By most accounts Washington, DC, is no place to live. The city seems unable to reconcile its duties as "capitol of the free world" with a sense of neighborliness. Nowhere is this more apparent than Dupont Circle, the city's premier downtown neighborhood.
The streets surrounding Dupont Circle are home to a powerful collection of the official representatives and professional interest-pleaders, all participants in Washington's unique urban economy. Close at hand one can find a random array of peculiar stone and marble piles: the embassies of Slovenia, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and Belarus; the Special Libraries Association, the Order of Eastern Star, and the building where cotton is still king: the National Cotton Council of America. Even a small, random sample of these portentous yet obscure institutions gives a sense of how this little world, for all its assumption of influence, remains strangely undercover and invisible. If you simply live here, it's reasonable to go about daily life with a sense made evermore unsettling by this invisibility that your life is being lived on someone else's stage.
With Dupont Circle the set for such an impersonal drama of political representation, one might be pleased to stumble upon some evidence of more local, intimate concerns. How thoughtful, then, of a nearby merchant to step in and provide just that.
Amidst the hurry and flurry, where P St. joins the circle on its western side, sits a CVS drugstore. In the display cases fronting P, CVS has given over its advertising space to a collection of historical photos depicting the Dupont Circle area at various moments of the twentieth century. Nine framed street scenes, ranging from 1923 to 1968, hover before three giant aerial backdrops of the city taken, from left to right, in 1986, 1938 and 1993.
The exhibit's seductive beauty is due, in part, to the palpable immediacy with which old photographs bring the past into the present. Such sepia displays never fail to raise a lump in my throat for the way they appear to show, to corrupt a phrase of James Agee's, "the cruel radiance of what was." But it's more than that, too. Looking into these CVS windows one sees not only into the past, but into the street-scenes, down over the city and, reflected in the glass of the display cases, traces of oneself and the present urban landscape. The windows offer a small glimmer of connection, a faint, reflected residue of livability. Suddenly you can find a past for your everyday life here, not just strings of monuments and the busy back and forth of official significance.
Of course, the lure of such nostalgic fantasy is inextricably entwined with the fact that the photographs remain a kind of advertising. Combining advertising and history the instantaneous, always new with the fading, dissolving old CVS is selling us our nostalgia for a livable city that seems to have once existed. What does it mean that this company has volunteered, here in this place, to produce memories for us?
America's largest drugstore and pharmacy concern with more than 4,000 outlets nationwide, CVS operates in 24 states and the District of Columbia. It vaulted into the drug store big leagues in 1990 with the acquisition of Peoples Drugs, a regional chain (owned at the time by a Canadian conglomerate) that had its origins as a local Washington institution before the Second World War. Since then CVS has not only bought out the national drug giant Revco, but also aggressively moved in on the dwindling number of independent drug stores. In 1996, for instance, CVS, amidst a flurry of community outrage, acquired Higgers, a local institution founded in 1930 on upper Connecticut Avenue. Around the same time they became involved in a battle with residents of the Palisades neighborhood over their purchase of the MacArthur movie theatre. Despite stringent community opposition a CVS occupies the Art Deco theatre building today; the CVS sign hanging almost shamefacedly below the huge neon MacArthur marquee.
What most galls those who rail against the unprecedented expansion of Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and the likes of CVS is that they supposedly engender homogenization and standardization of experience across all boundaries of space, custom or culture. With every corner drugstore looking the same on the outside and offering the same products on the inside, the argument goes, we begin to lose the regional and local intimacy of community and the local economy suffers as money is siphoned away to a distant corporate headquarters.
This would be just another tale in a familiar litany of late-twentieth century retail homogenization if it weren't for the fact that one of the very first things a longtime resident of Washington notices in the photo exhibit at the Dupont CVS is the conspicuous presence of Peoples Drugs in several photos. At other Washington locations CVS displays similar photographs of the institutions they've subsumed or replaced. Up in Chevy Chase it's Peoples again, while over in Georgetown they've memorialized the Biograph, an independent art-house movie theatre. With the particularly virulent flak CVS has weathered in Washington alone, these photos of the vanquished competition become a curious branding tool, a way to confront, or in this case, elide the ethical and political pitfalls of a corporate expansion campaign. They introduce a new wrinkle on the familiar sweatshop story. Instead of the sheen off a new pair of Nikes blinding us to the sweated labor that stitched them together, CVS manufactures the memory of a local druggist, laboring to disguise the globally dispersed forces that actually distribute goods and services nowadays.
