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DC Narratives: An Architect Remembers What Logan Circle Once Was

Oscar Perez, Director of Design of Cooper Carry, looks back on the Washington, D.C. of his youth, on Logan Circle, and how the city has evolved since then.

DC Narratives

Welcome to DC Narratives, a collection of first-person accounts commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on the lived experience in Washington, D.C. Read more stories here.

27 years ago, when I first moved to D.C. as a young architect, I saw the Logan Circle’s potential and moved to the neighborhood. Back then my friends were afraid for my life. Frankly many nights of hearing gunshots, seeing drug deals go bad, and the constant non-stop circling of truck drivers at 5 a.m. looking for a $5 dollar hooker made me wonder if my friends were right.

But Logan Circle had beautiful row houses (although many were boarded up). There were Beaux Arts-style buildings on 14th street that were crumbling but exuded potential. Back then, crime prevented Logan Circle and 14th street from being a "walkable" neighborhood, but I could see the beauty behind the run-down facades, and knew that this neighborhood had great promise as a truly mixed community.

It took a lot longer than many of us wanted to revitalize the Logan Circle area, but it happened ... And it has happened at an exponentially explosive rate over the last five years with countless development projects by the JBG Companies and other developers who were able to see the neighborhood’s potential.

My neighbors now complain about traffic, parking and too many people — but I like it. I enjoy the authentic, urban feel that my neighborhood has achieved. I revel in the liveliness and the activity of the streets.  I welcome the mix of three-story historic buildings on 14th Street, next to a 14-story mixed-use high rise. I love going for walks, people watching, and most of all, having great choices for dinner.

I used to look out of my row house’s third floor bedroom window and see rooftops and dark patches of empty, blighted areas of Logan and Shaw. Now, I look out and see lit-up high-rise apartment buildings and a sense of energy and life that had previously been missing. I have seen D.C. go through an amazing renaissance, and nowhere is it more evident than in my Logan Circle neighborhood.

What a great place to live.

Photo by Michelle Goldchain

There’s a beer garden on the corner of 14th St. and S St. NW.  It’s no more than a corner lot with homemade picnic tables surrounded by a tall, wrought iron fence. Outside the fence is an ever-changing stack of bicycles of all kinds and makes. The fence is a remnant of what used to be a garden shop, and before that, many years ago, an empty lot.

From spring to fall, the beer garden is packed with young professionals that have moved to D.C. in the last few years. The average age is well under 30. Most of my friends and neighbors refer to the place as the "hipster cage."

Surrounding this tiny bustling corner are glistening new high-rise apartment buildings and some the trendiest restaurants in the city.  On any night of the week, hundreds of people are out for a nighttime stroll, having drinks with friends at sidewalk cafes, or waiting in long lines at Trader Joe’s.

They have all moved to the Logan/14th Street corridor because it is urban, walkable, lively and exciting place to live in the heart of D.C.  But little of this existed as recently as five years ago, and certainly not 10 or even 15 years ago.

I think the demographics have certainly changed. Back in the ‘80s, it was a much more African American city. Now, it’s a mix and probably more even. I think it’s a much younger city now … I feel like the old guy in my neighborhood, and that’s fine. I enjoy it. So, I just think all of those things together makes it much more vibrant and a better place to live.

I think there are still challenges. We’ve had to look at in my neighborhood balancing the development versus people that live in the rowhouses. There are some of my neighbors that live right behind U Street. Their two-story rowhouses are now getting backed up in their backyard with 14-story apartment buildings, so it’s been a real balance of trying to balance wanting new development with overbuilding the scale of those buildings and the scale of those buildings overshadowing what made Logan and U Street neighborhoods great places to begin with.

Crime is still a challenge. There was a murder in front of my house a few months ago, and you wouldn’t know it if you walked down 14th Street. You have Le Diplomate and Barcelona and all the other restaurants, and there have been several shootouts. That’s still something that the city is dealing with and hasn’t changed. It’s tough.

My firm does a lot of mixed-use projects. As far as those kinds of challenges, the challenges come from dealing with government agencies and dealing with community input. There are a lot of hurdles. It takes a lot of time to get a project developed in this city.

Like, the project that I’m just finishing up, 16th and I, which is an office building for the Christian Science Church, it took the church 17 years to get that project from when they wanted to start developing their site to actually developing it, and it took us another four years to go through the process of getting all the entitlements and permits and rights to build on that site.

It’s a slow process. I think probably any large city has those same kinds of challenges. I saw it in New York. I saw it in San Francisco. I think D.C. has a little more bureaucracy because it’s the center of government, and it’s just government at its best. So, maybe a little more challenges than if you were working in the suburbs.

To me, the only thing that I would say that I find that is missing in D.C. is that there is not a sense of ethnic neighborhoods. Philadelphia has the great Italian section. New York has their Chinatown. San Francisco has Japantown. Lots of big cities have pockets of ethnic neighborhoods that came about from immigrants coming into the city, and D.C. doesn’t have that. That’s the one thing I wish D.C. had.

I just think it’d be cool to have a great Italian deli or great Kosher deli that’s authentic. Everything we seem to have seems to be fabricated. It doesn’t seem to be something that was handed down from great grandparents, from immigrants like you see in New York or Boston.

I don’t think that will ever happen in D.C. because it didn’t evolve naturally, but it’s something that I wish there had been more of that kind of immigration of different ethnic groups earlier. I think [it evolved this way] because D.C. more naturally grew as an African American city, and so immigrants from other countries didn’t really settle here in the last century. They went to Philadelphia. They went to New York. They didn’t necessarily come to D.C.