Adams Morgan, a diverse neighborhood of bars and row houses in Northwest Washington, D.C., has always had a complicated history with alcohol, entertainment, and development. When a moratorium on new liquor licenses was due to sunset in 2013, the neighborhood was forced to reflect on its past and figure out its future.
Words and illustrations by J.S. Graboyes.
A great orgiastic romp of kids moved up and down 18th Street: guys in green blazers stumbling drunk into traffic, the parade of girls in heels higher than the Monument, laughing, shivering in black skirts that couldn’t keep the cold out, jumbo slice at 2:00am, carefree inebriation, and the threat of violent inebriation, that slice of pie we shared at The Diner at last call, the velvet rope line set up outside as if a diner could be a nightclub. St. Patrick’s Day, 2013, we sat on stools in the window at Angles, nursing pints of Harp, watching the show outside unfold like it does every year in Adams Morgan.
Adams Morgan is the hardest-drinking neighborhood in one of the hardest-drinking cities in America. Its most famous landmark is a pair of enormous, nine-foot-by-thirteen-foot breasts painted on the side of a bar Playboy once named one of the country’s best. Adams Morgan is a neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC, best known, on weekends, for cheap beer, irregular carding, hookah bars, glass pipes, and slices of cheap pizza, simply called “jumbo slice,” that are far bigger than the pair of grease-stained paper plates they’re served on and has the remarkable property of becoming palatable only when blood alcohol content crosses .06. These are all amenities which attract college kids and exurban twenty-somethings to the dives and nightclubs of 18th Street, the area’s main drag, like moths to a Flaming Dr. Pepper.
Adams Morgan is also a residential neighborhood, with tree-lined streets of stately, century-old brick row houses, some still single family, others converted to apartments and condos. Its inhabitants are a mix of young staffers in residual group houses, old hippies, and a professional class between them who tend to see their neighborhood as a residential district of tree-lined streets and stately row houses rather than the double-breasted Bourbon Street that attracts the weekend warriors.
Interaction between the two groups is limited to the occasional 3:00am noise complaint; the hundreds of red, triangular, individual slice pizza boxes from 7-11 that the revelers leave behind on Fridays and Saturdays and residents wake up to on Saturdays and Sundays; and alcohol, which divides visitors and residents, those who flock to it and those who lament its effects on the neighborhood.
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If all politics is local, then the beating heart of the world’s most politicized city is found in the hyperlocal advisory neighborhood commissions, or ANCs, which have played a peculiar role in governing the nation’s capital since it obtained home rule in the mid-70s. For a city of less than 700,000, there are 40 ANCs drawn from about 300 single-member districts. ANCs hold hearings on all manner of issues affecting their districts, but because their role is limited to an advisory one on issues of hyperlocal interest, they tend to devolve into group therapy sessions for people who would otherwise occupy their evenings drafting and ten-times revising strongly-worded letters to editors.
ANCs advisory role extends to liquor regulation. In 1989, Georgetown’s ANC, long one of the District’s tonier boroughs, initiated a moratorium on new liquor licenses. Dupont Circle, across the park, followed suit the next year, and Glover Park, to Georgetown’s north, joined the pack in 1996. And in 2000, the ANC representing Adams Morgan, by then long the city’s prime nightlife district, recommended a moratorium that allowed the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) to issue only beer and wine licenses and only for restaurants, not taverns or nightclubs.
In 2009, when the moratorium was up for renewal, an uncontested petition trotted out a lengthy parade of horribles: from noise and litter to a “severe rat infestation,” “pizza-by-the-slice litter,” “the dull roar of the combination of patrons,” “over-service that leads to loud and abuse patrons,” “fighting and serious crime,” “driving while intoxicated,” “excessive noise from street musicians,” “public urination,” and “destruction of property”. The moratorium was not only renewed but strengthened to prohibit any new liquor licenses in the area.
The effect on area economics was immediate. Because liquor licenses are transferable, the market price value of an Adams Morgan liquor license shot up exponentially. In 2014, the moratorium was once again up for review. By then liquor licenses that would have cost an annual $1000-$2600 elsewhere in the city were being traded for ten times that amount. A liquor license in Georgetown, under a similar moratorium, supposedly sold for $90,000. There are even rumors, undocumented, of sales in the six, even seven, figures.
What effect the moratorium had on the quality of life in Adams Morgan depends on who you ask. To its defenders—mostly older, decades-long residents—the moratorium hadn’t eradicated existing dive bars, nightclubs, and their rowdy revelers but had kept newer, similarly undesirable businesses from opening. To its detractors—mostly younger, more-recent residents residents and owners of other businesses—the moratorium had prevented higher-end businesses (innocuously codenamed “white tablecloth restaurants”) from opening in the area, and it was precisely this lack of competition that had kept the less desirable afloat.
In late 2013, several months before the moratorium was due to sunset, the ANC signaled a break from tradition and a desire to lift most restrictions on granting new liquor licenses to restaurants. Fliers went up on lampposts and signposts providing notice of a “Special Forum” before the ANC.
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Adams Morgan has always been defined not only by the diversity of its people, but by the diversity of its experience. More than most any other neighborhood in the city, Adams Morgan has been shaped by its constantly changing character. The road to the initial liquor license moratorium, 15 years ago now, is wrapped up in that story.
The area began to take shape in the late nineteenth century as a group of four or five, mostly white, middle-to-upper-class suburbs along the new electric streetcar lines north of Florida Avenue. The 1920s brought immigrants from East Asia and Europe, especially German Jews, followed by African-Americans. The 1960s brought immigrants from Latin America. Churrería Madrid, a longtime dining room for expat Spaniards, opened in 1973.
The 60s brought change. On the one hand, the area began to shift from residential suburb to a hub of nightlife and counterculture. Charlie Byrd headlined at the Show Boat Lounge throughout the decade. Dizzy Gillespie patronized Hazel’s. This was the era of the Ambassador Theater’s six-month flirtation with psychedelica. A police captain sent out fliers warning that “the Psychedelic Power and Light Company was moving into the neighborhood with drugs, long hair, and loud music,” which led to cancelled bookings of The Grateful Dead and The Doors. The grand opening finally happened on July 27, 1967, with performances by Peanut Butter Conspiracy and the Mandrake Memorial. Attendees were divided into three groups—Petal Children (under 15), Flower Children (15-30), and Old Flowers (over 30)—who moved and grooved among church pews and danced and pranced upon flowers painted on the floor. There was a strobe light, and images of colored water moving in trays was projected on three large screens. Jimi Hendrix performed there in August. But, by January 1968, the Ambassador was closed. The theater was demolished six years later. A bank took its place at 18th and Columbia. Single-family row houses became multi-unit buildings, and businesses occupied old residences. An antiwar commune sprung up along Lanier Place, just north of Columbia Road, alongside members of Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement.
But the 60s also posed threats. In the original plan for I-66, a freeway would have severed the neighborhood from the rest of the city, and, in a near-repeat of the disastrous destruction and renewal of Southwest Washington, the beautiful, old buildings along 18th Street would have made way for international-style towers. 1968 brought the riots, and white flight, like a Fragonard painting, entered full swing. From a peak population of over 800,000 at the 1950 census, the city could claim a mere 570,000 souls by the end of the century. Single-family row houses became multi-unit apartment buildings.
International conflicts of the late 1960s and 1970s brought populations from Southeast Asia and Africa, especially Ethiopia and Eritrea. By the 1980s, the neighborhood was the city’s premiere nightlife district. It was the city’s most cosmopolitan area. A 1987 guide to the city picked up at a yard sale (Washington, D.C.: The Complete Guide) boasts of “no less than 25 (count ‘em) restaurants, including (are you ready?) six (!) Ethiopian, three Chinese, three Latin American, two Caribbean, three Italian, two French, one Creole and the rest a varied bunch, from gourmet carry-out to neighborhood bars” along 18th Street, and, just around the corner in the 1800 block of Columbia Road, “five more Latin American and several others.”
1991 brought more riots and curfews when a police officer shot a Salvadoran man in the chest in nearby Mount Pleasant following a Cinco de Mayo celebration. But Columbia Road, long the center of a primarily Central American community, is still lined today with bodegas and taquerías. Unity Park, the small park outside the Churrería Madrid, once hosted a three-day-a-week market of about a dozen stalls selling pupusas and tamales gathered around a statue called “Carry the Rainbow on Your Shoulders.” Technically illegal, the market was shut down by regulators in 2011, though you can still sometimes find tamale hawkers elsewhere in the area. The abandoned church on the other side of United Park has long been slated to become a luxury hotel, a local controversy in its own right. The future of Columbia Road is unclear.
The 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of the Ethiopian presence in Adams Morgan, long before the block of 9th Street below U became Little Addis Ababa. I have faint memories of this period, when I was very young, when my parents would take me to the zoo across the park and we would end the day before vast platters of injera topped with tibs and shiro and, my favorite, doro wat. I remember my father kept an unmarked bottle of tej—honey wine—supposedly from the son of Haile Selassie, who then lived across the river in McLean. For a suburban boy from a smaller, Southern city, Adams Morgan was a shocking, wonderful look at a broader planet. Adams Morgan was that for a lot of people—a peek at a world beyond their own experience.
