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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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Some, hell most, of the changes in Dupont are good things. I remember, in the early 80's, going to Dupont to score drugs. Seeing the used condoms on the ground next to the used hypodermic needles. The bars where they never carded. A level of potential trouble that felt only slightly less (because more white?) than southeast's.

Oh yeah, those were the good old days.

Posted by: anon | April 27, 2007 8:32 AM

But before Dupont was a gay enclave it was hippie headquarters for DC. I know, because I lived there in the late 60s while going to AU. Back then, Dupont offered funky, cheap dining in places like Rand's Cafeteria and the Greek Village, the best record store in town, Discount Records and Books, and a natural gathering place for the stoned in the Circle itself. And I think my girlfriend and I paid $150 per month for a quite decent 3rd floor apartment on Riggs Place.

It seems like Dupont hung in a long time before becoming suburbanized--Georgetown, where I worked in the 70s and early 80s, was given over to the Gap and Restoration Hardware style retailers years ago.

Posted by: Jack | April 27, 2007 8:34 AM

I had a bet with my office mate as to how soon Marc would use the word vibrant to describe urban life. I lost. He waited til the sixth graph. Stunningly unpredictable!

Posted by: Give it a rest | April 27, 2007 9:42 AM

Neighborhoods change. Who was it that said "You can never go home again"? Whether it's gay, black, white, latino, urban, suburban, or whatever, nothing is written in stone. And who wants it that way anyway? And who has the right to claim their neighborhood for their subgroup and seek to exclude all others?

Posted by: A | April 27, 2007 9:46 AM

"The neighborhood remains home to a large black population that has been there for three generations or more"

Marc, with that comment you perpetuate a false and harmful stereotype, that Shaw is comprised of black long-timers and white interlopers. Yes, it's true that Shaw is majority black. Yes, it's been true for 50 years. But the reality is that Shaw is a diverse and highly transitory neighborhood and has been for a long time. The latest census showed that about 55% of the people in Shaw had been at their current address for less than five years, which was pretty much true in every census of the 20th century. What the census also shows is that over the past 50 years the makeup of Shaw has neatly mirrored the city as a whole -- majority black, yes, but with plenty of other ethnic groups represented. This is true of both new and old residents.

Posted by: Shaw | April 27, 2007 9:47 AM

With regard to the quote from "The Blade" why is that many gay people would never dream of making a racist comment, but they have no qualms about making derogatory comments about people who are straight.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | April 27, 2007 9:57 AM

We bought in Bloomingdale, just east of Shaw by a few blocks down Rhode Island and when we were looking at the neighborhood one of the things we saw was a rainbow flag and that excited us because we knew that was a good sign of development on its way.

Add that to the dozen houses with permits in windows and a new retailer opening up every few months and it is an exciting time to be in this part of the city.

Now, if we could just get some decent restaurants on Rhode Island that go East of 12th St NW and North of Flordia Ave, we'd be all set!!

To restauranteurs -- there are several unused spots up around 1st and 2nd Sts NW that would be great corner spots for small restaurants with a patio!!

Posted by: New homeowner | April 27, 2007 10:03 AM

It still never ceases to amaze me that popular opinion says cities can't be "normal." They have to be "edgy" or "artsy" for some reason and people get upset and call them "suburban" when they aren't. European cities are filled with normality because most people live in cities there, but it's not boring because it's still urban. American cities were the same before 1950. What's great about urban neighborhoods (in contrast to sprawl) is that they can be both economically successful and vibrant and interesting at the same time.

If city dwellers believe cities are a great way of life, shouldn't we be happy that the paradigm is shifting and it's becoming normal to live in the city? And shouldn't we be happy that it's now normal enough to be gay that we don't have to live in "gay ghettos" to feel comfortable?

While I agree we need to proceed with caution to ensure our neighborhoods retain affordable housing and don't exclude people, it puts a smile on my face to see many former suburbanites who shunned cities as "dirty" and "dangerous" now giving up their SUVs and moving to intensely urban neighborhoods.

Posted by: Lee | April 27, 2007 10:51 AM

Don't tell anyone that it's really Columbia Heights where they're all moving.

