Sunday, January 16, 2011

D.C. and Dixie: Drifting apart?

As one who went to school in the District of Columbia and enjoys thinking about questions of cultural and regional identity, this article in today's Washington Post caught my interest. Here's the lede:
Dixie Liquor stands alone. The Georgetown shop, which has been casting its neon glow across M Street NW for more than 50 years, is the only business in Washington and one of the few left in the region with the word "Dixie" in its name.

And it's not just the D-word. The region's Southern accent is also becoming measurably less pronounced, linguists say. The Confederate flag doesn't fly much in these parts anymore. Korean barbecue has taken its place alongside the Southern pit-cooked variety in many neighborhoods, and the "sweet tea line" that once stretched across Virginia has gotten blurry.

In all, according to academics and cultural observers, the Washington area's "Southernness" has fallen into steep decline, part of a trend away from strongly held regional identities. In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.
The WaPo article confirms a lot of things I've thought and noticed about D.C. over the years, particularly in the following paragraphs:
As the hub of the nation's government, Washington is always home to thousands of newcomers, some of whom cling to their hometown identities. Those who arrive from the North often see the area as Southern, and those from the South feel a Northern vibe.

But Greg Carr, who grew up in Nashville, sees Southern markers here. Carr, chairman of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, said he recognizes the fading signs of the Old South in this region.

"For black folks, this is still very much a Southern city," Carr said. "D.C. has very little in common with a stereotypical Northern city."

Carr cited the presence of an entrenched black elite in Washington as a characteristic of Southern cities, along the lines of Atlanta and Charlotte. Its still-living history of sharply segregated neighborhoods is another sign, as well as the paucity of white ethnic neighborhoods, such as Italian or Irish sections of Baltimore, New York and Boston.

"Even the architecture is more Southern," Carr said. "You have no concrete canyons in Washington."

Even as black residents from other states and countries move to Washington in greater numbers, the cultural feeling of African American communities remains Southern, he said.

"Anacostia, that's the South over there," Carr said. "Folks with their shirts off washing their cars, waving at you as you pass by. That's Southern."

And at least one major retailer still views Washington as a Southern market. Although Safeway has no stores in the deep South, the supermarket chain says its cluster of stores between Culpeper, Va., and Frederick, Md., posts the company's biggest sales of such regional offerings as fried chicken, ham hocks and other "country meats," collard greens and sweet potatoes, spokesman Greg TenEyck said.
As a Georgetown student, I was one of those transplanted Northerners who found D.C. very Southern, though I was always aware that people from further South had the opposite impression. The difference in urban architecture was immediately obvious to me, as was the fact that the white ethnic cultures I had grown up with in New England were either muted or entirely absent. The dining hall at Georgetown was the first place I ever ate Southern staples like grits and chicken-fried steak, and Washington was also the first place I ate doughnuts from Krispy Kreme (a franchise I previously knew about only from its mention in Driving Miss Daisy).

Of course, I always knew that Washington was a very cosmopolitan place. Most of the people I knew at Georgetown - at the university and in the neighborhood - were from someplace else, or else they might as well have been (friends who had grown up in the cultural mosaic of Northern Virginia or in Maryland suburbs beyond the Beltway typically had parents from someplace else and usually didn't think of themselves as Southerners in any cultural sense).

As an undergrad, the only people I knew who had been born and raised in D.C. and had a strong sense of Southern identity were some African-Americans who worked at the university, like the gregarious older women who worked at the dining hall and greeted all students with motherly terms of endearment. I always sensed that theirs was the real Washington, while mine and that of all the others who were drawn to the capital like moths to a flame was an ephemeral and half-imaginary place.

The WaPo article seems to suggest that Washington's identity as a Southern city is receding even among African-Americans. I haven't spent enough time in the city recently to know whether or not that's the case. Whenever I return to Washington, though, the same old dichotomy - between the real city and the city of dreams - is as vividly apparent to me as it was years ago. AMDG.

About the photo: I was never a regular customer at Dixie Liquor - I didn't turn 21 until after I graduated from college - but whenever I see that sign at the end of the Key Bridge I know I'm almost home (source).


At 1/17/2011 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Blue and the Grey?


At 1/17/2011 2:02 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Historically, the District of Columbia and Maryland probably would have been "Grey" had they not been under Federal occupation - there was a lot of sympathy for the Confederacy among the local populace during the time of the Civil War.

Georgetown likes to play on the "Blue and Grey" motif in an Utraque Unum sort of way, though it also seems that more students and alumni were Grey than Blue. The Civil War memorial at Georgetown is admirably vague about all this, finding a way to commemorate the dead of both sides without partiality - if I ever do a post (or posts) on "Ambiguous Memory at Georgetown," that memorial will certainly be mentioned, and pictured.

At 1/31/2011 7:01 AM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

Thanks for a great post, Joe.

At 1/31/2011 11:54 AM, Blogger Joe said...

I'm surprised you don't have more to say about this, David - you lived there too!


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