Go to Main District of Columbia Page

Dupont Circle:
Eclectic Enclave

By Snigdha Prakash
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 02, 1993

Anne Alvarez came to Dupont Circle nearly 20 years ago, attracted by its old houses and low prices. In 1973, she and the man she later married bought a turreted stone house at 16th and S streets NW for $59,000. Although her husband has since died, Alvarez has remained.

"I know everybody—the liquor store people, the deli people. I know lots of neighbors, lots of people," she said.

Marilyn Groves and her husband moved to Washington from New York two years ago and, after looking at suburban tract homes, settled on Dupont Circle. The draw was Dupont Circle's proximity to downtown Washington, its active street life and the people who live there, Groves said.

Scott Johnson moved to a Dupont Circle condominium five months ago, attracted by the neighborhood's large gay population.

"Since I'm gay, I feel comfortable here," said Johnson, who used to live in Silver Spring. "I feel more comfortable walking with my lover [here] than I would in Fairfax or Alexandria."

Just north of Washington's central business district, Dupont Circle's location, commercial vitality, diverse population and turn-of-the-century architecture attracts an eclectic mix of homeowners and renters.

Most of the row houses that predominate in Dupont Circle were built in the 1880s and 1890s and were originally home to diplomats and professionals, as well as to tradesmen and laborers.

The neighborhood, which extends from O Street NW to Florida Avenue NW and which is bounded by Rock Creek Park on the west and 15th Street NW on the east, contains four historic districts, which have combined since the 1970s to preserve large portions of the original architecture.

From 1905 to 1925, and again in the 1950s and 1960s, blocks of row houses were torn down and replaced with multistory apartment buildings, said Dudley Cannada, a Dupont Circle architect who specializes in renovating the area's old houses.

Many row houses were converted to boarding houses during the 1940s and helped house the influx of government workers to wartime Washington. By the 1970s, professionals began moving into the neighborhood.

The changes have resulted in a neighborhood that mixes a substantial population of young renters, who live in the apartment buildings scattered throughout the community, with affluent homeowners, who dwell in the historic row houses.

The median price of the 80 or so houses now on the market is $350,000, said John T. Taylor, an associate broker at Millicent Chatel Associates Inc. in Washington. Two-bedroom condominiums tend to sell for about $185,000 while one-bedroom condos sell for about $100,000. Since the late 1980s, however, values have dropped about 20 percent, he said.

The typical buyers are single young professionals and two-income families, Taylor said. It isn't an area with many families because space and security concerns generally keep families with young children out of the Dupont Circle market, he said.

The mix of commercial and residential in the neighborhood has traditionally generated tension between citizens groups and businesses, primarily over the scale of new commercial developments.

"Our main objective is to preserve as much residential as we can, because the balance is always tipping in favor of commercial, because we are so close to downtown," said R. Dennis Bass, chairman of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

Dupont Circle has three commercial corridors—Connecticut Avenue, 17th Street and P Street—filled with restaurants, bookstores, bars and specialty shops.

In 1991 citizens groups succeeded in getting new zoning restrictions enacted that make it extremely difficult to build large commercial buildings in the neighborhood. Those zoning restrictions, as well as the slump in commercial real estate, have dampened commercial development in Dupont Circle, Bass said.

Citizens groups are fighting smaller commercial incursions, such as the use of residential buildings for exclusively commercial uses in the buffer zones between commercial and residential streets.

They also are trying to get a moratorium on the number of liquor licenses on P Street to prevent neighborhood-oriented businesses, such as shoe stores and dry cleaners, from being driven out by more bars that can better afford the high rents. A similar moratorium exists on 17th Street.

"Again the problem is we're so close to downtown, [the new establishments with liquor licenses] could easily get all their clientele from downtown," Bass said.

Citizen activists said concern about crime and aggressive panhandling has grown significantly in the neighborhood.

"In general, people are getting very nervous about crime," Bass said.

Of 44 residents who attended an October neighborhood meeting, seven had been assaulted, 10 had had their homes burglarized and 14 had their cars stolen, Bass said.

"The pattern seems to be is that there is a wave [of crime] in a block [or] two blocks," Bass said. When foot patrols of those areas are boosted, the problem just moves to another area, he said.

While police statistics show no increase in street assaults over the last year, there has been some increase in crimes against property, such as theft from automobiles.

There also in increasing concern to residents of violence against gays, said Lawrence Saltzman, a gay rights activist.

"People will wait outside Lambda Rising [a gay bookstore on Connecticut Avenue], or outside one bar or another," said Saltzman, to harass and physically assault patrons. Saltzman is founder of new group Pink Panthers, which patrols streets and businesses in Dupont Circle and adjoining areas on weekend nights.

The Panthers escort alleged harassers outside the neighborhood, plan to keep a file of known harassers and file complaints with the police, Saltzman said.

Like many urban residents, Dupont Circle homeowners are philosophical about the threat of crime and other problems, but wouldn't think of leaving.

"This is my home," Alvarez said. "This is where I live. I like the convenience of it. If I were just starting out, I might not come here. [But] I feel I'm safe because there are a lot of people around me."

© Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top