Grandeur, squalor, community, diversity, unity, discord -- Dupont Circle has them all, and always has.
On a muggy Saturday afternoon about to resolve itself in thunder and lightning, Joel Berg sits on the sweating pavement beside the Q Street Metro entrance. Leaning like the devil's dictationist over a Royal manual, he whacks the typewriter keys with the index finger of his right hand, punching out poems for all comers at $1 apiece, satisfaction guaranteed. He hasn't had to give back a buck yet.
Oblivious to passersby standing over him -- a stocky bicyclist, a weaving drunk, a couple in starchy suburban weekend wear, a guy in a white T-shirt with Jack Kerouac's likeness on it -- Berg cranks the return lever hard enough to shake the red plastic milk crate on which the Royal sits. He's composing "For Maya," commissioned two minutes ago by Anna Lopez to send home to Santa Fe, N.M. When her family was in town last week, Lopez, a receptionist for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), brought them by in hopes of purchasing a poem for her 10-year-old sister, but Berg was backed up and they had sights to see, so she's returned to catch him at a slack time.
"I've never seen anybody who writes poems for people like that," she says. "People enjoy watching someone create."
Weekdays, Berg is a mild-mannered policy analyst-cum-politico (he's run for state senator in his native New York and managed an unsuccessful House campaign in Alaska). Saturdays, he dons shorts, straw hat and running shoes and turns bard, setting up shop beside D.C. Fire Department standpipe 401-M. "CUSTOM POEMS WHILE YOU WAIT," his sign says. The usual turnaround is three minutes, plus whatever time you spend describing the person for whom the poem is intended.
This day speed is of particular essence. As thunderheads swarm at the top of Connecticut Avenue, Berg bangs out odes for Lisa marrying Sol (she's younger and blond and a lawyer, he's older and neither), for George in El Salvador, for Emily, whose boyfriend is leaving for Europe and not taking her along, for Bob and Mary on their 40th anniversary (they grew up in Los Angeles, they've lived all over, they're in Florida now, they love each other very much). He pauses between assignments to shake the cramps from his typing hand, and takes a few moments before the last to hand his patron a ruined red umbrella.
With the look of a Medici asked to wash Leonardo's brushes, the man bends to shield Berg, who hunkers as the wind blows away his hat and then his sign and plasters a sheet of newspaper against his rib cage. Seconds ahead of the deluge, the poet laureate of the finite, fractious universe that is Dupont Circle whips the completed work out of the carriage and gathers up his gear. 360 Degrees of Endings and Beginnings
The Washington of maps is die-straight. The street grid issues angular marching orders; the city's diamond shape shoves down hard against the Potomac and Anacostia shorelines. All that geometry leaves a town decidedly square.
But the square city runs in circles. Careers advance through revolving doors or stagnate in eddying backwaters. Events and individuals chase their tails like hoop snakes. Logic acquires a Beltwayish continuity, warped but self-fulfilling.
For the literally inclined, Washington offers concrete circles, 19 of them, punctuating the map like craters. Many are smaller, one is larger, a few are busier or less intruded on by modernity -- but none says "Washington, D.C." more authentically than Dupont Circle.
Almost anyone who's been there has a story -- often a tale of how the circle looked that first time, or was really seen after many encounters, in a stuttering ride up either of the slight rises on Massachusetts Avenue or after the grand slalom down Connecticut or by footborne glimpse from a lesser street. The Dupont Circle story -- the first apartment leased there, the main squeeze met there, the May Day arrest there, the lost tourist set straight there -- is a hallmark distinguishing native and transplant from visitor and transient.
Dupont Circle is 360 degrees of endings and beginnings, of renewal amid chaos, a great good place that began humbly and rose to heights of preposterous splendor, then underwent reversals that left it a littoral zone inundated by every cultural wave -- student, artist, homosexual, beatnik, folk singer, war resister, flower child, black power child, dope dealer, punk rocker, yuppie, mountain biker.
Dupont Circle is where, when the geeky bespectacled kid on the skateboard isn't about to flatten your arches, the mumbly bum is bugging you for half your burrito. It's where the quiet comes and goes amid drunks blustering themselves into another dust-up and the Park Service groundsman revving the motor on his rototiller. It's where the skinheads stride by with their boomboxes and their big black boots as primly grim success-dressers ignore the lean tattoo-faced fellow haranguing them for spare change when he isn't participating in mysterious triangular transactions involving tightly folded currency and small, possibly contraband packages.
The circle is the place where, at the end of a hard day hurtling down streets and up sidewalks to carry the news (or at least the spin) from the capital equivalent of Aix to Ghent, scores of bicycle couriers dismount, shed helmets and backpacks, strew their machines like beached seahorses on the fountain's granite slope and chill out with the bawdy camaraderie of off-duty Pony Express riders.
It's the place where, well into the wee small hours, chess players such as David Sherman occupy the 10 tables at the eastern curve, in the circle but not of the circle, their focus so fierce as to neutralize the traffic noise, the Dixieland bands, the police sirens, the come-ons, the putdowns, the curses, the cheers, the laughter, the fistfights, the slashings -- leaving the players free to concentrate on tactics and the twin-faced chess clocks hastening their decisions.
