Georgetown wears polish, tarnish Eclectic: Residents and businesses in quirky Georgetown work to preserve its character and vitality from the encroaching woes of Washington.

Sun Journal

February 18, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Such a mild winter night in Georgetown, the traffic noisy, smelly and going nowhere, an M Street busker with an electric guitar plugged into a three-dollar amp, bodies five deep at J. Paul's bar. Barry Burns and Marilyn Walker striding up Wisconsin Avenue stop to check the sign on the awning above the cut-rate haberdashery: "Closing Sale -- 50% Off."

Mr. Burns looks at the store clerk standing on the sidewalk and eyeing him with all the warmth of a strip-joint bouncer.

"This place has been closing for the last 16 years," says Mr.

Burns, a 47-year-old Post Office worker who lives on Capitol Hill.

The French expression would apply, as some things have changed lately in Georgetown and much remains the same. Perched on the western rim of a financially crippled city, Georgetown is trying with varying degrees of success to maintain the polish that has made it a chic address for decades.

It's a place where today you might steal a small townhouse with a shiny brass door knocker for a quarter-million and name-drop ++ about your new neighbors: Pierre Salinger, Katharine Graham, Kitty Kelly, Benjamin C. Bradlee, Robert "Bud" McFarlane, Britt Hume.

This is a world beyond the reach of the Washington subway system and, some residents grumble, city trash pickup, snow removal and pothole repair. Created as an independent town by merchants in 1751, absorbed into the District of Columbia in 1871, Georgetown has always maintained a distinct identity. It has remained a mercantile village in a government town and become an enclave of predominantly white affluence in a city of so many impoverished black people.

Lately, though, not even Georgetown, where average household income is about double the national figure, can claim immunity from the money troubles afflicting the rest of Washington and the country.

Georgetown has always had its ragged edges, but some folks say that the commercial streets look shabbier, that the trash lingers longer at curbside. Barnes & Noble and Eddie Bauer opened big stores on M Street last year, and down the block an enclosed 100-store mall is nearly full, but the main crossroads of M and Wisconsin is pocked with empty storefronts. And in Georgetown, as in much of downsized America, million-dollar homes are a tough sell these days.

Perhaps because village history unfolds in a series of economic peaks and valleys, it's tempting to try fitting the mid-1990s into the pattern. People who have lived here a while say that's not so easy.

"It's convenient and fun to talk about Georgetown's up and Georgetown's down," says Stephen Kurzman, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. "It's not that simple. People love to glorify the past, when all the shops were family owned. It was never uniformly anything. We've had nice stores and stores that weren't so nice."

Commercial real estate people, generally disinclined to be gloomy in public, look at all the empty stores and see the effects of national trends: People have less money to spend; locally owned stores in high-rent areas have lost ground to national chains with deeper pockets. But they also see opportunity.

"For every vacancy I have two people in serious exploration" for the space, says Richard Levy, whose family has been in the local real estate business for 80 years.

John Laytham, executive vice president of the company that owns Clyde's restaurant on M Street, has been in the restaurant business since 1964. He says people tend to compare Georgetown's present with a mythical past.

"Georgetown's kind of been treated like it was something that was perfect and now it's fallen apart," says Mr. Laytham.

Usually one hears about the early 1960s as the Golden Age, when the village thrived as hub of the social scene that surrounded the administration of John F. Kennedy, who rented and owned a succession of Georgetown homes before he was elected president.

But while Kennedy cronies were holding tasteful parties in some graceful Federal or Georgian manse, the scene down on M Street and Wisconsin often made today's Saturday night mobs look like high tea.

"It was like the Wild West here," says Mr. Laytham.

Drunks spilled out of country and western bars, Harleys were lined up by the score at biker bars. Fights broke out in the streets, and police hauled drunks away by the wagon-load. Night after night people poured into Georgetown to drink, eat, raise Cain.

"Georgetown was the place," says David Roffman, publisher of the bi-weekly Georgetowner, who has worked in town for 31 years. "There was absolutely nothing to do in the suburbs."

Georgetown bars begat more bars. By the early 1980s the District of Columbia had issued 132 liquor licenses for the village, an area about one square mile. The Citizens Association of Georgetown said, "Enough." By 1988, the group had brought enough pressure to bear that the City Council enacted a Georgetown moratorium on liquor licenses.

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