It should come as no surprise that we've seen a number of changes in the area surrounding our home. It's been over nine years since we moved into our house, and in those years we've been witness to a significant transformation within the historic district we call home. The changes we've witnessed are nothing new given the city's rich history. Alexandria has been a bustling city and port town for several hundred years, and the only way a city can last as long as Old Town has, and go through as many major changes -- ups and downs -- is to constantly evolve and reinvent itself.

During our time here we've been lucky enough to get to know several people who've lived in the area for quite some time, and we've heard some amazing stories about what Old Town was back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. To say the city has come full circle in the last 30 to 40 years is a significant understatement. 

Our old neighbor, Paul, used to tell us stories about what the neighborhood was like when he purchased his home in 1972. According to him, it was such a rough area, he didn't feel comfortable living here for the first 10 years he owned the house. Apparently our corner was "the red light district of Old Town" in the mid 1970s.

Another neighbor, Steve, actually grew up in another Old Town house, and he recalls working in restaurants along King Street, and having to really watch his pockets as he walked home after a night waiting tables, or his tips were likely to be stolen before he made it home. The restaurant where he worked was Le Gaulois, and it's currently closed...

...but is under renovation and waiting for whatever will ultimately replace it.

By the time we moved here in 2003, the area had largely been transitioned into what it is today. So much change had occurred in fact, that the Denzel Washington movie, "Remember the Titans," that was based on Alexandria's TC Williams high school football team was filmed in another city. Though the movie was set in Alexandria, the scenes in Old Town weren't filmed here because the films producers felt the city had already made too far a departure from what it looked like in the 1970s.

As far as the city had come by the time we began calling it home in 2003, we've still seen a tremendous number of new buildings, stores, restaurants, and changes. Don't get me wrong, we absolutely love all of the change, and we eagerly await the various new locations and updates that keep making our neighborhood a better place to live. But there's a small piece of me that gets a little sad when we see a component of what we first experienced along King Street closing and getting torn down, gutted, or renovated, and replaced with something shiny and new.

There are still a handful of places along King Street that give a nod back to the earlier days of Old Town when rent was cheap, shops were just a little run down, and the city wasn't nearly as friendly and quaint of a place to live. If you've walked along King Street, there's a pretty good chance you noticed some of these storefronts and pointed them out or commented to the people you were walking with.

The two wig shops in the 700 block of King Street are prime examples of the type of shops you don't expect to encounter. Separated by just a couple businesses, these two stores stick out like sore thumbs. They both seem to be the largely customer-less, and are only ever occupied by one or two store clerks, yet they remain in business despite the climbing rent and demand for the retail space. Strange indeed.

We've spoken with many people about these locations, and have heard rumors about their role and purpose that range from elaborate drug fronts, to the supposed secret "best wig shops in DC" where the who's who of the DC political and celebrity scene in need of a rug pick up their finely coifed weaves. Without a doubt, the real story is probably far less sinister or interesting. 

In our early days working on the house as twenty somethings in over our heads, we had a selection of a few fast food places we could hit up for a quick bite to eat. One of my favorite photos of Wendy from our first weeks in the house is the one of her enjoying a McDonald's Big Mac on our kitchen floor. Exhausted from non-stop work on the house, the McDonald's was just a few blocks away and was an easy walk when we needed something to comfort our aching backs and tired bodies.

That McDonald's is now gone, replaced by a large Walgreens to better serve the community. Also gone is the Popeye's Chicken that sat just across the street from McDonald's. When It was there, it was a dingy and dirty fast food joint, and contributed to the large number of chicken bones that Ollie loved to pick up on the sidewalk, but that doesn't mean I disliked their food back in my chicken eating days. Today, Popeye's is no more. It's gutted and is currently being replaced by another restaurant (a chicken place, I believe). I've been watching the renovation of this building for months.

Though the dwindling fast food establishments are probably for the better, not all closures of other merchants is appreciated. In fact, there's one location that Wendy and I were quite sad to see close. The Old Town Theater had been a landmark location in Alexandria since it's construction in 1914, but recently closed when it's previous owner sold after a several year run as a dinner and drinks style movie theater. 

We feared the iconic theater with its signature "Old Town" marquee had seen it's final days as Alexandria's first permanent theater. The purchaser, Robert Kaufman, initially planned to convert the intact theater's interior to retail space, and to remove the marquee from the building's facade. Though not original, the marquee has become something of a landmark for the area, and I feel like its removal would be a significant loss to the neighborhood. 

Luckily, in a rather fortunate turn of events, it appears the theater's new owner may be entertaining the idea of keeping the theater running as a true theater. Recent local articles quote the owner telling the Board of Architectural Review that he hopes to get a theater to go open shop in the space, reviving hopes that the building will retain its use as the original intended purpose, and that the marquee (though slightly altered in the following conceptual mockups) will remain.


Photo Credit: Alexandria BAR Materials & Alexandria Patch

In the name of progress, over the last nine years our town has transformed from a sleepy town of wig shops, rug stores, and Irish pubs. The whole area is now full of unique and wonderful dining and boutique shopping options, a gourmet food district, a far more vibrant social scene, and an overall appreciation for how far Old Town has come. Though this transition has been wonderful to watch, and we are consistently looking forward to the next revitalization or reinvention of an area. It's also a reminder that we need to stop and look around to appreciate where we are now in order to truly appreciate both where our city has been, and where it's going.

