neighborhood character.
That character is perhaps best espoused by the dynamic and distinct Dupont-Logan Circle area. During the recent extended spell of pleasant spring weather, the sidewalk cafés and restaurants around Dupont Circle and Logan Circle were overflowing with al fresco diners. On the streets, the bright red Bikeshare bikes, with their unmistakable flickering lights, buzzed by, adding an eco-conscious urban chic to the scene.
In May, The Washington Diplomat met the founders and editors of the neighborhood blog Borderstan at the Mid-City Caffé, a favorite digital bohemian hangout above the trendy Miss Pixie’s consigment store, located between Corocoran and R Streets along 14th. Matt Rhoades and Luis Gomez, married and living on 15th Street, founded the blog in August 2008 to improve coordination of public services in an area that cuts across three neighborhoods (Dupont, Logan and U Street Corridor) and lies on the border of two jurisdictions.
“It started out as a crime and public safety blog for the area around 15th Street, the dividing line between different police districts, with Dupont on the west and Logan on the east,” said Rhoades, a corporate communications director in his day job. Though it’s no longer is the case, in 2007 there were “literally some instances where something [criminal] was going on across the street, and the officer wouldn’t do anything,” Rhoades said, noting that at the time, the blog served to raise awareness of the situation.
Though at the outset just a handful of friends and neighbors read the blog, over the last two and a half years it has ballooned “by a factor of 10 in terms of daily visitors,” according to Rhoades. As readership has grown, the two have added categories, including more general news; a food section; arts and entertainment; politics and government; and stories on local business development. “Those stories are always very heavily trafficked,” said Gomez, a photojournalist who moved to D.C. in 2003 from Caracas, Venezuela.
Borderstan currently has 10 volunteer contributors covering local issues and trends, from Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings for Dupont and Logan to the controversial “Post Office” restaurant project on T Street (residents worry the proposed bistro will become a crowded nightclub destination).
They also post about bigger-picture issues with an eye to their impact on the neighborhood. A March 29 post about the Census results noted, for instance, the remarkable population increase of 33 percent, from 4,559 to 6,077 residents, in a part of Logan Circle bounded by 14th Street in the east, 16th Street in the west, Massachusetts Avenue in the south, and S Street in the north. Similarly, Ward 2, which encompasses most of the larger Dupont-Logan area, increased in population by 16 percent — from 68,000 to 79,000 inhabitants — the fastest rate in the city.
Borderstan attributed the rapid growth in Logan Circle to new rental and condo buildings sprouting up along the 1400 blocks of P and Church Streets, NW, as well as Rhode Island Avenue. Even with these developments, and a total population of just over 600,000, however, D.C. is still far from its maximum-recorded population of more than 800,000 in 1950.
Although Rhoades and Gomez see the growth of this part of D.C. mostly in a positive light, they worry, as many do, about the rising cost of living out-pricing people who want to live there. “To me, the challenges for this area are what you see all over the city, in that so many parts of D.C. have become such desirable places to live,” Rhoades said. “Maybe we’re at ground zero in terms of that. What affects me day to day is the high price of real estate. We’d love to buy a bigger place, but the real estate is so high, we can’t afford it,” he complained. “And we’re not poor.”
At the same time, the climbing rents and property taxes are driving the furious pace of development in the area, bringing in businesses that can afford to move in. “People scream about too many restaurants and bars, but they’re the only ones who have cash flows to pay those leases,” noted Rhoades.
On the flip side, he worries the soaring prices may be forcing other worthy businesses out: “One of my concerns on a personal level, as someone who lives here, likes to shop locally, is how many of the small businesses will be able to make it with rising costs of real estate. That’s something we will see, is who will remain here.”
However, another typical side effect of the shift to higher rents and mortgages is not occurring, according Gomez: the much-bandied “g-word.”
“It’s not really gentrification, not in this area,” he said. “People are not being sent away; people are coming in.” The Borderstan editors note that when Whole Foods Market opened on the 1400 block of P Street in fall of 2000, the move sparked the revitalization of much of the surrounding area, including many lots that had stood vacant since the devastating riots of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
A photograph in the Washington Star from April 6, 1968, taken on 14th Street at the height of the riots, shows three national guardsmen standing in front of the rubble of a still-smoking building. Lest it be confused as an image from World War II, the caption clarifies: “This is not a war scene.”
Additional photographs of Logan Circle from the summer of 1971 (in the “Images of America” series book on the neighborhood) show the circle in a decidedly disheveled state. “Logan Circle then experienced much crime and severe lack of maintenance,” according to the caption.
