Banana Republic Republic Georgetown

Darrow Montgomery

The history of Georgetown is the history of displacement. The Nacotchanke Indians were brushed aside to make way for a tobacco and slave port. The African-American community that thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries got the boot in several rounds of gentrification and decline. Three centuries on, aging denizens defend the fading kingdom of Katharine Graham-era Washington, now overshadowed by an overstuffed retail district and NIMBY homesteaders.

Even within the space of a day, the neighborhood’s feel undergoes a few makeovers, thanks to the various constituencies that rush in. Georgetown begins as a thoroughfare, with the early morning arrival of commuters stalling in angry lines of Beemers trying to get over the Key Bridge and onto M Street. The delivery trucks arrive next, destroying any hope of post-rush-hour calm. The moms roll in around the same time, pushing tricked-out strollers. At noon come the business lunchers, followed by the ladies who lunch. In the afternoon, shoppers swoop in.

In a city with a notoriously anorexic retail sector, shopping in Georgetown is like a bulimic binge. On sunny weekends after Memorial Day, walking down M Street can feel like standing in line at H&M. The crowds are diverse, and the options aren’t limited to J.Crew and Urban Outfitters. You can find $20 Gucci bags sold by immigrants out of narrow hallway storefronts and $300 Gucci bags at Barney’s Co-Op (3040 M St. NW); real gold chains at jewelers on Wisconsin Avenue and $3 hoop earrings at Up Against the Wall (3219 M St. NW). The Christ Child Opportunity Shop (1427 Wisconsin Ave. NW) sells the castaways of the neighborhood’s fading WASP aristocracy: used Wedgwood china, for example, and lacquered hutches the grandchildren didn’t want. Despite these unsung glories, an afternoon of shoe leather in Georgetown does, inevitably, end in physical and mental exhaustion. The best way to soothe a consumerism-weary constitution, especially on a hot summer day, is to stop for Argentine gelato at Dolcezza (1560 Wisconsin Ave. NW).

Early evening happy hours signal the arrival of nightlife—for some, a cue to flee. The preppy crowd swarms around a handful of spots, most notably Smith Point near Wisconsin and O, where you need to be on the list to dance to ’80s hits with boys in pink pants (it’s called Nantucket red), and girls in snug Lilly Pulitzer smocks. Socialites who’ve graduated from SP’s debauchery head for Cafe Milano (3251 Prospect St. NW), an Italian restaurant with expensive food and red tile floors that have the effect of broadcasting the voices of girls clustered at six tables at the front of the restaurant. Maître d’ Laurent Menoud says the tables are “the center of the universe.” Each little group of “it” girls has a preferred spot, and a preferred food—like the arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette, $14.

Locals prefer less visible spots, such as the upstairs wine bar at Bistro Lepic (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW), which has tastier fare and lower volume. Those on a budget wisely gravitate to the Moby Dick House of Kebab (1070 31st St. NW), where foil-wrapped falafel sandwiches can be purchased late into the night. When the main streets are too busy to risk, residents rely on several small, family-run groceries like Griffin Market (1425 28th St. NW), an Italian-style deli with a mean PLT (pancetta, lettuce, and tomato). Further solace from the hoards can be found at Dumbarton Oaks (1703 32nd St. NW), a private garden and museum atop Georgetown’s leafy slope.

Georgetown is the kind of neighborhood where houses are referred to by name. One measure of whether you belong in this prestigious ZIP code (20007) is whether you can name that address. There’s the Evangeline Bruce House, Halcyon House, and Evermay. (“Oh, you can’t know about Georgetown without knowing about Evermay,” one doyenne scolded.) Often, homes take the names of long-dead owners. Sales of the old great houses elicit nostalgic storytelling. Take, for example, the yellow painted-brick manse at R near Wisconsin. The Italianate home, now obscured from view by a thicket of holly and grass, belonged until last October to Marion “Oatsie” Charles, the widow of Democratic muckety-muck Thomas Leiter and aircraft executive Robert Horne Charles.

When Oatsie sold the house for $7 million and relocated to the family home in Rhode Island, Georgetown lost one of the last “cave dwellers,” a class of residents who didn’t have to leave their homes because the world (and groceries) came to them. She was also one of the last of the great Georgetown hostesses, having entertained the likes of John F. Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. Her house, once filled with frightening towers of books, now stands empty and is up for sale again. The asking price is more than $8 million. In a recent article in Vanity Fair, Oatsie lamented the decline of the old guard: “Things have changed beyond any conceivable idea. People don’t dress the same, they don’t eat the same foods, houses aren’t used in the same way.…It’s just not the same.” The new-money types buying into the neighborhood haven’t yet proven their solidarity. Mark Ein, the D.C. bachelor du jour and venture-capital millionaire, bought the Katharine Graham house, also on R Street, in 2002 for $8 million, then turned around and put it on the market for $14 million. He told the Washington Post he loves the place but “I just haven’t gotten around to moving in.”

Touchstones

• Sally Quinn still reigns as a go-to hostess in Georgetown. The wife of former Post editor Ben Bradlee, she has written for the same paper on and off since 1969 and still co-runs the Post’s “On Faith” site. Her socialite novels from the 1980s give a feisty view into the back-breaking work of entertaining the Washington elite.

• Fundraisers are the backbone of social life in Georgetown. There are fundraisers for parks, trees, and schools. Many are held at historic homes, like Evermay, that are now rented out for events.

• Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, aka the C&O Canal, aka the Grand Old Ditch, is more picturesque from afar. The slimy green trickle, once used to carry mail, runs along the southern border of Georgetown, a favored path for runners and bikers. Other physical landmarks to which Georgetown can lay claim: the Exorcist steps and the last remaining conduit trolley tracks, on O and P Streets—a deathtrap for bicyclists.

More Hoods and Services: Banana Republic Republic demographics, photos, and cartography
Plus: How does Banana Republic Republic stack up on the Neighborhood Rankinator?

Our Readers Say

I was ready to read yet another ill-informed bitch-fest about a few bars on M St., but this is actually a pretty good description of the neighborhood. You even seemed to correctly be saying that most of the douchebags and douchebaguettes that descend on Georgetown are not actually from Georgetown. Most people don't realize that. However, there are just a few nits to pick:

Housing-Sure you can pay $2000 for an "English" basement hole, but you can also pay $2000 for a spacious two bedroom. The thing about Georgetown is that a lot of the apartments are owned by people who have no idea how much the market rate is. It's not like it's full of apartment buildings that have professional management. Plus, two bedroom single-family homes can be found for as low as $750k, and I'd say most are below $950k. Once you're paying $1 million, you can usually expect a third bedroom.

Nightlife and Culture: Yeah, there are the douchebags. But how could you not mention Blues Alley?

Evermay: Evermay *used to* host events. Right now they've got a bit of a licensing issue, since they're not actually licensed to hold events.

You're not kidding about Katherine Graham's house. That asshole developer has let it sit and rot ever since he bought it.
Yes, that was a pretty good assessment of Georgetown. I find it interesting she ID'd Griffin Market with its new menu -- nice touch! (Griffin just changed ownership to an Italian chef and his wife and are in the process of revolutionizing walk-in takeout which make competitors like Sarah's Market and Scheele's look primitive, although we love them all.)

I also like how she correctly pointed out that despite all the mega-chains such as Banana Republic having moved in, cool local stores remain in force, although you need to get further away from M & Wisconsin that you used to.

The $2k one bedroom -- yeah, I guess that's what you'd pay for something in the Mill, which is on top of Georgetown Park, but I know people renting a 2-story townhouse for about that.

Georgetown night life ain't what it used to be, but it does extend beyond the SP and Milano -- each of which have the most unique, strangest clientele in the city.

Watching football at Nathan's or J. Paul's? The civilized vibe to Blue Gin and Degrees in the Ritz? The drunks in those bars near 33rd & M? The whole Washington Harbour scene? There're a lot more options than SP & Milano.
You left out Morgan's Pharmacy, serving the Georgetown community for around 100 years. An old fashioned drugstore where everybody knows your name, and laughter is the best medicine. You can always find what you need at Morgan's.
The rents in Georgetown are comparable to any other centrally located part of town - we get a bad rap because of the supposed snobbiness of our neighborhood, but try getting a 1BR apartment in Logan Circle, Foggy Bottom, the West End, Dupont, Adams Morgan, or anywhere downtown, and I think you might just end up on our side of Rock Creek! Another thing I must bemoan, which this article alludes to but does not pinpoint, is the loss of neighborhood bars; nowadays the bars on M Street are all tourist traps for suburbanites and out of towners. Oh, and Smith Point has a guest list? Really? That place is a dive, straight up. It reeks of urine and tile cleaner.

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