One man’s plans to single-handidly build a new nightlife district for the city are coming to fruition one year since a flurry of media coverage about his plans. Local nighlife mogul Joe Englert has been opening and operating offbeat bars in D.C. for nearly two decades, including current hotspots Capitol Lounge, the Pour House, Temperance Hall, Big Hunt, DC9, 51st State, and Trusty’s, to name a few. In 2004 Englert began thinking bigger: opening several restaurants and bars in the same neighborhood and founding his very own nightlife district. Last year his plans to open seven new bars and restaurants on H Street Northeast had the community buzzing. After some initial skepticism from local residents Englert seemed to win over most of his critics by patiently listening to local residents, agreeing to voluntary restrictions about noise and cheap liquor, and locating the bars in an area targeted by city officials for nightlife.
It’s a plan that’s so audacious it just might work, if a recent visit to H Street Northeast is any indication. One year after the media attention, two of the seven planned have just opened: the Argonaut and Showbar. I stopped by his newest venture (fully titled Showbar Presents the Palace of Wonder) last night to discover a surprisingly healthy crowd for a bar which has been open just about a week gawking at the eclectic decor. The two-level establishment boasts the refreshingly straightforward Engler approach: the bar features a limited menu and perhaps half a dozen standard beers in bottles, combined with what must be a painstakingly assembled decor. The bar also boasted the typically-Engler mostly-white and mostly-yuppy clientele. There’s a long bar downstairs, a smaller one upstairs, a modest outdoor patio, and a stage where they plan to feature sword swallowers and other acts. My only disappointment? The bar staff, including one who claimed to be in charge of the entertainment, hadn’t heard of the cat circus alluded to by Fritz Hahn’s profile that Techne had asked me to investigate. Nearby I noticed some of the other relatively new businesses on the strip (better chronicled elsewhere) including the H Street Martini Lounge, two coffee shops, and a playhouse. Getting home was a snap: getting a cab took just a few minutes. For those curious about the bus options, Mike’s got some ideas over at the Express blog.
Of the major commercial strips affected by the 1968 rebellion (14th and 7th Streets NW, 8th Street SE, and H Street NE) it seems logical H Street would be among the last to rebound. It’s the farthest from Metro and lacks major anchoring institutions like 14th Street’s large city office building or Barracks Row’s Navy Yard. This style of revitalization-by-nightlife stood in sharp contrast to another revitalizing part of the city I visited yesterday: the near Southeast area home to the new baseball stadium. While the two areas are in many respects very different (H Street is a residential area, much fewer live in the semi-industrial Southeast area) I think they represent two distinct models of revitalization. In the baseball stadium area some of the largest builders and developers in the region are building a new neighborhood wholesale, uprooting any local businesses and razing the buildings. On H Street a local businessman has purchased and remodeled long-neglected buildings in an area identified for nightlife use by neighborhood-led redevelopment plans. While both examples require yuppies (and their professional salaries) it seems clear to me what the City Paper terms “Englertrification” will do more to aid existing local businesses, provide jobs to neighborhood residents, decrease crime, and even preserve historic architecture than the grandiose plans for the stadium neighborhood. That’s a lesson some Shaw leaders might do well to remember.
Read more about Joe Englert and H Street:
> Hill Rag, June 2005: “H Street In His Image”
> Wash. Business Journal, March 2004: “Joe Englert: Toast of the town”
> Frozen Tropics, May 2005: “Sites of The Joe Englert Related Taverns & Restaurants”
> WaPo, August 2005: “Plans to Set The Bar High On H Street NE”
> City Paper, August 2005: “Englertrification“