5 December 2016
Dupont circle is a vast and changing neighborhood. Situated among a combination of local eateries and trendy chains, you’ll find BGR – just your everyday burger joint. What’s interesting about this dynamic, though, is not the restaurants themselves, but rather the space in which they inhabit. In this essay, then, I seek to explain the coplexities of how architecture affects accessibility, from the frame of who frequents this area, and how these implications are portrayed through media and other platforms.
Washington’s Dupont Circle carries a lot of history within it’s “up-in-coming” neighborhood. BGR, a trendy DC burger chain, holds its own place within the chasm of change that was Dupont in the early 2000’s. Now an established place to get a quick bite to eat, the once townhouse occupies a prime location: situated right on the border of the circle’s infamous farmer’s market. BGR’s co-founder and owner, Butcher, describes the layout of the restaurant space and previous motifs from the building’s function as a home; classic wallpaper, a filled-in coal chute, and brick stair patterns all occupy the now Burger Joint under PNC bank (Carman).
This third location holds significances in what it says about the Dupont area today. Once a residential neighborhood, the pricey hub now includes after-hours coffee bars, artisan restaurants, and of course, two Starbucks. In addition to BGR, google maps shows the addition of Shop House, likely around the same time. In her recent article, Laura Hayes explains the disparity that has come from this wave of fast-casual dining. She says, “There isn’t a millennial in sight, gabbing about the new cidery that opened in Truxton Circle or the line at Bad Saint” (Hayes).
Historically, this area gained wealth and affluence in the late 1880’s with the construction of mansions for wealthy residents, such as Christian Heurich and Robert W. Patterson (United States). However, a majority of the houses are not for the rich but makes homes for professionals and “official Washingtonians.” Dupont Circle Historic says, “Two types of housing predominate in the historic district: palatial mansions and freestanding residences built in the styles popular between 1895 and 1910; and three-and-four-story rowhouses, many of which are variations on the Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque Revival styles, built primarily before the turn of the century” (United States). But in 2016, these row houses turned restaurants don’t leave room or affordability for the middle-class.
Today, BGR doesn’t seem to be quite as trendy as it once was in 2009. A “millennial” myself, I was disappointed upon entering the quite average chain. Spending money on a mediocre burger as opposed to exploring new local joints, left me with regret. The space felt hollow – like the character was stripped with the wall paper. Although in a prime location to the metro and other Dupont businesses, the decline in residency and even hotels has left BGR, and even more so other restaurants, without much traffic. In large part, restaurants have scaled back on hours and now rely on tourism for their income.
This stench of gentrification leaves locals forgotten under the expenses of living. How can one afford to pay the electricity bill when a burger is $20? This cycle is perpetuated by the current influx of chains and tax hikes on property – literally pushing some out. What does it mean for BGR? That’s up to the public. Dupont is still a hub of excitement and within walking distance to Adams-Morgan, another popular spot of gentrification. BGR gives hope for the future – since 2009, the joint has remained strong, and the cyclical movement of people will likely be coming back around. Additionally, Dupont’s prime location to transport, food, and Embassy Row makes it an interesting area for young professionals and those who’re new to the area.
I was walking around late at night. The streets seemed lonely. The people that were there – hollow. The whole scene felt desolate, but inside the restaurants and shops were bursting. BGR closed just 30 minutes after I arrived, 10:00 pm, so I didn’t stay to eat. Rather, I just observed on the first night. The space gave off an air of “re-inventedness.” It was as if they were outwardly trying to keep up with the “hipster” cafes and bars that now lined the streets of Dupont, but as I peered in, still gave the overall feeling of your average restaurant chain.
As I walked around I saw small clusters of people, usually three women and two men, dressed to go out. I eventually made my way into Kramer’s, the bookstore I learned was subpoenaed for Monica Lewinsky’s purchase record. The store had character and so did the people in it. African American, Asian, Indian, Latino etc. all diversifying this tiny corner store and bar.
Some people seemed very clearly into the bar, but others were genuinely entranced in the shelves of stories lining the walls. The store was so interesting; it’s population analogous to it’s novels. It was fascinating, and also sad, to see how they interacted with the homeless population. It seemed as though there were people inhabiting all of the secure alcoves – spots where the infrastructure provided some kind of barriers. They didn’t wander around or beg for money, they seemed to just want peace. The accessibility of the metro and close proximity to Adams Morgan made me wonder if that was possibly why’d they’d chosen this space?
