DC -The Next City That Rock Built - Articles - Soundblab

DC -The Next City That Rock Built

by Tom Risen Rating: Release Date:

Brooklyn, Venice Beach and Wicker Park have all become famous for hipster-fueled development, and now Washington, D.C.'s neighborhoods are etching their names onto that list.

With all the rock bars, concert halls, jazz boutiques and clubs in the Greater U Street area there are as many as 30 bands playing on any given night. Music and nightlife hubs are planting their flag to the south on the H Street corridor hoping to mimic that success.

The U Street area became a blueprint of revitalization through art when the neighborhood that endured the worst of the destruction from the 1968 riots after the King Assassination attracted more business from outside the city. One pivotal moment for the neighborhood was when the 9:30 Club moved to the corner of Eighth and V Streets in 1996.

The 9:30 Club joined other neighborhood concert halls like the Black Cat and Bohemian Caverns in attracting up-and-coming bands to make a name for themselves. Washington, D.C. natives Thievery Corporation are among the groups that made their name locally - and in March the U Street Music Hall became the latest in a line of their club investments across the city.

Eric Hilton and Rob Garza are the two DJs that make up D.C.-based Thievery Corporation. Hilton grew up in Montgomery County, MD, and has been promoting clubs in D.C. for years. He and Garza involve local DJs and other musicians in their work and at their clubs, along with commissioning local artists to design their album art.

Since he started making money with Thievery Corporation Hilton has opened and funded numerous clubs and bars in D.C.

Hilton sat in bar/restaurant Busboys and Poets talking about how the city's secret has gotten out about its artists and musicians. Next door to the restaurant is rock bar Marvin, a Thievery Corporation nightlife project which was previously an abandoned Subway restaurant.

"A first wave of Bohemianness -- I'm coining the word here - that happened on U Street 20 years ago," said Hilton. "That was the first wave then, and I see that happening on H Street now. That's going to peter out but then it will happen again. U Street is kind of in its second wave and has more traction."

Building a reputation after moving from its older downtown location to the then-neglected U Street Corridor, the new 9:30 Club has become the most attended club of its size in the world, according to concert industry magazine Pollstar. The club's spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer remembered the older location's reputation and neighborhood appeal that made it place to be.

"The 9:30 Club was a pioneer in the area, setting up in a neighborhood that previously many dared not travel to," Schaefer said. "But the music was so good; it gave people a reason to make the trip. Headliners like Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Jack White, Dave Grohl, Loretta Lynn, Pink - they all insist on playing the 9:30 Club when they come to town."

Growing up around the area's music has inspired some to forsake the traditional search for a big break in New York or Los Angeles and set up locally -- like Arlington, VA, natives Hays and Ryan Holladay; brothers who returned from living in Brooklyn to form electro group Bluebrain in 2008. The brothers were the first group to play at the U Street Music Hall and also stage impromptu concerts in the Dupont Circle neighborhood and the National Mall.

"I've noticed that it's just a little bit easier to organize fun events in cool spaces that give people more of an incentive to come out and support local music," Hays Holladay said. "Those are the shows that appeal to me as a fan and musician and I think people are excited to see that personal approach to live music continue to grow in the city."

The cycle of artists and musicians developing communities in an area where there is less traffic and cheaper rent has repeated across the country, according to Tig Nataro, a comedienne who helped organize a four-day comedy festival on U Street in October 2009.

"Venice in particular is going through that now," Nataro said, referring to a neighborhood in Los Angeles. "It was a shady beach town and gang-infested, but artists moved in there and now it's a thriving art community. "But so many people with money have also moved in where there used to be just these tiny homes. It's a bummer when you see everything develop into a vanilla nice area, but I can't help thinking that they'll still find some other area. They'll have to."

A similar pattern may be developing in D.C. In the '80s the district was a haven for punk with clubs like The Black Cat and homegrown punk label Dischord Records bringing groups like Fugazi to the masses. Another local label, Fifth Column Records helped galvanize the District's vibrant house scene starting with techno group Chemlab's 1990 release, and called electro clubs like Nation their home. But Nation closed in 2006--demolished to build condominiums.

So it is with gentrification that as profit and police security follows, an artistic center risks losing its edge to wealthier newcomers. Once there was low rent for artists in the city, but between 2000 and 2007, housing with rent and utility costs of $750 or less fell from 69,000 to 45,000, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

Population data for 2009 put whites in D.C. at 34 percent and the black population at 55 percent, compared to 31 percent white residents and 60 percent black residents in 2000, according to the D.C. Economic Partnership. As those high rents forces black families to the suburbs, estimates indicate whites could become the majority residents in the District of Columbia as early as 2014.

Hilton has seen dramatic change from the days he started out as a small-time rock club promoter in the '80s. He's optimistic the "I've got mine, now keep the noise down and go get yours" mentality of affluent Dupont Circle or Georgetown won't take hold the way it has started to in Brooklyn.

"They'll ruin it eventually," Hilton said. "What you need to be concerned about it's the weekend warriors; the kind of people who live in the suburbs but then come into areas like Adams Morgan once a week to party."

Local artist Kelly Towles is optimistic D.C. will remain unique in a way that lets him be creative - both in a gallery or decorating the streets of Dupont Circle with spraypaint designs and sculptures during February's blizzards.

"You don't have to do all the extroverted stuff you think you have to do like being in New York, where you have to compete with so many people," Towles said. "It makes sense to be a place like here in D.C. where you can be an individual and get support from people."

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