Do you live in an area that you've seen change before your eyes? Was it for the better, or for worse? We'd love to hear about any transformations you've seen. I know the ones in our town only inspire us to keep working to make our home a better and more comfortable place to live.

Comments 12

Comments

Bill O
4/6/2012 at 12:54 PM
One of the great mysteries of Old Town is how that comic book store stays open!
Wendy
4/6/2012
I totally forgot about the comic book store! Yeah, between that and the wig shops, we'll scratch our heads and wonder.
Kelly
4/6/2012 at 2:35 PM
A movie that serves food and drinks? I want one!

My husband and I purchased our home last summer in a little town called Bridgeport. Located in the historic Valley Forge area, the huge KOP Mall and right outside of Philly, it was the perfect area near our work. It's a very small industrial town and all the houses are Colonial or Victorian. There are lots of Italian and polish immigrants and as such, amazing food festivals! A large portion of the town are elderly and as they retire and move, younger people are moving in to transform the town (or so I had hoped, like what happened in another nearby mainline-ish town of Conshohocken where we formerly rented).

Just across the Bridgeport Bridge lies a seedy part of our county, unfortunately, Norristown. It's scary in some parts of town. Luckily, an investment group just bought up all the old mills along the Schuylkill River in Bridgeport and are building condos and townhomes. Our realtor and it seems others in the town are excited about the increase of property value and fresh blood this will bring.

With all this in mind, we purchased the house. And on Wednesday while at work we got robbed. About $4k of stuff was stolen including all of our identity documents.

I don't feel safe in my town or neighborhood anymore and look forward to the day we move. While it was great to dream about how the town will transform, and that that our rough neighborhood was really just working class people, we were so wrong. Never again.
Wendy
4/6/2012
Oh my gosh, Kelly! I'm so, so sorry to hear that. I can't imagine how you're feeling but I'm sure it's hard to feel safe in your own home now. :-( If there's a bright side, at least you and your husband weren't home and no one was hurt. Do the police have any hope of catching the person(s)?
Kelly
4/6/2012 at 3:04 PM
Thanks Wendy, nope leads on it, but the robbers also hit another house on our street sometime during that same day, the owners only discovering it when too when they came home from work.

You guys played it smart and bought after the neighborhood was established :) We should have done the same, oh well.

No one was home and even our dog, who is normally home was at daycare (I know, sounds silly) and was not hurt whew!
4/6/2012 at 2:38 PM
Well, you know the area has gone upscale when the thrift store for the blind is selling a $1500 set of Barcelona chairs! (Note: It was over a week ago that I saw them in there, but couldn't hurt to check to see if they are still there, if someone is interested).

I moved out of Durham, NC right when the transformation was beginning there and now it has completely changed. My mother grew up near Asheville, NC and it has changed dramatically from what I remember as a child (and completely from what she does). Communities either transform or die, there are no other options!
Wendy
4/6/2012
Yeah, it doesn't seem there are many "deals" to be had in that thrift store.

We totally agree. Transform or die.
Nick
4/6/2012 at 3:52 PM
I'm a frequenter of the 'Look Again' and agree that while their pricing could be toned down, it's still a great place to scoop up unique items from people moving out of the area (or hunting for some tax relief during tax season!). A couple of weeks ago we scored an antique brass ash bin for 10 bucks.
Lisa Mc
4/6/2012 at 3:10 PM
Fun post today guys! We actually own the old Popeye's location and the new chicken place is Nando's Peri Peri - they are awesome! :o) And that renovation - I ensure you - you are going to LOVE - there will be a significant amount of work and very high end green materials - check out their website - their 2 DC locations are really nice - things like reclaimed wood, etc! :o) Will be a very fun renovation to watch! After their done - Nando's has great chicken, sangria and the best part is their side dishes - things like butternut squash, mashed peas with mint and of course fries! Definitely a nice healthy - "fast casual" type spot that should really fit in nicely in Old Town! :o)
Alex
4/6/2012
Lisa, that's awesome that you own that location. I saw the sign for Nando's just the other day. We'll have to check out it (and we'll continue watching the renovation). Though I don't eat chicken, I'm quite partial to butternut squash, so it might be our new go to for some great side dishes. I feel like Old Town was missing the "fast casual" places for some time, I'm so glad more are coming in.
4/9/2012 at 9:21 AM
Nando's ... that is awesome! Eating at Nando's always reminds me of Oxford, we had two in Oxford and a huge one in Reading (at the Mall that also, while we were there, had a TGI Friday's). I can't wait to get some Extra Hot Peri-Peri in Alexandria because the one is DC is only convenient for lunch with Jill.
Nathan
4/30/2012 at 10:31 PM
I am a resident in old town and just happened to come across your blog while I was trying to research what is coming in to replace Le Gaulois Cafe, as I see they have been doing some renovation. I have always been intrigued about the space because it looks amazing and very near to our house.

Any info would very much appease my curiosity.

Thanks!
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