Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Gentrification in Logan Circle: Wonderful--or Something Else?

The Washington Post published a front page story recently, Gentrification inOverdrive on 14th Street, which took a look at some of the changes witnessed in recent years to 14th Street NW.

As someone who lived in the middle of the 14th Street "renaissance" for five years, and who blogged about it throughout much of that time, this is a topic I maintain a great deal of interest in and have continued to follow closely, even after my wife and I decamped to the suburbs in September 2011. My feelings are that while 14th Street and Logan Circle have developed into a premier destination in the city, and that there is much to celebrate about that, as a livable neighborhood it can feel lacking.
A Rapid Transformation

I work just a few blocks west of 14th Street, and venture over there occasionally. What I find is a neighborhood that, in less than two years' time, has been transformed to a point where even I barely recognize it--and I speak as someone who followed the changes along 14th Street closely, was on a first-name basis with many 14th Street business owners while I lived there, and felt as if I knew every building and block by heart.

What I see occurring along 14th Street now is something that could scarcely even call "gentrification." Gentrification occurred some time ago on 14th Street; what I see taking place now is a transition towards an ever-more-exclusive neighborhood that increasingly feels out of reach for many.

The admittedly sensitive topic of "gentrification" came up in roundabout ways numerous times during my 14th Street blogging days. Commenters would bemoan the loss of the supposed "character" of old 14th Street with the opening of every new wine bar or high-end furniture store. Escalating housing costs and businesses that were increasingly perceived to cater to a certain demographic (often white, always wealthy) led to a great amount of suspicion. And even many of us who didn't regard every restaurant opening with skepticism, such as myself, still questioned in what direction the neighborhood was headed, and who stood to benefit.

As evidenced by the skyrocketing real estate prices and the nature of the businesses flooding into the corridor, I now feel that we have an answer to those questions. And if you aren't in a position to afford a $900,000 condo, you probably aren't going to like those answers.
It's Better...But Is It 'Wonderful?'

It's a given that a city needs revenue in order to provide services to its citizens. Inhabited, maintained, tax revenue-generating properties are a positive for the city. And when the businesses that fill properties along commercial corridors succeed, they not only put revenue in the city's coffers, they incite more businesses to open and help to cultivate an energy and vitality that many seek via city living. Ideally, you have a win-win situation: a more bustling, energetic city that is providing more and better-quality services to its residents.

That certainly seems to be the position of Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, who is quoted in the Post article as saying, “What is going on on 14th Street is fascinating, anomalous and wonderful for the city." Fascinating, yes. Anomalous, perhaps. Wonderful? Well that depends on who you ask, and who you are.

You won't find many who clamor for the conditions of the "old" 14th Street, or at least not the social ills that plagued it and surrounding streets throughout much of the latter-half of the 20th century. I have family members who lived along the corridor in the mid-80s who can regale you with stories of the drug transactions, prostitution and other activities that took place just outside their front door. The corridor was woefully underdeveloped, a victim of the flight out of the city that began in the late 1950s and reached its zenith immediately following the 1968 riots. In that respect, there's little argument that 14th Street is in a better place today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

But there is no shortage of people who clamor for a more connected and sustainable neighborhood, one more accessible to a broader array of people where there's a greater likelihood that many of its residents will be able to put down roots and make a long-term investment in its improvement. A significant reason why 14th Street was able to turn around and become a desirable address was due to the tireless work of many residents who moved there during the 70s, 80s and 90s—and remained. There were no million-dollar penthouse condos there then, and that was part of its appeal. But at some point the prices started rising, and haven't stopped since.
From Stability To Unaffordability

For many people, there didn't seem to be much of an "in between" stage for 14th Street and Logan Circle. The neighborhood never really seemed to strike that balance between offering stability and a good quality of life with affordability and approachability. It seemed to vault between two extremes over a relatively short period of time. The change that took place along 14th Street was drastic, and whenever change occurs that quickly, there will be people who were able to "get in" and are largely satisfied, and there will be people who find themselves shut out.

My wife and I found ourselves in the latter category. After living in a one bedroom Logan Circle apartment for five years, we determined that, in addition to needing to provide my wife with a saner commute to her Montgomery County employer, we had tired of running into each other and simply needed more space. We would have preferred to remain in Logan had we been able to, but aside from a handful of two bedroom apartments and condos that were approximately the size of (or smaller than) our one bedroom home, we found ourselves largely priced out of the market. A $600-$700,000 "luxury" condo, with its associated condo fees and taxes, was simply beyond reach.

