News & Politics

How Washington Became Obsessed With Pop-Ups

The craze has become a full-blown cliché.

Third-floor additions, similar to this V Street NW condominium, were dubbed "third-floor popups." Photograph by Hong Le.

In recent months, Washingtonians have taken the air in a pop-up “parklet” and popped into a pop-up cat cafe. Some have even attended pop-up weddings at the National Museum of Natural History. Where did the pop-up revolution come from?

Pop-up stores caught on in the 1990s as quickie marriages of convenience between Halloween costumers and Christmas shops and landlords with vacant storefronts: The flash retailers got a no-commitment place to sell reindeer headbands; real-estate owners got a few weeks’ rent for fallow properties.

In 2002, big-box retailers such as Target, tiptoeing into urban markets, experimented with temporary locations, as did high-end labels like Commes de Garçons. By 2009, when Target’s pop-up debuted in Georgetown, the Washington Post was still appending “so-called” to the term. But the qualifier has come off as a blitz of restaurants, art happenings, and, recently, Ferguson, Missouri-related protests put it into circulation as a noun and a verb—Chez le Commis will pop up at Le Bon Cafe on Nov. 17, Washington City Paper announced last fall—and, at last, as a cliché. “At some point, marketing people started saying, ‘If we call it a pop-up, people will come,’” says Svetlana Legetic of the online magazine Brightest Young Things. “It became such a catchall that it means nothing.”

If “pop-up’s” fizz has generally gone flat, in Washington it’s downright negative. In 2007, a rowhouse renovation at Upshur Street and New Hampshire Avenue added an extra floor, breaking the street’s otherwise even roofline; on the Prince of Petworth blog (now called PoPville), a commenter bemoaned the “third-floor popups.” For NIMBY activists, “pop-up” has since become weaponized—and capitalized, as in former DC Council member Jim Graham’s rendering, POP-UP, when he wrote in 2013 on a U Street listserv about his plan to ban pop-ups, evoking James Bond’s villainous opponent, SPECTRE.

Last June, a developer told the Post, “I put too much thought and work into my homes to call it a pop-up.”

But it’s this sense of a glib putdown that seems destined to live on in Washington. Like those annoying ads that pop up on cheap websites, it’s gotten under our skin.

Britt Peterson

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor for Washingtonian.