With a near-monopoly over drugstore retailing in the city, CVS has little need for real advertising. They don't do TV spots and only run Sunday newspaper circulars for the holiday and sale calendar. But as sovereign of the apothecarial business CVS does need to sell the public on its right to a naturalized, comfortable role in the neighborhood landscape. So what about the photos themselves and the history CVS is exhibiting?
Of the nine street-scenes, seven are largely pictures of Dupont Circle and its environs. Three of these are rather undistinguished views of the Circle, serving only to show that rooftops in 1925 and 1945 barely reached the height of the grand oak trees ringing the Circle. Another, from 1960, depicts a row of Victorian rowhouses (and a neighboring Peoples Drugs) that have long since been demolished to make way for the ponderous modernist glass office building that towers over CVS today. Three of the seven (two of which also show Peoples) document the changing face of D.C.'s public transportation services. They concentrate on the streetcars that ran up and down Connecticut Avenue until after World War II, but seem to signal faith in an inevitable sweep of progress from streetcar to private automobile. There are two shots, one from 1940 and one from 1947, of streetcars gleaming in traffic on the Circle, and a third, from 1949, of the streetcar tracks being torn up on a circle bereft of traffic. Ominously, Peoples is prominent in the background, its fate 40 years later all but predicted.
The two earliest photos, both from 1923, are scenes of people in and around the Circle. In one, A Popcorn Vendor in Dupont Circle, the subject wears a weather-beaten overcoat and cap and leans against his cart, reading the newspaper and seeming to ignore a well-dressed man perusing the vendor's selection. The photo seems strangely out of place as if it were a Lewis Hine from New York's Lower East Side. Then we notice the balustrade and lamppost in the background. It's Washington's well-heeled Embassy Row. From our vantage point, seventy years on, it comes as a shock to see a white working-class resident of a city whose white population is now largely professional and white collar. While evocations of a time before white-flight a time when Washington could boast a more vital, dynamic social fabric appeal to the very sense of local intimacy the exhibit as a whole wishes to conjure up, one wonders about the stories of white-flight this photo avoids.
The second photo offers an answer. Called Nursemaids in Dupont Circle, it shows several fashionable, jaunty young women in broad hats and winter coats clustered about a park bench with two baby carriages and a small boy on a tricycle. The nursemaids are African-American and the child is white. This casual shot of working women and their charges reveals intimacy within the unequal economic relations between blacks and whites in Jim Crow Washington. However, as a record of things "as they were" it is more than a little unsettling that we're being encouraged to be wistful for the "good old days" of pre-Civil Rights America when such relations were the law of the land. The composition of the shot reminds one of the mutually entwined lives of black and white in a city acrimoniously and nervously divided by race, but the pull of nostalgia can do little for efforts to collapse such divides.
Peoples Drugs lurks in four of the seven street scenes. The photos seem to be self-consciously geared towards capturing Peoples from different angles and eras. But there is a strange nostalgia at work here. In fact, we are not being asked to be nostalgic for Peoples at all. CVS is asking our forgiveness for their expansion, while simultaneously trying to appear as just another stage in a natural progression of corporate development. The earliest of the four is from 1940 and the latest from 1968. Although they are not arranged in any order, they roughly sketch out Peoples' development from a local corner druggist to just another line on a corporate conglomerate's balance sheet. In the three earliest 1940, 1949 and 1960 Peoples is withdrawn, a natural feature of the urban environment. By 1968 and Peoples Drug At Last Renovation, Peoples has grown to fill the entire frame. Great relish is taken in showing the huge Peoples signs adorning the entire building it has taken over from the small businesses it shared space with in previous shots. What is the difference, the photo seems to ask, between this and CVS? Pictures, of course, don't lie. The difference between a CVS and a Peoples in 1968 or 1990 is slight, limited to differences in revenue, store count, and Peoples' ancestral claim to Washington heritage. However, that does not mean CVS is discouraging us to remember local history; indeed, it's offering to remember for us what we can't.
In a city of monuments and memorials a pageant of tributes in granite, marble and bronze to democracy and power the lived, day-to-day city has long been sacrificed to national concerns. Now a private company has made itself responsible for local memory, trying to fill this gap. CVS' photo display is a monument to the ruins of what it has destroyed, but it is also a memorial to locality, a call to remember an intangible and oft-forgotten heritage.
Photographs by P.J. Brownlee.
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