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 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.
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.
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 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.
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!