It's the place where, on any Monday following a warm sunny weekend, Park Service worker Wayne Brown, a 10-year veteran of Dupont Circle cleanups, can expect to fill as many as 105 plastic bags with the trash left by visitors and inhabitants.
It's the place where neighborhood denizens and passers-through such as MacArthur fellow and Adams-Morgan resident Sidney Wolfe shop the daily specials at Larimer's grocery, following the European tradition of buying provender a meal at a time. It's the place where you can pick up a balalaika for $69.99 -- a "glasnost special" -- at Ardis Music Center, or climb four flights upstairs and study tai ch'i at Great River Taoist Center, then stroll a few doors north to Food for Thought, the continually endangered eatery, on whose 20-foot bulletin board "Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Nepal) & George Washington Graduate Student (Non-Smoker, Liberal) Seeks Housing" coexists with "Two People Wanted for Rooms in a Negative Force Steeljaw Trap House With Six Hunks & One Hussy 19-24 (We Like Bourbon, Johnny Cash, and Fungus)" to the accompaniment of inventive jazz and R&B stylings by Yvonne Johnson and Phylliss Russell, who say that when they pass the hat on rainy nights they do better than when the weather's clear.
It's the place where faces from the past float by: ex-CIA director William Colby debarking from a D-6 bus at Massachusetts Avenue and 20th Street NW, trim and owlish and reticent in pink plastic glasses and white single-breasted raincoat as he crosses with the light, or Carter-era consumer affairs czarina Esther Peterson climbing out of a car with low-number D.C. plates, trademark smile and hair plaits in fine array, to join other ladies of a certain age streaming toward lunch at the Woman's National Democratic Club on New Hampshire Avenue.
It's the place where, clad in greasy blue work pants and a pair of castoff fatigue jackets, face and belly stitched with scars, right leg in a cast as a result of a drunken fall, Bad Feet Sam holds court as senior member of a derelict claque based in and around the restrooms and bus kiosk at the corner of 20th and P streets NW.
It's the place where -- even after all the amputations of the last three decades, when dozens of classical structures on and near the circle died -- Massachusetts Avenue still serves as a line of demarcation dividing downtown's Babylonian canyons from the villagey stretch to the north, and where some developer always seems poised to carpet-bomb a pleasant block so as to permit the throwing up of yet another monstrosity designed to suck the last bit of Dupont Circleness out of the neighborhood. This year's ogre is Riggs Bank, the Most Self-Important Bank in the Most Self-Important City in the Importantest Nation in the Goldarned Known Universe, which wants to slam-dance its 66-year-old Dupont Circle branch and the rest of the block on which that building sits, saving a few facades but replacing the rest of the mess with a towering cube some neighborhood residents describe as resembling the Rayburn Building, only not as pretty and graceful.
'Twas ever thus at Dupont Circle, which turns on tumult the way inertia moves a flywheel. Pierre L'Enfant Meets Admiral du Pont Encompassing 99,581 square feet, the circle at the convergence of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire avenues and 19th and P streets NW -- incidentally, no circle in town accommodates more arteries -- is second in size only to 101,787.52-square-foot Sherman Circle. The National Park Service, which manages it, knows Dupont Circle as Reservation 60, one of three-score-and-some plots reserved for the federal government when Washington was being created out of bog and hillock.
Dupont Circle has long been a hub of city transport. In 1934 highway engineers, irked at its incessant congestion, briefly banned autos from the circle, but had to yank their sawhorses when drivers rebelled. The jam arose partly from the mix of freewheel and rail vehicles, later attacked with underground cures.
One took. An auto underpass completed in 1950 still makes it possible, on a good day, to drive Connecticut Avenue from R Street to N Street in 55 seconds at 25 mph, as the designers advertised -- not that anyone drives 25 mph anymore.
Another subterranean ploy came to nought. A few feet below the circle's roadbed there yawns a 14-foot-high tunnel dug after World War II to debollix surface traffic by providing an underground path for streetcars traveling to and from Mount Pleasant. In business barely 13 years before the trolleys' demise rendered it useless in 1962, the 15,400-square-foot passage saw duty in the early '60s to store civil defense foodstuffs, on the benighted assumption that after the ICBMs landed, anyone in town would be more than charred rinds and vapor.
The post-apocalyptic peanut butter and crackers are gone, but the tunnel remains. The lights still work on its tiled passenger platform, and its entirety is dry and eerily quiet, the rails' reefs of rust and the walls' eerie efflorescences the sole suggestions that the downtown trolley won't arrive any minute, steel wheels screaming around the sharp curve at the tunnel mouth. Periodically entrepreneurs' eyes bug out at the concrete cavern's commercial possibilities -- a sports spa! . . . No, catacombs! . . . No, a shopping mall! . . . No, a cabaret! -- but the ideas bloom and fade like ozone from a streetcar motor, and the tunnel is moribund, unlike its cousin a hundred feet below: the Dupont Circle Metro station, the construction of which demanded the excavation of 75,000 cubic yards of rock, then the installation of a million tons of structural steel and 9,000 cubic yards of concrete. On a usual weekday, 240 Red Line trains pass through the station, while overhead 1,296 buses from 17 routes carom off the circle -- impressive numbers, albeit not of the same magnitude, mass transitwise, as at other junctions in the area.
