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



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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter

Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

Boyd Tonkin
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss