My Father’s Footsteps

Penrose Square, a new residential complex along the transformed Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA. Image via Better Cities.

“I don’t recognize any of this,” said my father over and over again. We were driving down Columbia Pike just outside of DC on the very first night I was here. When my father lived here in the late 70s and early 80s, there were some small businesses, garden apartment complexes, and car-oriented retail development. Last week, the development typology was entirely different; mixed use complexes with luxury rentals on top of trendy bars and restaurants and brand new and remodeled residential enclaves now co-mingled with those same small roadside stores. Most notably, the Arlington Theater, a local landmark, had been transformed into a second-run cinema and adjoining bar and restaurant. A little piece of urban reuse in suburban sprawl.

My father and I have not led entirely different lives. In fact, our migration pattern so far has been pretty similar. Both of us have resettled in Philadelphia and Washington after leaving New York; him for college and grad school, myself for grad school and now work. Despite returning to both of those cities many times since living there (Philadelphia in the mid 70s and Washington for three years following that), his views and image of those two cities have remained constant, even if the city around him has changed tremendously.

Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia. The neighborhood has become increasingly popular with young professionals and creatives in recent years. Image via Active Rain

When my father lived in Philly, he was very much a part of the Penn bubble; he lived on campus all four years and barely ventured west of 40th street and east of the Schulykill River (with exceptions for going to the Spectrum, the Vet, and Pat’s, and sometimes other destinations). Part of this was because he was in school, but also partly because other parts of Philadelphia were neither safe nor desirable. Fringe neighborhoods on the outskirts of Center City, such as Fishtown and Northern Liberties, Graduate Hospital, and parts of West Philadelphia were no mans land; gritty crime-addled sections of the city that were decidedly unsafe to walk around at any time of the day. However, a renewed interest in urban development and a steady influx of young urban professionals to these neighborhoods has seen not only their revival in recent years, but has made them into some of the city’s hottest and most desirable enclaves.

Fette Sau in Fishtown. This Brooklyn-based barbecue joint is one of several NYC-based establishments that have popped up in Philadelphia in recent years, attracting more young urban types to the settle nearby. Image via Business Insider.

Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital are two standout examples of how once looked-over neighborhoods have changed for the better. In the 1990s and 2000s, when Old City Philadelphia hit the “coolness” saturation point (and notoriously hosted this), creatives moved north in Northern Liberties, attracted by lower property values and cheaper rents. Of course, as more and more of these creative types headed north, the elements of gentrification followed: gastropubs, art studios, independent designer boutiques, a trendy bowling alley, and most recently, a high profile multi-million dollar mixed use development that combines new construction and urban re-use (and contains one the city’s most dynamic public spaces). Today, Northern Liberties is the city’s most prominent “hipster” enclave, drawing parallels to Williamsburg, and as the neighborhood hits its own saturation point, the nearby communities of Fishtown and Kensington are poised to become the future center of urban cool. Stalwarts such as Johnny Brenda’s, and relative newcomers like Pizza Brain and Little Baby’s Ice Cream are small previews of what’s to come in future years.

Ultimo Coffee in Graduate Hospital, Philadelphia. This local coffee shop has come to symbolize the demographic and social changes that have occurred in Graduate Hospital in recent years. Image via Uwishunu.

To the south, Graduate Hospital has always been overshadowed by tonier Rittenhouse and Fitler Squares. The lack of formal public space, access to high quality urban services, and a prevalence of street crime made the neighborhood undesirable. In recent years, however, a string of new development projects and a renewed interest in the neighborhood has made it attractive to a new generation of residents. It’s proximity to both Center City and the University of Pennsylvania and its hospital network, combined with less expensive rent, has made the neighborhood extremely popular for young professionals and graduate students. The work of both private developers and non-profit community organizations have been instrumental in attracting more businesses and residents to move into the neighborhood. The centerpiece of this has been the construction of Ultimo Coffee on 22nd and Catherine, a brand new modern townhouse-style building with an espresso bar on the first floor and a barista school on the second floor. Today, as rents in Graduate Hospital now compete with similar properties closer to Center City, Point Breeze to the south might host the next wave of urban redevelopment later on.

The Ellington on 13th and U Streets in Washington, DC. The U Street Corridor has become one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods in recent years. Image via Metro Jacksonville.

In Washington, when I told my father that I was moving to U Street, he was intially hesitant. In the early 1980s, U street was a no man’s land, and much of the area uptown had not yet experienced the wave of renewed urban interest and redevelopment that has come to embody it today.  In the 1970s, the intersection of 14 and U was well known as a “center of drug trafficking“, characterized by blight and abandoned real estate.  Today the intersection is the future sight of  yet another high end luxury rental complex, among several other elements of old and new DC.  On any given day, U Street buzzes with activity; people checking out a show at 9:30 club, gay boys throwing back drinks at Nellie’s, or tourists and locals alike waiting in line at Ben’s Chili Bowl.  Even nearby Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, which still show signs of its blighted past, are presently home to trendy restaurants, young professionals, and new residential and commercial construction.

New construction in Columbia Heights has added more retail and residential opportunities for the neighborhood. This author wishes there were less big boxes and more street level retail options. Image via Citi.

So while my father and I will have had the opportunities to grow up in the same cities, the way we will have experienced them will have been vastly different.  Mine and his Philadelphia may occupy the same geography, but our versions of the city will always be completely different.  I’m excited to see how much more DC has changed since he left.  Although I know when he comes back, he’ll no doubt want to re-live out his experience, even if his Washington slowly fades into the past.  I know I’ll feel the same way whenever I travel back to Philly.


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