Crumbling Character: A Gentrified Georgetown
Fading Facades

B2_Gtown2_lifehacks.org

DESTINATION DC

 

A quarter of a century ago, a stroll down M Street would reveal rows of highly specialized boutique shops, restaurants and vendors. Crowds lured in from across the city and the country filled the sidewalks, ready to experience an atmosphere unique to this small corner of northwest Washington, D.C. A distinct feeling of whimsy and quirk characterized this iconic place, home to many who had lived here for years.

Much has changed in the neighborhood over the past two decades. Mega-chain stores have replaced the one-of-a-kind trinket shops, younger generations have pushed out older residents and Georgetown, in addition to the city as a whole, has become much whiter. Though the changes in Georgetown reflect a broader trend across both D.C. and U.S. cities, they intertwine and impact one another in noteworthy ways with lasting consequences for the community.

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PRESS

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PRESS

Georgetown saw its first major wave of demographic shifts in the years following World War II, but the area really began to gain traction in the mid-’90s with an influx of predominately white families and entrepreneurs moving into the area. In fact, former Georgetown University professors Kathleen Mezie Lesko, Valerie Babb and Carrol R. Gibbs highlight the changing population in their book “Black Georgetown Remembered,” reissued last February and originally published in 1991, to both celebrate and explore the rich history of the Georgetown neighborhood as an epicenter for black life.

These demographic changes have continued over the years, leaving many to wonder where “chocolate city” has gone. While Georgetown’s demographic shift from predominantly black to predominantly non-black began years ago, it was only in 2011 that Washington, D.C.’s population underwent the same shift, and dipped below 50 percent black for the first time in 50 years. This was the first time in decades that the percentage of black people living in Washington dropped to such a low level.

Georgetown sociology professor Brian McCabe (SFS ’02) attributes the demographic shift to a number of factors, the most significant of which is the large influx of young and predominantly white people in the past 20 years.

“There’s an interest again to live in cities. It’s cool and hip to live in cities. You see a lot of young people moving to cities in a shifting demographic where people moving in tend to be whiter, wealthier and tend to be more well-educated,” McCabe said.

These changing demographics are not the sole cause of Georgetown’s rapid change, according to Georgetown history professor Marcia Chatelain.

“When people think about gentrification, they often imagine affluent buyers buying houses and the influx of stores and restaurants that cater to that clientele,” Chatelain said in an email to The Hoya. “What we often lose sight of, is that colleges, universities, as well as their hospitals and athletic facilities can lead to serious displacement and gentrification. … When we think about the politics of property, labor and policing, we see how colleges and universities can adversely impact neighborhoods and communities.”

DESTINATION DC

DESTINATION DC

The shifting population does not just impact the racial and socioeconomic breakdown — it also has serious implications for the Georgetown residential and business community.
Nick Wasylczuk has owned Just Paper and Tea on P Street NW for the past 27 years, watching the city change and grow over the years. According to Wasylczuk, the Georgetown neighborhood was once known as the social and shopping hub of the city. Today, he feels differently.

“Every store you see here on M Street, you see everywhere else. Georgetown used to be the major area if you wanted to come into D.C. and shop. It’s no longer that way,” Wasylczuk said.
The shopping district started to see a real change in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as landlords started charging higher rents that made it difficult for smaller, specialty shops to stay afloat. Large chain stores like Nike and Patagonia moved in, able to take on the high rent and a homogenizing market of mass consumption.

“Georgetown has really lost its ability to attract merchants that want to provide something a little different, based on the fact that the big box stores have moved in and taken over,” Wasylczuk said. “Nothing is really that unique.”

Concurrently, many of the bars and nightlife options began to move out, in part due to the increasing rent, as well as a concerted effort by neighborhood officials to clean up the local area and improve the relationship between the university and residential community.

“It’s quiet in Georgetown now. They got rid of those rowdy bars and whatnot, and to be honest, I kind of miss some of that, because that was sort of the element here,” Wasylczuk said.

However, much of the change in Georgetown’s reputation is also due to factors outside of the neighborhood itself. As McCabe, who graduated from Georgetown in 2002, points out, many of the transplants to the city are moving into neighborhoods where they otherwise wouldn’t have lived in years past, like Shaw and the U Street area.

