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D.C. area and Dixie drifting farther and farther apart

To northbound Interstate 95 lovers of Southern food, Northern Virginia used to mark the "sweet tea line," beyond which diners could no longer expect to find the hyper-sugared version of the South's national beverage.

A researcher, looking at where McDonald's franchisees stopped offering sweet tea, once mapped the line just north of Richmond. But the chain took sweet tea across the country in 2008 and it is now available nationwide.

In his own attempt to quantify the shifting sands of regional identity, Knotts and a colleague last year reproduced a 1970s study that looked at what names businesses choose for themselves (they excluded the widespread Winn-Dixie grocery stores so as not to skew the sample). The "Dixie" that once proudly figured on signs throughout the region has largely receded to a pocket of the old South in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"I would have been shocked to find much identification with Dixie in places like Northern Virginia," Knotts said. "And we didn't."

The Old Dominion received a "D score" of 0.03, which means that three Dixie names were found for every 100 with the word "American." Overall, the study ranked Virginia - along with Florida, Oklahoma and West Virginia - as "Sorta Southern," the least Southern of three categories. Richmond saw its embrace of Dixie business names cut in half since 1976, from 0.12 then to 0.05 last year.

In the District, the D score was never very high, Knotts said. The Georgetown liquor store was the only Dixie business in town both in 1976 and today.

Whether Washington should be defined as a Southern city has been a debate since the Civil War, when it was the seat of the Northern government but a hotbed of rebel sympathy. In modern times, the question has been more cultural than political. Washington's split personality was forever summarized by John F. Kennedy's worst-of-both-worlds description of it as a"city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."

Different perspectives

As the hub of the nation's government, Washington is always home to thousands of newcomers, some of whom cling to their hometown identities. Those who arrive from the North often see the area as Southern, and those from the South feel a Northern vibe.

But Greg Carr, who grew up in Nashville, sees Southern markers here. Carr, chairman of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, said he recognizes the fading signs of the Old South in this region.

"For black folks, this is still very much a Southern city," Carr said. "D.C. has very little in common with a stereotypical Northern city."

Carr cited the presence of an entrenched black elite in Washington as a characteristic of Southern cities, along the lines of Atlanta and Charlotte. Its still-living history of sharply segregated neighborhoods is another sign, as well as the paucity of white ethnic neighborhoods, such as Italian or Irish sections of Baltimore, New York and Boston.

"Even the architecture is more Southern," Carr said. "You have no concrete canyons in Washington."

Even as black residents from other states and countries move to Washington in greater numbers, the cultural feeling of African American communities remains Southern, he said.

"Anacostia, that's the South over there," Carr said. "Folks with their shirts off washing their cars, waving at you as you pass by. That's Southern."

And at least one major retailer still views Washington as a Southern market. Although Safeway has no stores in the deep South, the supermarket chain says its cluster of stores between Culpeper, Va., and Frederick, Md., posts the company's biggest sales of such regional offerings as fried chicken, ham hocks and other "country meats," collard greens and sweet potatoes, spokesman Greg TenEyck said.

Adrienne Carter, 66, is a big buyer of such ingredients. Along with her husband, Alvin, Carter owns the Hitching Post, a soul food restaurant on Upshur Street NW. To her, Washington remains Southern, but the feeling is fading.

Although never as common in Washington as in other Southern cities, the number of neighborhood places serving fried chicken, fish, macaroni and cheese, greens and other Southern delicacies has declined in recent decades.

"I remember my father going to places up and down Ninth and U" streets, Carter said. "Now they call that area Little Ethiopia."

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