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Transitional Urbanity

Now that I’m back home and settled into my improper Bostonian life again, I can write more about what I did in (and what I thought of) Washington, DC. Upon my arrival on Friday night (later than expected, thank you American Airlines), Chris and I took the subway to his neighborhood and had dinner at a place called Duke’s City, in the “up-and-coming” U-Street neighborhood. Then we hopped in his Barbie Dream Car (VW Cabrio) and he gave me the overall driving tour of DC: from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, from the SE quadrant to Dupont Circle – and everything in between (the mall, etc…) Oh, and Will, although we drove by Wet and Edge, we never ventured inside the clubs. Heck, just driving by those places made me want to check myself for for crab lice.

On Saturday, we headed to Georgetown for a day of stolling, shopping and eating. Of all neighborhoods, this was my favorite visually. Although the main shopping thoroughfares of M and Wisconsin Street’s provided for some great shopping, it was so clean and crisp that it felt like a Disneyfied movie set as opposed to a real historic old place. However, I was loving the surrounding residential streets – just chock full of charm and beauty. Matt’s upset that I didn’t seek out the Exorcist house. Next time.

That night, we went to dinner at a place called the Duplex (I think just outside of the Dupon Circle neighborhood). The food was good, the atmosphere cruisy and we had a nice walk back to his place. One thing I find interesting in Washington, DC is the zoning. In Boston (and most larger cities) you’ve got lengthy shopping and dining streets/districts (Newbury Street, Charles Street, Hanover Street, Boylston Street, etc…). In Washington, DC you’ll have a few blocks of bustling businesses and then 4 or 5 blocks of utter desertedness (and frequently abandoned buildings). But just as quickly, the restaurants will start popping up again. Interesting.

After dinner, we rested up before heading out to the DC Eagle. The place was PACKED. It was MAL Weekend (Mid-Atlantic Leather) so the city was crawling with men out for a good time. The bar was so packed that they did something I’d never heard before – they stopped the music and the DJ starting laying out ground rules for the crowds: keep moving to maintain circulation within the bar, no harrassing bartenders, etc…) It was a fascinating crowd to watch (the voyeur in me, of course) and the bar was huge (two full floors). It puts Boston’s Eagle to shame (well, Boston’s Eagle is like no other…and not in a good way). As I think I mentioned in a previous posting, one of DC’s weekly papers asked if we wouldn’t mind being photographed for the paper. We obliged and are hoping that we appear in the issue that comes out tomorrow. I’ve asked Chris to send me a copy.

On Sunday, we walked to Hamburger Mary’s for brunch. I believe that would be the Logan Circle neighborhood (and is where I took the picture I posted yesterday). We then went to the Washington Plaza Hotel to browse the MAL exhibitors displays. That night, we returned to Georgetown for pizza at Chris’ favorite restaurant. Although Chris had other plans for us that night, I was so exhausted that I ended up falling asleep instead.

Finally, on Monday, we decided to take in some culture. After lunch in Capitol Hill, we went to the Holocaust Museum. At first we were a bit confused as to the layout (it helps to read signs), but once we got into the swing of things I was fascinated. The most stirring image for me was a close-up of the face of a young girl (maybe 3 years old) crying. I got choked up at that alone. But when I got to the end of the wall, it indicated that she had been killed just days later. ugh.

After the museum, we walked through the mall, observing the Washington Monument on our left and the Capitol on the right (partially obstructed by tents and barricades for tomorrow’s inauguration) and then into downtown. We almost detoured two blocks to the left to see the White House, but it was chilly, I was tired and I had a plane to catch.

And that was my trip.

My overall observations of the city are that it has a large gay community. I’ve heard that it was a snobby/elitist crowd, but I didn’t pick up on that at all (at the Eagle, on the streets, or in the restaurants). Everybody seemed nice and friendly. Chris suspects that it’s because none of them were natives since it was Leather Weekend. But the people seemed the same as Boston people to me (then again, Bostonians have a similar reputation).

