Washington is suffering a name drain.
Once proud and famous local names, emblems of our singular regional identity, are disappearing like Amazonian rain forest. Where have you gone, Woodward & Lothrop and Riggs Bank? You, too, Hot Shoppes and Little Taverns? Long time no see, Garfinckel's and Raleigh's and Britches and Hechinger.
If those names seem a little unfamiliar (you're new here, aren't you?), try an easier one: Hecht's. Within the next year, the department store that anchors so many major malls in the region will join the likes of Lansburgh's and Kann's on the All-Washington Dead Name Team. Hecht's owner, Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati, decreed yesterday that the Hecht's name -- which worked perfectly well around these parts for 148 years -- will be phased out, replaced by a familiar but nevertheless distinctly New York name, Macy's.
Not that we're keeping score, but Washington seems to be the nation's capital of losing its homegrown names. Businesses that started down the block get big, establish name recognition and customer loyalty. Then they up and die, or sell out to another company from Somewhere Else.
Perhaps this is a sign of entrepreneurial vigor -- you've got to be pretty good to become big enough to sell out in the first place. It's also a sign of relentless and brutal competition -- in capitalism, you eat or get eaten, and many of these companies became lunch, like Crown Books and Trak Auto.
But the net effect of the name drain is like the effect of soil erosion. Little by little, much of a region's distinct character is leached out, one takeover deal or bankruptcy at a time. Soon enough, Here starts to look like Somewhere Else, or Everywhere Else. Does a Sutton Place Gourmet (now owned by Balducci's from New York) taste as sweet?
And so Erol's Video became just another Blockbuster. Peoples Drugs and Dart Drug and Fantle's Drug and Drug Fair became CVSes (or maybe Rite Aids). And just about everything else became a Starbucks.
Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone became the geographically general Bell Atlantic, which became Verizon, wherever and whatever that is.
There's no more Waxie Maxie records and no more Penguin Feathers records. No more Gino's and very little Roy Roger's fast food. Soon, there will be no more Nextel (it was recently bought by Sprint). And there's no more Washington Star or Washington Daily News to report all the names that are no more.
For that matter, there are no more Washington Bullets, no more Jack Kent Cooke Stadium and no more National Airport. If city fathers intend to follow through on plans to sell corporate "naming rights," Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium may soon grow an unsightly corporate appendage, too. ("Hooters Restaurant Park at RFK Stadium," anyone?)
Well, goodbye and farewell, Hecht's. It's been a pretty good 148-year run.
At least we'll never have to explain to an out-of-towner what a Macy's is, or how to pronounce it.