D.C.’s sleepy summer season stirred up amid demographic shift

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There’s an ambient sense in D.C. that summer in the city isn’t as sleepy as it once was.

As with most such inklings, though, the story is a bit more complicated.

The D.C. Council takes recess each year from July until September. Most advisory neighborhood commissions skip meeting in August, and some bypass July as well. And getting hold of anyone in the city is difficult during the summer, as many residents travel the country and the world for weeks or months at a time.

The Dumbarton House offers an annual outdoor Jane Austen film festival. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2016)

Even as government action slows down, though, those who choose not to vacation during the year’s hottest months have experienced more events in D.C. in recent years, including outdoor movies, food festivals, sporting events and concerts, to name a few staples. Recreation options for children and adults alike have never been more diverse. In general, residents describe an atmosphere that’s become more cosmopolitan and less fragmented.

The surge in activity can be attributed in part to shifting demographics — overall population growth since 2000 has brought an influx of younger, whiter, more affluent residents, as well as a rapid increase in the number of families with small children, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city’s rapidly expanding younger population is less likely to spend an entire summer at a vacation home in Nantucket, as Citizens Association of Georgetown president Bob vom Eigen put it an interview.

“D.C. is popping right now,” vom Eigen said.

Bryan Weaver, a community activist and former Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commissioner, has witnessed the effects of this population transformation firsthand. He has two young children of his own and works with many more each year at his nonprofit for at-risk youth, Hoops Sagrado. Though some have decried D.C.’s shifting demographics as the product of harmful gentrification, Weaver thinks there have been some positive side effects.

“It used to be that you had almost two different D.C.s — white D.C. doing one thing and black D.C. doing something else,” Weaver said. “Now with recreation and summer stuff, kids with all sorts of economic backgrounds are mixing. That is way better.”

The number of recreation programs for young children has increased exponentially in recent years, Weaver said. A summer co-op for young children in Ward 3 is a solid example — last year it had one program at the Macomb Recreation Center, and this year it’s expanding to Hardy and Hamilton rec centers as well, due to overwhelming demand.

Outdoor movie screenings have grown in popularity so rapidly that an entire website, dcoutdoorfilms.com, now exists to catalogue them all by date. More than 70 are planned for D.C. alone this summer, with even more in nearby Maryland and Virginia. Food festivals like Around the World have become a mainstay on the National Mall and other key spots.

Neighborhoods just outside downtown in particular have reaped the benefits of year-round interest in the city’s offerings. Shaw, Columbia Heights and 14th Street are now considered nightlife destinations for singles and even vibrant spots for tourists and local visitors alike. Just a few years ago, their reputation was much different.

“We go out to eat every so often in Shaw or other neighborhoods like that,” Tenleytown advisory neighborhood commissioner Jon Bender said of his family, which includes two kids. “We’re looking at places that even 10 years ago seemed kinda sketchy and now are genuinely vibrant and integrated.”

Several residents said they remember some restaurants closing for the entire month of August as recently as a decade ago. Now such an extended break is harder to imagine.

Still, summer in D.C. hasn’t shaken its reputation for bureaucratic shenanigans. Several neighborhood leaders said they used to struggle with the government scheduling summer community meetings for proposals expected to attract negative feedback, in order to reduce blowback.

At least in certain neighborhoods, pushing projects through during the summer now carries a stigma. Randy Speck of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G (Chevy Chase) said his colleagues had hoped to launch an online survey about the future of the neighborhood’s community center earlier this year. But it was delayed several times, and now Speck plans to wait even longer.

“We just essentially said we’ll wait until September, so that we don’t try to do something that could have some ramifications for the community while people are otherwise distracted,” Speck said.

Chevy Chase, which is comprised largely of single-family homes, gets a lot quieter in the summer months, Speck said. While the overall city might be trending toward a year-round mindset, this corner of Northwest hasn’t quite caught up.

All things considered, has summer really changed as much as many residents think? Perhaps not — but there’s no shortage of activities to distract from the humidity until the fall respite arrives.