On my second observation I went starving, fully ready to indulge in a veggie burger, fries, and a milkshake – despite my lactose intolerance. The joint was disappointing – unlike its google description, the space falled short of “..a hip chain serving gourmet flame-grilled burgers with creative toppings, plus shakes.” I even brought a friend to get a non-veggie’s perspective; still, not good. The food seemed average at best, and definitely overpriced for both quality and quantity. I noticed an effort at reinvention but instead of modern, it felt more dingy. The customers were average: your typical business man trying to get something fast on the way home, a couple in their twenties, and a few blue collar individuals. All of the employees were African American, and did not seem thrilled to be working at the time. Nice but without urgency or any kind of “customer service,” they buzzed our pagers and later pointed us to the restroom – that was the extent of interaction.
As I continued walking around the circle, it was as if I could see the gentrification. Old, beautiful architecture interspersed with coffee shops, cafes, and trendy bars. The further down the streets I went, the more residential it becomes. It’s like being in an entirely new place. Along these roads are long sidewalks lined with shrubbery and trees, bike stands, and water grates. They’re lovely. It was so fascinating to see how quickly the “city” exterior turned into a quaint residence.
When the scenery changes, the people change. I found this to hold truth as well. As I walked along O street, I could see the people transform with the environment. They became warmer, in less of a hurry, and more sober. The greenery became greater and the number of parked cars even grew. What a difference half a mile can make. It felt more genuine, like this was the home of compassionate people. Trendy coffee shops don’t equal evil, but they do send a message: you have to be wealthy enough to live here, and that seemed true of the area. Overall it was such an interesting space because of that dichotomy and the history present in such a small location.
BGR in atmosphere is not booming with bright colors or clean lines. It doesn’t seem to attract all the “hipster” in town, or even draw fancy burger connoisseurs. Rather, it’s a bit dingy, definitely over priced, and not somewhere I see me or my friends craving on a Friday (or any) night. However, the website says otherwise. This digital space holds a sense of creativity and airiness about it. From the font to the web design, it feels unique and interesting. When googling, it came up quickly, and endorsements for the shop rotate on the front page – catchy.
In the top right hand corner, the home page is decorated with this digital design. The font, which is most likely American Typewriter, along with the red emphasis of burger speak volumes about the message and overall rhetoric that the designer is trying to convey. In Alyson Kuhn’s article on the implications of the American Typewriter font she established some background: “By most accounts, Twain was the first American author to submit a typewritten manuscript, Tom Sawyer. What Twain’s typing lacked in accuracy and consistency, it more than made up for in novelty (Kuhn).” Twian was fickle. He wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Jefferson prior to adopting it as his steady pen name, completely avoiding publicity and abandoning his birth name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He left school early, worked odd jobs, and married his wife, Olivia, at the age of 35. The association of Twain, the mysterious writer, with this very standardized font created this sort of contrast. It screams hipster: old, but new; interesting, yet simple. Likely the crowd BGR owner, Mark Bucher, hopes to attract.
Now, circling back to the red emphasis and the phrase itself. Making BURGER red is like hanging a neon sign in a store window – it catches your eye. By using this technique, the designer tells you right off the bat, so to speak, what you’re about to read/see/think. BURGER. It’s an attention grabber. The words, “THE BURGER JOINT,” give the place a sense of ease. Joint, commonly used to describe a vehicle for marijuana consumption, is just that: relaxing. Very different from the words estate or concourse, joint has a connotation of being care-free and inclusive.
Additionally, the site is setup to include the best of what BGR has to offer. Shakes, burger, fries along with sensory adjectives cover the home screen and overall the design is very accessible. The choice to include an “about us” tab along with franchise information also lets the consumer know that the company is about more than themselves. It gives the consumer a cause of sorts to latch on to. The other tabs, including “press, careers, contact, my bgr, menu, and locations,” combine to make a space that feels personal. Rather than using “your bgr” or just “info,” the use of my makes it feel like gifts cards and the loyalty program, the drop downs, are really there for YOU. With catchy phrases, high quality photos, and a sleek design, this digital document directly appeals to a the desired consumer.
As a whole, Dupont Circle oozes history, especially that of gentrification. Once a huge neighborhood for the LGBTQ community, as business increases, prices also skyrocket, and make Dupont largely inaccessible to the average working person. With this swift evolution, BGR is a great example of a space “just trying to keep up.” There is uncertainty in the future for BGR’s prosperity, but it seems that owners, marketers, and supervisors are very aware of the rhetorical situation in which they face. Additionally, BGR’s accessibility makes it a place of community for many groups of people, diversifying and increasing knowledge of the area.