I also wasn’t as impressed with the architectures as I’d thought. I loved the look and feel of Georgetown, but was unimpressed with the parts of the city that I thought would impress me most – the Mall. I was anticipating to feel overwhelmed and filled with awe at the monumentality of the mall and its surrounding buildings. But it just felt too open to me. Of course, certain individual buildings were impressive (I do wish I saw the Lincoln Memorial more closely), but the overall scale to me wasn’t what I expected. Maybe if the buildings were taller (not necessarily sky scrapers, but maybe in the 8-12 story rage) it would have created a better street wall. It probably didn’t help that there were tents, barricades and bleachers all over the place.

As for the rest of the city (well, the Northeast quadrant) there were pockets of great neighborhoods – some reminded me of Boston, others of Philadelphia, a few even of New York. But it fascinated me that you could go from one block of stately 4 story, bow-fronted, red brick rowhouses to the next block of 2 story, flat-fronted painted apartments. It also appeared that every single block had at least one abandoned, burned-out building…or even an empty lot of land between other buildings (we also stumbled upon entire blocks that were like that). However, it seems like the whole city is in a period of transition as entire blocks are being destroyed and re-built with luxury condos and townhomes. In Chris’ U-Street neighborhood alone you can’t see a single street corner that doesn’t have a building under construction. I just hope they don’t learn from Boston’s urban renewal mistakes in the process. Based on the “improvements” I saw along Pennsylvania Avenue in Capitol Hill, I can’t say I’m impressed. For the heart of the city, that area felt like great-outer suburbia – with short buildings and wide, wind-swept boulevards (the side-streets were better, though).

All in all, I plan on going back. The people were nice, the food was good, the nightlife was fun. But next time, I want to explore more of the museums and maybe the outlying areas.


  1. Comment by Will on January 19, 2005 12:52 pm

    Crab lice. Ouch! Karl, you sure know how to hurt a guy who makes an “innocent” suggestion to see the male strippers in DC! 🙂

    Welcome back, and glad you had a good time.

  2. Comment by John on January 19, 2005 4:48 pm

    If you think it’s transitional now you should have seen it in the 90s. 14th St NW is pretty much unrecognizable if you knew it back then.

    The L’Enfant street plan is a mixed blessing. The avenues are WIDE, so on places like Pennsylvania Ave near Eastern Market they’re so big that the neighborhood feels a bit disjointed. What you observed about big apartment buildings was actually one of this first things that struck me when I moved there from Boston – that’s something you see very little of in Boston.

    I’m not sure what improvements you mean on Cap Hill (there’s been very little major construction over there). Once you get off Pennsylvania Avenue, though, I find that neighborhood to be incredibly reminscent of the South End in Boston – the architecture isn’t as uniform, but the overall feel is the same, including the mix of lots of residential and barely enough retail and restaurant space to keep the locals happy.

    It’s definitely not as pretty as Boston. I think it does have a lot more urban energy to it; as much as I loved Boston it always felt very static to me and moving to DC was very refreshing in that respect. I used to tell people there that the South End, except that in the SOuth End instead of going out to eat and shop and be in public, people sit in their condos and watch them appreciate.

  3. Comment by chrispy on January 19, 2005 11:17 pm

    i think the “improvements” on capitol hill karl is referring to is the now-closed McDonalds on pennsylvania ave.

    upon rising from the ground on the escalator at eastern market, karl comments (slowly):

    “wow….its so….(obviously thinking of an appropriate word)…..OPEN.”

  4. Comment by chrispy on January 19, 2005 11:23 pm

    maybe you should start a new blog, one that focuses on Urbanism…comparing and contrasting what works and what doesnt in urban planning.

    i mean, you are a trained architect, right?

  5. Comment by Karl on January 20, 2005 3:33 pm

    Well, I’m not so much voiced in quality urban planning as I am opinionated.

    As for training, bah humbug. I’m much happier having nothing to do professionally with design or architecture.

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