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Mapping the Atlas District
A three-block stretch of H Street in Northeast might be D.C.’s new haven for nightlife refugees from Adams Morgan seeking lower rents and less vomit on the sidewalk. But you’d never know it peering through the blinds of a shuttered bar on a Tuesday night, while your cabbie yells to get back in the car before you get shot. The so-called Atlas District, located about a mile northeast of Union Station, has been in total disarray since the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, but the area is now being claimed and renamed by a few forward-thinking scene-builders who know how to squint with the right kind of eyes down the wide, empty H Street Corridor and see a renaissance in utero.
“It’s a hell of a boulevard,” D.C. nightlife veteran Joe Englert said. “No avenue is as grand as this. Really, in D.C. I don’t know if it’s matched. It’s just a matter of filling it in with the correct uses.”
Englert is leading the influx of new businesses into the neighborhood, with four bars and clubs that have been open since last August or longer and four more in the works. He plans to open a Belgian-themed bar serving mussels and fries, modeled after the feel of minimalist New Orleans bars, and a sushi restaurant, Sticky Rice, in the next few months. Sticky Rice remains a gutted brick rowhouse skeleton and a twinkle in Englert’s eye, but he intends to dig into H Street for the long haul. He and other local business owners have dubbed the strip the Atlas District after the block’s Atlas Theater, a former cinema forced to shut its doors in the 1970s after the devastation of the riots, which reopened as a community performance space in 2004.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’ve seen lots of neighborhoods change,” Dante Ferrando, owner of the 14th Street rock club the Black Cat, said. “I’ve never seen anyone, in D.C. at least, try to do something so preplanned.” Ferrando has been in the nightlife business as long as Englert, and his core neighborhood, along 14th near historic U Street of Ben’s Chili Bowl fame, was the District’s most recent wunderkind of urban revitalization until now. Englert has opened and run 20 ventures in as many years, 13 or 14 of which are still operating, but with H Street he has expanded his winning formula out of the club and onto a neighborhood-wide scale. Despite his impressive resumé, Englert hardly fits the part of the slick, expensively attired nightclub impresario. With a scrubby beard, small round wire-rimmed glasses and a New Orleans Saints cap holding back his dark curly hair, he looks more like that buddy who comes over with a six pack to watch the game on your couch even when you’re not at home.
“For new businesses, the rent is certainly right, and the payroll’s right,” Englert said. “Every business has to go through a couple years of pain. This isn’t going to be any exception, but it’s way ahead of the curve in what I thought it would be. I was figuring at one point we’d get into a turtle-like crouch position and only open up Fridays and Saturdays until things really hit, but that’s not really necessary.”
A casual observer on any given week night couldn’t be blamed for assuming that Englert’s bars might have already withdrawn into their turtle crouches. On a recent Tuesday night all four of his current ventures were shuttered and the entire strip was completely deserted, with the exception of a few scattered locals, a dozen people in the H Street Martini Lounge and the X2 bus.
“On a cold winter night, sometimes,” Englert said of the early closings. “It’s predicated on acts, too, like if we have acts that are staying late. I know we had arm wrestling last night and it was pretty good, so maybe we just made everything and left early.”
Showbar’s Palace of Wonders does indeed feature all-female arm wrestling competitions every Tuesday night, as well as a permanent display of circus sideshow oddities.
Englert said that he’s seen an influx of people moving into the neighborhood as well as into his new ventures since getting involved. The Argonaut, Englert’s longest-running bar in the area at 13 months of operation, is probably the biggest neighborhood draw.
“How many people have an argument with NFL playoffs on television and a hamburger?” he asked, drawing a contrast with his more esoteric, themed bars like Showbar. “The Argonaut is the greatest reflection of the neighborhood. It’s a very mixed crowd—straight, gay, white, black, homeowners, renters—it’s a really good mix of people and I think very indicative of the neighborhood and the really solid residential core.”
Danny Roberts, owner of the local restaurant and bar Rose’s Dream, which opened three years ago, has been present for the duration of the strip’s rebirth, and affirmed the recent upswing that has been propelled in large part by Englert’s full-court press.
“When I first moved in, there was nobody on the strip but bums,” he said. “Then the Atlas opened, the Martini Lounge, and now we’re seeing what I call oxygen, because before it was dead. You’d open the door and no air would come in. Now we’ve got traffic, it’s starting to come to life, there’s oxygen on this strip.” Roberts also mentioned the diversity in bars and clientele alike.
“We don’t see the main street traffic; there’s no Dupont Circle crowd,” he said. “I still don’t think we have a particular identity yet; we just started. Hopefully now we can catch some of this new venom.”
When asked whether he was designing his new places for neighborhood residents or for a citywide clientele looking for entertainment, Englert said he doesn’t draw a distinction between the two.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a neighborhood bar in D.C.,” he said. “People travel. It’s a very mobile city where people want to go and meet friends everywhere.” He also emphasized that D.C. is home to very few actual bars compared to other big cities, like his hometown of Pittsburgh, and that H Street itself is home to even less of anything.
“I don’t think there really was a neighborhood before,” he said.
The area might not have been quite so empty before Englert’s arrival as he might like to think, though. Since the ‘60s riots decimated the once-busy shopping corridor, H Street today does have far more than its share of boarded-up storefronts and rowhouses, not to mention that rarest sight in this real estate-starved city: the occasional vacant lot. So, though the area has earned a well-deserved reputation as an unsafe ghetto, it is far from a warehouse district packed with abandoned factories begging expensive loft conversions. The neighborhood has always been populated, even if the population Englert is catering to only showed up in the last few years. The street is lined with carryout restaurants, pawnshops and liquor stores and, as it runs closer towards Northwest, the corporate foot soldiers of gentrification like a Sprint wireless store and a Foot Locker.