That may have been putting it mildly, with prostitution and homelessness once a common sight in Logan Circle — which didn’t develop as quickly as Dupont, a more established neighborhood that become re-energized in the 1970s by its growing gay and lesbian community, which remains a defining feature of the neighborhood today.
For Logan, the journey from the low-point of that period to the renaissance of restored Victorian rowhouses and flourishing new restaurants, shops and theaters that define the area today has not been a linear progression toward rejuvenation. Bob Maffin, a 40-year resident of the area currently serving his second term as president of the Logan Circle Community Association, recalls the association’s role in gradually improving the circle since its founding in 1974.
“During the 1970s and early ’80s, the community organized to try to get street prostitution out of the area, and we were successful,” he told us. “We did that through patient, nonviolent presence during the time that the transactions were attempted to be made.”
In the 1980s, the association worked with the Department of Transportation to return the traffic circle to its original configuration and expand the historic district to include 14th Street. In the early 1990s, it held two large festivals of the arts on 14th Street, foreshadowing the blossoming of galleries and artist studios in more recent years.
The association’s current priorities, according to Maffin, 85, involve promoting livability, with a special focus on education. It aims to improve local schools so that young families will remain in the area (instead of migrating to the suburbs in search of better schools), as well as help the elderly continue to stay there. A community diverse in age will benefit all, goes the thinking.
In addition, Maffin says the association will continue to focus on historical preservation and beautification projects, such as tree-box structures and plantings. The group is now in the early stages of working with Cultural Tourism DC to implement a historical walking trail for the area, of the kind that have become popular for several other D.C. neighborhoods.
Maffin, who first came to Washington on a short-term assignment with the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Johnson years and stayed on, says he most enjoys the historical character of Logan Circle, the “best neighborhood I’ve lived in.” The well-preserved residential architecture of Vermont Avenue includes, for instance, the house of Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of slaves who grew up in poverty in the rural South and became a civil rights leader who organized the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. The house, a National Historic Site, describes her leading role in advancing racial and gender equality as an advisor to four U.S. presidents, among other activities.
The passion Maffin exhibits for Logan Circle is matched by that of his counterpart Deborah Schreiber, the current president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), for “her” circle. Having lived on P Street just west of the circle since 2001, and rented the house there since 1985 while living with her husband on Capitol Hill, she has a quick answer when asked what she likes most about Dupont.
“I absolutely love the urban-ness of it — I don’t know how else to explain it,” she said. “I love the vitality, I love the international presence in our neighbors, I love the intellect that is surrounding and present in this area.” She also cited the plethora of cultural offerings, from the Phillips Collection to the National Geographic, to the Keegan Theatre, as well as the “incredibly wonderful” restaurants. “You usually will hear four or five languages as you walk down street.”
Not to mention the circle itself, home to historic snowball fights, impromptu concerts, ongoing chess games and a constant hum of activity and life. “We have a wonderful, vivacious, exciting circle, which is a meeting place for any number of individuals who just want to take a little respite,” Schreiber said. “It’s beautifully landscaped and we have a wonderful sculpted fountain and it’s a gathering place for all ages.”
The DCCA, founded in 1922 and preparing to celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2012, has shifted its focus in recent years toward “fostering neighborliness,” Schreiber explained.
“Of all sections of the city over the last 30 to 40 years, there was a tremendous influence from development in Dupont Circle. So the DCCA had a strong focus in the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s on zoning and regulatory issues. Currently, most of the demand for looking out for development and protecting homeowners has lessened because we have pretty good zoning laws,” Schreiber said. “The focus for DCCA, as we transition to the 21st century, is looking to be a greater, stronger partner for residents and businesses.”
Like its counterpart in Logan Circle, the DCCA also sponsors an annual house tour, for which there is a “rigorous selection committee.” In lieu of regular fundraising efforts, this major event draws supporters from across the region to visit 12 to 14 homes and enjoy snacks and tea, donated by local merchants, along the way. This year’s tour is scheduled for Oct. 16. “It’s a wonderful event,” Schreiber noted.
As of late March, with the trees still bare and the fountain not yet bubbling, four large white letters, “L-O-V-E,” appeared at the center of Dupont Circle.
The “love” sign is in fact an advertisement for Virginia tourism, though it fits well on that spot. As Schreiber said, there’s a lot to love about the Dupont neighborhood as well as the broader community stretching over to Logan Circle. “It’s so fabulous, I love Dupont Circle.”
About the Author
Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.