Athena, the Goddess of DC?

posted Monday, November 22 by Constantine Stavropoulos

contributed by: Constantine Stavropoulos, TLF Board Member and owner of Tryst, The Diner and Open City

I’m a city guy and make no apologies for it. I was born in a city, Philly, where I played kickball under a streetlight and walked two blocks to the local candy shop whenever I wanted; though looking back, it was probably a drugstore, but at that age, who cares about all the other stuff on the shelves anyway.

At the age eight, we moved to the suburbs where I lived in exile, roaming from fenced-in backyard to fenced-in backyard. Candy was tough to come by. Halloween was my Xmas and the rest of the time I was at the mercy of my maternal chauffeur. After six grueling years of monotonous strip-mall odysseys, we packed up and moved to Athens, Greece – a noisy, crowded, polluted, marvelous city!

Fast-forward a few years; I’m a resident (technically long-term) of Washington DC and the owner of three local businesses – Tryst and The Diner in Adams Morgan and Open City in Woodley Park. I’ve been back to Athens many times over the last thirty years and have seen many changes – some good and some bad. But it wasn’t until I started seeing Athens through the eyes of a small business owner when I began to worry for my home city of Washington.

The thrill of city living that I experienced as a teenager in Athens was the same feeling I felt as an 8 year old in Philly. However, over the past two decades I’ve witnessed the character, charm and soul of Athens start to fade. Over that same period, I’ve seen Washington start to emerge from being a sleepy, conservative, grey-suit/red-tie town of monuments and government buildings, into a vibrant, hip city with its own, distinct LOCAL identity. Athens on the other hand, started to slowly become the suburban prison I spent years trying to escape!

My Greek friends, at first, dismissed my critical observations arguing that their progress was at odds with my nostalgic yearning for my youth – I spent all my summers growing up in Greece. But now they see things differently. Maybe it starts to finally sink in when a population, the majority of which had never had a pizza, wakes up one day to Pizza Huts galore! But it wasn’t just the pizza places. They eventually realized that those small local businesses that got displaced by big new fancy stores were in fact the very elements that gave Athens its identity, spirit and character; but in many neighborhoods, it was too late.

I know that comparing Athens to DC is a stretch, but we could suffer the same fate by not recognizing that our small, local businesses not the national chains (many of which come only after we’ve taken the risks) are the vehicle driving this DC renaissance. In fact, this new local identity, created by a burst of new small local business, is at the heart of this renaissance.

The founding business owners who formed Think Local First DC did so because we know that the thrill of city living is directly connected to the creation, cultivation and success of small, independent, locally owned businesses. And while this connection is obvious to us and to those who regularly patronize their local neighborhood businesses, it’s still not obvious to the many developers who opt to go with national chains over local businesses or to the government officials who reward them for doing so. It’s imperative that they get the message before these 10 square miles we call DC start looking less like a city and more like a Greek tragedy.