Dupont Straightens While Shaw Springs a Rainbow
As happens with most great city neighborhoods, the decline of Dupont Circle has been a source of lamentations pretty much since the dawn of time. I last wrote about the shift in Dupont away from its funky 1970s roots a few years ago (see column on the jump), when retail changes and real estate realities were combining to turn the neighborhood into a blander, more suburban mix of shops, surrounded by high-priced townhouses whose residents had little connection to the bongo players, pot dealers, chess hustlers and sex cruisers still clinging to their spot on the Circle itself.
Now the Associated Press is noting similar changes that have come to once-heavily gay neighborhoods such as the Castro in San Francisco and the West Village in New York. A Post story last year documented the changes in Dupont.
And a gay real estate firm has put out a list of emerging gay neighborhoods around the country--the new Duponts and Castros--including Washington's Shaw section. Given all the identity battles in Shaw in recent years, it would be stretching the facts to declare Shaw a gay neighborhood, but it is true that quite a number of the new retail establishments that have been popping up in Shaw are gay-oriented or gay-owned. And as cultural economist Richard Florida says, it is the creative class, often led by gay pioneers, that provides the intellectual energy to transform urban neighborhoods.
It's not yet clear what Shaw will become. The neighborhood remains home to a large black population that has been there for three generations or more, and while the area's black churches now cater to a mostly suburban congregation, the churches remain large property owners and influential forces in the community. But probably that's the wrong question to ask. The story of Washington neighborhoods is their ever-shifting qualities and characteristics, and any moment's snapshot is subject to constant change. In ten or twenty years, some other section of town will be declared the New Shaw and we'll get a slew of reminiscences about how rich and exciting it was to be in Shaw back when it was the real thing.
(Fisher column from May 2, 2002)
In Dupont Circle, Paul Kafka-Gibbons writes in his novel of that name, "poor meets rich, old meets young, gay meets straight, native meets new arrival, and the peoples, styles and languages all squish together to form America."
In "Dupont Circle," a gay couple finds a life of surpassing acceptance in this place that ranks with New York's Chelsea and Los Angeles' West Hollywood as neighborhoods that gays have defined as their sanctuary and transformed into a magnet for others who cherish a vibrant, tolerant urban mix.
But what if Dupont Circle isn't a gay neighborhood anymore? The Washington Blade, the gay weekly, asked that provocative question recently and mounted fairly persuasive arguments: Census data indicate that nearly three of every four same-sex couples in the city live outside the Dupont area. Apartment buildings that were once almost entirely gay are now largely occupied by straight people. New gay businesses are popping up not along Connecticut Avenue or long-since gentrified side streets, but a neighborhood or two away, east of 14th Street in rapidly changing sections.
To read the Blade story was to hear the resentment and nostalgia that overcome any group that finds its home changing: One gay Dupont Circle resident was quoted saying that "Nothing is worse than a bunch of straight girls walking down the street screaming at 3 in the morning. As more straight couples come in and there are fewer and fewer gay people in the area . . . you start to feel like it's not your neighborhood anymore."
I can't count the number of changing neighborhood stories I've written over the years in which that line slipped out of the mouths of Italians, blacks, Jews, Cubans, WASPs -- and now gays.
The de-homosexualization of Dupont is neither total nor speedy. In fact, plenty of people believe, like Kafka-Gibbons, that "gay life is alive and well in Dupont Circle." Certainly, it remains the cultural and spiritual heart of the region's gay community, from the Lambda Rising bookstore, owned by Deacon Maccubbin, a pioneer in Washington gay history, to any number of gay-oriented clubs, eateries and shops.
Dupont accepted its gay residents long before activists from the Gay Liberation Front joined with other leftists to make the area a hotbed of political change in the early '70s. Books such as "Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life" depict Dupont in the 1920s as a place where gays gathered relatively easily at places like the Krazy Kat, a hangout for "artists, musicians, atheists, professors."
But Dupont is changing: Witness the arrival of an Ann Taylor Loft shop, the loss of Mystery Books and several other old institutions, the creeping feeling that Dupont is being "malled" like so many other neighborhoods. "D.C. has gotten a little less funky," says Kafka-Gibbons, who grew up here but now lives in Massachusetts, "but then, hasn't gay life gotten a little less funky, too? As gay culture becomes more mainstream, the ghettos open up. People live wherever."
You're more likely to see law clerks and office workers in the Circle most evenings than bongo players and pot dealers. But itinerant preachers drop in seeking souls, and bike messengers, chess hustlers and sex cruisers still gravitate to the Circle. Last summer, the Madison Lovelystones, a versatile brass band with a rollicking sound, drew nightly crowds that rivaled the gatherings of a generation ago.
Dupont may seem less gay, but the change is as much economic as demographic, says longtime resident Barrett Brick. "I worry about the Starbuckization of Dupont or any other neighborhood," he says, "but I'd worry even if Starbucks were 100 percent gay-owned, -operated and -patronized."
Brick says what's happening is not so much a transfer of gay life out of Dupont as an expansion into other areas, "as people and businesses look for more square feet for their buck. If there are forces moving gay residents and businesses from neighborhood to neighborhood, I think they are economic, and that's okay. If the forces were homophobic, I'd worry and want to do something about it, but I don't think that they are. I prefer mixed neighborhoods and quiet neighborhoods to come home to," and that, too, is what we always hear in these stories of change in the city.
By Marc Fisher |
April 27, 2007; 7:31 AM ET
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