Another two weeks, another neighborhood! This week we’ll be looking at the neighborhood at the center of it all: Penn Quarter. This neighborhood encompasses much of the downtown/Chinatown area north of Pennsylvania between 5th Street NW and 9th Street NW. It’s a neighborhood that changed a lot in the past decade, seeing as it didn’t really exist before the 1990s.
History: This neighborhood is once again the heart of downtown DC, but up until recently it went through a pretty rough patch. Because of its central location, the area was the hub of activity in the city up through the mid-twentieth century. Theaters, department stores, streetcar lines, restaurants, offices– this was the heart of the city (check out Washington Kaleidoscope’s Lost Washington series for historic photographs of the area). But the streetcar lines were torn out, theaters were shuttered, and department stores closed their doors when the population base of the city escaped to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently President Kennedy commented on the sad state of this part of Pennsylvania Avenue during his inauguration, and in 1962 the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue was established.
The President’s Council proposed a number of redevelopment projects in the area (including plans for a Freedom Plaza that would have rivaled the size of Moscow’s Red Square), and in 1972 the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) was founded to guide the redevelopment. The PADC got a lot of things done: the Federal Triangle area was redeveloped and the Ronald Reagan Building was completed, the Canadian embassy was built, and a bunch of new mixed-use projects were undertaken in the Penn Quarter area. The MCI Center (now Verizon Center) was a crowning achievement for the area when it opened in 1997. With its sports events and concerts, it attracted restaurants and stores to locate in the area. After the first stage of retail development, new downtown housing was built throughout the area, thus creating the neighborhood of Penn Quarter. Today, the area is the most vibrant and active of the District’s neighborhoods– it’s hard to believe that fifteen years ago, it was considered to be an abandoned and dangerous part of town.
Neighborhood Character: Penn Quarter has that great mix of uses that lead to a really vibrant area, but there’s not a strong residential feel to the area. Even though the area is now home to 10,000 residents, many of them live in new high-rise apartment buildings. No sitting on your front stoop to talk to your neighbors here! But the apartments and condos are mixed well into the urban fabric of the area– residences are located next to offices, above restaurants and shops, next to the movie theater, etc. If you’re walking along 7th Street, look up, and that’s where all the new housing units are. Erin lived in the area for a year and says, “It’s definitely an up-and-coming area with a ton of variety in restaurants, bars, theatres and other entertainment options. There was always somewhere to stop by to pick up dinner on the way home or meet friends out nearby.” But, because there aren’t lots of neighbors out and about in some areas, she says, “I never felt 100% safe walking alone at night. There are definitely pockets in the Chinatown area that feel pretty sketchy.”
So even though the area doesn’t have a strong neighborhood feel yet, it does have a really spectacular vibe. Because of the bars and restaurants and movie theater and Verizon Center, 7th Street ALWAYS feels active. And the flat screen displays everywhere and the crazy streetlights make that area seem like it’s stuck in perpetual daylight.
Transportation: Since it’s at the center of everything, Penn Quarter has a wide variety of transportation options. The two main red line transfer points are right here at Gallery Place-Chinatown and Metro Center. The Archives/Navy Memorial station added “Penn Quarter” to the end of its name in 2004. Two Circulator routes serve the area: the Georgetown-Union Station line and the Convention Center-Southwest Waterfront line, and there is also good Metrobus service in the area. There are tons of Zipcars, and Zipcar even has its DC office here. There are three separate Smartbike locations in the area, and good bike lanes that connect the neighborhood with the rest of the city. This is the easiest part of the city for pedestrians and transit users to get around, but the hardest for cars (as it should be). So vehicles, please keep an eye out for pedestrians and cyclists here, and just drive extra carefully in this area. The February 2007 Metrobus accident that killed two pedestrians still gives me nightmares (especially after watching the extremely disturbing video of it).
What to See: Well, there’s just about everything here, so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few things. But here are my favorites:
- The National Building Museum is by far my favorite museum in DC. There are fantastic exhibits on sustainability, architecture, and urban planning at any given moment. And the gift shop is just amazing– full of urban planning books, DC-inspired gifts, and just really cool stuff– and it is by far my favorite store in the whole city.
- That’s not the only museum in the area. The Spy Museum is just a ridiculous amount of fun (I just did Spy at Night recently and had a great time) for adults and children, the National Museum of Crime and Punishment offers some very cool workshops where you get to be a crime scene investigator, and the Marian Koshland Science Museum is a hidden gem with some very cool exhibits. And of course there’s the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, with three floors of exhibits (you won’t be able to get through them all in a day unless you’re superhuman) and a beautiful courtyard.
- There’s a great farmer’s market every Thursday afternoon in the spring, summer, and fall on 8th Street NW. And every December is the Downtown Holiday Market.
- How to narrow down the variety of restaurants in the area? Zaytinya is a personal favorite for Mediterranean mezze, the six-seat Minibar is consistently rated as one of DC’s best fine dining experiences, Rasika is out-of-this-world Indian cuisine, Proof is the new trendy wine bar in the area, and Ella’s Pizza has one of my favorite happy hour specials anywhere.
- Penn Quarter Living is a fantastic neighborhood site with information for people living, working, and playing in Penn Quarter. Great information on development in the area, retail and restaurant events, and neighborhood news.
- The Downtown DC Business Improvement District has a great calendar full of neighborhood events, including exhibits at the area museums, lectures, sporting events, and more.
- The Mount Vernon Triangle blog focuses on the area just north of Penn Quarter, but it’s still a great resource for area happenings and development information.
Why We Love Penn Quarter: Location, location, location. It’s in the middle of everything– it’s just a short walk to several great museums, the city’s largest movie theater is at the center of the neighborhood, and the Verizon Center is home to concerts and sporting events throughout the year. The neighborhood is home to some of DC’s best known restaurants, and there are a growing number of shopping options. Most of the housing in the area is new and high-end, and you’re always within a block or so of a coffee shop, cupcakery, trendy restaurant, or Metro station. It’s also an amazing success story of urban redevelopment, as it is now the most vibrant neighborhood in the city.