“They’re moving into neighborhoods that they probably wouldn’t have lived in 20 or 30 years ago. I remember living in Shaw right after college, and it was way past where anybody would have lived at that time, but now it’s all the rage,” McCabe said.

As more and more young people move into these areas, they become more expensive, densely populated and full of chain bars, restaurants and shops. Consequently, the need to come to places like Georgetown, which allows more standard big-businesses to move in each year, dwindles.

Wasylczuk also attributes the change in Georgetown’s reputation as a social hub to the expansion of nightlife activities in other parts of the city. With the development of areas like H and U streets, and the Dupont Circle area, there are now far more nightlife options in the surrounding area.

“U Street corner was more of a prostitute and drug area, and now that’s just become a hot area for young people in the 20 to 35 age range, and that keeps them from coming to Georgetown. Life has really moved out that way,” Wasylczuk said.

Other long-term shopkeepers and residents have also noted these same developments. Ed Solomon at Anthony’s Tuxedos and Wedding Creations has been on P Street for over 32 years, and has seen these changes unfold across the city.

“Although the neighborhood as a whole is definitely seeing a transformation with retail, I think that has more to do with the internet and the way millennials buy now. But we do see a lot more younger people, in the 25 to 35 range, and I do think that’s reflective of what’s happening in the city. We’ve got lots of nightlife and lots of things to do where we didn’t before,” Solomon said.

On the whole, the greater D.C. area has become more of a destination for younger people looking to start their lives in a new city, enticed by the up-and-coming restaurants, art scene and bustling energy. While this, in turn, has caused the Georgetown neighborhood to lose its reputation as a distinct shopping and social location, it has opened up other parts of the city and garnered a more cosmopolitan and commercial identity.

However, these changes do come at a cost. While these shifting demographics tend to lead to faster urbanization and development, they also have the potential to further marginalize huge sections of the black population that have been here for centuries; according to “Black Georgetown Remembered,” Georgetown and its surrounding area had a black population of just above 5,000. What is cosmopolitan and fun for upper class, college-educated twentysomethings, may just amount to increased rent and a lack of affordable housing and shopping options for the rest of the DC population. McCabe sees this as the most significant challenge facing developing cities.

“What can the city do to ensure that it’s both attractive to people that want to live here, but also to make sure that people who have lived here for a long time feel that they have a right to this place as well?” McCabe said. “That’s one of the fears that people have, with all this good stuff happening and people wanting to move back in, we need not forget about people that have been here a long time and kept D.C. afloat.”

Ultimately, as the broader landscape of D.C. continues to change, the Georgetown neighborhood will continue to be affected by the rest of the city. In the meantime, shop owners like Solomon and Wasylczuk will do their best to keep the authentic character of Georgetown around.

“What I don’t appreciate is the fact that they’ve homogenized so much of the city and so much of the town, that it’s like a mall, and not like the unique boutique area that it used to be,” Wasylczuk said. “That part I really miss, because it did give the flavor that you couldn’t find elsewhere.”

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2 Comments

  1. “When people think about gentrification, they often imagine affluent buyers buying houses and the influx of stores and restaurants that cater to that clientele,” Chatelain said in an email to The Hoya. “What we often lose sight of, is that colleges, universities, as well as their hospitals and athletic facilities can lead to serious displacement and gentrification. … When we think about the politics of property, labor and policing, we see how colleges and universities can adversely impact neighborhoods and communities.”

    Insanity. Pure, unadulterated insanity, and an example of how the irrational “social science” (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard of one) departments of today’s college campuses have infected them with an intellectually intolerant ideology that has degraded the quality of higher education. It makes me sick to think that “Professor Chatelain” has access to young minds, and even more so that she has access to the remarkable young minds of GU’s students.

    To argue that any particular community must remain the exclusive domain of one race or another is bigotry, and sixty years ago it was known as, “Jim Crow.” This is a classic example of the subjective, contradictory nature of sociological arguments; in one breath they claim America is a melting pot, that diversity is a strength, and that the government must force disparate cultures to live among one another, and in the very same breath they complain when a city that was once overwhelmingly majority black is now less majority black. Which is it? Or is it only lamentable when the white people show up?