Posted by: Shhh!! | April 27, 2007 10:58 AM

This article is amusing. I just want to know, as a gay guy, why it matters so much what the gay community is doing in making its living choices? I suppose it is an antiquated notion that a gay ghetto is our only option.

Answering Adams Morgan, I don't think it's so much that gay people are derogatory toward straight people in "their" neighborhoods, as gay people lamenting the loss of neighborhood identity that was much more necessary in our culture 20-30 years ago when it was much easier to be in proximity to each other as GLBT people than face the rampant ugliness and unwelcoming attitudes that prevailed in most places. These enclaves are not as necessary as they used to be. That's one reason why gay areas in cities seem to be "declining". They are just not as necessary for our lives and community.

I will say one thing though--we certainly still enjoy and excel at finding golden oppotunities in run-down neighborhoods to renovate and renew with a fabulous streak. We just can't help it--it's part of what we do. So, I hope even though we may not concentrate ourselves as densely in the future, that we do not lose our sense of pioneering renewal in the cities we love.

Posted by: Doug in Mount Vernon | April 27, 2007 11:20 AM

Three quarters of gays in Washington don't live in Dupont, eh? If the metropolitan area - which now has about five million people - is 3.5 percent gay, that means there are 175,000 gay people around. One-fourth of those is 44,000 people. If Dupont is just 16-23rd between P and V that means there are 1000 gay people living on each block in Dupont. That's a lot of gays for so few decent restaurants. I think the census reponses are pretty biased on that question, and out couples, of the kind that live in Dupont, account for a disproportionate share.

I doubt Dupont was ever as residentially gay as people seem to think - when I lived there 15 years ago it was synonymous with homosexuality, but I was the only gay guy on the floor of my (cheap) apartment building. Maybe it's sad to see this change, but Dupont is a nice place to raise a Labrador Retriever now, so the gays' work is done. Like Mary Poppins, they're moving on to new challenges.

Posted by: Jim WDC | April 27, 2007 11:32 AM

Marks spends a lot of time complaining bout "sprawl" and "blandness" in the suburbs and longing for revitalization in the city.

Now that the revitalization has come, Mark complains that the area is becoming "suburbanized". Go figure.

Typical DC resistance to change.

Posted by: CEEAF | April 27, 2007 11:37 AM

People have a right to put down roots. The tone of this and similar columns worries me -- as though the value of a community lay in its churn. Regardless of who moves to Shaw, is anyone trying to create affordable home ownership opportunities for longtime residents who rent?

Posted by: catbird500 | April 27, 2007 11:43 AM

Who says a neighborhood can't be multifaceted? Shaw, with its uppity Black Church folk and finicky White gays moving in next door might make a good setting for a TV Sitcom. I can see Sherman Helmsley arguing with Bruce Vilanche over the backyard fence now!

Posted by: amen-rainbow | April 27, 2007 1:27 PM

To "Jim WDC":

Your argument is flawed -- it's not 3/4 of the total gay population, but rather 3/4 of the "same-sex couples". There are a lot more gay men NOT living in a committed relationship with a significant other (i.e. those who would show up as a "couple" in census data) than there are co-habitating. Accordingly, the numbers you quote are highly inflated.

Posted by: DC | April 27, 2007 2:06 PM

So, precisely what IS IT that makes Dupont gay, Mr. Fisher?

Of the things you mentioned, such as bongo players, pot dealers, chess hustlers and sex cruisers, I am none of these. I shop at Ann Taylor, never read mystery books, and have NEVER been funky. I'm an "office worker"; not a bike messenger, or one of those chess hustlers or sex cruisers, that you needed to mention multiple times (therefore, I will as well).

Oh, and I like Starbucks. Vente Caramel Machiatto, please.

So what does that make me? Certainly not stereotyped.

Shame on you, Mr. Fisher, for seeing that the gay/lesbian culture is NOT a sore thumb that stands out from that which may be perfectly manicured.

A Perfectly Manicured Dupont Circle Homo

Posted by: gay in dupont | April 27, 2007 2:19 PM

Before we all trash Marc, it's worth noting that he's been very gay-friendly in the past.

A lot of young gays are moving to the H Street NE area, particularly north of H.

And of course lesbians have called Takoma Park home for decades now (yes, lesbians are gay people too).

