Time zones in the city

Sam Smith, 1999 – When I moved my office four blocks closer to downtown I knew I was going to be in a new neighborhood. What I soon found out, however, was that I was also in a new time zone. In my old digs, three blocks of old row buildings north of Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue, time functioned much like the tide. The street would come alive in the morning, ebb in the early afternoon, and flood again in the evening. I would often suffer a momentary temporal tic upon leaving my office at seven or eight in the evening and discovering that I had missed the beginning of the party.


Dupont Circle is a border checkpoint between DeeCee and Washington through which you pass to go from community to facility, from experience to ritual, and from the anarchy of engaged life to the order of bloodless systems. Like all stereotypes, there are exceptions and, with the help of Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, I found one, a fifth floor garret des refusés, which I now share with Jim, a doctor of alternative medicine, and an African lawyer. On the first floor, a seamstress keeps her door open so you greet her as you approach an elevator so venerable one almost expects to see Joan Crawford leave it. The heavy doors resist your lean as you try to maneuver past them with your box and bag and a little notice etched in the brass reminds you of a forgotten choice: “With Attendant,” “Without Attendant.” I already feel at home.


Still, as soon as I leave 18th Street and walk around to the rigid, rectangular offices along Connecticut Avenue something happens. The tide now ebbs and flows only once a day. When I go for a snack at 5, most of the delis are locked. Last Friday I was told three times to “have a nice weekend.” North of Dupont Circle people rarely said that.


It has to do, I think, with the fact that north of Dupont Circle there are still many places to live. And many small businesses. And many people on the street who have traveled no distance at all; their commute is measured in blocks. They do not come to or leave the place, rather they belong to it. One is less likely to say, “have a nice weekend” on such a block because the person you are saying it to may be, like the retired men at Volare’s restaurant, in exactly the same place eating exactly the same thing tomorrow.


There are other people to whom you wouldn’t say have a nice weekend either: the conventioneers at the Washington Hilton up the street who weekly change the demographics of the strip. I would just get used to the Congressional Black Caucus when it would be replaced by a fleet of wheel-chaired delegates to a conference on the disabled, followed the next week by the shiny baseball jackets of a union convention. On this block, even diversity was a function of time as well as place.


How much longer it will remain so is hard to tell. I suspect the real estate company which owns hotel chains and casinos and property in the billions and which shoved us out, wants to make north of the Circle part of the same time zone as south of the Circle.


One of their architects came by and measured my room. He left his card, and I noticed he had used four different type fonts on it. The bulimic spirit of the 1990s envelops everything from hotel chains to type faces. I wonder how you decide when you have enough hotels and casinos and row buildings on Connecticut Avenue. There is too much of everything. But that’s just a first impression. Then there is too little.


The other evening I came out of my office at 7:15. The street was quiet until I reached Dupont Circle. On my old block the sidewalk bubbled and cars were double-parked as their owners grabbed a magazine at the Newsroom, picked up a friend or waited for someone at a restaurant. And when I walked in, the crowd at La Tomate was noisy and happy because no one had told them that according to city planners, politicians, and office developers it was well past time for the city to have closed up for the night.

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