But size isn't everything. There's history. There's diversity. There's discord. Dupont Circle has them all, and always has. As Park Service historian George Olszewski noted in a 1967 report, "While the majority of the public parks at various reservations of the city are scenes of rest and tranquility for which they were originally laid out, Dupont Circle has always been a source of aggravation and complaints for the organization administering this area."
The disputatiousness dates to the fledgling federal government's March 1791 agreement to pay one James M. Lingan $40,200 for a 600-acre estate that included the circle's site. Called "Widow's Mite," the plantation was granted by the Crown during colonial days to John Langworth, who came to America in the 1630s as an indentured servant. Langworth must have had an eye for the main chance. He served his appointed time, acquired freedman's status and a fortune, obtained Widow's Mite and left the property to his son William, who left it to his wife, who sold it, and so on down the line to Lingan's transfer of title to the baby republic. Among the properties combined to form the capital were "Mexico," "Mount Pleasant," "Jamaica," "Port Royal," "Beall's Level," "Mill Tract," "Carrollsburg," "Abby Manor," "Hamburgh," "Duddington Pasture" and "Hop Yard," along with the bustling independent port city of Georgetown. In those days only Georgetown, Hamburgh and Carrollsburg actually had streets, but the city's designer, Pierre L'Enfant, had visions: A 1792 map shows Widow's Mite with a circle marked at the location now occupied by Dupont Circle. Ever the artiste, L'Enfant fought continuously with the three commissioners appointed by President George Washington to cobble together a capital city. The fiery Frenchman went so far as to order the demolition of one commissioner's house, but didn't get pink-slipped until he got on Washington's nerves; then, in no time, it was here's your chapeau and what's your hurry, mon ami.
For 60 years, Washington grew fitfully; after a visit in the 1840s, Charles Dickens termed it "The City of Magnificent Intentions." In 1855 Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue) still marked the northern border of urban development, and until after the Civil War there was little commerce around the unnamed circle at the intersection of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts avenues. The area was called "The Slashes"; the main landmarks among its hills and swamps were a brickyard and an abattoir. West of 17th Street, the only house on Massachusetts was a fortune teller's parlor; the putative circle was a field surrounded by a dirt track.
But in 1871 a territorial government appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant brought Alexander Shepherd to the public trough, and things haven't been the same since. Shepherd, 37, was an ambitious and impatient mesomorph who'd made his name and money building row houses around town. His zeal quickly earned him the nickname "Boss." He ran public works from 1871 to 1874; in 1873-74 he also was territorial governor.
Boss Shepherd was a man with a plan -- a three-year scheme to widen Washington's network of sewers and paved streets and plant thousands of trees, encouraging development to break out of the city core. Coincidentally, Shepherd owned land in the Slashes and the West End, positioning him nicely for the subsequent boom. He ultimately came to grief -- by 1873 his overspending had brought him to the verge of personal disgrace and his city to the cusp of bankruptcy, staved off only by a reversion to federal control -- but his enthusiasm was infectious.
In spring 1871, Western mine owners assembled the California Syndicate, spending $600,000 on land adjoining what was dubbed "Pacific Circle." Foreign nations bought plots for embassies and chanceries. Syndicate member Sen. William Stewart of Virginia City, Nev., hired architect Adolph Cluss to put up a five-story redstone mansion at 1913 Massachusetts Ave., a splendiferous contrast to the surrounding shanties and empty fields. Having called Washington "the ugliest city in the whole country," the Nevadan wasn't disappointed to learn that locals were calling his house "Stewart's Castle."
Other arrivistes arrived. Curtis J. Hillyer built a mansion at 2121 Massachusetts Ave. James G. Blaine, whose re'sume' included stints as speaker of the House, senator from Maine, secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate, built a whopping house at 2000 Massachusetts. Belden Noble erected a red brick mansion at 1785 Massachusetts. Half a block west, New York landowner Herbert Wadsworth built a triangular palace incorporating the foundation of Holy Cross Episcopal Church, which had stood on the site for the preceding 25 years. Alexander Graham Bell built a house at 1331 Connecticut in which to spend winters, opposite the home of his father-in-law, National Geographic co-founder Gardiner Hubbard. Chicago department store magnate Levi Leiter sprang for a Belle Epoque grandiosity at 1500 New Hampshire, across from a less ornate spread owned by Ohio Congressman Robert Hitt. A few years later and a few blocks over, Hitt's son built a Beaux Arts gem at 1706 New Hampshire. Robert Patterson hired architects McKim, Mead & White for a house at 15 Dupont Circle. And these were only the toffs; local architects T. Franklin Schneider and Clarke Waggaman landed dozens of commissions for smaller but no less elegant houses.
