Balancing silent days and noisy nights

By:
10/15/2009
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During a typical afternoon in the Atlas District, the businesses along H Street NE are closed, windows shuttered, and doors locked. The only crowds present are commuters waiting for the X2 bus to make its periodic stops. Otherwise, the few people on the sidewalks don’t linger as they shuffle between the dollar stores and consignment shops.

Only a few hundred feet away, however, is the Rock & Roll Hotel. This popular music venue, like other eclectic bars, venues, and restaurants in the area, attracts throngs of outsiders to the neighborhood every weekend night, giving it an atmosphere that matches that of U Street or Dupont Circle on a Saturday night. Then there are sword swallowers. A miniature golf bar. Live music of all genres. It’s the outlandish, quirky segment of H Street that is turning a forgotten Northeast neighborhood into the city’s trendiest gentrifying hangout.

As it becomes one of the premier nightlife destinations in the D.C. metropolitan area, however, the neighborhood  confronts rising tensions between long-time residents and those who have recently moved into the area.

The relationship between the old and the new on H Street weighs heavily on the minds of business owners, like Frank Hankins, who owns one of the few new businesses that is open for part of the day, Sova Espresso & Wine.

“The ‘g word,’ ‘gentrification,’ gets thrown around a lot,” Hankins said. “I don’t like that word, although it is what it is. In any transitioning neighborhood, the people who have been there the longest think, ‘Who are you to do this to our neighborhood? Do you think you can do anything that you want?’”

Gentrification is the elephant in the room for many older community members who have trouble reconciling the tight-knit community atmosphere they are used to with the financial benefits that revitalization would provide, and it is the ambition of H Street Main Street—a local non-profit group formed in 2002 by local residents concerned with the development of the neighborhood—to find and maintain that balance. H Street Main Street lobbies the D.C. government for funds to help small businesses, and it also raises money to pay for community improvement services, such as daily sidewalk trash collection and the free shuttle that runs from H Street to the Gallery-Place Chinatown Metro station on weekend nights. Anwar Saleem, Executive Director and co-founder of H Street Main Street, hopes that the neighborhood will be able to retain its local flavor by encouraging mom-and-pop businesses to invest in the area, rather than the large food chains and corporations that plague other parts of the city.

“Our community has always had warmth. Even in tough times, we’ve never lost that warmth,” Saleem said. “People who come down to H Street can tell you, there’s something special going on in the corridor.”

But the tension between new nightlife and older daytime businesses is not an easily solved problem. For one, some business owners won’t admit it’s there. Hankins said if any resentment exists between the residents and new business owners, it’s not visible to him.

“[H Street Main Street] has to go help those guys,” Saleem said, referring to “left out” businesses like local daytime retailers. “You can’t have a strong nightlife without a decent day life. You need to have a balance.”

H Street’s night-and-day style of development, some say, is no accident. Ricardo Vegara, who co-owns the H Street Country Club, and previously worked at The Rock and Roll Hotel, said the Atlas District’s success was premeditated by a small group of businessmen who moved into the low-rent neighborhood with the singular ambition of turning it into a weekend night destination, which the the Voice wrote about in “Bringing Nightlife to Northeast” a January 18, 2007 cover story. The success of the popular bars and restaurants they built, such as The Red and The Black, is what is now encouraging new businesses to sprout up all along the corridor, in hopes of capitalizing on the Atlas District’s growing reputation. Before that, the H Street corridor was something of a no-mans land, though it had come a long way since the late 1960s, when race riots decimated what had once been the second largest retail corridor in D.C.

“When we bought this building in 2007, it was a dilapidated crack house,” Casey Patton, co-owner of Taylor Gourmet, a local deli-style restaurant, said. “There were tons of hypodermic needles and bloodstains all over the building. It was nasty. The neighborhood was pretty nasty as well at the time.”

New business owners in the Atlas District said that competition among them is virtually nonexistent, as they hope to collectively benefit from H Street’s rising status in the nightlife scene. It seems that their savvy has been rewarded; Patton and his business partner plan to open a second Taylor Gourmet as a result of their success.

Of all these businessmen, Joe Englert, a D.C. nightlife entrepreneur, is given the most credit for developing the area as a weekend destination after opening a number of businesses within a three-block radius in the last few years, such as the Rock & Roll Hotel. Vegara said it was Englert’s idea to create “a nucleus of businesses” to try to build up the neighborhood.  Englert, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this piece, is the one who dubbed the neighborhood the Atlas District, in honor of the Atlas Theater, a once-defunct cinema house that triumphantly reopened as the Atlas Performing Arts Center in 2005.

