Martin W.G. King, a Washington writer who now lives in Cleveland Park, reflects on his coming of age in Dupont Circle.
I arrived at Dupont Circle around 4 p.m. on Sept. 11, 1967, a would-be art student. I had come from Canada and carried a threadbare wallet, a suitcase full of art books, magazines, and sketch pads, three shirts, one pair of pants, a parka, one antiwar button and a Gordon Lightfoot record not yet released in the United States. I spent most of the next 19 years living in or near Dupont Circle while I pursued an education and, later, a career.
In retrospect, it seems that the education came not from the schools I attended but from coming of age in Dupont Circle at a time when the country was coping with the tumult of social upheaval and protest of a war that was then unpopular.
Nineteen years ago, Dupont Circle was about as exciting a place to live as there could be -- if you were my age. In those days, Dupont Circle was a low-rent ghetto for college students and hippies, and people danced in the Circle itself to hits like the Beatles' "Revolution."
The Circle has changed a lot. It's a neighborhood where roots -- like mine -- grow deep, and where many of Washington's prosperous lawyers, stockbrokers and civil servants came of age, though none of us would have believed we'd turn out so "established" if you'd asked us back around 1968.
The change at Dupont Circle is epitomized by what happened to the Admiral Benbow tavern. The Benbow has been transformed into the stylish, tiled and ferned Chesapeake Bagel Bakery. Good as the bakery's bagels may be, the "gentrification" represented by the bagels sold at the place we still remember as our hallowed Benbow is what gives us pause.
Back in the "old" days, the Benbow was a place where my generation of Circle residents observed our rites of passage: a first "drunk," perhaps, or some victory at the antiwar "barricades." About a dozen years later, The Post ran an editorial trying to save the Benbow, not just for the building's architectural merit, but for the tavern's ambiance as the last "neighborhood" bar -- there were lots of chic new ones, by then -- in a neighborhood everyone knew was changing.
Once, my friends carried me home on their shoulders to my three-room, $65-a-month apartment above Swift's Drycleaning and Laundry at 17th and R streets, when I'd had more than a few too many at the Benbow. Swift's is still there, but there is now an expensive new condominium -- the Admiral Dupont -- across the street where a black-owned grocery and a laundromat once stood.
At Benbow, waitresses from West Virginia served pitchers of beer for $1.35, hard-boiled eggs for 10 cents each, and frequently sat and quaffed with the clientele. They were decent people and we respected their sincerity when we disagreed about the war. Despite their unconditional support of "the president," they frequently set out buckets of water on the sidewalk in front of the Benbow so those who had been teargassed at antiwar demonstrations at the Circle could wash their eyes.
Not all of the patrons were in agreement either; heated debates sometimes continued in decrepit 19th Street rooming houses long after last call until Schwartz Pharmacy, another mainstay, opened for breakfast.
When we couldn't wait for Schwartz to open, we'd head up the street a few doors to Rands, a restaurant that kept late hours. (Rands, after at least a decade as the charming Greek Village Restaurant, is a popular Italian place called Pizza 'N' Pasta). Rands smelled of grease and the odors given off by some of its patrons, but the coffee and the donuts were cheap. We were always amused that Rands was given its name because it was situated halfway between R and S streets.
The old Crystal City Restaurant -- where Jacqueline Bouvier (she was not yet Kennedy -- or Onassis) was rumored to have hung out while working as an inquiring photographer for the old Daily News -- is another Dupont Circle institution whose days of glory seem gone for good. Back in the late 1960s, the outdoor cafe at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and R Street was a popular hangout, something like an open-air Benbow, but with far better food and drinks and a never-ending parade of friends and familiar neighbors passing by on the sidewalk beside the tables.
Sometime around 1974 or 1975, the Crystal City's owners decided to sell the restaurant to the Gino's fast-food chain. The neighborhood revolted (as was its custom) and anti-"Ginocide" demonstrations took place on 20th Street on hot Saturday afternoons. The neighborhood won that one -- or seemed to, at least. The Crystal City was never sold to Gino's, but the people who eventually bought the place stripped away the restaurant's green Art Deco facade, exposing plain brown brick, and turned the place into a French "bistro" that seems to attract only out-of-towners from the big hotels -- the Washington Hilton and the Holiday Inn up the hill.
When I first came to Washington I lived at the International Student House, the ivy-covered Tudor mansion at 1825 R St. NW, across from the Embassy of Singapore. Founded by the Quakers in the 1930s, the "I. House" later acquired an independent board of directors drawn from Washington's business, political and cultural communities.
Then, the "I. House" was not an "international boarding house," as one board member recently described it, but, in "'60s" language, it was an international living program. It was an odd mixture of turbans and kimonos, live Portuguese operettas wafting up from the third-floor women's showers to the men's bedrooms on the fourth floor, and intellectual challenge as we debated the war and what role we could -- or should -- play in trying to stop it.
Dupont Circle saw its share of serious protests. One day, after 1971's May Day protests, the police arrested thousands of demonstrators, as well as hapless souls -- including a barber who stepped outside to view the commotion -- who happened to be at the wrong place (Dupont Circle) at the wrong time, and held them in the Circle's round park. The use of Dupont Circle as a prison seemed to be a perfect symbol of the "police state mentality" so many of us thought we were fighting. (The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the arrests had been unconstitutional.)
On happier days, after dark, you could hear the thump-thump of the Circle's bongo drummers from as far away as the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and R Street NW. When you got to the Circle, hundreds would be dancing around the fountain. The man with the dancing monkey was usually there, too. In those days, we had no Cagney's. When we wanted to dance indoors instead of on the pavement, we headed for the back of the Benbow.
At 18th and S Street NW, two stylish restaurants and a caterer have taken the place of Stone Soup, the antiprofit food cooperative that was well-known as Dupont Circle was quickly changing in the mid-1970s. Nichola Bastian, one of Stone Soup's managers, told me that her main concern was to feed as many of the poor people in the neighborhood as much protein as she could get into them, at the least possible price. While one foreign friend chided that "you don't start a revolution by running a food store," Stone Soup filled a community need. Now, pricey restaurants are ensconced in the squat building where poor people lined up less than 10 years ago to pay nickels and dimes for affordable protein.
Just as my generation has changed, Dupont Circle has changed, too. I'm not completely comfortable with all this new high-rent glitz and glamour, but I still might want to live there again some day -- if only I could afford it.