Ontario Theatre

Maybe that ruin can’t stand vacant forever.  Maybe that’s not a reasonable way to run a city.  But who says the highest bidder is also the smartest man in the room?  Who says he knows best what your neighborhood needs next?  Bob Dylan wrote that money doesn’t talk, it swears.  And in DC, the developers have some of the dirtiest mouths around.  

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Take the vacant Ontario Theatre, originally opened in 1951.  Sure, the market has changed – these days, people see movies in 3D-ready, shopping mall-centered megamultiplexes, when they see them at all.  It’s a far cry from the sixties, when The Sound of Music made its DC premiere here – and then played for the next two years straight on the Ontario Theatre’s one screen.  That’s crazy – one movie on one screen sustaining a business for two years.  No way, anymore.

But is Adams Morgan really better off with another five-story luxury condo building in place of the defunct Ontario Theatre?  Will it make the neighborhood a more distinct or special place to live in or visit?  Is it a responsible addition to this historically mixed-income neighborhood’s array of housing options?  Or is it just another symbol of the creeping gentrification that has extended west since the Green Line reached Columbia Heights in 1999 like the sullen hand of slow and certain cultural death.

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The developers won support for their plans as they so often do, with a promise that the new structure set to inhabit this space will include a superficial nod to its history.  The new condos at 1700 Columbia Road will retain features deemed architecturally significant by someone who supposedly knows.  The iconic marquee was removed early in demolition and will be returned in the final stages of construction, recontextualized beyond all sense.

But let’s get real.  Let’s be frank.  The developers who conceived this plan don’t care about the history of the Ontario Theatre.  They don’t care about the theatre’s close ties to Adams Morgan’s heritage as a Hispanic enclave, when it became the premiere Spanish language cinema during the 70s.  They don’t know or care that during the early 80s, Minor Threat played a show here on one of the nights when it wasn’t screening a veritable A-list cavalcade of B-movies.

Instead, their empty gesture – their nod to history – will mystify future tenants.  No one will see a marquee.  They will look upon the bended girder over the entrance of their glass and steel building with the same sense of muddled perplexity that modern man musters when confronted with Stonehenge.  From whence did it come and what does it mean, this oddly arranged protrusion reaching tentatively to the sky like some arm, akimbo and ready receive a prophesied parcel from heaven?              

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I am cynical about their plans because they are cynical about yours.  They care little about what is right for your neighborhood, and more about identifying which revenue streams are left underexploited by existing development.  To borrow a vulgar turn of phrase often employed by developers, your entire neighborhood is a “mixed-use development.”  You are a consumer, and your neighborhood is a market.

But consider this: You and all of the people who lived in Adams Morgan before you have ultimately decided which schemes thrived and which ones died.  That truth is written in the cityscape around you, in the ruins of failed things and ideas whose time came and went.  You can have parks and greenspace and bike lanes.  You can have schools, community centers, or churches.  Yes, you can even have a vacant building, standing beautiful in ruin, perhaps awaiting a use suited to its form.  Adams Morgan has examples of each, and each of these development decisions was predicated on the notion that there are other more ephemeral, but equally valid measures of value than just the dollar.

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Adams Morgan, like so many Metro-accessible neighborhoods, already has more than its share of interchangeable luxury condos.  If that trend continues, how many of the shambling old folks or clearly disabled neighbors who live on my block will be displaced by rising property values?  How many of the local businesses – the storied night life that attracts so many visitors to the neighborhood, the cool record shops on 18th Street, the dive restaurants that scare the casual diner but reward the in-the-know locals – can maintain their profit margins in the face of skyrocketing rent?

This begs the question of the residents of such bland structures which add to a neighborhood’s population while taking away from its character – did you want to live in Adams Morgan, or did you really want a prefab unit near the expressway, somewhere where the Red Line and the cornfields meet?.  Maybe if we’re lucky the enhanced property values will even attract a Panera Bread.  Which of these alternatives enriches the neighborhood, and which enriches the developer?

In the end, maybe the developed Adams Morgan – one where the Ontario Theatre is forever leveled – isn’t really right for anyone except the developers.

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2016 UPDATE

Party on in your contemporary luxury condominium, with affordable prices starting in the high $200s.  Notice the recycled awning from the original Ontario Theatre structure…

Location

Adams Morgan

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DCinruins Volume 3: Daylight Underground published by Insignificant Press.

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The Streets of Washington

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Ontario Theatre

  1. For years I had dreams of making this unique space into a really nifty little bar/club– I had it mentally all worked out. Silly, yes, but sad to have another daydream crushed!

    Posted by Sharon | April 10, 2013, 2:49 pm

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