(Darrow Montgomery)

When you hear “Georgetown,” what jumps to mind?

Polo shirts and loafers? Barney’s and Benetton? Spray tans and exotic accents?

Now try a harder one: If Georgetown were an animal, what animal would it be? Or color?

Those are the types of (sometimes inscrutable) questions a group of Georgetowners have been prodded with over the last few months, in an attempt to redefine the neighborhood’s “brand”—what it is that makes the place unique, and how it ought to be marketed. In April, the Georgetown Business Improvement District commissioned a study by the Arlington-based Roan Group, which has interviewed about 50 people from the neighborhood and is now researching the typical customer.

Firm principal Neil Archer Roan declined to speak on the record while the study was ongoing, lest public details about the process disturb the results. But his website has the gist. “Think for a moment about how you choose a leader, a spouse, or a close friend,” it reads. “You want to know who this person is, but it’s just as important for you to know that they know—in the deepest sense—who they are.”

Neighborhood branding, of course, isn’t new. It’s given us NoMa, the Capitol Riverfront, MidCity, and the H Street Corridor. All of those, however, are almost entirely new, or at least newly named; incomplete, if not entirely blank, canvases on which to work.

But Georgetown, the District’s oldest neighborhood? What could it possibly gain from a branding campaign? With the explosive growth of upscale locales like Penn Quarter and Chevy Chase, has Georgetown lost its It-ness?

“No, not at all,” says James Bracco, head of the Georgetown BID. “I think it’s really more, what is that ‘that’ you’re talking about.”

The effort has been met with some confusion. “I’m not sure why they’re doing it,” says Citizens’ Association of Georgetown President Jennifer Altemus, who was interviewed by the consultants. “It was like playing word games, and then they gave me a gift certificate to Baked & Wired,” added local blogger Carol Joynt, who until last year owned the iconic and now-closed restaurant Nathan’s.

But the campaign has also prompted yet another round of introspection for a neighborhood that periodically frets over its place in the world—as the kind of place where the Kennedys lived and where foreign royalty come to shop, but also as a quiet town center that caters to its community’s needs first. In the 1990s, residents and businesses launched campaigns against the wild teens and gangs that were driving away high-end customers. In the 2000s, they worried national chains were taking over, despoiling their unique retail landscape.

“If you talk with folks who’ve been here 25, 30 years, they can tell you quite a bit about how the neighborhood has evolved, about the way it used to be,” Bracco says. “The way it used to be was great. I think in their minds, maybe that’s how they’d like it to be. This really used to be a nice little village. And I think a lot of that’s probably changed.”

There has been something of a retail shakeup over the last year, with the BID counting a total loss of 35 stores in 2009, out of about 500 total. Those without the benefit of a sympathetic landlord were especially vulnerable—that’s what claimed the Italian suit purveyor Riccardi’s, a symbol of the old Georgetown that will be closing soon after 15 years on M Street NW and 15 years on Wisconsin Avenue before that. Between buzzing around customers trying to offload inventory one recent Friday afternoon—cutting $7,500 Brioni suits down 70 percent—owner Alex Brown complains that the building’s wealthy, absentee owners were demanding $140 per square foot, which he says prompted the neighboring Body Shop and Richey & Co. Shoes to leave as well (the building’s realtor says they are only asking $100.25).

“The reason people are not shopping, to be honest with you, is because they are not sure about tomorrow,” Brown says. “You buy the future. These guys, the landlords, they can’t wait. They want the money yesterday.”

But Brown’s departure isn’t the whole story of Georgetown in 2010. The rash of empty storefronts on the main commercial corridors is somewhat misleading—local broker John Asadoorian says all but one that he knows of are actually leased. (A few examples: Brooks Brothers is replacing Pottery Barn; Madewell replacing Puma; the New York-based dessert restaurant Serendipity 3 taking Nathans’ old corner spot; UGGs replacing Diesel; Crate & Barrel and Calvin Klein Underwear circling around as-yet-unannounced spaces). In all, the BID is anticipating a net gain of 18 stores this year. Sure, many of those are national retailers, but there’s a healthy smattering of new independents as well.

All of which makes the urgent need to more clearly communicate Georgetown’s “essence” a little puzzling. The neighborhood certainly isn’t the center of D.C.’s nightlife world anymore; the types of clubs and bars that thrived there 20 or 30 years ago, when places like U Street NW, 14th Street NW and H Street NE were considered risky bets, have long since moved east. But it’s not exactly empty on Friday and Saturday nights, either. And during the day, it’s still a tourist’s second stop, after the monuments and the White House. It’s unclear whether Georgetown actually needs a reinvention to succeed commercially—or whether the folks who live there, sensing change all around them, have just gone into a defensive crouch.

One part of the neighborhood that definitely does need a rescue, at this point, is the Shops at Georgetown Park mall—the 300,000-square-foot interior space at the prime intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street that sits half empty, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. The property has been in legal limbo for a decade, as EastBanc’s Anthony Lanier fought for years for the right to buy it from owner Western Development, which defaulted on its loan earlier this year. Last month, New York-based Angelo, Gordon & Co. bought the note for $61 million, and brought in real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle to manage and reposition the aging mall.

But they’ve been tight-lipped about how that will happen. When the elaborate retail palace opened in 1981, it pulled in dozens of stores that relocated from nearby sidewalks—which, in turn, brought the incongruous souvenir shops that still eke out a living in the new commercial landscape to M Street, replacing the shops that moved into the mall. In the 1980s, busloads of Japanese tourists used to pull up to the mall, unload en masse to shop, pile back in the bus, and leave.

Now, though, local landlord Richard Levy estimates the building needs to spend more than it’s even worth on deferred maintenance. A big anchor retailer like Bloomingdale’s, which was put off by the ongoing litigation, may not be willing to pay the kind of rents that would pay that back quickly. And perhaps more importantly, a huge indoor mall, in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood, is out of step with what shoppers want.

“It’s going to take a vision, the likes of which I have not heard—and I’ve heard them all,” Levy says (Lanier, for example, had wanted to tear the roof off and make it an open-air shopping area). “It’s an old facility that doesn’t resonate. Its Victorian architecture doesn’t grab people today. People want to be in a real place, in a street. The rebirth of street retail is what we’ve been seeing really since the restart of [New York City’s] SoHo in the mid-’70s, and that’s what’s benefited Georgetown.”

Within the catacombs of the dark, quiet mall—its vacancies artfully disguised by displays for other stores—a few merchants hang on, waiting out the storm above their heads. While the inability to get long-term leases creates a sense of insecurity, the rents are low enough to make a Georgetown address worth it.

Merchants aren’t sure, however, that a branding campaign will do much. It’s really the basics: Affordable parking, for example, and more signs to help people find their way around.

“Small things, it will really make people enjoy to be here,” says women’s designer Moheb Hafiz, surrounded by scraps of colorful fabric. He won’t say business has been better since he relocated from Las Vegas two years ago, but Hafiz radiates optimism nonetheless. After all, he’s in Georgetown. And he knows what its identity is.

“This is the soul of the nation, and the world, really,” he says. “I really love this mall. It would be sad to see it die.”