AFTER YEARS OF conspicuous consumption, class presumption and flagrant self-promotion, after-hours Georgetown may finally have gotten what it deserves. Gray.
It has been a long adolescence, after all. Thirty, even 40 years ago the Bayou (a k a the Pirates Den) was a titillatingly romantic den of iniquity where society debs from the high side of M Street -- those first baby boomers, the children of the Eisenhower administration and the youthful idols of Camelot -- went slumming to display their imagined sophistication. It was a jazz age, with the cocktail-party manners of an old-money martini town that still spent its weekends in the country.
Twenty years ago it was vivid with post-Summer of Love exuberance and a carnival midway of music clubs stretching from the Cellar Door past the Apple Pie and the Silver Dollar and Crazy Horse and Corral and the Peppermint Lounge and New Mac's all the way down to Emergency. Even Clyde's served up Emmylou live music in those days.NIGHTLIFE
Fifteen years ago Georgetown faced its first night life crisis, with the arrival of a new, harder-drinking circle of new Southerners, not alumni of the old boys' school but good ol' boys and overgrown frat brothers who preferred bars to bands. When the appearance-conscious Georgetown society didn't take to their Tara-raboomdeyay spirit -- Ham Jordan fiddled around while Atlanta's reputation burned -- the upstarts removed their business to midtown, thus providing the first impetus for the M Street singles-bar strip. Georgetown responded by going even more upclass, concentrating on white-linen restaurants, a few discreet hotels, private clubs (one-upping the midtown discos) and expensive shops.
Then came the Metro, which effectively turned the West End into a sort of moat between Georgetown and Washington's less homogenous neighborhoods; not coincidentally, it further insulated the Blessed Isle and its burgeoning tourist business from the hard realities of an increasingly divided capital. Georgetown's prosperous isolation became the perfect metaphor not only for official Washington in the '80s but for the whole country -- a consumerist, damn-the-credit version of the Main Street myth that obscured the trouble on the other side of the tracks.
And now, left with the hangover from 15 years of inflation and both incidental and intentional segregation, Georgetown is suffering the simultaneous pangs of reactionary violence, straitened circumstances and stifling boredom. Even five years ago, you could scarcely squeeze through Wisconsin Avenue at 2 on a Saturday morning; nowadays, you might have the block to yourself -- you and the beat police, that is.
Georgetown has priced itself out of a regular clientele, prepped itself out of the creative market and catered itself into anonymity. Its relative front-runners -- Blues Alley, the River Club, Annastasia -- have gradually tailored their styles to MOR reliability. The roughly beloved Bayou is cleaner, straighter, more predictable these days. The "hot spots" are either old-trend rehashes (Old Glory) or camp (Marquis de Rochambeau), which is the last refuge of the clever. Patrons of the all-night Pied du Cochon look more like extras from "Brooklyn Bridge" than "The Beautiful and Damned," much less the prematurely cynical "St. Elmo's" brats. Even the hipper boutiques seem endangered by the franchised boredoms of Benetton, Banana Republic, etc. And the turnovers and close-downs are more frequent, and last longer, signs that both (merchant) demand and (customer) supply are short.
The increased incidence of violence in the neighborhood has led to a heavy weekend police presence, but that's a mixed blessing: Limited street parking around Wisconsin and M helps traffic flow, but makes residential parking more difficult (and walking back to parked cars potentially more dangerous). The higher visibility of the police may discourage the mini-gangs of underage kids who used to just hang out till the wee hours, but it doesn't deter the pickpockets or tough guys -- and it does, paradoxically, deter the sort of street traffic it's supposed to encourage.
What's left are the outsiders and the not-in's, the tourists, the suburbanites (the ones who wear white patent leather heels in April) and the neo-preppie ID types traveling in safe numbers. More pointedly, the nights are hot and heavy in Adams-Morgan, where the true proof of vitality is the eager melting-pot mix of ethnic, sexual and age communities.
All such things are cyclical, and eventually Georgetown will shake off its '80s-flavor recessionism for a new reality. But for the time being, night life is alive and well in uptown Washington; and Georgetown is well nigh dead.