The boomtown that is Washington DC goes back to the future

Out of America: The capital's streetcars – last seen in Kennedy's reign – are back, just as a much-loved video store falls victim to technology
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The Independent Online

You win some, you lose some. Such, I suppose, is progress, as illustrated by a couple of recent developments here in the boomtown that is Washington DC.

The good news is that streetcars are back (that's tram or trolleybus in British English but streetcar is indubitably a far prettier and more evocative term. Could you ever imagine a movie called A Trolleybus Named Desire?) The last one ran here in 1962, before buses briefly became the sole mode of public transport in a growing but still pretty sleepy city, whose only business was government. Then, in 1976, came the first underground line.

And now, once more, a relic of the past turns symbol of the future. No matter that the advantages of streetcars over buses are debatable. This retro-apotheosis is above all proof of how Washington DC – as opposed to "Washington", shorthand for the federal government – is thriving. The first line will be in a retail and residential area, just east of the main train station, that was devastated by the race riots of 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Now it's one of the hottest development zones in town.

Every fortnight or so, I drive through on my way to a game at the city's snazzy new baseball stadium (the return of major league baseball to DC in 2005 after 35 years' absence was another sign of the city's general upgrading), passing a line of shiny red streetcars awaiting final testing. After two years' delay, they should be in service by autumn.

And that's only the start. If all goes as planned, seven more routes will follow, covering 37 miles around the District. The lines will be heavily subsidised at first, but are expected to generate $8bn (£4.7bn) or more of new investment within a decade.

Naturally, not everyone's in favour – among them Marion Barry, the former mayor who led Washington to the brink of financial ruin in the 1990s and whose crack coke escapades made the city a laughing stock round the world. But, as the representative of the city's poorest ward on the DC council, he remains a loud voice in local politics, and has lambasted the project as "the most ill-planned, poorly conceived streetcar system in America".

According to Barry, the $800m already spent would far better have been devoted to improving public schools and housing. He surely has a point. But for the reasons stated above, he's not exactly an authoritative voice on urban renewal.

No one would deny that gentrification, by driving up prices and forcing older, less affluent residents out of the city, is a mixed blessing. Equally, however, 21st-century Washington is a far cry from the "city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm", that JFK joked about (by coincidence or otherwise, just when the last streetcars were being taken out of service).

Now to the downside of progress. One place you won't any longer be able to lay your hands on A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan's 1951 masterpiece starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, is our local movie rental store. The reason is simple. After 33 years, Potomac Video announced last month that it was going out of business, putting its entire stock on sale.

From an economic standpoint, closure was inevitable. In the age of Netflix, Redbox and other super-convenient digital means of delivering movies to TVs and computers, the store was a money-losing dinosaur. Nonetheless, the news was doubly sad. Potomac Video wasn't just the last full-service video/DVD store in Washington. It also had the most comprehensive array of movies I've ever seen.

The place was no beauty spot, especially in the last few years after it moved to a musty basement in a final attempt to keep the financial wolves at bay. To walk down those steps, though, was to enter an Aladdin's cave of cinema. In the corner were some scruffy armchairs where, if you had time, you could peruse dog-eared volumes of The World's Greatest Movies and 1,000 Movies to See before You Die. I'd wager every single one was somewhere on the shelves among the 60,000-plus titles in stock.

The US can give the impression the rest of the world doesn't exist. Not so Potomac Video. Its British repertoire was vast, its foreign-language collection amazing, reconnecting me with the days I used to live in France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Spiritually, the place belonged in some snooty bohemian corner of the Rive Gauche rather than the comfy, soccer-mom inhabited reaches of upper north-west DC.

But now it's gone – or almost gone. The official closing date is 31 May, but the shelves have already been picked bare by bargain hunters. Some of the most valuable items were sold off beforehand, but the best of the rest went almost instantly, understandably, at a flat price of $5 per item. Apparently, someone bought up the entire German stock for $1,000, but my wife and I were more modest – a few Russian movies, a couple of American oldies, as well as two personal favourites, Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds and Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, about the former Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. Both in mint condition, for five bucks each. It felt like shoplifting.

Such is progress, and the fate of technologies overtaken. The passing of Potomac Video is of a piece with the demise of cassette tapes and CDs, cameras that use film, and big bookstore chains such as Borders. The surprise perhaps is that it lasted so long; Blockbuster, the once dominant national video-rental chain here, went bankrupt back in 2010.

But however unviable, Potomac Video will be impossible to replace. Some of the stuff on its shelves is virtually unobtainable, even online. And the fun of going there was like browsing in a bookstore – you went in looking for one thing and emerged, often, with two or three completely different things. That small pleasure is gone for ever. After half a century, the streetcars are coming back in Washington DC. But a return of Potomac Video? No way.