Meskerem, the longtime doyenne of Adams Morgan’s Ethiopian scene, was not the first Ethiopian restaurant in the country, not even the first in Washington. But by the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, when it turned 30, it was the oldest Ethiopian restaurant still operating out of the same address in the country. It was long a stop for visitors eager to sample Washington’s most essential cuisine over intricately carved chairs and woven basket tables. Meskerem is gone now, as are nearly all the others. It closed in April. Only Awash, where cabbies still hang out smoking hookah and cigarettes on the sidewalk, is left to stand testament on 18th Street.
With a city in a slump and Marion Barry, its mayor-for-life, still actually mayor, the empty storefronts of 18th Street between Columbia and Kalorama cried out for redevelopment. This stretch became Washington’s interpretation of Bourbon Street. Madam’s Organ, with its enormous mural of a woman’s breasts, dates from this period, as do the other watering holes that have come to define the neighborhood. To this day, the most prevalent image of Adams Morgan is the rowdy, binging twenty-something pounding cheap drafts. Worried citizens across the city still take to listservs to lament the impending “Adams Morganization” of their neighborhoods.
The next decade began with a liquor moratorium. But something else was happening in Washington. In a trend repeated in cities across the country, areas previously perceived as dangerous—Columbia Heights, U Street, Logan Circle, H Street—were quickly filled with loft condominiums and the kinds of people who want them: people, by and large, with the time, income, and preference for eating and drinking out. With no moratorium on new liquor licenses, competition from existing bars and restaurants, or entrenched, politically-savvy populations, liquor licenses were easy to come by. 14th Street, previously known for liquor stores and used car lots, suddenly spawned 60 new restaurants in 2013. Storefronts along 18th Street, in moratorium-addled Adams Morgan, began to go dark.
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October 9, 2013, it poured. It was one of those quiet, late-summer-early-fall rains that makes nights seem lonelier. One of those first nights of the latter part of the year that cries out for a heavier drink. Graham’s Six Grapes port is a very decent port with a venerable provenance. It was served to First Class passengers aboard the Queen Mary’s 1936 maiden voyage across the Atlantic, served again to all passengers on the 2004 maiden voyage of the Queen Mary II, and in late 2013, offered a way to kill time and a bottle before heading through the rain to a community forum on liquor licenses.
Two months earlier, in August, someone had been stabbed to death among the blue walls and fishtanks of The Reef. Less than a month after that incident, in September, a man fell down the stairs and died after trying to stop another man from attacking a third man with a glass died at the Rendezvous Lounge. Adams Morgan was on edge. Even the rain couldn’t keep dozens of concerned citizens from crowding into the small community room at Mary’s Center, a health center for lower-income individuals tucked behind a public housing project in a warren of small streets development has mostly passed over.
There weren’t nearly enough chairs at Mary’s Center, and a throng of standees spilled out into the hallway like an overturned cocktail. The crowd had the fervor and restlessness of spectators to a trial of the century. But there was no Lindbergh baby, no glove to try on, no anarchists or perfect crimes or unlawful evolution lessons, just the right to sell issue new liquor licenses in the drunkest neighborhood of a city consistently ranked one of the drunkest in the nation.
Like an AA meeting, the forum began with each spectator and participant rising to say her name. The first few presentations, by the Commissioners and the Director of ABRA were relatively sober, diplomatic explanations of the moratorium’s facts and history.
To most Washingtonians, Adams Morgan has become something of a seedy, sort of trashy entertainment district. But Adams Morgan is also home. And to hear it from the frazzle-haired relic-of-the-70s speaking so sweetly of her neighborhood from the front row of the Special Forum, Adams Morgan had once had a Ben Franklin five-and-dime. Back when the neighborhood’s name still had a hyphen in it (Adams-Morgan). Back when the Supreme Court case that had finally ended racial segregation in DC’s schools and given the neighborhood its current name was still fresh. Back when people still knew what a five-and-dime actually was.
The five-and-dime had had several great, big plate-glass windows through which you could see a wondrous array of knickknacks you never knew you needed. The sign above the door was written in some blocky Art Deco font which could be trendy now. An old picture of the shop shows a respectable young woman sporting a ponytail and a gingham dress holding the hand of a blonde child.
The way she told it, back when Adams Morgan had had the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, it wasn’t just a neighborhood. It was a Neighborhood, with a capital “N”, something hallowed and very nearly holy. Back before Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, back before hookah bars and last-call jumbo slice, way back before Madam’s Organ was named of Playboy’s best bars in America, you could still run next door for eggs, let your kids play alone in the street, sense community emanate from the mailman who wished you a pleasant morning and the friendly greengrocer who let you pay next week. Everyone on 18th Street and Columbia Road tipped their hat, asked after your poor, sick mother and knew your middle name. Back then, when there was a Ben Franklin five-and-dime, there was still a hyphen, and everything was right in Adams-Morgan.