    Thankfully, the era of this sort of irrational, intellectually intolerant, biased thinking is ending.

  2. Having arrived on the hilltop in 1989 as a freshman and having resided in the neighborhood ever since…it has changed but the only constant in life is change.

    The article seems to suggest that there was a large black population in Georgetown (neighborhood not University) only a few decades ago, there wasn’t. DC as a whole was a majority black city, but being ensconced in Georgetown meant one’s surroundings were far from racially diverse unless you set your bar by visits to far more segregated areas of the country. I remember going to visit family and being shocked to be at a mall, movie theater, etc…and see the mono color of whiteness that I was a part of in comparison. Georgetown was a fairly isolated bubble in DC where the citywide demographics didn’t translate to great diversity for many decades before the recent shifts in demographics citywide. Granted as a student going home for holidays or talking with people in other parts of the country, it was common to hear Georgetown University referred to as a “black school” because most people only knew it from the basketball program (back when we had Alonzo and Dikembe, still basking in the Ewing glow). The racial shift described in this article seems far off from the neighborhood that I actually lived in during those years.

    As a former student and resident living side by side with current students, the shift of money at Georgetown University has been rather shocking. To see the sheer volume of tech gadgetry that is loaded into homes which are exorbitantly priced rentals has signaled a shift in the economic power of the student residents…sure you may not be at Fiola Mare every week but compared with the very modest spending power of 25 years ago it is clear that the family pocketbook for more than a few students has grown a great deal. I look out my window and see the clothing styles shift to far more expensive tastes, watch folks jump into Uber, and see groceries delivered (literally as I type) as extravagances that would be unthinkable to many of my fellow students a quarter century ago. Some of it is technological shifts, but all of those are facilitated by economic shifts of the student population as a whole. The result is a much greater flood of money to the local area and businesses that will cater to that on top of the historical high end boutiques joined by high end brands that cater to an even wealthier demographic of locals than the student population.

    There has been a great deal of change in the value of properties in the Georgetown area, my home purchase price from 1990 (yes, while a student) wouldn’t get me a small apartment in Georgetown today, yet that same property declined in value for years before riding bubbles up. Part of that is the slow march of inflation, as everything costs more (seriously a Peggy’s Special, we didn’t have Chicken Madness, used be under $5), part is the desirability of location. Some of it may even reflect a willingness to “park” money in real estate, the same issue that places like Miami and NYC are dealing with as wealth from around the world comes in to shelter money from less stable governments and currencies. Supply and demand, Georgetown has finite supply (in part due to restrictions from being a Congressional Historic District since the 1950s) and as long as demand is high the prices will be too.

    People frequently complain about change…but they also don’t talk about how run down and ratty Georgetown was a few decades back. It ignores the crime level where we almost hit 500 murders in 1990. The neighborhood of today bears little resemblance to that of 30 years ago…and based on friends who used to be here in the 70s it bears no resemblance of the run down mess it was then. Sure some of the great music venues are gone, no more Cellar Door or Bayou…the funky small stores like Commander Salamander or Little Caladonia are gone…the record/cassette/CD stores like Kemp Mill and The Whiz are gone too. Nightlife venues like Anastasia’s, Winston’s (a total college meat market in the early 1990s) have vanished. Georgetown Park Mall, gone. The weight of shifting tastes, shifting ways of shopping, rent increases and a local government in the ANC that acted to drive out nightlife that was problematic to the local area meant that Georgetown had to change but change is the only constant.

    On the other hand, the same guy has been sitting in his wheelchair with music playing at the corner of M and 31st for all the years I have lived here. There are restaurants that I first went in on high school trips to DC (late 1980s) and enjoyed a lovely bottle of wine (with a fake ID, granted the drinking age was 18 for beer and wine then…campus was wet until 1989) where I can still go and sit at the same table and eat much the same food. Some of the new places are great…and many of the old quirky places weren’t really all that interesting except through the rose colored glasses of remembrance. Things change, but people also make the mistake of glorifying the past. Fighting shifting tides of money and interest is a bit like fighting the seas…in the end you put a lot of effort and money into it and still don’t win. Enjoy the ride, enjoy the moment.

    RNM

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