The new neighbourhoods of Washington DC
Washington DC’s hipster H Street NE neighbourhood is home to Japanese restaurant Sticky Rice. (Roll Call/Getty)
Since the turn of the millennium, Washington DC has been busily transforming itself into an endless urban playground full of affluent 20- and 30-somethings, where neighbourhoods change with breathtaking swiftness.
These playgrounds were once concentrated in areas like Georgetown and Capitol Hill, while the rest of the city was given over to residential neighbourhoods with many family homes and few restaurants, bars, concert spaces or diners. But the city has found increased revenue and cachet by catering to DC’s transient, professional population, which flits from one hip area to the next.
Washington’s H Street NE, recently deemed one of America’s best hipster neighbourhoods by Forbes magazine, sits a short bike ride away from Capitol Hill (reachable via the city’s relatively new bike share program, launched in 2010). You can play mini-golf at the bar-cum-games hall H Street Country Club, grab a pastrami on rye and a Guinness at the kosher deli-cum-Irish pub Star and Shamrock, or take in a show at the burlesque-cum-punk rock venue Red Palace. Nearby, old Caribbean takeout stands, fried fish joints and hair salons speak to the neighbourhood’s roots.
But hot on H Street’s heels is Petworth, a neighbourhood that in the last two years has transformed from a working-class district to one known for upmarket restaurants like Chez Billy, which mixes haute bistro fare and chic jazz-era trappings. The attractive row houses nearby are now selling for double or more their purchase value, especially in the area that borders neighbouring Columbia Heights, whose attractive brownstones stand shoulder to shoulder with new high-end condos. Acre 121, a small live music venue that opened in 2011, is named for the historical lot (acre 121) that first delineated Columbia Heights, and now means local residents can jam to bluegrass and funk on weekends without having to hop a Metro train downtown.
The cheap Salvadoran bodegas in Columbia Heights are also mixing with upmarket wine bars, such as Maple, where hot young things eat delicate servings of pasta on a reclaimed wood bar. About 1.5 miles south of Maple, down 11th Street, is Logan Circle, both an actual traffic circle (on 14th St) and a small neighbourhood, where European World Bank employees dine al fresco at Veranda, itself so self-consciously Mediterranean you would be forgiven for thinking the walls were about to sprout grape leaves.
U Street, which sits between Columbia Heights and Logan Circle, was one of the first areas to gentrify, in 2000. These days the U Street corridor and surrounds continue to get even hipper; a mix of young professionals and resident Ethiopians (DC has one of the largest expat Ethiopian communities in the world) rub shoulders over plates of spongy injera bread at restaurants like Dukem. On the weekends they flock to bar bars like Patty Boom Boom, a reggae-influenced spot that attracts locals of Caribbean descent and young Georgetown students with the spicy beef patties served in the bar basement.
Downtown DC experienced a similar revamp in the late 1990s in an effort to bring business to the city and grow tourism. But the neighbourhood, which surrounds DC’s convention centre, only really began attracting new bars and restaurants in 2010. Two years on you can dine on fresh sea urchin roe and quivering tuna belly at the izakaya and sushi restaurant Kushi, and around the corner is the Passenger, an artisan cocktail bar that hosts private tasting menu events.
These new neighbourhoods are, of course, old ones. They have always been there, just not in their current incarnations. And those incarnations are very easy to explore and access, be it by bike or public transportation. So go see the new, old Washington DC.