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An Ode to the Old, And Weird, DC
August 2, 2013 | 9:00AM

By Legba Carrefour

Gentrification has turned into a cliche. To say that DC is changing is pointless, since DC has already changed. The layer of grime that used to cover the city has been washed off, giving birth to New DC. Other writers have talked about swagger jacking, the ways in which New DC has hijacked the old, but you have to ask yourself, should we really miss the days when DC was the murder capital of the US?

The answer is a resounding yes. New DC might be safer, cleaner, and packed with new clubs and restaurants (not to mention the people filling them), but the Old DC was weird, cheaper, dangerous, sketchy, and sometimes a lot of fun. Take a brief tour of some of the neighborhoods of DC and see how they’ve changed. Whether you’re new to DC and want to know what you missed, or an old hat looking for a trip down memory lane:

Dupont

Dupont used to be the gay ghetto. But like gay ghettos all over the country, it’s slowly emptying itself of the gays and the shops that
made it the Fruit Loop. It used to be choked with gay bars, even dedicated lesbians bars — all of which closed, leaving the neighborhood without a place for lesbians until the opening of Phase I of Dupont. The new Phase occupies what used to be Apex, land of college-aged twinks (for a while one of the few 18+ gay clubs in the city), which occupied what used to be Badlands, a club that earned its name: Sketchy and sketchier still when it spilled some of its seedier patrons onto P Street Beach, once the city’s premier cruising spots until the advent of Craigslist and Grindr.

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Apex in 2010

At one point, you could buy a crack pipe kit at the BP gas station at 13th and N (ingredients: brillo pad, oversized ball point pen. You asked for a rose, since the contraption came with a plastic flower in a Ziploc bag). Bicycle thieves roamed the streets at night (best tactic for stealing a bike in a pinch, fit a car jack into a U-Lock and crank it until the lock just pops off). Sex shops and an LGBT bookstore dotted Connecticut Avenue — all are gone, leaving a total of one porn store and one toy shop left in the city, and zero video peep shows. New Dupont is so sanitized that a recent Washington City Paper article jokingly renamed the neighborhood West Logan Circle.

U Street

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Pauly Shore and Michael Steele hanging out at Ben’s Chili Bowl in 2012

Before the Hilton brothers — one half of whom is in DC mainstays Thievery Corporation — ran large swaths of U Street (full disclosure: the author works at Satellite Room, a Hilton outfit) and Ben’s Chili Bowl had a gift shop (its main claim to fame being that it survived the riots of 1968), U Street was a cluster of some of the looser clubs in the city. Bar Nun, a basement club, used to host a swingers night and Bound, a fetish night that was internationally infamous, even all the way to New York. Probably the jewel of the area was Kaffa House, famous for being underage drinking paradise, open-air drug market and the one place in the city where you could light a joint inside and the best drum ‘n bass night of the city’s then vibrant jungle scene, Sunday Night Sessions.

The area was one of the most decimated by the 1968 riots and simply left that way through negligence and poor urban planning (notably, the construction of the Reeves Center might have done more damage to the area than the actual riots), transforming into a Jazz mecca (the One-Step Down, now Pure, was a divey jazz club, one of not a few that peppered the neighborhood). The best legends coming out of the neighborhood is one that not a few homeless people in front of U Street Music Hall have told: Beneath the streets is buried Black Panther gold. The claim is absurd, but it points to what kind of place U Street used to be.

14th Street

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14th St in 2007, BYT photo by Chris Chen

14th Street has recently become the city’s densest neighborhood, adding 2,000 restaurant seats and 1,200 condos according to a just published Washington Post article. Before, the area stretching from U Street to Thomas Circle was a virtual dead-zone. Now it’s become become packed with oyster bars and cross-fit gyms. Long ago stood clubs like the Cage, right where the current Black Cat currently sits. And the crown jewel of the neighborhood? The 14th Street Red Light District.

The pay-for-play zone sat around Thomas Circle and was the site for a 1989 incident where police rounded up a group of suspected prostitutes and simply marched them across the 14th Street Bridge, with the probably intent of dumping them in Virginia. A Washington Post reporter and photographer happened by and started snapping photos, prompting the officers to flee. After complaints from Virginia politicians, others noted that Virginia had tried the same trick, but with a group of homeless people.

