Americans today tend to look at gentrification as something that has had a positive impact on “so called” struggling neighborhoods. It has become commonplace to look at the before and after of gentrification, without any regard to what takes place during the actual process. Those who fail to analyze what happens during the gentrification process do not get a complete history of the communities that have been so radically transformed. To fully understand the rich history and culture of Thomas Circle, it is critical to study the Marion Barry drug bust at the Vista International Hotel, now known as the Westin Washington D.C. City Center, which occurred right in the middle of the gentrification process.
In January 1990, Marion Barry, the then mayor of Washington D.C., was arrested in the Vista International Hotel on the charges of possession of cocaine. Barry had been in a hotel room with his then girlfriend Hazel “Rasheeda” Moore, with the intent of indulging in a night of sex and crack usage. Unbeknownst to Barry, Moore was an informant to the FBI, which had been working to take down the mayor for several weeks. The mayor had been under investigation for crack use for over a year, however, the arrest at the Vista International Hotel was part of a several week long undercover investigation. As part of the undercover investigation, the entire arrest was filmed and publicized. Barry was subsequently put on trial, found guilty, and served six months in a federal prison.
The Marion Barry incident came at an interesting time in the neighborhood’s history. During that time Thomas Circle was starting to become gentrified, which is evident by the fact that important politicians, such as Barry, spent time there, while at the same time it was still a center for drugs and prostitution. According to an article that came out just four years before this incident, “the hookers seem to know that they are the city’s biggest convention attractions. From my window, you see a lot of cab drivers bringing suited men along the strip to pick out what pleases them” (Milloy). What Milloy points out here is that well to do businessman come to Thomas Circle to pick up prostitutes and drugs. What is interesting here is that a when the well to do businessman finished with their drugs and prostitutes for the night they went back home to the suburbs, however four years later when the Barry incident occurred these same businessman were starting to spend more and more time in the area.
This trend continues as the neighborhood becomes increasingly gentrified in the late 90s, “by day the store caters to armies of office workers. When the sun goes down, the suited masses disappear, and the CVS becomes the domain of the nightcrawlers” (Vogel). What Vogel point’s out here is that Thomas Circle has become a business district during the day and a red light district at night. Now instead of the businessmen coming at night for the drugs and prostitutes, they come to Thomas Circle during the day to work and go home at night. This shift demonstrates how as the neighborhood becomes increasingly gentrified it is viewed differently because businessmen have stopped viewing Thomas circle as a place to pick up drugs, but rather as the place where they work.
The Marion Barry scandal is an excellent example of showing the process in which Thomas Circle has become gentrified because it shows this shift in how people view the area. Prior to the bust, the neighborhood was seen as a center for prostitutes and drugs. As the area became more and more gentrified it became a place where well off people went to get drugs and prostitutes, as seen in the case of Marion Barry. As time went on and the neighborhood transformed and businessmen started spending more time working there then they did doing drugs there. This progression reveals the complex issue of how the upper and middle classes exploit so called “bad neighborhoods” by simultaneously gentrifying the area and fueling the local drug and prostitution markets. Putting aside whether or not gentrification is good or bad, the gentrification process reveals a lot about how different classes treat each other, as evident in the gentrification process of Thomas Circle.
Gomez, Luis. “14th Street NW Development.” Flickr, www.flickr.com/photos/borderstan/5988102045/in/album-72157627185852465/.
Milloy, Courtland. “The Streets are Rated ‘R’.” The Washington Post (1974-Current file), Mar 13 1986, pp. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/138887310?accountid=8285.
“Thomas Circle .” Bon Traveler, www.bontraveler.com/home/washington-dc/72-hours-well-spent-in-washi ngton-dc.
“Undercover Videotape of Marion Barry &Amp; Rasheeda Moore.” The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/tours/scandal/barry.htm.
Vogel, Steve. “After Midnight at an Oasis.” The Washington Post (1974-Current file), Dec 09 1996, pp. 2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1033953259?accountid=8285.