The Atlas Performing Arts Center is one of the first buildings to brighten as H Street begins to show signs of life in the late afternoon. Its box offices open in the early evening and preparations are made for its evening concerts as the lights go on in restaurants. Nearby, music blasts out of the doors of Sticky Rice, a sushi café, where the dinner crowd lines up early on weekends to be seated. Customers filter into popular bars, such as The Pug and The Argonaut, to relax over a pitcher of beer. The neighborhood begins to wake up from its afternoon slumber.

This is the transformation that has attracted younger, trendier residents in recent years, and built up some older residents’ affinity for the neighborhood, like Jen DeMayo, the Director of Communications for the Atlas Performing Arts Center. DeMayo and her husband moved to the neighborhood about ten years ago, long before it blossomed, because it was one of the few places left in the District where they could afford a house.

“It was a huge risk buying a house a block and a half away from H Street, but who knew? Every time a new place opens, my husband and I look at each other and say, ‘My God. How can we ever move now?’ This neighborhood has become so fun and cool, I’d never want to leave,” DeMayo said.

New residents join business owners in their optimism for H Street’s changing environment, hoping that the neighborhood will soon shed its reputation as a haven for crime and violence. It has been a difficult task so far, but the new businessmen downplay the criminal element. Patton argued that outside of pickpocketing incidents and bar fights, H Street is safe for anyone who’s not there to commit a crime.

“People who don’t live in the area don’t understand that that’s crime on crime,” Patton claimed. “It’s not, ‘I was leaving the bar and I got shot,’ it’s two criminals going after each other for whatever reason.”

If nothing else, business owners hope that crime will not scare off the nighttime crowd.

Unusually enough for a transitional neighborhood, the sentiment among some H Street business owners is that the Atlas District’s daytime crowd has the distinction of being “worse” than its nighttime crowd, according to Patton.

“The daytime population is completely different than the nighttime population,” Patton said. “Walking around during the day, you mostly see homeless shelter and halfway house individuals who get released for work release programs—or they’re supposed to be on work release programs, but they typically get a single and sit out on the street corners all day…It’s a District crowd at night.”

A more immediate problem facing the Atlas District is infrastructure. The growing nightlife scene has made parking spots that are rarely used during the day valuable commodities in the evening. And since it is located over a mile away from Union Station, the closest Metro station, visitors have increasingly had to rely on alternative methods to travel to H Street. There is the free shuttle that H Street Main Street funds, which runs along the H Street corridor between the Chinatown-Gallery Place and Minnesota Avenue Metro stations, but it only runs twice every hour from 5 p.m. until the close of the Metro.

For the future, D.C.’s Great Streets Initiative—a partnership between The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, the District Department of Transportation, and the Office of Planning—plans to fund a trolley system to service the area. If built, it will alleviate dependence on taxicabs and buses by shuttling people from Union Station to the H Street corridor. Most residents and business owners see it as the premier issue that will determine the neighborhood’s future, but there is widespread skepticism that it is on its way to being built.

“The trolley is supposedly coming, but there are tons of technical things that need to be figured out first. I think the trolley is still a ways off. I’m hopeful about it, I guess,” DeMayo said.

Local laws ban overhead wires, which normally power trolleys, while alternative solutions, such as battery-operated trolleys, are still being explored. Although tracks are currently being laid on Benning Road, most do not expect the project to be completed for some time. Until then, the H Street community’s transportation options remain slim.

Other signs of construction along the corridor suggest more immediate improvements. Physically, the streets are changing. The Great Streets Initiative is funding ambitious projects along the H Street corridor to try to improve the public’s perception of the area and attract more businesses. It has funded the re-paving of sidewalks and streets, as well as the subsidization of facade improvements for small businesses. By renovating storefronts and making the community look appealing to outsiders, they believe that businesses in the area will draw larger crowds, which may help deter crime. Business owners on the whole are happy with the changes.

“I think the streetscape will be worth it. Any place with well lit streets, benches, and all that draws people in. They won’t be so freaked out about being out here late in the evening,” Hankins said.

As people begin to filter out of restaurants and into bars, the entire corridor glows in the night, radiating light upwards and outwards into the sky. It’s hard to believe that the throngs of visitors are standing on the same sidewalks that only twelve hours ago were empty—save for a few commuters waiting to catch a bus downtown. The deep bass lines coming from the Rock and Roll Hotel are gradually overpowered by the sounds of honking car horns and the murmuring conversations of passersby. The optimism of the Atlas District’s business owners and newer residents may have seemed naive and misplaced during the day, but at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, it’s hard to disagree with them that H Street is up-and-coming.

“I think in due time, the [Great Streets] project will finish and the trolley cars will be in, and other new businesses will start to be up and running,” Patton said. “In four or five years, I think that we’re going to rival the 14th Street corridor and U Street corridor and certainly be the hippest neighborhood in all of DC.”

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