Changing places doesn’t always mean changing faces, but in the case of two alternative media outlets in the District, it probably will. As of Friday, both Washington City Paper and WPFW will be gone from their digs at 2390 Champlain St. NW in Adams Morgan. They’ve been pushed out to make way for a once-controversial luxury hotel and its parking lot.
They’re both moving to buttoned-down environs downtown, away from the more freewheeling vibe of Adams Morgan. But the building’s demolition affects each operation in entirely different ways.
For WPFW, it’s another move in a history of relocation around the city. This had been the radio station’s second stint in the Northwest neighborhood and its longest at any one place in its history. News director and host Askia Muhammad said he will remember the location fondly but acknowledges how obvious the changes have been in the 20009 Zip code.
“When we moved here first, the 20009 was the largest Zip code for listener contributors. . . . Now the demographics of the neighborhood have changed also,” Muhammad said. “This is not the backgammon crowd of the 1980s when we moved in.”
When Washingtonians talk about “gentrification,” the conversation is often cast as older residents moving out — sometimes by choice, sometimes not — and younger, more affluent residents moving in. But the change going on in Washington is also about the alternative cultural institutions that make our city whole and their ability to survive the invasion of corporate interests.
Indeed, a quick look around WPFW reveals that the station appears to be on its last leg. The phones don’t ring as often, but they aren’t completely dead. An inventory sale features books, CDs and 45 rpm LPs, because the new space won’t be able to hold the treasure trove of old music that embodies its jazz-and-justice mantra. The front door is propped open so those moving boxes can come and go freely.
And it’s that come-one-come-all policy that will be most affected at the station’s new location. By definition, WPFW will be less of a community station, because the community will have less access to it on L Street. WPFW Music and Cultural Affairs Director Katea Stitt is worried about how that might change the station’s goal.
“I don’t know; us, K Street, L Street, it’s a bit weird and a bit off-putting. And I also worry about the community being able to have the kind of access they have now. And when I say community, I mean the community of folk that we serve.
“We have people now that can come freely and bring us their information,” Stitt continued. “The psychological feeling of being able to enter a building, come into a space, be welcomed. Your first encounter is with our very charming office manager, Gerrie. Here, [at L Street] your first encounter is going to be a security guard — who’s then going to call someone to say, ‘Is it okay for this person to come up?’ And it will also limit the number of folk that will come to that space.”
Over at City Paper, the feelings were a little more upbeat on May 8, their last day in the building.
Staffers enthusiastically threw filing cabinets off the parking deck into a trash receptacle below. Beer bottles and sea salt leftover from their going-away party were still on the mail table. But the sound of the packing tape was thunderous. Young movers were hard at work, helping the alt-weekly relocate on a production day.
“That’s the sound we’ll all hear in hell,” one staffer said.
From their side, the old building was just that. An old building. “I think it’s about time. You can tell the air conditioner doesn’t work. The hot water in the men’s bathroom stopped working,” said Mike Madden, the paper’s editor.
But City Paper might stand to gain more than it loses by leaving one of the District’s original counter-culture neighborhoods. Several said that change was inevitable.
Assistant Managing Editor Jenny Rogers, who lives on Capitol Hill, also welcomes a new spot.
“It’s inconvenient for me because of where I live,” she said.
There have been rumors of exercise equipment at the new location.
“In some ways, being downtown will put us kind of more in the midst of the economic lifeblood of the city. Adams Morgan is a very diverse area, but . . . there’s not as much going on during the day here as there is downtown,” Madden said. “It’s still pretty residential.”
Which before now, was a perfectly acceptable thing to be.
And that’s going to be the second, perhaps most jarring phase of Washington’s transformation. It won’t just be the publicly assisted and poor that get removed with nothing but the scar of gentrification to show for it. For better or for worse, even places that have become part of the cultural fabric, never considered “blights,” will erode as familiar landscapes.