As if to announce the gilded age's onset, Pacific Circle got a new moniker that rang of money: Congress renamed it for a scion of the du Pont family who had distinguished himself in the Civil War's early days. The legislators must have overlooked Rear Adm. Francis S. du Pont's 1863 attack on Charleston, which flopped dramatically when the Confederates routed his ironclads, with heavy losses. The admiral blamed a lack of landward support from the Army but was relieved of command, dying dejected in 1865.
Never mind. In 1882, Congress wanted to remind Americans who'd won the War Between the States. A hero-hailing, statue-setting campaign ensued, during which du Pont's reputation was rehabilitated -- though not so wholly that his name got spelled right. Still, Congress did drop $13,700 to immortalize him with a bronze "portrait" statue -- so called because such statues showed subjects standing, as if posing for tintypes -- to serve at the center of "Dupont" Circle.
(By the way, there's another Dupont Circle inside the Beltway. As the California Syndicate was advancing its hegemony, a New York syndicate was at work in Prince George's County, laying out its own Dupont Circle in Riverdale. The suburban edition is still around, a modest patch of grass adorned by an old cannon; it's as quiet as its intown namesake is noisy.) Big Bucks, Big Mansions
Fertilized by dough-re-mi, the neighborhood blossomed. Hill- yer converted part of his holdings into a brownstone block that he named Hillyer Place. Beer brewed along the Potomac bought a fine house on New Hampshire Avenue for Christian Heurich. Across the way, San Francisco Examiner owner George Hearst overhauled his place to reflect the Heurich mansion's lines.
The city extended Massachusetts Avenue to Rock Creek; along Connecticut, urbanity spread a full mile north of Florida Avenue. The tentacles of electricity and telephone service crept outward from the circle, now viewed as a "millionaire colony" rife with unwholesomely new money. The term "cave-dweller" came into use to distinguish possibly impecunious but unquestionably genuine bluebloods from this year's parvenu attention-seeker.
Not all the attention was being paid to people. Some focused on a plague of ugly statuary infesting city parks. Unfortunately for Admiral du Pont, his bronze went up just as Washington was getting down on portrait statues. In addition, his kinsmen despised the sculpture. Judging from photos, the animus was well-founded, but nothing happened until the new century arrived -- and the stat- ue's foundations began to sink, causing the admiral to list and his clan to resume its agitation for a chance to do the thing right, on their tab. In 1916 Congress voted to let them replace the bewhisk- ered bronze.
The du Ponts hired sculptor Daniel Chester French to execute a fountain. The admiral's statue beat a retreat to the intersection of Tower Road and 19th Street in Wilmington, Del., where the du Ponts count their spare change (of which they spent $77,521 on French's fountain).
But that wasn't the end of the du Ponts' woes. Children and ne'er-do-wells splashed in the fountain, for purposes of amusement or hygiene. To discourage such rascality, the government planted a bramble hedge. The family griped that the thorn bushes obscured the inscription (which reads in part, "This memorial fountain replaces a statue erected by the Congress of the United States in recognition of his distinguished services"). Over the decades the fountain was moved on and off a succession of bases; the barrier debate continued until the '60s, when other matters took precedence.
At century's turn, a new wave of new money hit. Colorado mining magnate Thomas Walsh spent a pile of his instant wealth building the city's costliest house at 2020 Massachusetts. Hillyer sold his place at 2121 Massachusetts to a former railroad president, who razed it to build a Versaillesian spread equipped with place settings for a thousand. Thomas Sheridan's mansion at 7 Dupont Circle came down to make way for a tile-roofed commercial building that eventually would house a market, a flower shop, a beauty parlor, a hotel, a laundry, an art school, a dancing academy and, finally, a Peoples Drug Store. Distillery owner Edson Bradley replaced Gardiner Hubbard's big Victorian south of the circle with a monster dwelling that ate up half the block with its Gothic chapel, ballroom, art gallery and 1,000-seat theater (Bradley favored the bold stroke; in 1923, he decided to move, and took his house with him, stone by stone, to be worked into Burnham-by-the-Sea, a Newport, R.I., beach cottage with a little more elbow room).
Not every change marked an improvement. After renting his castle to a succession of tenants, including the Chinese legation, Stewart sold it, and in 1901 it waltzed its last under the wrecker's ball, leaving a dank hole that remained until 1924, when Riggs Bank built its branch office. The chasm was a frightsome thing to Willie Grass, who in 1914 was living at home in Foggy Bottom, where his father and grandfather had their cabinetmaking shop (Willie's granddad had done Christian Heurich's interior woodwork). Willie had an Evening Star route west of the circle.
"Besides the paper route, I used to work as what the newspaper people call an inserter," Willie said one evening while taking his constitutional (he lives near the Potomac and, for a guy of 94, walks at a Trumanesque clip). "If there was a special advertising supplement to be put in the Sunday papers, I'd go down to the printing plant about 11 o'clock Saturday night. A bunch of us would walk around a big table sticking supplements into the papers before they were bundled up. Then we'd load the trucks and head up to Dupont Circle and hand out papers to the boys. I usually rode with the Steuart brothers, who had a garage and a coal yard across town and wound up owning an oil company and a car company and what all. They had a contract to carry papers for the Star. I'd ride with them to the hole in the ground where Stewart's Castle used to be, and we'd distribute papers. That was a pretty spooky place at 2 in the morning."
