Why did Georgetown’s bar culture change? What larger, long-term effects do these changes have?
The best way to track this change is through local newspaper articles that investigated and reported on the laws, culture, and tastes that changed Georgetown.
The two main factors that changed Georgetown, from a nightlife and bar destination to present day retail mecca, are rising rents and the 1989 liquor license moratorium.
Many newspapers including The Hoya, The Washington Post, and The Georgetowner have recorded over the years how bars, taverns, and restaurants have struggled to compete with rising rents and are ultimately forced to relocate or close their doors permanently. A prime example of this occurrence was the closing of Rhino Pumphouse. The building that housed Rhino has been a bar establishment since the 1950’s, however, as manager George Kennedy conveyed to The Hoya: “The landlords decided to rent it out to somebody else…They were asking for more than we could afford. They found someone that was willing to pay that amount.” (The Hoya, 2015) Rhino was considered the last pillar of Georgetown’s bar scene and its loss was considered the end of the Georgetown bar era.
Rhino’s closure marked the end of one era and the dominance of a new one. Georgetown’s social scene has given way to what some refer to as a “glorified strip mall instead of a neighborhood.” (The Hoya, 2015) A Hoya article summarized these sentiments by gathering students views on Georgetown’s changing identity. Many students found that these high rents force “out establishments that have called Georgetown home for generations” and encourages high-end retail or national chains to take their place (The Hoya, 2015) Although these ” changes are expected to benefit the Georgetown community economically” Georgetown students feel that “those in charge of the process, including the Georgetown Community Board, Georgetown Business Improvement District, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and other local governing bodies, should preserve and protect the character of Georgetown, alive in its bars, restaurants and independent stores, especially along the M Street corridor.”(The Hoya, 2015)
Here is a nifty video the Georgetown Improvement District put out. This definitely portrays a very different Georgetown from the 1980s. Think about how this video expresses who the Improvement board thinks belongs in Georgetown and who should visit Georgetown.
Students recognize that they are a transient population and that the time they spend here is short compared to residents. However, many students want to be able to influence the neighborhood they call home for four years. Students believe that “the same neighborhood we have known during our time here is slowly being dominated by big-brand retailers. At this pace, there will be little to distinguish M Street from any other commercial township within a few years. It is up to us to stand up for those distinct pieces of this town’s character and the places that make Georgetown a Georgetown we recognize.(The Hoya, 2016)
Rising rents truly have a powerful impact both on the bars, Georgetown student body, and the Georgetown neighborhood identity. High rents force long term establishments, iconic to the Georgetown neighborhood, to relocate or close, only to be replaced with generic national clothing stores that can afford the high rents. This is a result of Georgetown’s popularity as a tourist destination and it improves Georgetown’s economy, popularity, safety and consumer demands. However, it is a change that many students and residents may resent as it changes their neighborhood from a unique experience to a generic strip mall.
The Other factor that influenced Georgetown’s changing identity is the 1989 liquor license moratorium. The moratorium was implemented following “complaints from Georgetown residents of noise and rowdy behavior from unruly patrons, the moratorium capped the number of establishments that could attain a Class C/R license, which permits the sale of beer, wine or spirits on premises.”(The Hoya, 2016) This moratorium “is the oldest and largest neighborhood liquor license moratorium in the District, extending 1,800 feet in all directions from the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and N St., NW. “(ABRA, 2016) When the moratorium was “first imposed, neighbors were really looking to protect the character of the neighborhood. They were anxious that it would turn into an entertainment district, and it was really put in place to protect the identity of Georgetown.”( The Hoya, 2016) However, the moratorium has actually worked to hinder the neighborhood, because no new liquor license have been issued for the last 30 years they have been “hoarded by landlords and resold at exorbitant prices, in some cases even fetching $15,000. The resulting license shortage saw prospective restaurant businesses fleeing Georgetown for more restaurant-friendly areas like Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle.” (The Hoya, 2016)
Georgetown’s bar and clubbing scene has moved away, due to high rents and the ban on liquor licenses. So residents fears of their neighborhood becoming an entertainment district has dissipated. Instead, the moratorium has worked so well that Georgetown is “actually losing a lot of hip restaurant life as well” (The Hoya, 2016) Some neighbors and business developers believe that the ban has actually become an impediment to Georgetown’s economic growth. (The Georgetowner, 2016)
However, in April 2016 Georgetown residents, members of the Community Board, the Business Improvement group and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission worked together to kill their own creation. The ban, that many of them demanded to keep the Georgetown neighborhood quite and preserve its identity, worked too well and killed the neighborhood. It chased away the bars and nightclubs they didn’t want, but it also deterred new restaurants and wine bars that they did want.
As of April 9, 2016, there will “no longer be a limit on the number of liquor licenses that can be issued to restaurants and multipurpose facilities—such as theaters and galleries—in the neighborhood.” However, a limit remains on the number of liquor licenses that can be issued to taverns and nightclubs. The law “only permits six tavern and nightclubs in the neighborhood, [and] was enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia and cannot be amended or rescinded by the Board. All six licenses are currently filled.” (ABRA, 201The moratorium worked to end the creation of new bars, taverns, and nightclubs. It also created a hostile environment towards these establishments by sending a clear message from the neighborhood of: “we don’t want you here.” However, the high rents were the prevailing factor that forced bar establishments out of their longtime locations and prevented new ones from moving in. For many, this post may seem like a biased reporting skewed in favor of bars, however, examining the rising rents and the moratorium reveals a much larger problem than a student’s frustration with a neighborhood’s lack of nightlife. Although the moratorium has been lifted, high rents still remain. Bars are not moving into M street’s pricey locations and neither are the unique restaurants, that make Georgetown special. The only establishments that can afford these high rents are large national brands. It’s been a 30-year process but the fabric of Georgetown has certainly changed, and it seems to be made up of a more synthetic material.
- Hoya, The: Georgetown University (Washington, DC) – February 10, 2015. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/15367FBA89594F80?p=AWNB
- Hoya, The: Georgetown University (Washington, DC) – March 18, 2016. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/15BB120A70BE4D50?p=AWNB
- Georgetown Historic District ABC License Restrictions | Abra. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2017.
- “Let the Liquor License Moratorium Die.” The Georgetowner. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2017. http://www.georgetowner.com/articles/2015/dec/16/let-liquor-license-moratorium-die/