City Paper is not for tourists
The Saturday morning scene at the Dupont Circle Starbucks provides no shortage of urban upper-crust clichés. The African-American man in the Harvard shirt, reading his book. The old white guy with the Princeton baseball cap enjoying his Washington Post. The lady in the purple sundress clasping her just-purchased organic strawberries. The chatty polo-wearing 30-somethings, sipping their coffee at a table outside.
Dupont Circle, like nearby West End, Foggy Bottom, and Kalorama, is a quintessential downtown D.C. neighborhood: racially and ethnically (but not economically) diverse, loaded with amenities, and within walking distance of Washington’s power hub. Yet the area’s prosperity and proximity to downtown belies its relatively recent transformations. Laptopia was not always just a land of lovely bakeries, multimillion-dollar town houses, and stores selling expensive, comfortable shoes.
It’s hard to imagine a nongentrified Dupont Circle, but old-timers talk about the Dupont of yesteryear, with crappy apartments, crime, no children, and a whole lot of gay people.
Back in the ’80s, Dupont got a reputation as a place where “people accepted people,” says Ken Taylor, a real estate agent who’s lived in the area for 28 years. “They were more interested in their own lives than causing trouble. The only time in my mind where we’d get trouble down here is when people would come from the suburbs, and five to six guys would come and beat up a little gay guy.”
As for the couples with strollers that now clog Connecticut Avenue, they didn’t exist. Says Taylor: Young Dupont mommies and daddies had two kids in three years, and by the time the second kid arrived, they’d already high-tailed it to the suburbs.
“They didn’t feel kids would be safe,” he says.
These days, Laptopian children stick around to learn their ABCs at some of D.C.’s most prestigious public elementary schools, says DCPS historian Nancye Suggs. Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle is famous for its strong PTA and parental devotion, and there are several other gems nearby, including charters.
Yet, as Dupont has transformed from gayborhood to a fully gentrified land of sophisticated two-income families, its commercial offerings have also changed—and some say for the worse. From Starbucks at the corner of R and Connecticut, one can spot a Cosi, a Five Guys, a Hair Cuttery, and a Chipotle, all lined up within a half-block.
“Gone is some of the funkier stuff, like the burrito shops,” says Rob Halligan, former president of the Dupont Circle Citizen Association. “Now there’s more Potbellys, Subways.” There also used to be four movie theaters in the area, he adds. These days, the neighborhood is down to zero.
The folks in Kalorama can probably afford their own impressive home theaters anyway. Loaded with stately town houses, embassies, and urban mansions, this elitist’s paradise is located in the secluded hills north of Florida Avenue. No neighborhood in downtown D.C. feels more like a gated community. It’s like the gorgeous home façades are etched with subliminal messages: You don’t belong here. Don’t you realize you’ve veered off course? Back to Connecticut Avenue with you!
The typical home around Kalorama (parts east and west of Connecticut Avenue) goes for $2.6 million, according to Taylor. So, unless you’re coming to D.C. with a trust fund, or a spouse’s trust fund, you might want to expand your home search.
Kalorama and Dupont have one advantage over their neighbors to the south: They haven’t been carved up by invading forces. The big story in Foggy Bottom and the West End over the last two decades is the great expansion of George Washington University, which, under former GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, swallowed large chunks of the area and transformed them into dorms and other school buildings. But for all the changes, those neighborhoods still lack some fundamental quality-of-life enhancers, namely a decent selection of restaurants and entertainment options (not to mention the prestige factor of Georgetown). For date nights, average Foggy Bottomers are probably headed west to the restaurant-rich waterfront and the M Street corridor. Or, they’re strolling up to Dupont Circle—the true gem of Laptopia.
• What’s a yuppified urban neighborhood without a farmers market? Every Sunday year-round, Dupont Circle has the very best among them, a true produce bazaar just south of the intersection of 20th and Q Streets. While other neighborhoods yearn for a simple, run-of-the-mill grocery store, Laptopia residents can buy fresh beets and cabbage from West Virginia, a broad selection of cheeses from Pennsylvania, and eco-friendly beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and eggs from Virginia.
Started in 1997, this weekly tradition was the first D.C. gathering of farmers by local nonprofit Fresh Farm Markets, which now has seasonal markets in Foggy Bottom, H Street NE, Penn Quarter, and several other area locations. But Dupont Circle’s trumps all in the city with its large draw of locals, time-aged reputation, and robust selection of 30 vendors. The market is held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the warmer months and opens an hour later in the winter.
• In a city of few renowned native sons, Colbert I. King stands out. The Washington Post columnist grew up in the West End-Foggy Bottom area and frequently mentions his childhood in his blunt, pull-no-punches accounts of city controversies, bureaucratic failures, and D.C. daily life. (King also writes about national affairs.) In the past, King has recounted a break-in at an important church from his youth, and summer idleness around the neighborhood, among many other references, providing a rare, deeply personal sense of history and transformation in local coverage. Recently, he mentioned Stevens Elementary School, which is slated for closure and which he and several other family members attended, in a column about what should happen to vacated school buildings. His voice earned King the praise of Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer, who proclaimed him “The Best Washington Post Columnist You’ve Never Heard Of.” It also won him the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his “against-the-grain columns that speak to people in power with ferocity and wisdom.”