Meanwhile, the knockdowns continued. Stanley McCormick, son of reaper inventor Cyrus, bought Belden Noble's house and had it remodeled. But he never moved in, and soon after went insane. In 1915 his guardians knocked down the Noble house in favor of an opulent apartment building. Although enormous, the building contained only six units, rented to such notables as Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, diplomats Sumner Welles and Robert Woods Bliss and steel-money socialite Perle Mesta. Requisitioned during World War II for use by the British, it's now owned and occupied by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Other mansions underwent similar shifts. During the Great War their owners lent them to such charities as the Red Cross; when the crash of '29 took the fun out of being rich, they sold the houses to nonprofit organizations or clubs like the Sulgrave Club (which owns the Wadsworth house), the Washington Club (the Patterson house), the Woman's National Democratic Club (the sly but eye-stop- ping Whittemore house at 1526 New Hampshire).
In 1933 the National Park Service took over management of the circle. Besides new landscaping and walkways, the Park Service began a Thousand Years War on the circle's hardy rat population. The Park Service also installed concrete sandboxes for the neighborhood children. Unfortunately, gentility already was beginning to drain from the circle. The sand caused rashes; it seemed that dogs and drunks found the boxes handy toilets. The sandboxes remained until 1939, serving a drastically diminished clientele; of course, as soon as they were gone, the complaints stacked up.
The Depression, followed by World War II and its housing and office shortage, utterly transformed Dupont Circle. Smaller residences became rooming houses; mansions became bureaucratic hives. The city's farther reaches beckoned; embassies like Britain's began to move west, and when the new money hit town it kept right on going, out Connecticut Avenue to Chevy Chase or out Massachusetts to Spring Valley. Even so, the neighborhood stayed buttoned-up; in 1940 the Dupont Circle Citizens Association came out against suffrage for the District. Adrift in the Boho Zone
The true loosing of Dupont Circle's stays began after WWII, with veterans trying to live on the GI Bill. A guy might not be able to afford to live in Georgetown while attending Georgetown, but he could bunk at any of dozens of Dupont Circle rooming houses, buy a meal ticket at a cafeteria like the one at the Hartnett Hall rooming house at 21st and P, and have cash left for bus tickets and a movie or two -- more if he walked to class, as John O'Toole did.
O'Toole, now a businessman who lives in Bowie, roomed on 16th Street in quarters too monastic to study in. So, weather permitting, he hauled his texts to the circle and read there until it was time for chow. "It was beautiful," he says. "There were lots of people around, but they weren't noisy, and you could get a lot more reading done than you could in a room where there wasn't even a chair to sit on."
Peace brought another spasm of demolition: A Queen Anne-style house at the circle's southeastern edge became a bank parking lot. Levi Leiter's mansion fell in 1947, eventually to be replaced by the Dupont Plaza Hotel.
Neighborhood buildings were looking old, but the neighbors weren't. After the demobbed vets came the civilian stu- dents, and, as the '50s slid off the calendar, the beats and the artists. Dupont Circle began to get weird; its low rents and wide streets and good light and increasingly high tolerance for nonstandard behavior had an alchemical effect.
Suburban kids began coming down at night to jazz clubs like the Crow's Toe and beer joints like the Dupont Villa. A scene began to sprout.
At the Argyle Terrace over by Massachusetts and Florida, as at other rooming houses, the clientele -- never the most sobersided of citizens -- began to include the newly deinstitutionalized.
"We had one young woman who didn't pay her rent and didn't pay her rent," says former Argyle owner Emily Bechtel. "Finally I went over to talk with her and she explained that she was an Italian princess, and that the Italian Embassy was supposed to be paying all her bills. It turned out she'd stopped taking her medication."
When Bechtel wasn't coping with such matters, she was dodging astrologer Jeane Dixon, who insisted for years that she be permitted to buy a cat gargoyle adorning the Argyle's roofline. Bechtel wouldn't yield.
Along with the new breed of resident and day-tripper, there came a different strain of commercial tenant, spawned from the decade's tensions and drawn to the neighborhood's worn but serviceable office stock, like the apartment house that had replaced Bradley's vanished pleasure dome at the southern edge of the circle. Converted to commercial use during the '40s, the Dupont Circle Building frayed its way through the '50s, gradually coming to function like a fallen tree trunk -- hosting life forms unable or unlikely to flourish elsewhere: outriders from the human potential and civil rights movements, anti-war activists, countercultural capitalists filling niches with design studios, typesetting shops and consulting operations.
The real tilt into the Boho Zone came in 1963, when the cops busted Eddie Hicks. Hicks, a guitarist with no visible means of support, was a fixture at the circle, which in losing its prams and nannies had become Hootenanny Central -- so much so that when the first warm weather arrived on May 19, luring a record crowd of strummers and pluckers, the police rousted them in half-hearted rehearsal of grimnesses to come. Newspaper photos show packs of smiling, clean-cut white kids seated on the grass, probably mouthing the words to "500 Miles" or "If I Had a Hammer," as stern-faced cops order them to disperse.
