‘America’s Front Porch’: When Georgetown was Great

Like so many of the problems facing America, the exploding problem crisis of teen mental health has a pretty simple solution. Kids need to get off their phones and hang out, in person, with their friends. They need to have some adventures, even dangerous ones, away from their parents. 

In her recent book Generations, psychologist Jean Twenge analyzes mental health trends over five generations, from 1925 to the present. “The way teens spend their time outside of school fundamentally changed in 2012,” Twenge writes. Since 1976, the number of times per week teens go out with friends and without their parents was constant. Suddenly, in 2010 it cratered. “It was just like a Black Diamond ski slope straight down,” Twenge told NPR. “So these really big changes occur.”

This was around the time that social media began to take off. Almost instantly, kids lost what Peggy Noonan has called “America’s playgrounds”—places to go, meet friends, fall in love, do dumb things, and find themselves. 

I can attest to the value of such places. For an entire generation of kids like me who grew up in Washington, D.C., that place was Georgetown. Georgetown is mostly known to outsiders as the place of the infamous cocktail parties where elites meet, but at one time it was one of the craziest, funkiest, most beautiful places in America. If we want our kids to regain some mental health we need to enable such places to flourish once again.

My friend Julie Wilson, now a teacher in North Carolina, was the manager and then the owner of Garrett’s, a popular spot in Georgetown in the 1980s before its closing in 2011. “Georgetown was a neighborhood then with a vibe unto its own,” Julie says. “We felt proud of the many blocks full of quirky small businesses and impacted by a great nearby school, Georgetown University. There was a vibrant energy then and it was a destination sought out for locals as well as for international visitors. It possessed a youthful spirit where countless young adults met each other at the plethora of night spots around at the time, where lifelong friendships and memories began.”

She goes on: “Georgetown had book stores, music stores, theaters, live music venues, terrific restaurants, late night eateries, mom and pop retailers all while existing without a metro stop from an efficient subway system other neighborhoods benefitted from.”

In, say 1982, it was absolutely crazy and thrilling how many different types of people you could encounter walking from one end of Georgetown to the other. Blues Alley and Charlie’s were for jazz fans. Poseurs was for punk and New Wave kids, while Mr. Smiths catered to gay clientele, and Annie Oakley’s Wild West Bar was ground zero for Marines. The great writer Larry McMurtry ran a used book store in the neighborhood. You would sometimes run into, or hear stories about, members of the Washington Redskins carousing at Houston’s or other restaurants. People would mix and mingle despite differences in their subcultures and age groups. 

My childhood friend next door neighbor, a Black Sabbath inspired heavy metal dude nicknamed Wino, made friends with clean-shaven punk rocker Henry Rollins in Georgetown when Rollins was working at an ice cream store there. As a 1982 profile of the neighborhood in the Washington Post put it, “in Mr. Smith’s, while the young frolic in the garden patio, older patrons get melancholy around the piano bar, singing, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing’ and ‘Eidelweiss,’ harmonizing with strangers in a minor key. In Nathan’s, where sophisticated young professionals mingle before a backdrop of forest green walls and framed pastel hunting scenes, a lawyer explained his presence simply: ‘It’s loneliness, the human condition.’”

The cure for that loneliness, then as now, was other people. Take in the scene as that reporter, Leslie Berger, captured it at the time: 

Night falls on Georgetown like a sable cape, lights begin to flicker and suddenly people are everywhere. Spilling over from sidewalks onto jammed streets, strolling in cosmopolitan chic or tour-bus casual, they stake out the shops, restaurants and nightclubs and claim the elite, historic district as their own. On weekends, Georgetown is Washington’s front porch. People bump into old friends, make new ones. They chat, window-shop, kiss under the Whitehurst Freeway, throw change to street musicians, carry vendors’ red roses, sit on cars and play the radio (sun roofs and hatchbacks open) as if settling down for a day at the beach.

My favorite spot in Georgetown was Garrett’s, which is where my brother worked and where I became friends with Julie Wilson. On the corner of 30th and M Streets, Garrett’s was a two-story “railroad bar and restaurant” that had three different rooms, one of them a huge bar upstairs with a high ceiling, as well as a terrace for dining. It was across the street from the Four Seasons hotel, and word got out to the famous people staying at the hotel that Julie and her wonderful staff took pride in not bothering them. It’s safe to now reveal that among the noteworthy who drained pints at Garrett’s were Bono, Chris Issak, Bob Dylan and George Will. For those of us who grew up in D.C. Garrett’s was the gathering spot for rites of passage like turning 18 during senior year, and our first reunion upon returning home from college for Thanksgiving. 

As one of my friends recently joked, “We didn’t even go home to our families first—we headed straight for Garrett’s.” Some might find that scandalous today, but when young people are surrounded by friendships, love, great music and, yes, beer, it is a powerful antidepressant and cure for loneliness. The stars at Garrett’s all became family friends, coming to our house for Redskins games and going to see the plays my brother was acting in at the time. It was family.

Garrett’s also had a ghost. The building itself dated back to colonial times, and people talked about seeing a woman in a colonial dress late at night. Julie still recalls one late night when the bartenders were restocking. They had stacked some empty cardboard boxes on the bar. Suddenly, the boxes just started flying off the bar, as if being tossed by an angry invisible customer. 

Things began to change in Georgetown during the 1990s and beyond. “In the 2000’s if I recall correctly,” Julie Wilson told me, “companies were lured away to Virginia with financial incentives that diminished lunch business for the restaurants. I would bet my life that most small business owners did not own their buildings and suffered the rent increases that were occurring. The prosperity earned by those who helped create a vibrant scene, who stuck their necks out and took the risks, were usurped by the greed of landlords who saw bigger profit margins. Hence the arrival of big, brand named stores found in any mall in the USA. Many of them are adios now.” 

What the landlords didn’t kill the pandemic hysterics did, undermining businesses in Georgetown and boarding up storefronts. Wilson recently paid a visit to Georgetown for the first time in years: “During my recent tour of Georgetown, I observed boarded up storefronts on every block, some left vacant for years. Does this appear business-friendly, prosperous and productive?” It does not.

Garrett’s closed in 2011. The ghost is probably still there.

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