The Hidden History: What the Westin Washington D.C. City Center Teaches Us About Thomas Circle

westin-city-center-1No one walks by the Westin Washington D.C. City Center and thinks, “Wow, what an amazing building! I bet I could learn a lot about D.C. from it”. It does not happen. Anyone who passes by the hotel probably does not think about it at all unless it is the hotel that they are staying at. However, most do not realize that the hotel comes with a rich history that reveals so much about the surrounding area’s culture. Sure the exterior of the hotel is rather generic and plain, but the hotel with the beige colored walls has its fair share of stories to tell.  The Westin Washington D.C. City matters because it reflects how any environment, no matter how plain orbasic it may appear, comes with a rich history that teaches something about the surrounding area.

The hotel originally opened up in 1983 under the name the Vista International Hotel. At the time it was being built D.C. officials were attempting to clean up the most crime ridden city in twestin-city-center-2he nation. A Washington Post article states “the hotel and office building projects will complete the transformation of Thomas Circle from a hustling strip for prostitutes into the hottest new office neighborhood in Washington” (Knight). In other words, the Vista International Hotel was built with the purpose of transforming Thomas Circle from a neighborhood filled with drugs and crime, into one centered around business. It is interesting to note that many of the prostitutes are simply mothers from the area trying to feed their children (Mingia). It is doubtful, however, that the so called “crusaders of crime” put any thought into who the actual prostitutes and drug dealers were, and why they were committing crime. This demonstrates how for some the impending transformation of the neighborhood was a positive thing because it meant ridding the streets of crime. While for others the gentrification of the neighborhood,which is still occurring to this day, is not necessarily a good thing because it meant they could no longer afford to feed their children.  

When developers first announced that the Vista International Hotel and Convention Center were to be built, property values in the surrounding area shot up as the area suddenly became more desirable. The Washington Post reported that “Ever since Congress approved construction of the convention center last year, land values in the immediate vicinity of the site have jumped markedly sometimes doubling from $50 a square foot to $100 for prime commercial property. Real estate investors in the area say that as construction on the center actually starts, and as the projected mid-1982 opening nears, land values will continue to increase” (Bredemeier). Essentially, property owners realized that the hotel would transform the area into a more attractive location for businessmen and tourists. The increase in property values led to people investing more and more money into the area, which resulted in Thomas Circle becoming increasingly gentrified.

Today the neighborhood in which the hotel is located in has become a bustling center of business and tourism, including recently added bike lanes. Guest staying at the hotel can walk to both the National Geographic Museum, and the White House, hence placing it at the perfection location for tourists because it is ideally located near major tourist attractions. One online review stated that, “Nice property, great location. Metro stop and a Whole Foods are a few blocks away (in different directions), there’s a CVS right across the street, and a deli next door” (Yelp). Online reviews such as this one indicate that the neighborhood is now much more suited for people traveling to the city on business, then it is for prostitutes and drug dealers.

The building of the Westin Washington D.C. City Center in Thomas Circle is a turning point for the area, because this event was the catalyst that sparked the start of the gentrification of the area. The hotel was able to help further gentrify the area over the past couple decades by constantly bringing in tourists and business people into the area. Regardless of whether or not the impact the hotel made on its surroundings is considered beneficial, it can be agreed that the Westin Washington D.C. Center permanently changed the very rhetoric and personality of the area.

In January 1990, Marion Barry, the then mayor of Washington D.C., was arrested in the Vista International Hotel on the charges digital-1of 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 hadbeen 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. The picture on the left shows Barry, who is standing, smoking a cigarette, with Moore who is sitting on the bed, just a few minutes before he was arrested.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 gentri5988102045_6f00f64c2e_mfied 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.

In the past thirty years the neighborhood in which the Westin Washington D.C. City Center is located has become completely transformed. According to a recent Washington Post article, “As bulldozers and cranes remove the last of 14th Street’s body shops and rundown carryouts, young professionals and empty nesters are scooping up million-dollar condos. Many storefronts under construction are dotted with “Opening Soon” signs” (Kondigital-3cius). In other words, old local businesses in Thomas Circle have closed and been replaced with upscale condos which cater to a different type of clientele then Thomas Circle’s original residents. What makes certain businesses, such as the Westin Washington D.C. City Center, able to survive throughout the course of gentrification is their ability to adapt and change to meet the evolving standards set by the new residents of the area. The body shops and rundown carryouts that the article references failed to survive because they were unable to evolve with the neighborhood.

The Westin Washington D.C. City Center responded to its every changing surroundings with a seventeen million dollar interior renovation in 2014. This was the first major interior renovation that the hotel went through and it represents aturning point in the hotel’s history because it demonstrates how the hotel had to change in order to survive in gentrified neighborhood. According to a post on a travel website, “The 406-room Westin Washington, D.C. City Center recently completed a $17 million renovation. The hotel made upgrades to its guest rooms, restaurant, lobby, and meeting facilities this past summer, and now, the hotel feels comfortable, offers great service and is located only a few blocks from the White House” (Martinwestin-washington-dc-city-center-lobby). This comment demonstrates how the hotel is now considered a desirable place to stay because it upgraded its features to meet the increasingly high standards of the neighborhood clientele.  This shows that as a neighborhood becomes increasingly gentrified local business that at one point might have met neighborhood standards need to upgrade in order to still be considered trendy or luxurious enough to survive. Additionally, the features that were upgraded were all targeted towards guests traveling to Washington for business, which has become a huge part of the hotel’s clientele as Thomas Circle has transformed from a so called “bad part of town” to a trendy place populated by young adults making it into the business world.

By the time the renovations were complete, Thomas Circle had been completely gentrified. When the hotel first opened it’s doors, the neighborhood was known for being a local hub for prostates and drugs. As the area transformed several other hotels opened on the same block, which effecinterior-1tively destroyed the Westin Washington D.C. City Center’s monopoly in the area. The owners of the hotel combated this by investing millions of dollars into an interior renovation, with the hopes that it would allow them to stand out in an ever competitive market. In the end, the renovations brought in a new wave of clientele, who were excited about the fresh new amenities.

The ability of businesses, such as the Westin Washington D.C. City Center, to adapt in the face of gentrification, is imperative to their survival. If the Westin Washington D.C. City Center failed to adapt by renovating their interior, they too would have been just another business shut down due to the changing demographics of Thomas Circle. However, when local businesses adapt and change they are actually helping gentrify the area because they are further changing the rhetoric of the area. The hotel that paved the way to an era of gentrification started to be negatively impacted by it, showing that no one is truly safe from the effects of gentrification.

img_4306So what can be learned from the Westin Washington D.C. City Center? By digging through the story of an average looking hotel a person can learn about the gentrification of Thomas Circle, a high profile drug bust, and about what it takes for a business to survive in the face of gentrification. All of that can be learned about a building that most people could not care less about. The Westin Washington D.C. City Center shows that by delving deep into the history of any given environment there is so much that a person can learn. In modern day society the human race has become to engrossed in technology to stop and notice their surroundings. We have lost our sense of curiosity and wonder in the world around us. While technology is fantastic in moderation, I would like to use the story of the Westin Washington D.C. City Center to argue that it is crucial to take the time to study and learn about our surrounding, because they can teach us so much about society and culture.



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V., Ann. “Nice property, great location. Metro stop and a Whole Foods are a.” Yelp, May 2015,

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