Watch out, Washington real estate. There’s a new name in town. That name? Midtown.
Or, to put it another way, downtown.
“Midtown Center” is the name of the striking new verdigris building that has risen where the old Washington Post building used to be: at 15th and L streets NW.
It is a catchy name, but it reminds me of something. What is it?
Ah, that is right. It reminds me of Manhattan. In the Big Apple, Midtown is that swath of the island between downtown and uptown. It makes a certain sense, geographically and lexicologically. I am not so sure it does here.
“I hate this creeping New Yorkism,” said Jane F. Levey, chief historian of the Historical Society of Washington. The worst example, she said, is NoMa, for “North of Massachusetts Avenue.”
Said Levey: “That’s a direct steal from New York,” where SoHo — “South of Houston” — is firmly on the map.
“They can have that,” Levey said. “We’re not in such a hurry. We don’t need so many shorthands here.”
Of course, real estate nomenclature is as malleable as Play-Doh. Even “downtown” does not have the same meaning it once did. In the 1920s, that term meant the blocks around Ninth and E streets NW.
I asked my mom and dad what “downtown” meant to them growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. For them, it was a destination on the streetcar from Brookland. It meant shopping at the downtown department stores, such as Woodies at 11th and G streets NW.
Eventually, downtown shifted further west, or at least its westernmost border did. The area covered by the Downtown D.C. business improvement district stretches from North Capitol Street to 16th Street NW and from Constitution Avenue to Massachusetts Avenue. That’s an area that includes Midtown Center.
Midtown only works if you have a downtown and an uptown. We have an uptown, or at least an Uptown Theatre, in Cleveland Park, which is northwest of downtown. But I do not think any Washingtonian has ever said, “I live uptown.” And Billy Joel did not write “Uptown Girl” about a haughty beauty living in McLean Gardens.
In an email, Emily York of Carr Properties — developer of Midtown Center — said the name reflects “the fact that the project is located at the commercial center of the City. Historically, 15th Street is the dividing line between the CBD [central business district] and the East End.”
East End is an expression I have heard applied to London but I am not sure I have ever heard it applied to the District. I have heard West End, which is what people used to call Foggy Bottom before someone thought that sounded a tad down-market.
I thought “midtown” might be a new invention, but when I looked through The Post archives, I saw it has been around for a while. It was used sparingly and, like “downtown,” it has moved around over the years.
In 1937, “midtown” was used to describe the box office of the National Theatre, at 13th and Pennsylvania NW.
In 1948, 11th Street NW between Vermont and Florida avenues was described as “midtown.”
In 1952 an office building at 1717 H St. NW was described as “midtown.”
In 1962, “midtown” reached all the way to 21st and O streets NW, where a hotel was being converted to a nursing home. That is Dupont Circle in my book.
“There’s nothing sacred about neighborhood names,” Levey said. “Most were bestowed by real estate developers who were trying to be clever . . . Part of the problem is we go through cycles of names. We have a name that’s perfectly respectable, then the neighborhood runs down and that provokes renaming it.”
An example: NoMa, which swallowed up Sursum Corda, a low-income housing area.
There is no guarantee the name Midtown Center will spread from a single office complex to the entire area. And Midtown Center should not be confused with CityCenterDC, which bills itself as “Downtown’s signature neighborhood.”
CityCenterDC is located where the old convention center used to be. The “new” convention center is in a neighborhood that today we call Shaw.
You know what Shaw used to be called?
You think I am going to say “Midtown,” don’t you?
Tomorrow: Bloodfield? Murder Bay? Bear’s Gap? Remembering Washington’s lost neighborhood names.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.