For literally decades, observers of Georgetown have pondered the exception that is the 1400 block of Wisconsin Ave. As expensive national chains crowded out independent shops (and now restaurants) from M St. and independent but pricey home furnishing shops populated Book Hill, the ragged blocks of Wisconsin between Dumbarton and P stayed the same: decrepit shops selling boxy and cheap suits. But signs on the horizon suggests that these last bastions of an older Georgetown may finally be coming down.
The story of Georgetown angsting over these blocks goes back to at least the mid 1980s. An article in the Washington Post from that year was titled “While More and More Georgetown Stores Go Away: Changes Worry Georgetown Retailers”. The text of the article could have been written last week and most people wouldn’t thought it was accurate:
- “We have not been happy with business in Georgetown the last two or three years”
- “There’s obviously a very bad climate on Wisconsin Ave. Frankly the street has become disreputable in my opinion.”
- By most accounts, times have changed for Georgetown, once the hub of boutique retailing in Washington
- With lack of parking an increasingly irksome problem for Georgetown, shoppers are turning more and more to malls.
Replace “turning more and more to malls” with “turning more and more to Metro-accessible neighborhoods” and all the quotes could have been written today.
Surprising to those not around at the time, but the blame for the decline of these blocks is placed by the article on the newly opened Georgetown Park mall. The argument went that the old “good” stores vacated this stretch of Wisconsin Ave. to occupy the mall after it opened. In their wake, the cheaper stores moved in.
In a more charged article in 1987, Marc Fisher put a bit more fine a point on it:
While malls, restaurants and night spots increasingly dominate busy M Street, the shops on Wisconsin-smaller storefronts on a narrower street-are changing too. More big names-the Gap, Banana Republic, Esprit. More strange little shops forever holding sales. A carnival atmosphere, the older merchants call it, an arcade, a bazaar.
They are talking, usually in hushed tones, about “the Iranians,” their term for a couple of dozen shops run or owned by Iranian immigrants. Longtime residents and merchants have developed sweeping theories maligning the immigrants, blaming them for running clothing and jewelry shops that attract a very “un-Georgetown” crowd.
They are also talking, as Mayor Marion Barry did recently, about jewelry merchants who sell the bulky gold chains fashionable among some young people, including many drug dealers. Jewelers who take large piles of cash from kids are “just as guilty of this drug epidemic asthe people who sell drugs,” the mayor generalized; he wants police to stand outside those shops to “scare away” druggies.
Rinse and repeat for several more decades. Still more hushed complaints about how these stores are just fronts for drug dealers. Or maybe just money laundering fronts. Or whatever other nefarious explanation can be imagined. (No actual evidence is proffered).
A common sales strategy of these shops is to hold “Going Out of Business” sales without actually going out of business. But now there may be a little more truth to that.
But before we get to the future, consider what has already happened. Three of the old suit stores have already changed hands. That includes the two that have remained vacant for years at 1422 and 1424 Wisconsin and 1355 which was taken over by Tugooh Toys. Of course there’s the old Commander Salamander (which didn’t sell suits, but certainly fit into the old vibe) that is now a bank.
GM has been told (although has not been able to verify) that the Napoli and Milano shops are on the way out. GM was told that the landlord was shopping the space for a restaurant with the upstairs converted to condos.
Don’t forget the Georgetown Theater building, which used to house cheap jewelry stores. What Robert Bell will fill the building with is unknown, but likely to be on the more expensive side.
And now a sign outside Village Art and Craft announces that they’re moving several blocks away up Wisconsin Ave.
If things keep proceeding this way, these blocks, which have stood out as a glaring exception to years of Georgetown homogenization, may finally fade into the background. Most will probably call it progress, but nonetheless it would be a passing of a significant and long lasting era for the neighborhood.