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 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.”
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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