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

 

Share

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

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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore