The Corner

Culture

As the Weird Wendy’s Comes to an End, the D.C. Area’s Transformation Continues

(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Since the 1980s, a Wendy’s has sat right in the middle of the intersections of New York Avenue and Florida Avenue NE in Washington, D.C. It really has no right to be there. But, then again, neither does the intersection itself. Originally the edge of the city proper and hardly accounted for in Pierre L’Enfant’s original design, it became a major thoroughfare only as the city itself grew.

The accidental nature of this growth enabled a kind of traffic island to develop in the middle of what are now two of the busiest streets in the city, contributing to one of the city’s busiest, most confusing, and most dangerous intersections. On this island the Wendy’s has sat for many decades, looking out onto the automotive chaos around it, and attracting a varied array of customers from its Northeast D.C. neighborhood and beyond — at least, those who can actually figure out how to drive or walk in. Though an unofficial — and haphazard — addition to the ranks of D.C.’s many traffic circles, the convoluted circuity anchored by this Wendy’s has been christened “Dave Thomas Circle” by locals, in honor of the chain’s founder; the location itself has earned the dubious appellation “Weird Wendy’s.”

Alas, weird no more. Earlier this week, the D.C. city government announced that it would use eminent domain to purchase the Weird Wendy’s property. “Almost every Washingtonian has their own Dave Thomas Circle horror story,” D.C. mayor Muriel Bower said. “Now, we are taking the necessary actions to transform this confusing intersection into a multimodal project that supports the current and future needs of DC drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.” The ultimate plan is to rationalize the intersection, and to turn at least some of the land into a park.

There are some things to admit here straightaway. Dave Thomas Circle is not so much a traffic circle as a traffic labyrinth. It is confusing and dangerous for both cars and pedestrians. And there is nothing inherently worthwhile about a fast-food franchise with only a few decades at its current location. But it’s worth asking, for one, how much this intersection can be improved. Plans for its renovation don’t appear to do much in that regard; the area will still remain a chaotic quirk of the clash between older designs and subsequent development.

There are concerns beyond the practical here, though. Yes, it’s only a few decades old. But that’s plenty of time for it to have accumulated historical memory and cultural power that have made it one of the essential oddities of Northeast D.C. Urban planners often have grand designs for what cities should look like, but often things develop such that people find themselves attached to things that emerged almost randomly but then took root. The Weird Wendy’s, troublesome as it and the surrounding intersection may be, has such roots. The park (another park) or whatever layout — sure to be new and modern and different in the same way everything else of its ilk is these days — that replaces it will not.

Ah, but who has time for the old? Indeed, just as the news of the doom of the Weird Wendy’s emerged, Amazon, which settled (with the help of heavy local-government inducements) on nearby Northern Virginia as the location of its new headquarters, gave a preview of what its future building would look like. In fitting Amazon fashion, it will be huge and impressive-looking — but also dominate its entire area. (It will also have a somewhat-dubious shape.) As the ugly nexus of government and business has grown — and conquered not just the nation as a whole but especially Washington, D.C., and the area around it — what locals call the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) has expanded as well, leaving behind the trappings of its past.

D.C. has always been a swampy place, but it has not been without its charms over the years. Above all, it has been smaller than most other important cities, with far greater scope that one might expect for small, out-of-the-way, and strange things to take root in the community around it. The end of the Weird Wendy’s in D.C. and the imminent arrival of the Amazon behemoth in Northern Virginia together seem like a definitive turning point in the story of the area’s modern transformation. As one fan of the Weird Wendy’s told the Washington Post, “It has been the story of D.C. — everything keeps disappearing.” A healthy conservatism inclines one to wonder whether what takes its place will truly be good for the character of the area — or for the country.

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