Navy Yard

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Photo Courtesy of dcyards.com

The end of the line comes to the end of the Green Line in DC: The Navy Yard. Pushed to a warehouse district of DC, the area became the largest clubbing spot in the city, giving rise to strip clubs — both gay and straight, including one club that was featured on HBO’s Real Sex — gay clubs, goth clubs, rave clubs and concert venues. The most famous of the cluster was Nation, home of Buzz (the biggest and longest running rave weekly in the United States until its closure in 2006) and Velvet Nation (the biggest and longest running gay circuit party in the United States), and goth night Alchemy (and before that, the Industrial Nation goth night). Before Nation, there was the Capital Ballroom, and before Capital Ballroom, the building was a carriage factory, followed by a bomb warehouse for the Navy, followed by a boiler factory. The club shuttered in 2006 to make way for a LEED-certified office building.

The strip clubs of the area were evicted by the development that followed in the wake of the construction of Nationals stadium. Only one reopened, Secrets, pushed all the way to Buzzard Point to the former site of Lime, a Go-go club. A manager of Secrets once told a fascinating story. Long ago, the spot was the site of what was then called a gay-straight club: A cruising spot-cum-lounge that no less than Truman Capote visited. Tables filled the bar area, each one having a number on a pole and a telephone stand. See someone you liked? You dialed their table number from your phone and made a connection.

There used to be thing called “The Plan.” The idea was that a ‘They’ in the federal government had a plan to gut social services, run black residents out, destroy all the buildings, and use the emptied city as a blank slate to build a new playground for well-heeled whites. It’s widely mocked as a conspiracy theory (which it is), but irrespective of there being no ‘They,’ The Plan ended up becoming true. Every time a condo goes up, something else has to come down.

When people wax nostalgic for Old DC, what they’re mourning isn’t the so much the past as the future. We live in a post-recession era where few of us make decent money, the rent keeps going up, and the number of spaces for the weirder ends of culture is rapidly dropping. Maybe this is why memories of what used to be are so important: with the original buildings gone, memories are the only blueprints left to guide us to raising the kind of city where we can actually live.

Have any memories of Old DC you want to share? Leave them in the comments!

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Recent Comments:
  • Minister SisterFace says:

    I Miss All The Kids & Awesome Characters I Use To Host Every Saturday & Sometimes If Buzz Need Me… What Fun Days, Real Night Clubbing With Real People… Our Velvet Was Huge!!! As Far As Numbers & Hoards Of People Piling In To Get A Look Of The Other Side, & Some Of The Best Music & Artist Where Greatly Launched After A Night With Us @ Nation… I Miss Those Days, But Change Is Fierce Though… I Think You All Forgot 1 Very Huge Huge Club Though… Legendary Tracks… I’m A Child Of It & Would Have never been Where I Am Today With Out It… & Nation Would Have Never been With Out The Alumni Of Tracks… Period… I’m A Hostess From Both & Miss Them Both Much, But… The Area Is Better, More Fabulous But no Real Places To Get Down Properly Anymore… Much Alohas From Hawaii… HRHSF-SisterFace

  • DK says:

    The end of the green line is Navy Yard?

  • Alan says:

    This is silly. I’ve been in DC for 13 years. It’s easy to lament things lost like Nation or the old 14th st. But realistically they were pretty crappy and not that fun back in the day. Well Nation was fun, but getting there wasn’t. I don’t miss not being able to get decent pizza in the city or not being able to go downtown in the evening with out worrying about getting mugged.

  • CircuitGirl says:

    What is it you youngin’s say? “I cannot with this”. Do your homework next time, um maybe even interview some people older than you who might have gone to these places. Tracks is a glaring and shameful omission. Plus you also forgot “The Other Side”. If you don’t know where it is, look it up.

  • Rachel says:

    NATION!!! Holy crap. That place was insanely fun. Do they make fun like that anymore in DC?

  • Erika says:

    FYI – even before APEX it was BADLANDS…..tsk tsk tsk.

  • Erika says:

    Wow – NO mention of TRACKS on 1st Street SE as THE #1 Alternative Night Club on the East Coast for over 2 decades WAY BEFORE Nation??? For shame! TRACKS would have EMBODIED the point of this article, especially since you are talking about the cooler, grimier, shadier, artsier and WEIRDER DC from “back in the day.” I guess this is what happens when Brightest Young 20-someTHINGS write about DC’s “history.”