Despite the clampdown, Hicks and cohort kept showing up at the circle with their six-strings and finger picks, much in the manner of Mario Savio and cohort continuing to show up at Berkeley's Sproul Plaza with their bullhorns and placards. Confrontation was inevitable, and on June 13, Hicks was arrested for vagrancy.
That did it. For most of America the '60s might have begun on November 22, 1963, but at Dupont Circle they started when the handcuffs clicked around Hicks's wrists. It was as if someone had switched on an electromagnet. Every evening 300 or 400 people -- the curious, the committed, the disaffected, the deranged and all stripes between -- gathered at the circle to mill around, play chess or guitars or bongos, engage in reckless eyeballing, argue politics. The lawns and the fountain rim were the only place to sit until the next August, when the Park Service installed benches, which drew more people, and removed the iron fence barring access to the fountain, which drew even more people.
In September 1966, this magazine's ancestor, Potomac, carried an article titled "What About Dupont Circle?" that described the scene as "a simmering bouillabaisse of classes, colors, and types; a ferment of beatniks, genteel matrons, foreign students, thrill-seekers and curiosity-hunters." The accompanying photo spread includes a perfect Dupont Circle image: Shot at night toward the south with a wide-angle lens held low across the fountain's pool, the picture shows the Dupont Circle Building looming in the corner, outlined against a night sky mirrored in the black water of the fountain, whose rim is hip to hip to hip with rumps. A black man in a porkpie hat is moving into the frame, headed for the thick of the standing crowd of ties, sportcoats and oxford cloth buttondowns.
Around then, Lily Spandorf began to draw and paint the doings at the circle. She'd moved to Washington in 1960 from New York, where she'd wintered over after leaving her native Vienna by way of Italy and England. As a painter, Spandorf was determinedly representational and impressionistic in an art world under abstraction's iron rule. She came to Washington only to mount a show of her work but fell in love with the city -- and then with the circle.
"I lived here and there until I found an apartment at the top floor of a building at Connecticut and Q," she says, her Viennese accent still tart on the ear. "It looked awful at first, a dismal place -- until I went back at sunset and saw the western light and said to myself, this is it."
In autumn 1961, Spandorf was settling into her new home when she broke her left (non-artistic) wrist and found herself in Georgetown University Hospital, on the eve of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s baptism in the chapel there. Cameras were barred from the ceremony, but Spandorf slipped into the flower-bedecked sanctuary beforehand and sketched furiously, then called the Star. The pictures ran, and Spandorf the painter acquired an alter ego: Spandorf the reportorial artist. She freelanced for the Star until it folded in 1981, producing deft renderings of news stories as disparate as the 1963 civil rights march, the filming of the movie "Advise and Consent" and the 1968 Democratic convention, along with less deadline-driven images of scenes around town, such as the ever-shaggier troupe at Dupont Circle.
"I sometimes went down in the evening and stayed half the night. It was really nice," she says. "I could stay out and not feel scared or worried that someone might mug me. The only bad times were during the Vietnam demonstrations, when the circle wasn't that happy a place. One evening there was a lot of commotion, and I went down to find police all over. They started throwing canisters, and everybody ducked. That was my first whiff of tear gas."
By the time the Star died, Spandorf's painting had acquired an elegiac aspect. Unhappy at seeing so many fine old buildings consigned to destruction, she had begun to document them, a diminutive figure scuttling through the city beneath the burden of a portable easel and paintbox, setting up, catching the light on a facade or a row and preserving not merely the forms but the feeling they conveyed. In 1988, Grew Publishing brought out Washington Never More, a collection of those images, and a sadder, lovelier book is hard to find. The most poignant picture shows the row that included 1528 Connecticut, Spandorf's old digs. If the building were standing today it would be where the Domino's Pizza lean-to abuts the Metro chute -- part of the block threatened by the proposed Riggs development.
Still a neighborhood resident, Spandorf says that although the area retains some of the atmosphere it had when she first arrived, much of what was is no more, people and buildings vanishing like pieces of a crumbling mosaic being sped along with a ball peen hammer. 'Washington Should Have a Store Like This'
Before the crumbling began in earnest, the mosaic -- buffed by friction -- brightened for a while. With the South Vietnamese Chancery barely a stone's throw away, the circle was a natural focus for the anti-war movement and the counterculture. The rooming houses begat crash pads, which begat collectives, which begat communes, which begat a tightly knit community of the young and rebellious -- which persuaded L. Page "Deacon" Maccubbin to stretch a visit into a 20-year hitch as a Dupont Circle resident, businessman and gay activist.
"I came to Washington in 1969 from Norfolk, Virginia, on a two-week vacation and never left," Maccubbin says. "I was just out of the Army and very involved in the anti-war movement. I'd come into D.C. numerous times before -- on high school trips or for demonstrations -- but this time it struck me differently, particularly the Dupont Circle neighborhood. I'd just come out. It was easier in Washington than back home. Norfolk was very conservative; Washington was more open and accepting -- not only of gays but of diversity in general."
