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After a couple years of watching D.C. change from day to day, it’s always remarkable to go home to Seattle and see a year’s worth of change all at once. Or, in the case of one far-flung neighborhood, about a decade of it.
While I was growing up, Georgetown was the odd place so far south of downtown as to not seem part of Seattle at all, where I’d occasionally go to play a soccer game and then leave. It’s halfway to the airport, sandwiched between Boeing Field and the railroad tracks, garlanded in a highway interchange. The city’s emerging hot spots—Ballard, Belltown, South Lake Union—were anywhere but there.
This past weekend, while gallery hopping with my family in the historic downtown neighborhood of Pioneer Square, we found that many places were closed on Sundays or had shuttered altogether, forced out by high rents. My mom had heard that the new artist haven was Georgetown, so we piled back in the car and headed south.
What we found absolutely blew my mind. The new Georgetown is like a replica of H Street NE, with a tightly-knit cluster of hipster bars with names like Smartypants and Nine Pound Hammer, casual restaurants, and a light-filled, bustling, classic Northwest coffeeshop. Utility poles are plastered with concert posters. Narrow roadways—currently under construction, adding to the H Street feel—are rimmed by magnificent but crumbling old brick buildings, like a former brewery that’s been partially converted into artist studios.
Unlike H Street, though, it’s also figured out retail, boasting vintage furniture boutiques and specialty stores selling graphic novels, records, buttons, blown glass—the list goes on. The set of angled commercial streets is interspersed with more industrial businesses, too, like fish wholesalers and tire stores. And it has even more creative forms of commerce: In the back of some of the lots, there’s a “trailer park” with retro Airstreams selling barbeque and crafts.
Most of this has happened over the last ten years, since the adoption of a neighborhood plan focused on fostering the arts and design economy, acquiring and improving community spaces, deterring crime, bettering code enforcement and permit processing, and preserving affordable housing. Now, it’s gained critical mass to the point a person where with a limited housing budget who still wants all the amenities of urban life could easily consider living there (the New York Times even noticed in 2008). A certain kind of person clearly loves it: My barista sported a T-shirt that read “I [heart] Georgetown,” with a spurting aorta coming out of the left and right ventricle.
Walking the streets of Georgetown, though, I wasn’t reminded so much of H Street’s present as I was of Anacostia’s potential future. Like Georgetown, it sometimes feels far away and hard to get to (Anacostia’s actually closer, with a metro stop). They’re both blessed with atmospheric historic building stock, and were bustling town centers before their decline.
Anacostia will need to be rebuilt much more substantially, since few of those warehouses are intact. The economic base, too, will have to come back, hopefully in the form of tech businesses attracted by the new Department of Homeland Security. And of course, thus far Anacostia’s seen its share of failures—-Big Chair Coffee was supposed to anchor a new commercial cluster, before it closed. (Uniontown Bar has a chance to do so again.)
But with both of these town centers, revitalization isn’t a matter of creating something new, so much as it’s a matter of bringing something back. As long as you have the bones of a great place, there’s still a chance for people to follow.