Memories of tamer days, when upper Georgia Avenue shops projected a neighborly, family atmosphere, still linger in the minds of some longtime Northwest residents. But today's upper Georgia Avenue, across the border from Silver Spring, is largely a world of strangers who frequent liquor stores, go-go bars, fast-food restaurants and a massage parlor.
Last week more than 300 angry people filled the Shepherd School auditorium at 13th Street and Kalmia Road NW, assembling in hopes of finding a way to win back their neighborhoods.
They came also to vent their frustrations at a panel that featured mayoral candidate Charlene Drew Jarvis, Deputy Police Chief Clay Goldston, and Dallas Evans, acting staff director of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Several community members attending the meeting said the upper Georgia Avenue strip now attracts transients, prostitutes, crime, drugs, and derelicts to otherwise-tranquil family neighborhoods.
Other residents at the gathering said that derelicts urinate on private property and that lewd women standing outside go-go bars behave in ways children should not witness.
Those attending the meeting included representatives from the communities of Takoma, Shepherd Park, Brightwood, Manor Park, Colonial Village and North Portal Estates, as well as from Neighbor's Inc, an organization dedicated to integrated communities. The meeting was organized by the Upper Georgia Avenue Planning Committee.
But according to Anthony Lopes, the manager of Chances R and the Other Place, two go-go bars on the strip, the community is being hypocritical when it attacks his type of business.
"When I came up here in 1970 I could have shot a cannon and not hit anything," Lopes said. "There was nothing up here. If people wanted to preserve their fine stores and restaurants, why didn't they support them back then, and not let them die?"
Nevertheless, many in the community have reached the point where they want a return to the days when, as 35-year resident Marie Cole put it, "People could walk the streets without fear and shop in nice stores."
Evelyn Gray remembers the sweet aroma of the bakery that filled the air as she shopped in "wholesome" stores along Georgia Avenue near Rittenhouse Street more than 20 years ago.
An area resident since 1957 and president of the Brightwood Community Association, Gray said she longs for the return of the days when the Sheridan Theatre showed "family pictures" and people were not "afraid to walk home in the dark, even after the late show."
Said 7-Eleven store owner John Watson, "90 percent of the people who come in here are not from our neighborhood." It is the transients, mostly from Maryland, he said, who scare off the shoppers, especially women, with their whistles and jeers.
A black woman attending last week's meeting stood up to address the panel. "This used to be a nice area. When blacks moved in it seemed to get worse. Now people wrongly see our community as a crummy, black district. Upper Georgia Avenue is giving people the wrong impression."
Another person stood up to ask, disgustedly, "What do we do when we leave here tonight? I saw a bum relieving himself in front of my house last week."
One answer, amounting to a quick lesson in lobbying, came from Jarvis' staff assistant, Lorena Cabaniss. "Go to the zoning commision hearings," she said. "Go to the ABC Alcoholic Beverage Commission meetings. People in Chevy Chase and Georgetown do not have these problems because they do not wait to make their feelings known."
While residents at the meeting said they find fast-food restaurants and liquor stores offensive (they recently won a battle to keep a game arcade out of the neighborhood and forced a McDonald's restaurant to alter its building plans), most upsetting to area residents are the sexually oriented establishments.
In defense of his business and clientele, go-go bar manager Lopes said, "We're providing a service people want. A lot of my customers are doctors and psychiatrists from Walter Reed. One dancer saw her gynecologist at a table one night."
"What sexual crime is being committed by a nude dancer? Our girls aren't allowed to kiss or touch anybody; otherwise we could be shut down. There's more sex on the daytime soap operas."
What makes things especially difficult for the residents who live near upper Georgia Avenue is the fact that sexually oriented businesses such as Anthony Lopes' bars are there legally.
During the recession of the early 1970s, restaurant owners found that making money was becoming more difficult in the Georgia Avenue area. To beef up profits they offered nude dancing at night.
"When I came here in 1970 everything was closed up here," said Lopes, whose wife and a partner own the bars. "I challenge anybody to get the sales tax figures for this area from 1969 and 1970."
Until zoning laws changed in 1977, few businessmen had difficulty obtaining the necessary permits to run their establishments because the community was neither aware nor organized enough to do anything about it, several residents said.
Deputy Chief Goldston said several times during the meeting that although the go-go bars may be bothersome to the community, little can be done because they are operating within the law. "We would like to see the area cleaned up, but it's not a simple solution," said Goldston, attempting to explain the complicated rules that have allowed the topless bars and massage parlor to stay open.
The frustrated residents are concerned that Tina's, a new bar with nude dancing, may open in the near future if the city grants a permit.
They have begun to mobilize a campaign to lobby city officials to prevent the go-go bar from opening, similar to efforts by Takoma-area residents to close the Whistle Stop, another go-go bar.
"I just wish we had a bakery again," said Evelyn Gray.