Supporting himself doing odd jobs and hawking underground papers like the Quicksilver Times, Maccubbin paid $15 a week for a room in an old house on New Hampshire Avenue. "Quicksilver sold for a quarter; we paid about 15 cents a copy," he says. "Sometimes you lived on brown rice for a week, but that was okay."
Movement connections led Maccubbin into volunteer duty with the Washington Area Free University and the D.C. Switchboard, the ancestor of area hotlines. The Switchboard provided whatever callers needed -- employment or housing or medical advice or merely a sympathetic ear in the middle of a bum trip. Maccubbin moved to Adams-Morgan and was wondering what would come next when a friend said she was thinking of shutting down her crafts store on 20th Street, a cozy little operation called Earthworks that sold handmade candles, sculptures and other oddments. Maccubbin heard possibilities.
"I said, 'Why don't I take it over?'
"She said, 'Give me $100 and it's yours.'
"It wasn't worth a hundred bucks, but I paid her anyway. I did it as much to have something to do for the afternoon as any- thing, but found that I really enjoyed retailing."
Maccubbin took an apartment on S Street in time to watch his new turf undergo yet another evolution. The war bled to a halt, and with fewer people coming to town for protests, the circle's transient quotient dropped. There were fewer strange faces, fewer strange days. "The changes came subtly, over a period of years, so it's hard to sort them out, but one was when the Benbow bar closed," he says. "Another was when they took the lunch counter out of Schwartz's drug- store. Both places were landmarks, neighborhood hangouts replaced by new businesses geared to what we now call yuppies."
Earthworks' stock had evolved with the era to emphasize products related to smoking -- cigars and cigarettes, loose tobacco, rolling papers, the briarwood and meerschaum pipes Dad used to chomp, and sundry rigs designed for the consumption of . . . well, no one said exactly what the gear was for, and no one exactly asked. Bongs were simply another item to inventory -- until the new morality arrived, and with it a ban on drug paraphernalia sales. By then, however, Earthworks was closer to a traditional tobacconist's, and Maccubbin was well into another venture.
He'd seen the circle's gay population expand. P Street had some gay bars; he was thinking of a different kind of gay-oriented business.
"In Greenwich Village, I'd seen the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. It was only 300 square feet, but it was devoted to gay and lesbian literature, and I was impressed. I thought, 'Washington should have a store like this,' " he says. "In 1974 a space opened in the building, and I decided to give the bookstore idea a try. I scraped together $3,000, plus a $1,000 loan from a local gay activist, and opened Lambda Rising. We had about 300 titles -- which represented most of the gay bibliography. I just wanted to pay the overhead, because Earthworks was making money. I figured we only needed $25 a day to pay the expenses. We did that the first day. Gay readers were hungry for their literature. The pub- lishers responded, and our stock grew correspondingly."
Gays were nothing new at the circle. As early as 1936 the Park Police were reporting that the men's room at its western edge was popular for homosexual liaisons. By the '50s the circle had a reputation as a cruising spot second only to Lafayette Square, and in line with the times, the police cracked down. When Frank Kameny, a WWII veteran and unabashed homosexual, finished his doctorate in astronomy at Harvard and took a job at Georgetown University in 1956, he discovered what local gays already knew: that cruising Dupont Circle meant risking entrapment.
"There was no such thing as a 'gay activist,' " he says. "I had a job and a social life, and I learned about such scene as there was: a few bars, none of them near Dupont Circle; Lafayette Park, which was the area, dating back to the mid-1800s; and Dupont Circle, which was much the secondary scene, partly because the police vice squad was entrapping people.
"But there's a fundamental rule of social interaction -- namely, that people go where people are, and when there's movement in either direction, you reach a tilt point. That's what happened in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. People went where people were."
In 1961, Kameny, tired of harassment, founded the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society, named for medieval Italian jesters permitted to speak pointed truths from behind masks. Washington's first militant homosexual group, the Mattachines made one of their first crusades the issue of entrapment at Dupont Circle, and soon negotiations with the police ended the busts.
As the neighborhood's consciousness rose, gays became part of its fabric -- but lost "their" circle to mass popularity. Cruising shifted gears, moving to a stretch near Rock Creek known as the P Street Beach. Homosexual tenants and owners filled houses and apartment buildings around the circle. The gay liberation movement obviated the need for the Mattachines, but in a sense Maccubbin, his bookstore and its clientele can trace their roots to Kameny's group.
In 1977 a prosperous Lambda Rising moved into a former interior design store on S Street, but soon even that wasn't enough, and Maccubbin began looking for more space and a better location. In November 1984 he and lover/partner Jim Bennett moved Lambda Rising into 1625 Connecticut Ave., 4,800 airy square feet on two levels -- room for 20,000 books and a wall of magazine racks. "We started the move on a Friday night and opened the doors at noon on Saturday," Maccubbin says, chasing his dog, Armistead Maupin, off the counter of his office, which looks through glass panels out onto the store below. "There were 200 people waiting on the sidewalk, and the mayor declared Lambda Rising Day. The next day we opened our Baltimore branch. Then we slept for two weeks."