“People talk about gentrification; the flipside is people that don’t do anything, and then garner financial success even though they did nothing, and if you look up and down this strip, you see boarded-up buildings,” Englert said.
Ferrando, having lived through his own neighborhood’s gentrification and witnessed the growth of D.C.’s major nightlife districts over his entire life in the city, took a more measured approach to Englert’s all-in approach.
“It definitely seems a little bit risky, but with a big pay off,” he said. “It’s something I’m used to seeing on a larger scale, like a mall or Las Vegas where you designate a certain area and try to do something with it. It’s not something I’ve ever seen in the bar scene.”
Englert thinks the neighborhood response so far has been largely positive. “People made educated forays into what we’re doing and liked it,” Englert said. “If anything, the people were very nice, very supportive. Whereas in other neighborhoods, a lot of people might yell and scream if you’re doing something like this, a lot of [our] neighbors are just like, hey, I might not go there, but I’m not going to argue against it.”
Englert isn’t worried about any possible internal competition that might result from owning so many similar places in the same location.
“We never compete; in fact, we attract,” Englert said, emphasizing his approach of strength in numbers. “Instead of competing with each other, it’s more like we’re competing against Adams Morgan, Arlington, Alexandria, Georgetown. Areas compete against each other; businesses don’t.”
“It’s very hard to create a destination area and do it intentionally,” Ferrando said. “I don’t see it becoming anything like Adams Morgan anytime soon.”
Englert’s strategy also relies on far more reasonable prices than most clubs offer.
“If you look at a lot of new places in D.C., they rarely go for the slow and steady dollar, where you’re making five bucks on a beer and seven bucks on a hamburger,” he said. “Instead it’s the 15 dollar martini and the throbbing house music.”
Ferrando said that building up full entertainment districts after the fashion of those competitor neighborhoods takes time and steady growth. His 14th Street stomping ground “didn’t start becoming the highly publicized, ‘cool’ neighborhood that it is now until very recently.”
“It takes a long time for something like that,” he said. “If you’ve got something like a Georgetown or an Adams Morgan, that takes decades.” Englert, however, hopes to not only match Adams Morgan as a go-to nightlife destination, but actually do it one better.
“I think it’ll be more thought out, and I think it’s going to be less kiddie-centric, less frat bar-ish,” he said. “I’d like to at some point control how many liquor licenses we have, and after our phase of bars and restaurants, have less taverns and mostly restaurants. I wouldn’t like to be Adams Morgan. I’d prefer we didn’t have the throngs of people throwing up and throwing pizza slices on the sidewalk.”
He cited the feel of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Red Hook and Williamsburg as his ideal for the strip. The hipster populations of those gentrified enclaves are also a fair guide to the crowd and culture Englert is trying to draw in.
One of the major sources of the Atlas District’s success so far has been Englert’s Rock and Roll Hotel. Steve Lambert, the rock club’s talent buyer, has been bringing in the kind of trendy, critically-acclaimed indie rock bands guaranteed to lure the well-educated, post-collegiate crowd out of Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant that eats up names like John Vanderslice, the Walkmen, Akron/Family and the Oxford Collapse. His previous experience booking clubs in Lansing, Michigan made his transition easy and the club’s marquee much brighter.
“A lot of the reason we’re getting the acts that we are is because of the history I have with the bands’ booking agents,” he said. “When I left Michigan, I came to the Rock and Roll Hotel and it was business as usual. I just started putting the same acts into the Rock and Roll Hotel.”
Lambert came on in October, and has built up a glowing spring concert lineup worthy to contend with any other rock venue in the city. Many of the bands scheduled normally play the Black Cat on their D.C. tour stops, but Ferrando isn’t too worried about competition.
“It’s been a slow season,” he said. “Whenever any new place opens, it ends up getting a ton of activity, and then things balance out in the long term.”
“For a club so young, the draws are great,” Lambert said. “It’s just a matter of time before it’s on the top of everyone’s lists.” He is slated to take over the booking for the Red and the Black, a smaller venue one block from the Hotel, and DC9, a rock club in the U Street area, both of which are also owned by Englert.
“I think we have a real great niche,” Englert said. “First the pop culture niche, and also I think for the dollar, it’s a better bet than going into a really expensive club with a huge cover charge and big drink prices. I think we’re really well situated to be, I hope, the thinking man’s bars, or the people who are a little bit more discerning about pop culture. I don’t know how discerning you can be when it comes to pop culture, but if there’s a qualitative measure, hopefully we’re a little bit better.”
The biggest roadblock to the Atlas District’s development is the lack of easy transport. While Englert says cabs are starting to come down H Street more often, there are still barely any to be found, and the closest Metro stop (Union Station, on the red line) is nearly a mile away. Englert and other area bar owners have collaborated to provide the Atlas Courtesy Shuttle, a van service that runs back and forth between Union Station and the bars from 10:30 to 2:30 on Friday and Saturday nights, but outside of those hours getting there is still difficult. The city is planning to put in a trolley system running up H Street from Union Station to Benning Road, but it won’t be operational for at least another year or two.
But Englert has so far remained unfazed by any potential obstacles to his vision, which he perceives as clear as day, even if D.C. as a whole can’t quite see it yet.
“If you just come down here and it’s Saturday and there’s no one on the street, you’re like, oh my god, what’s happening,” he said. “But if you squint and you’re here on a Saturday night, about 10:00 when there’s 300, 400 people on the street, and then you know that we’re going to be bracketed by apartment buildings east, west, north, south, a new streetscape, new sidewalks, the trolley cars come in, then it’s like, oh my god, how couldn’t it make it? You’re in the middle of everything.”