    • cale cale says:

      GOD LEGBA, WHY CAN’T YOU BE OLDER, YOU IDIOT

      • sukaluski says:

        Or you could, you know, actually do some research and talk with a resident (not a transient) over 30. Missing Tracks was horrible. Missing the old 9:30 is worse. And how about DC space?

  • Decree says:

    Thanks for the memories. Honestly, you penned this piece for a specific demographic. DC was much cooler when Internationals were chilling with Blacks, Whites, Asians, etc. from all classes. Now it’s gone.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for publicizing the U-lock trick dumbass. It isn’t common knowledge, but available for the curios on google. If you had a brain, you would understand why. Now that your story is headlining byt, you should expect more bike thefts just like you wanted, since you provided a public training session. Karma’s a bitch and I hope it bites you in the ass for this one.

    Yours truly,

    Bike Enthusiast

  • Anonymous says:

    How is Navy Yard the end of the Green Line? Just because Anacostia isn’t full of young, white twenty somethings doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

  • Jay says:

    As a straight white guy moving into DC soon to work, this makes me feel like shit. Is there any way to move into the city without displacing and hurting every single marginalized person here?

    • Josh says:

      Nope. The best thing you can do is get addicted to crack and frequent gay porn shops. It’s the only way to build the city we all miss.

  • Josh says:

    “Sex shops and an LGBT bookstore dotted Connecticut Avenue — all are gone, leaving a total of one porn store and one toy shop left in the city, and zero video peep shows.”

    Lamba Rising was killed off by the same thing that killed other bookstores: Barnes and Nobel (and its willingness to stock “gay” books), and then Amazon. And the reason there’s no porn stores or sex shops is because those things are available on the Internet, where people would rather purchase them.

    Don’t blame the hipster or the white people for the fact the Internet killed off a few businesses.

    • Jiggle says:

      Lambda closed because its owner wanted to close it on a high note and didn’t want to sell it to anyone else, in his own words. Porn stores and sex shops weren’t where one went to buy dildos and lube, they were places to get your dick sucked in a coin-fed video booth with a gloryhole partition. Jesus, people, Amazon didn’t slap the dicks out of mouths, like you suggest, any more than rents rising were more related to “the internet” instead of investment in civic infrastructure and ramping up the number of upmarket residential units to be rented or sold.

      ‘Amazon and the internet did this to DC, not gentrification;’ mercy, child, you need to take a class in contract law and city planning while you’re still at AU.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dc has become a rich suburbanites playground. Everything is done for a certain demographic i.e. white yuppies (yo, you can have tattoos and ride a fixie, you’re still a damn yuppie).

  • Eric says:

    One Step Down was in Georgetown, not on U street. It was great bar and an amazing venue for top tier jazz musicians from all over the country, and it was cheap.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you! Its stirring.

    The riots relocated resources in a way that, what started in depleted shops downtown ended in flourished stores/depots, delighted suburbanites into the suburbs -of at least wheaton/olney in one encounter of hearsay.

    Another event in series is the highway that was prevented by community still present through brookland-takoma park.

    And the highway that is along southeast freeway/395 are sites of relevance to slavery and its abolition.

  • LC says:

    Legba – You left out Tracks from the Navy Yard scene!

    • Legba says:

      I actually meant to put it in and it blanked my mind. I spent every Thursday there my junior and senior year of high school, back in the days when no one checked IDs. Loved Tracks so much that I have a brick from there somewhere in a box

  • Josh says:

    From 19th and P to 14th and P all the way to 14th and U. It’s quite a history of the city you’ve covered here.

  • Legba says:

    Hey Anonymous, totally understand your frustration. I did take a moment to mention Lime (where Secrets currently is) as a former Go-Go spot but this piece is otherwise made up of subjective experiences of a city, so definitely leave some of your memories of Go Go scene here!

  • elle says:

    RIP Steve’s in Dupont

  • Anonymous says:

    All of these words and not a single mention of the GoGo bands and clubs that were driven out of DC. It’s amazing that even when acknowledging what has changed in DC folks still can’t bring themselves to acknowledge black DC.

    • Erika says:

      Agreed. Bright White Young Things LOL! I grew up in PG County on the border of SE in Cap Heights, I went to the cabarets and Go Gos….I remember when Junkyard played at the DH Municipal Center talent shows – ON POTS PANS & CANS. White people need to stop being so cliche….

    • Anon says:

      Thank YOU!