THE BLOG

D.C. Gentrification: As Told By a Pawn Shop

07/08/2014 09:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2014

Sitting in the corner of one of D.C.'s most gentrified corridors, 14th Street NW, is a relic from the neighborhood's recent, yet distant past: Crown Pawn Brokers.

Though certainly not uncommon in cities, pawn shops are more generally associated with shoddy neighborhoods, stolen goods, sketchy deals and predatory lending -- not exactly the stuff of 14th Street which, as of just two years ago, became home to some of the District's most expensive real estate, high-end boutiques and upscale dining.

This particular pawn shop was established in 1936 and sits on the same strip that is now also home to a crêperie, multiple gyms, restaurants modeled after les grands cafés parisiens, an oyster bar, two Spanish wine bars and numerous other emblems of yuppiedom -- yes, even Whole Foods. With its garage door front and barred windows, Crown Pawn Brokers stands out like a sore thumb amidst 14th Street's gentrified opulence. But if any proprietor has earned the right to be here, it may very well be the family that started the shop 78 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression.

Despite passing by hundreds of times, I first took serious notice of Crown Pawn Brokers just a few weeks ago, when brainstorming a place to sell my iPad (otherwise known as The Most Useless Piece of Technology Ever Purchased). Being relatively inept at the Internet, I opted out of eBay or craigslist, and elected to try my hand at centuries'-old pawnbroking instead.

I'll readily admit to having grown used to the gentrified aesthetic of 14th Street, so it's no surprise that walking into the store felt like I had stepped back in time -- or, at the very least, entered another neighborhood. It was dimly lit and unexpectedly crowded with people and merchandise. Two men congregated in the front over what looked like a handful of silver and gold watches. One of them greeted me and I told him I was there to sell my iPad. He pointed me towards the back counter, where a woman in her mid-twenties stood, also inspecting some jewelry. Next to her was a credit-lending window, behind which a white-haired woman exchanged cash with another woman on the opposite side of the counter.

The shop was utterly overloaded -- everything from DVDs to headphones to hammers to diamond rings to iPads.

The young woman and I exchanged pleasantries and I ultimately sold her my iPad... only to find out a few hours later from a techie friend that I settled for far too low a price. What can I say, I'm no expert barterer -- not that I think this lady would have budged on her offer anyway.

To my surprise, over the next few days, I found my thoughts consumed by Crown Pawn Brokers. "How has this business withstood the shifting demographics of 14th Street?" I wondered. "Has their clientele changed? Are they hurting now that all these high-end retailers and residents have overrun the neighborhood?"

A few days later, my curiosity propelled me back. The same young woman was there and we talked. She told me her grandfather started the shop back in the '30s and it's been family-run ever since.

"What's it been like, seeing this neighborhood change?" I asked her.

"I can barely keep up," she said. "Who knows what the restaurants are called on any given day."

"But it's better than it was?"

"Well, I've only worked here for 10 years, but when my mom started working here, she used to be escorted from the car into the shop because it was too dangerous for her to be out on the street alone, even for just five seconds in broad daylight. I'm happy I wasn't here then."

Washington, D.C. in general, and 14th Street in particular have experienced rapid, unparalleled gentrification in the wake of the Great Recession. Because the Federal Government doesn't go out of business, jobs scarce elsewhere were still available here. Cue: massive, rapid migration to our nation's capital -- specifically, to the downtown 14th Street corridor.

Yuppies longing to live downtown swooped in and overhauled the neighborhood that was once scarred by riots and overrun by drugs and prostitutes. Seemingly overnight, the old neighborhood was displaced as many who couldn't afford the area's escalating housing prices were pushed out. But it's not just those being pushed out that are feeling the effects of 14th Street's sudden turnover.

A few days ago, I ventured across town with my mom to Eastern Market, a neighborhood swarming with yuppies of a different breed -- the distinctly Capitol Hill variety that almost always comes with a toddler in tow. Upon sitting down at the restaurant, my mom commented to our waitress that the area seemed "quiet for a Friday night."

"That's because everybody up and moved to 14th Street," our waitress replied, "Five years ago, this is where everybody was, but now they're all downtown."

But this newfound cache is hardly an occasion for 14th Street residents to rejoice. If there's anything to be learned from D.C.'s urban revival, it's that nothing is permanent. Fifteen years ago, some of the hottest spots to be were between Cleveland Park and Dupont -- an area which has recently seen a mass exodus of restaurants that are moving further downtown.

Thanks to the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, which severely limits the height of buildings in D.C., the city can't grow up, so its growing number of residents must push out. And with this constant swell of residents pushing outwards, neighborhoods inevitably rise and fall. Like Cleveland Park and Eastern Market, 14th will likely retain its high-end status, but it won't remain D.C.'s hotspot forever. In fact, Shaw is already fast on 14th Street's heels.

Perhaps the only ones that will remain are Crown Pawn Brokers.