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Gentrification changing the ‘gayborhood’ of Dupont Circle

By Miles O'Reilly, Hope Talbert, Jed Sammons and Tara Suter

Dupont Circle is internationally known as a center of LGBTQ activity in the nation’s capital, but as the gay community enjoys broader acceptance across Washignton, D.C., the former “gayborhood” is becoming more and more diverse and less the queer-centric neighborhood it use to be. 

Dupont Circle is a 16-acre, predominantly residential area, with a population between 15,000 to 16,000. Situated in Ward 2, its geographic boundaries are approximately the Florida Avenue and U Street NW convergence in the north, 16th Street NW in the east, M Street NW in the south, and 22nd Street NW in the west. 

The “circle,” which is a hybrid between a traffic circle and public park, functions as the axle for the neighborhood. The park features a series of internal rows of lawns, trees and benches that frame the central marble fountain.

Dupont Circle hosts the 17th Street High Heel Race and the Capital Pride Parade, as well as the DC Black Pride, which is considered the first Black Pride event in the United States. Despite its reputation as the center of gay life in Washington, D.C., more and more LGBTQ people are choosing to live in other neighborhoods around the District/Maryland/Virginia metroplex instead of making their homes in the historic gayborhood. 

Joe McCall is a 54-year-old gay man who has lived in D.C. since 2000. He lives with his husband near Crestwood, several miles north of Dupont. Looking back on his earlier days in the city, McCall described how Dupont was the only place where gay men could publicly express their sexuality. 

Joe McCall

Nowadays, however, McCall said he believes that the area has lost its “gayborhood” status, at least from a residential perspective, due to a higher acceptance of queerness seen across the city. 

“Twenty six years ago, my boyfriend and I at the time came to D.C. for New Year’s and we were up here. And that’s the first time I’d ever held a man’s hand out in public and walked up the street and didn’t feel like there was anything to it. Well, you can do that now pretty much anywhere in the city,” McCall said. 

Washington has the largest LGBTQ population percentage across the United States, with an estimated 9.8 percent of Washingtonians identifying as queer. Going outside the District, the DMV metroplex has about 210,000 LGBTQ residents, which constitutes about 4.5 percent of the entire population. 

Kelly McDonnell, although a resident of Bethesda, Maryland, experienced Washington during her time at American University. A queer woman, she found D.C. to be a very “affirming city” and believes it enabled her to come to terms with her sexuality. 

“Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle definitely are my, like, my favorite areas in the city for sure,” McDonnell said. 

Historically, Dupont and its surrounding area was a predominantly Black neighborhood. African Americans constituted the majority of the city’s population between the 1950s and 2011, reaching a peak of about 71% in 1970. 

Gentrification is a contentious issue across the United States, and is especially pronounced in Washington. According to Harrison Beacher, the managing partner of the Coalition Property Group and a D.C. realtor for over 14 years, the history of Dupont’s gentrification is anything but one-dimensional. 

Beacher explained how Dupont’s gayborhood spawned from the confluence of major events within two identities’ timelines: the beginning of the LGBTQ Pride movement and the mass exodus of Black Washingtonians. 

In the summer of 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York City fueled fervent queer empowerment. A year prior, on April 4, 1968, the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, D.C. was engulfed in fierce rioting that lasted four days and witnessed extreme property damage, most of which affected Black areas. 

Firefighters spray water on shops, including Beyda’s, Miles Shoes, and Graysons, that were burned during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Picture by Warren K. Leffler, courtesy of Library of Congress

In the 1980s and 1990s, the prevalence of crack further pushed Black residents into new neighborhoods or out of the city, entirely. 

“Crack cocaine was a serious epidemic in the city proper, and you saw a really concentrated both white flight and flight of Black residents that had been in the city owning,” Beacher said.  

As Dupont Circle’s population continued to drop, commercial and residential vacancies were filled by queer people, the majority of whom were cisgender, white, gay men. Ultimately, real estate development is only accessible to those who can overcome market entry costs. 

“Anyone who can participate in development pretty much period, had to have access to capital understanding of navigating systems, financing, things like that. And that, I mean, in America was historically white men,” Beacher said. 

Although people try to find the “boogeyman”, the singular perpetrator, Beacher said that the neighborhood’s gentrification cannot be understood through such a narrow lens. Whatever the forces may be—the influx of chancelleries or other diplomatic entities, D.C.’s restrictive zoning regulations and height restrictions, or the invisible hand of supply and demand—from the arrival of the LGBTQ pioneers, Dupont real estate has boomed, with some properties growing ten times in value. 

Although the causality and timeline of Dupont gentrification is complex, its effects are not.

The fiercely competitive market affected those least able to adapt. Although the change was initiated by LGBTQ members, it eventually priced out certain queer peoples. 

“Whenever a marginalized community, of any kind, has a change that happens where they live, they are least able to adjust and pivot or do anything,” Beacher said. 

According to Beacher, race is inseparable from Dupont’s population change.

“The market did it because of all these other factors connected to racism and separation of generational wealth, and all these other layered things,” Beacher said. 

The gentrification of Dupont is seemingly the result of the cards on the table.

“It’s an interesting angle from which to consider gentrification, from how one specific community spurred a change to happen or kind of rode the wave that these macroeconomic factors were impacting. And they were just right place, right time, slash, you know, chose this place, because it was safe for them, and hunker down and built community there,” Beacher said. 

For Theo Greene, an associate professor of sociology at Bowdoin College and expert on urbanism, Dupont Circle is still the nucleus of the LGBTQ community in Washington. Having conducted over a decade of research gay neighborhoods, he believes that Dupont Circle cannot be viewed under a traditional lens of what constitutes a space.

“We cannot capture and define the gayborhood in the way that people would define a black neighborhood,” Greene said. 

This belief is based in the concept of spatial logic, where community spaces are able to constitute a collection of spaces within the same physical area. Greene used the example of how gay bars can alter their environments—such as going from a casual happy hour to hosting a drag show —to accommodate many subsections within queer identity. 

A drag queen makes her way to the show on the upper floor of Pitchers DC on 18th Street NW, while patrons downstairs enjoy drinks and conversation on Thursday, June 2. Photo by Hope Talbert

Additionally, Greene explained how queer people tend to drift back to Dupont, and how at any given moment, can “reclaim” the area.

Although Greene recognizes that Dupont Circle has changed from an appearance standpoint, he still views it as the “anchor” for D.C.’s LGBTQ community.

“There was once upon a time where a gayborhood was marked by a very distinct footprint, cultural, institutional footprint. That has disappeared, it has. I don’t think it has taken away the importance of it. It’s not important until it is,” Greene said.