Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Why isn’t there a decent department store in downtown D.C.? Macy’s sucks. Taking the Metro to Friendship Heights is a haul. Georgetown is a very long walk or bus ride. Target is not a department store. I’m talking downtown 7th Street area.

If you asked this question 50 years ago, people would have wondered what Metro was, what Target was, when Macy’s expanded outside New York, and what, exactly, you were talking about. Because around the middle of the last century, 7th Street NW was the shopping hub of the D.C. region—and shopping meant department stores. The grand buildings that now host H&M, Jaleo, Macy’s, and a sprawling new Clyde’s Group restaurant all used to be retail palaces.

Back then, Lansburgh’s, Garfinckel’s, Hecht’s, and Woodward & Lothrop (better known to natives as “Woodies”) hawked the latest fashions, furnishings, and toys. Most had started doing business in the late 1800s; by the 1920s, they were operating flagship stores downtown, where streetcars ferried in curstomers from relatively new neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant, Petworth, and Columbia Heights. White customers, that is. In segregated D.C., African Americans weren’t allowed to try on clothes in many of the department stores; Garfinckel’s, notoriously, wouldn’t even sell to black customers.

As suburbia boomed after World War II, the big department store chains followed their clientele. By the 1980s, it wasn’t easy to keep suburb-dwelling workers in the city after work to do anything, let alone stroll through the same department stores they could find at a shopping mall near home. Garfinckel’s went bankrupt in 1990, Woodies a few years later. As for Macy’s, its arrival in downtown D.C. was relatively recent: In 2006, the Federated Department Stores chain—which had assembled a roster that included Hecht’s as well as similarly faded regional retailers like Philadelphia’s Strawbridge & Clothier and St. Louis’ Famous-Barr—rebranded all of its stores with the Macy’s name.

These days, of course, the suburb-bound trends that killed the retail district around 7th Street are reversing a bit, though the old shopping area’s revitalization has involved entertainment more than department store linen sales. But just wait. Retro marketing could yet mean someone brings back one of the old names.