The history of Georgetown is the history of displacement. The Nacotchanke Indians were brushed aside to make way for a tobacco and slave port. The African-American community that thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries got the boot in several rounds of gentrification and decline. Three centuries on, aging denizens defend the fading kingdom of Katharine Graham-era Washington, now overshadowed by an overstuffed retail district and NIMBY homesteaders.
Even within the space of a day, the neighborhood’s feel undergoes a few makeovers, thanks to the various constituencies that rush in. Georgetown begins as a thoroughfare, with the early morning arrival of commuters stalling in angry lines of Beemers trying to get over the Key Bridge and onto M Street. The delivery trucks arrive next, destroying any hope of post-rush-hour calm. The moms roll in around the same time, pushing tricked-out strollers. At noon come the business lunchers, followed by the ladies who lunch. In the afternoon, shoppers swoop in.
In a city with a notoriously anorexic retail sector, shopping in Georgetown is like a bulimic binge. On sunny weekends after Memorial Day, walking down M Street can feel like standing in line at H&M. The crowds are diverse, and the options aren’t limited to J.Crew and Urban Outfitters. You can find $20 Gucci bags sold by immigrants out of narrow hallway storefronts and $300 Gucci bags at Barney’s Co-Op (3040 M St. NW); real gold chains at jewelers on Wisconsin Avenue and $3 hoop earrings at Up Against the Wall (3219 M St. NW). The Christ Child Opportunity Shop (1427 Wisconsin Ave. NW) sells the castaways of the neighborhood’s fading WASP aristocracy: used Wedgwood china, for example, and lacquered hutches the grandchildren didn’t want. Despite these unsung glories, an afternoon of shoe leather in Georgetown does, inevitably, end in physical and mental exhaustion. The best way to soothe a consumerism-weary constitution, especially on a hot summer day, is to stop for Argentine gelato at Dolcezza (1560 Wisconsin Ave. NW).
Early evening happy hours signal the arrival of nightlife—for some, a cue to flee. The preppy crowd swarms around a handful of spots, most notably Smith Point near Wisconsin and O, where you need to be on the list to dance to ’80s hits with boys in pink pants (it’s called Nantucket red), and girls in snug Lilly Pulitzer smocks. Socialites who’ve graduated from SP’s debauchery head for Cafe Milano (3251 Prospect St. NW), an Italian restaurant with expensive food and red tile floors that have the effect of broadcasting the voices of girls clustered at six tables at the front of the restaurant. Maître d’ Laurent Menoud says the tables are “the center of the universe.” Each little group of “it” girls has a preferred spot, and a preferred food—like the arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette, $14.
Locals prefer less visible spots, such as the upstairs wine bar at Bistro Lepic (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW), which has tastier fare and lower volume. Those on a budget wisely gravitate to the Moby Dick House of Kebab (1070 31st St. NW), where foil-wrapped falafel sandwiches can be purchased late into the night. When the main streets are too busy to risk, residents rely on several small, family-run groceries like Griffin Market (1425 28th St. NW), an Italian-style deli with a mean PLT (pancetta, lettuce, and tomato). Further solace from the hoards can be found at Dumbarton Oaks (1703 32nd St. NW), a private garden and museum atop Georgetown’s leafy slope.
Georgetown is the kind of neighborhood where houses are referred to by name. One measure of whether you belong in this prestigious ZIP code (20007) is whether you can name that address. There’s the Evangeline Bruce House, Halcyon House, and Evermay. (“Oh, you can’t know about Georgetown without knowing about Evermay,” one doyenne scolded.) Often, homes take the names of long-dead owners. Sales of the old great houses elicit nostalgic storytelling. Take, for example, the yellow painted-brick manse at R near Wisconsin. The Italianate home, now obscured from view by a thicket of holly and grass, belonged until last October to Marion “Oatsie” Charles, the widow of Democratic muckety-muck Thomas Leiter and aircraft executive Robert Horne Charles.
When Oatsie sold the house for $7 million and relocated to the family home in Rhode Island, Georgetown lost one of the last “cave dwellers,” a class of residents who didn’t have to leave their homes because the world (and groceries) came to them. She was also one of the last of the great Georgetown hostesses, having entertained the likes of John F. Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. Her house, once filled with frightening towers of books, now stands empty and is up for sale again. The asking price is more than $8 million. In a recent article in Vanity Fair, Oatsie lamented the decline of the old guard: “Things have changed beyond any conceivable idea. People don’t dress the same, they don’t eat the same foods, houses aren’t used in the same way.…It’s just not the same.” The new-money types buying into the neighborhood haven’t yet proven their solidarity. Mark Ein, the D.C. bachelor du jour and venture-capital millionaire, bought the Katharine Graham house, also on R Street, in 2002 for $8 million, then turned around and put it on the market for $14 million. He told the Washington Post he loves the place but “I just haven’t gotten around to moving in.”
• Sally Quinn still reigns as a go-to hostess in Georgetown. The wife of former Post editor Ben Bradlee, she has written for the same paper on and off since 1969 and still co-runs the Post’s “On Faith” site. Her socialite novels from the 1980s give a feisty view into the back-breaking work of entertaining the Washington elite.
• Fundraisers are the backbone of social life in Georgetown. There are fundraisers for parks, trees, and schools. Many are held at historic homes, like Evermay, that are now rented out for events.
• Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, aka the C&O Canal, aka the Grand Old Ditch, is more picturesque from afar. The slimy green trickle, once used to carry mail, runs along the southern border of Georgetown, a favored path for runners and bikers. Other physical landmarks to which Georgetown can lay claim: the Exorcist steps and the last remaining conduit trolley tracks, on O and P Streets—a deathtrap for bicyclists.