Lambda Rising's stock comes in categories not that different from any other bookstore's: travel, fiction, non-fiction, history, mysteries, comics, drama, erotica, posters, calendars; it adds up to a window into the breadth and length of gay culture, and a handy little moneymaker as well. Maccubbin estimates that in fiscal 1989 the store grossed $1.7 million, counting revenues from subscriptions to the Lambda Book Report, a quarterly literary review; sales of the Whole Gay Catalogue, an in-house publishing effort that annotates gay and lesbian literature; and mail-order book sales.
"The mail-order stuff is more of a social concern project. Our profit is in these letters," Maccubbin says, pointing to a thick sheaf of correspondence. "The people using our mail-order service live out there somewhere, maybe in towns so small that there isn't a gay bar, or even another gay person. We provide them with access to community, to history, to their people."
Maccubbin was instrumental in a more local public service when he footed the bill for D.C.'s first Gay Pride Day celebration, a June 1975 block party in front of his S Street store.
"It was supposed to start at 2 in the afternoon. At 2 o'clock the organizer was wringing his hands; nobody had shown up," Maccubbin says. " 'Relax,' I told him. 'They're all on gay time. They'll be here in half an hour.' And they were: About 2,000 people showed up, and we sponsored the event for four more years. The fifth year we had 10,000 people on three blocks, which was just too many. We repaired the damage to people's lawns and shrubbery, but we knew we couldn't do it on S Street anymore. Now P Street Festival produces Gay Pride Day over at 24th and N streets, and we get 20,000 or 25,000 people. I'm very proud to have had a part in getting it started." Last Stand or Next Phase?
Despite his success, Maccubbin joins neighbors in voicing apprehension about what the 1990s have in store. After the '50s and '60s, which saw incursions by hotels and office buildings, and the '70s, during which more landmarks disappeared amid zoning defeats for preservation-minded activists, the neighborhood made it through the '80s in relatively fine form -- losing the Dupont Circle Building's soul to a gut job (1986), but beating back the International Association of Machinists' bid to build a 10-story complex on N Street (1980), fending off a McDonald's (1983), forcing the Brookings Institution to downscale plans for an office/apartment complex (1984) and keeping a seven-story condominium from being built behind the Fraser House at Connecticut and R (1987).
However, in recent months a developer ignored pleas to spare a row of houses at 22nd and N streets, bulldozing their remains even as he declared, "I am a preservationist." And opponents of the Riggs Bank proposal -- for a 100-foot tall structure that would occupy the entire block atop the Q Street Metro entrance, erasing a stretch of small businesses like Burrito Brothers carryout, the gay bar Rascals, an art gallery and chain operations Kemp Mill Records and Domino's Pizza -- make it sound like Dupont Circle's Last Stand.
"It's really scary," says Maccubbin. "What they're describing would turn Dupont Circle into Rosslyn. It would take away the human scale."
Others agree. "The Riggs proposal is an outrage," says Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairman Jack Evans. "We're in a constant battle against the march of commercialism, and this is only the latest phase. We don't want a Franklin Square-style dead zone here, with everyone leaving the office at 5 o'clock and coming back the next morning."
ANC Commissioner Ed Grandis echoes Evans's dire pronouncements. "Now, when you cross Dupont Circle, you have the sense of entering a residential community. It might be architecturally satisfying to have the north side of the circle mirror the south, but it would be disastrous for those of us who live there," he says. "Within 15 years you'd see massive structures up the length of Connecticut Avenue."
Riggs isn't talking, or even letting copies of its architect's rendering float around, for fear that what a bank spokesman describes as a very, very tentatively conceptual sort of talking point might be misconstrued as a plan cast in stone.
But when the dust settles and the restraining orders run out, it's not hard to expect, in light of the foregoing 200 years, that the doomsaying will prove at least slightly exaggerated. There is about Dupont Circle an ineradicable Dupont Circleness, not sustained by any structure, but by something in the air, in the light, in the very ground on which Joel Berg sits of a sweaty Saturday, trying to type faster than the speed of thunder after a guy in a Kerouac T-shirt asks him to boil up a three-minute poem that bubbles with the circle's essence:
For Dupont Circle by Joel Berg 7/21/90 When that French guy back then who hated Federalist John Jay and decided not to name a street after him and then went on to design this circle for horse carriages, he never could have thought at the edge of his brain that all his handiwork would be covered by street people, struggling each day to find some food and forget their permanent memory in the summer that he actually designed and built a city on top of an actual swamp.
And then the handiwork cut under -- today like a laser swift incision -- dug under deep rock and built a subway so clean and swift that it is not even worthy of the name subway.
And on top are bookshops melded into cafes, long draws of coffee over words of Nietzsche and Hegel longing into the night and making reggae drifting even further onto the passing curbsides. He never could imagine that a whole war, an entire revolution, would be fought for this. Wondering why all those after him thought that the Circle was named for a chemical company. With food from all over the world, he knows only too well that there were no burritos at Valley Forge. He knows only too well, now, that with the flick of the finger signing the paper and finishing off the transaction, all that is here now will be gone, completely gone, by the time the ghost of John Jay gets around to dropping by to complain for himself. Michael Dolan is a Washington writer.