I'm as gay as a fanny pack strapped to a closeted Evangelical minister's butt, but I chose not to live in Dupont because I found 17th St, the gay epicenter, to be dirty, rundown, and depressing. I wouldn't mind a bit of less gay restaurants took over there.

And some is a matter of age. A lot of older gays live on Capitol Hill. It's a very accepting neighborhood, but it's not filled with twink bars and such.

As others have pointed out it's the homogenization of DC that's more telling.

Yes, we all love the idea of funky stores and shops.

But, honestly, so many of those in DC have gotten by for years because they had no competition. I can't tell you how many funky little places in DC have given me stunningly surly service, cheap and filthy environments, and overpriced food or services for decades.

So before we lament the death of funk, we should remember that sometimes it ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Posted by: Hillman | April 27, 2007 2:33 PM

But to be true to the Shaw version of the Sherman Helmsley and Bruce Vilanche Variety Hour you'd have to start with the premise that Sherman is in church every Sunday preaching that Bruce should be treated as a second class citizen, and you need to include entire episodes showing Sherman going before various city agencies to deny liquor licenses for Bruce's favorite restaurants.

Posted by: Hillman | April 27, 2007 2:36 PM

Mr. Fisher:You are an idiot and so am I for wasting my time reading your story.

Posted by: Straight in Dupont | April 27, 2007 2:39 PM

I should amend my last post. Those anti-gay bigots in some Shaw churches are not representative of the entire neighborhood. They are a small but vocal group, as most hate groups are. Many longtime Shaw residents, both black and white, have been quite accepting of newcomers of all types, including the gay ones.

Posted by: Hillman | April 27, 2007 2:41 PM

gay in dupont,

It's not that gay people are funky, it's that the gay community has a history of inhabiting under-appreciated neighborhoods and revitalizing them. These neighborhoods end up attracting other people with non-traditional lifestyles (both gay and straight) who increasingly infuse the neighborhood with a "funky", artsy, culturally progressive vibe. Eventually this "intellectual energy" (as Marc calls it) attracts more mainstream residents and businesses, and the neighborhood gentrifies, transitioning from culturally interesting to status quo. No value judgement, but it is what it is.

As Marc mentioned, this pattern happens over and over again all across the country in neighborhoods like Dupont, the Castro, the West Village, etc. So no need to throw a hissy fit.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 27, 2007 2:51 PM

Hillman: You are right, That Shaw sitcom might turn into an episode of "Lost" or "24" :-(

Posted by: amen-rainbow | April 27, 2007 3:18 PM

Dear responder, you are right that gay people are not necessarily funky, etc. That may be the only point you understood in my posting.

Mr. Fisher's article seems to dwell on the fact that since Dupont Circle is becoming more "status quo", as you put it, it is becoming less gay. What, Mr. Fisher, is gay?

I, for one, do not fit in a box. Or perhaps, a circle, in this instance.

Posted by: gay in dupont | April 27, 2007 3:21 PM

I love amen-rainbow. Does he know that Sherman Hemsley himself was on "our" side?

He wasn't straight but he played one on TV.

Posted by: sitcom irony | April 27, 2007 6:26 PM

"With regard to the quote from "The Blade" why is that many gay people would never dream of making a racist comment, but they have no qualms about making derogatory comments about people who are straight."

-Maybe thats because its so acceptable for straights to say such bad things about gays???? One plays off the other.

Posted by: Joe | April 28, 2007 9:59 AM

Pretty much the worst I've ever seen from gays is a snide comment or two about straight people. By comparison, straight people have killed gays for being gay, have driven them from their homes and jobs, and have made life a living hell for them. Obviously not all straights do this, but for straight people to complain about perceived slights from gays is to ignore thousands of years of straight people demonizing and on occasion actually killing gay people.

So I'll make you a deal. I'll take my fellow gays to task for the occasional snarky remark about gays right after all straights take other straights to task for demonizing us and making our lives more difficult literally every day.

Posted by: Hillman | April 28, 2007 2:27 PM


"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."

We now have a nomenclature for these loud straight girls who wander our former gayborhoods. We call them the "beckys", and Dupont Circle has become "Beckystan."

Posted by: Anonymous | April 30, 2007 4:22 PM

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