Seventh Street Parade

[Alan reflects on the recent changes to Washington, DC's Gallery Place/Chinatown neighborhood. --Ed.] The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which ...
by | May 2, 2006

[Alan reflects on the recent changes to Washington, DC's Gallery Place/Chinatown neighborhood. --Ed.]

Chinatown1_1 The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which are conjoined, closed back at the start of 2000. Now, after more than six years of renovation, they're finally set to reopen on July 4. These buildings will find, Rip Van Winkle-like, that the world they're located in has changed beyond recognition during their years of slumber.

The Gallery Place neighborhood -- named for these museums -- is a classic contemporary urban revival story. The downtown basketball arena, the MCI Center (or Verizon Center, as it's now called), had already opened when the museums shuttered, and there were already a few scattered art galleries trying to lure people down to 7th Street NW, an old commercial corridor that had been pretty well neglected for years.

Over the last few years, though, there's been a commercial explosion. Gallery Place is now buzzing with people in search of steaks, Irish pubs and $10 guacamole.

On Friday night, hundreds of pedestrians walked up and down through the early evening sunlight. People browsed in a bookstore, killing time before the curtain at the Shakespeare theater up the block. Young men air-drummed as they passed a bucket drummer banging on upside-down plastic tubs. Dozens of people used cell phones as devices for locating friends amidst all the crowd.

Traffic was heaviest outside the basketball game, where a local radio station had blocked off half the street for an impromtu fair. But the line at the 12plex movie theater snaked around and doubled back on itself as people queued up not only for the usual thrillers, cartoons and hip-hop comedies but also documentaries and foreign films presented by the local film festival.

Without getting into the usual debate about chain restaurants proliferating and driving out the locals (in this neighborhood, many of the old Chinatown restaurants), or about whether bars and skateboard gear shops are the best way to promote urban health, it was all a heartening sight.

This neighborhood used to be dead, with streets empty of foot traffic and many buildings devoid of tenants. Not every development in the area is to my taste, but clearly the new attractions suit many tastes. Friends of mine showed up later in the neighborhood, to try their luck at the local pickup bar. Traffic was stalled, but by far most people were smart enough to ride the subway.

In an area that not long ago boasted few businesses and shut down almost entirely at night, there are now plenty of choices -- movies, bowling, restaurants and a museum much hipper than the soon-to-reopen Smithsonian branches.

It's the kind of friendly chaos that marks many successful downtown revivals that have been happening all over the country in the last few years -- in Des Moines, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Greenville, South Carolina, and on and on. Entertainment districts have brought local people back to the downtown -- including yuppies and empty nesters who are now living downtown.

It's a remarkable story and one that was evident all around me as I walked through the Friday evening crowds on my way to meet friends for dinner at one of the old-style dumps that long predates all the new construction.

Photo via Flickr, from torrentpien.