Column: The death of District House: Community disappears after renovations

It’s a chilly, rain-soaked afternoon – there are 15 minutes until your next class, and you wouldn’t mind topping up your phone’s battery or getting a bite to eat. Out of habit, you head to the basement of District House, the smell of cooking oil growing with every step. You settle into a seat next to a crumb-covered table and take a look around. There are dozens of empty chairs and tables spanning the building’s subterranean space. What are you doing here?

Besides the steady call of completed orders, the dining hall that once served as a focal point of campus social life has largely fallen silent. Students still debate the merits of social democracy and democratic socialism, kick each other out of study spaces with a passive-aggressive, “Hey, sorry to bother you” and vent about frustrating classes. But there are fewer full tables these days, lines are shorter and chance encounters with ex-lovers, archenemies and best friends – and sometimes all three – are less frequent.

In the past year or so, the basement of District House has felt more like Gelman Library than its once-vibrant former self. District House is dead. Who killed it?

If you long for the days of waffle fries and fried chicken sandwiches, then look no further than GW as the prime suspect behind their disappearance. In August 2021, officials announced they’d construct all-you-can-eat dining halls in District House and Thurston and Shenkman halls by fall 2022 to bring more affordable and accessible dining options to campus. But officials abandoned those plans in June, factoring in the need to balance District House’s role as a dining hall and the expanse of available community space. District House would keep the vendor-based format, but to students’ horror, a series of food counters run by Chartwells Higher Education replaced popular joints like Chick-fil-A and Kin’s Sushi.

The revamped District House opened its doors in August as a strange echo of its former self down to the location of the new dining options. True Burger, The Halal Shack, D.C. Taco House, Crisp and DH Pizza Co. set up shop where Chick-fil-A, GRK Fresh Greek, Sol Mexican Grill, Kin’s Sushi and Wiseguy Pizza drew scores of hungry students. The new vendors’ meal deals may be more affordable than other options around campus, but as prices have come down, so has the quality – the faint smell of peanut oil and pickle chips from Chick-fil-A lingers in the air, a reminder of what District House once offered.

Beyond the metamorphosis of once-beloved establishments, GW received approval to close the District House basement to the general public in January 2022 before the renovation began. Whether they were construction workers, desk jockeys, tourists or students from the nearby School Without Walls, non-GW persons added to the liveliness of District House.

The constant hum of orders, small talk and conversations made the two-story basement a classic spot to people watch or simply chat with friends – it was a quintessential, if imperfect, third place between residence halls and classes. And in pre-COVID days, the basement of District House was even more so the place to be. Students flocked there in packs after a long day of classes to grab dinner and catch up with friends over poke bowls from Kin’s, burritos from Sol or pizza from Wiseguy.

But ever since the long-anticipated grand openings of dining halls at Thurston and Shenkman, the sense of community in District House is nowhere to be found. The introduction of the new swipe-based dining system at the start of this semester set off a seismic shift in GW’s campus culture. Now, instead of choosing from an assortment of expensive restaurants on campus that use up an entire day’s dining dollar budget in a single meal, students can use meal swipes at an all-you-can-eat buffet, complete with nine concept food stations. Shenkman followed Thurston’s lead this month, opening an even larger dining hall including a market and juice bar.

Shenkman and Thurston are competitive with District House by sheer virtue of their existence – they’re two more places to find food and community on either end of campus instead of in its core. Don’t be fooled though. They may have lines of excited students out the door, but like any college dining hall, Thurston and Shenkman don’t boast gourmet cuisine, or even anything close to the most mundane campus restaurants. What they do offer is the sense of community GW has been lacking since we returned from the pandemic – the sense of community that used to be at District House.

Whether they eat at Shenkman, Thurston or still stand by District House, students’ shift toward Chartwells meals across the dining hubs in Foggy Bottom poses a challenge for local eateries that rely on their business. But dining halls were a necessary addition to Foggy Bottom, adding swipes to a meal plan that is getting less and less affordable due to inflation and rising costs of food.

Students are looking for more than sustenance with breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes brunch. We’re hungry for connections, whether that means the latest gossip or a heartfelt confession. That’s why students are flocking to Shenkman and Thurston. Because, at this point, going to District House is like eating a bag of chips – it’s empty calories.

The crowds at Shenkman and Thurston may eventually subside as the sheer excitement over new dining options fades. But until then, District House lies quiet, a strange reflection of what it once was.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor. Julia Koscelnik, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in journalism and mass communication, is the contributing opinions editor.

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