City Paper is not for tourists
Georgetown may be a low scorer on a new list of America’s richest neighborhoods, but the locals aren’t complaining.
As you reflect on all those missed opportunities to strike gold on the stock market and buy silver for the baby, spare a thought for poor old Georgetown. Once a bright and shining Camelot, a movable cocktail party that charmed the world, it’s now just No. 31 on Worth magazine’s list of the “50 Wealthiest” neighborhoods in the U.S., calculated according to the median sales price of houses sold in 1998 and 1999.
Yes, that’s 31.
The median Georgetown house price may still be $563,500, but who would have thought that this would be 30 places and $1,736,500 below its tony counterpart, New York’s Upper East Side? And, not to rub it in, mind you, but Georgetown’s dismal placing also puts it behind three—yes, three—suburbs of Memphis, Tenn. (none of which include Graceland), and two of Atlanta. Denver’s helplessly nouveau Polo Club neighborhood ranks 10 spots above Georgetown, with a median house price of $800,500. (Just try saying “I live in Polo Club” without wincing.) And then there’s the spookily Hegelian “Geist Lake” in Indianapolis: At No. 23 on Worth’s list, it boasts a median house price of $780,000.
Surely, something’s wrong: Residential property within spitting distance of national government normally sits at the very top of the real estate market. Think of the neoclassical splendor of St. James Square in London, or the 16th Arondissement in Paris. When foreigners think of Georgetown, they put it in the same exalted, exclusive, bespoke class. Georgetown is universal in the way that Polo Club isn’t. “People perceive it as an upper-bracket, sought-after area,” says Ken Frank, sales manager of Pardoe Real Estate in Georgetown.
But the 20th-century mystique of Georgetown lay in the capacity of a handful of its glamorous residents, like Joe Alsop and John J. McCloy, to move pawns across the Cold War chessboard, rather than to move millions between corporate bank accounts. “Georgetown’s a bit of a village, and to me village life doesn’t connote a ghetto like Park Avenue, where you need millions to live,” says Chris Murray, owner of the Govinda Gallery, which this summer celebrates its 25th anniversary at the corner of 34th and Potomac Streets. “And it never was a ‘Gold Coast,’” he adds, noting that many of the members of the smart set that put the neighborhood on the map in the ’50s and ’60s weren’t all that wealthy—to begin with, at least. “The real wealth in Georgetown is Georgetown University. They’re the biggest landlord, and they’re Catholic,” he says.
Between a decidedly un-WASPish university and the expansion of the federal bureaucracy during the New Deal, Georgetown’s history is humble rather than haute-bourgeois. And there are still Georgetown students living in inexpensive university-owned houses, or absentee-landlord properties, much to the annoyance of local families, even those who bought in when prices were comparatively modest. The coexistence of students and families means that, for all its appearance of being a gated community, Georgetown is surprisingly open. On the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, there are even survivors of old black Georgetown, including four Baptist churches resolutely weathering the current boom in mammon.
Unlike many higher-placed, self-selecting neighborhoods on Worth’s list, Georgetown was built at a time when the plebes pretty much lived cheek by jowl with the patricians. It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution that the rich segregated themselves in Fifth Avenue mansions and Park Avenue apartments.
Georgetown still runs the gamut from peeling one-bedroom, one-bathroom artisan broom closets (now $250,000) to red-brick federal behemoths ($3 million to $4 million). And over the past three years, according to a local agent at Millicent Chatel Associates Inc., house values have increased anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent. Georgetown resident Karen Payne, who moved here from Berkeley, Calif., with her lawyer husband three years ago, estimates that her family’s newly purchased property is worth double what they paid for it.
So, far from slipping, Georgetown is actually on the rise. Traffic congestion in the suburbs is driving people back into the town they once fled, and the new mayor has given these people the confidence that their needs will be addressed, explains the real estate agent. Take that, River Oaks, Texas.
There are, of course, problems with Worth’s survey. In taking the median of what’s been sold (the middle number in the distribution of sale prices) the survey tells us nothing about how Georgetown fares at the upper and lower ends of the market. In a homogeneous neighborhood like Park Avenue, the median is probably a lot closer to the average house price, but this is not the case in a neighborhood of diverse properties like Georgetown. Comparisons are also confounded by relative differences in property density and the fact that people in Washington don’t always plow their wealth into lavish property.
“We looked at what would be the most fair measure for all these areas, and we came to the median,” says Worth Executive Editor Jane Berentson. The magazine could have included the mean price and the mode (the price that occurs most frequently) to give a better relative picture, but Berentson says that one statistic was simply a lot easier for an expansive magazine survey to handle.
Let us go then, you and I, and take a leisurely stroll down “Georgetown’s Park Avenue,” the quietly grand N Street. The air is fragrant with money, and the real estate is soaking it up.
Look at all those happy laborers converting the Edes House (cost: $4.2 million before renovation) at 2929 into a mansion fit for a dot-com executive—and that’s just one of many multiapartment houses being reconverted into single-family dwellings. Then, briefly resembling one of those gawking proles who drove a mourning Jackie out of 3017, turn and gaze upon the mighty, sprawling Laird Dunlop House—Hi, Ben! Hi, Sally!—and quietly despair. Got to be worth at least $4 million—but oh, to have such priceless neighbors! People who are accomplished and brilliant and charming, and who just might, in the dying light of a soft day (and over a perfect martini), tell you what it all means.
Doesn’t this count for even more than the millions it takes to live here? Doesn’t it count that Abraham Lincoln’s son once lived where Sally Quinn now hosts, tending his apple trees and letting loose at thieving children with a shotgun filled with salt? Surely the residents of Geist Lake would give their left kidneys for such brilliant society and such charming and—dare I say it—bittersweet history?
And this, my fine flaneur friends, is but a soupcon. Saunter past the servants (or whatever they call them these days) spraying down the sidewalk, nod at what once was Averell and Pamela Harriman’s bijou at 3038, and cross Wisconsin. There may not be a plaque on 3307 N St., but we all know that it’s the most important of John F. Kennedy’s numerous Georgetown residences—a present to Jackie in ’57, the house from which the Kennedys departed to the White House, never to return. You’ll know all this, too, in a quiet, unostentatious way, if you snap up one of the two federal houses for sale nearby (over $3 million each). And if the quiet contemplation of history’s ebb and flow, right there, on your sidewalk, isn’t quite enough, you can always pop around to Madeleine Albright’s pad on 34th for a bite of fresh realpolitik and tea.
Windermere, Wash., may be richer, but Georgetown has history. Georgetown is blooming—and blooming expensive. Worth magazine may know the median everywhere, but when it comes to Georgetown, it knows the value of nothing. CP