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Storefront windows in the District are not what they used to be

Henken, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, remembers when his family would window-shop through downtown after a movie, and virtually the entire contents of a store could be seen.

The other powerful force is inertia. With the rush to the suburbs, and with urban mobility happening at the car's pace, not the flaneur's, street window displays became essentially obsolete. They have survived mainly in the shopping mall, a highly controlled environment, where metal grates can be pulled down and the whole edifice emptied of people when day is done.

The urban streetscape is ideally a round-the-clock locus of desire, fantasy and curiosity where you can carry on a secret romance with the doggie in the window at 3 a.m., alone and a little alienated from the drunks, club kids and stray taxis still trolling for fares.

Some stores that cover over their windows try to minimize the damage by putting art in the hollow, shallow spaces. But art must be very, very good if it is to leap out from these desultory boxes and compete with the distractions of the city. David Lynch managed to gather crowds for his window displays at Paris' Galeries Lafayette last autumn, but he was allowed to make free use of full-sized window boxes, not the cramped, pancake-thin spaces sandwiched between the exterior glass and the back of the shampoo aisle.

What a sad and strange reversal. In the 19th century, artists struggled to compete with and capture the vitality of the commercial streetscape, whether in novels by Balzac that dealt with the sorrows and grandeur of the new industrial economy, or a streetscape by Van Gogh showing a cafe in Arles drenched in artificial light, opposite storefronts that still beckon in the thickening twilight. Into the 20th century, storefront windows provided inspiration to museum designers, who sought to frame cultural objects with the same care as designers who worked for major department stores.

Today, the reflexive thinking says: Got a hole in your streetscape? Stuff in some watercolors. The art is usually lousy, and it almost always looks silly stuffed into little glass coffins.

CVS and Harris Teeter are all about moving vast quantities of goods, objects that for the most part are necessities, not luxuries, objects that have no fantasy attached to them. Today, we covet and, increasingly, purchase through the Internet. Stores that sell luxury goods still try to create a tangible connection between the passerby and the physical object. But this is a rear-guard action: "browsing" into cyberspace.

So the mature response might be to acknowledge that hollow, empty, blocked-out windows are simply a sign of the times, to be embraced as a truth about the new economy. But while windows were always an extension of advertising, they were also transparent, and transparency brings with it many happy accidents. The best of these is the vision of human activity -- even if in a CVS -- through the storefront.

That voyeurism, so essential to city life, can't be accounted for in a city code, a zoning ordinance or a phrase such as "street activating uses." But it is part of the fundamental substratum of sexiness that makes cities so exciting. A covered window is more than a concession to the hard realities of the retail economy or to the fear of crime. It is the loss of a form of consciousness -- the mutual regard of urban people for one another. It is the loss of an urban space that can't be found on any map, a place where you are on stage but not an actor, in the audience but part of the show, mixed up among I and you and we and us, a liminal space that has thrilled and terrified people since cities grew large enough to dissolve us in collective identity.


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