But my evolving feelings about my old neighborhood aren't influenced simply by my own experiences while living there. They're also influenced by what has happened there since we left. The types of businesses that have continued to move into the neighborhood--posh eateries and bars, furniture stores selling $6,000 sofas, boutiques selling $100 pairs of yoga pants—are good at attracting young, moneyed visitors to the neighborhood, but aren't necessarily the kinds of businesses that serve the daily needs of the neighborhood's residents. How many times a week, for example, are you going to drop $80 or $100 on dinner? How many $15 cocktails will you consume? How many $2,000 chairs will you purchase?

Beyond the upscale boutiques and restaurants, and the neighborhood's overall shift in commercial character, lies an even greater issue: who is moving here for the long term? I certainly do not mean to suggest that there aren't many fine, committed residents in Logan Circle invested in the long-term betterment of their neighborhood. I know from firsthand experience that there are. But much of the new housing being built along and around 14th Street and featured in the Post story isn't being built with long-term inhabitance in mind. Many people can only live in a studio or cramped one bedroom apartment for so long. Eventually you couple off, have a child, or simply decide you need more room. Where to, then? With, as the Post notes, two bedroom condos in the neighborhood fetching close to $1 million, and houses garnering more, it's safe to assume that many will not remain.

How do you build a community with such a constant revolving door of residents? And what happens if you can't? They are questions Logan Circle residents will need to answer over the coming years and decades.
Trendy Destination = Good Neighborhood?
14th Street is a very popular destination, but as a neighborhood Logan Circle today can feel a bit hollow. Undoubtedly, there are many fun places to go, good drinks to be drunk and great food to be eaten. It's lively, it's safer, and it's generating a lot of money for the city. "Huzzah!" to all of that. But before we stamp it with a "wonderful" and seek to determine how we can emulate it in other D.C. neighborhoods, consider everything that it may not be: Affordable. Approachable. Sustainable. Economically diverse. And then ask yourself what the District would look like if every neighborhood developed along a similar path.

I recently took a stroll along 14th Street, past old haunts like Thaitanic, Great Wall and Pulp, and past new additions like Be Too, Black Whiskey, Ghibellina, Pearl Dive, and everyone's new favorite French brasserie, Le Diplomate. I felt some nostalgia for the street I walked along so many times, and I marveled at the frantic energy and the rapid pace of change that brought it to this point. And then I studied the people dining outside at 14th Street's many sidewalk cafes, and I wondered how many of them live in the neighborhood? How many could? How many would make it their home for 10, 20, 30 years? And how many simply view it as a playground of sorts, good for a night out or a stroll, but otherwise not a place they can—or care to—settle in?

Change is inevitable, and there are many things to enjoy about the "new" 14th Street. It's a great destination, and can be a fine place to live. But I'm not sure that everything's wonderful.


  1. Thanks for returning to the old hood and commenting on the enormous changes. Loved reading through the discussion following the posting on GGW. Best to you both

  2. Great article and perspective. My husband and I have lived at 14th and t for 3 years now and though we would like to put down roots, the neighborhood is morphing into something unexpected and disheartening. We love the house we rent but could never afford the $900K price tag to buy it. We can't walk down the street to eat out at any of the restaurants in a 6 block radius because they're all booked with ridiculous 2-3 hour wait times, even at off-peak hours. Our car, parked in front of our house, has been hit twice by folks who came in from Maryland to party and tried to drive home drunk. I love the independent stores like Pulp, Goodwood and Cork Market that I used to drive to from across town because I appreciate their service and character....I know they won't get lost i the shuffle, but I can't imagine that the new construction is encouraging to small independent businesses looking for a home. With the flock of cranes up and down the street and construction happening nonstop, it feels like we moved to another area overnight.

  3. Great post on gentrification. I'm glad that you were able to articulate it in way that transcends race as gentrification has seemed to morph into the newest form of racial segregation.

    I believe that this is the worry shared by many residents of these neighborhoods who are being essentially displaced for a fast buck and shiny lights. While they call it economic revitalization, its really a form of economic redistribution. There should be some way to protect the neighborhood from a historical standpoint, while at the same time revitalizing it. These two things should not have to be mutually exclusive.


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