The woman painted a story so sweet, so poetic, so nostalgic about the days of the Ben Franklin five-and-dime. She promised that, with a renewal of the 13-year-old moratorium on new liquor licenses, the Ben Franklin would someday return to Adams Morgan like a prodigal son home from war. She spoke of hardware stores. She spoke of toy stores. (The building that houses the area’s most famous nightclub, Madam’s Organ, was the original Toys ‘R’ Us.) Most importantly, she spoke of community, that Mayberry ideal that everyone remembers but probably never really existed. Her story was the sort of story that might drive you to frenzy, might drive you to pick up a hatchet and join arms with this latter-day Carrie Nation, were it not for the warm inertia of a pre-game glass of port.
The Portuguese language has a wonderful concept, saudade, which finds no direct equivalent in English. It even has an official day in Brazil. It refers to a kind of nostalgic melancholy for something gone now, something you know can never return, something that may never have actually been as beautiful or pleasing as you remember it. Like the memory of Mayberry disguising earlier decades’ experience of poverty, crime, racial tension, riots, corruption, white flight, black flight, unprecedented population loss, AIDS, drugs, and the war on all those things. A golden calf, or a self-evident prophecy.
There was a vision of a new Adams Morgan: a Latin Quarter of used bookstores and Viennese coffee houses where intellectuals could read their papers and discuss matters of great import. I think even she must have known this had never existed and never would in a world of Starbucks, Amazon, and modern real estate trends.
There was the man who’d purchased an apartment behind a nightclub and refused to buy sound-proof windows simply because it was his right not to.
A resident of the neighborhood since about 1960 and owner of one of the last remaining businesses from the five-and-dime era rose to speak. He remembered the 1968 riots, when the city burned in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He remembered the People’s Drug (where the McDonalds is now), the Children’s Supermart (where Madam’s Organ is), and surely the Ben Franklin five-and-dime. He stood right behind me, his mouth right behind my left ear. He told us of the litter he found each Saturday and Sunday morning—the expected beer cans and pizza boxes, but also the unexpected: batteries (?) and diapers (??).
“One night,” he recalled, “I saw a young man peeing against the side of a building. And I told him to stop peeing, and he did not. A policeman was standing nearby,” he went on, “so I told the policeman about it, and motioned to the young man peeing against the wall. And you know what he did?” he asked those of us in attendance with great flourish. “He did nothing! Nothing! He just shrugged and did nothing! Why did he do nothing? The young man didn’t learn any lesson. And you know what?” What, we wondered. “HE’S GONNA PEE AGAIN!” He screamed this in my left ear so loud the word “pee” echoed through my brain a good five minutes like a gong and infected my thought processes for days like a UTI. The glass of port coursed through my bladder.
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When we emerged from Mary’s Center, the night was thick and dark and damp, like a Black Russian. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. It was 9:00 or 9:30, and we were hungry. We walked through dark streets back to 18th, the neighborhood’s main drag, where the windows of bars and restaurants lit up the night like bug zappers. We decamped to La Fourchette, a small French restaurant tucked into an old row house which opened in 1978. Its food tastes just as much 1978 as French, which, if you value history and nostalgia, is not necessarily a bad thing.
La Fourchette is still owned by Pierre Chauvet, now in his early 70s, and his wife, Jacqueline, who relocated from La Rochelle, a town near the midpoint of France’s Atlantic coast, some time in the mid-century. They are a rarity in a dining scene increasingly dominated by corporate restaurant groups and celebrity chefs. Chauvet allegedly goes through about 50 pounds of butter and 48 quarts of cream each week for a 72-seat restaurant. “For decades,” a 1998 Post feature article writes,“he’s stayed with the same wife, the same cuisine and the same way of presenting food on a plate.” In a food scene that tends to scorn tradition for the sake of blind innovation, he explained: “I like simple things.”
Chauvet has been cooking since he began an apprenticeship at 14. He went on to cook for the French army in North Africa, at French embassies in the Low Countries and the Dutch embassy in Washington, and in the homes of Katharine Graham, Henry Ford II, and others. Chauvet is a classicist, following more the tradition of Escoffier than the lead of acclaimed DC culinarians like Michel Richard, Robert Wiedmaier, and José Andrés.
We finished off pâté maison and tucked into grilled salmon, spinach mousse, and duck breast in honey sauce. One-by-one and in couples, stragglers from the Special Forum ducked out of the drizzle and into the warm, soft light of the restaurant. They ordered carafes of wine and talked in low voices over white tablecloths. A year later, La Fourchette was for sale.