And over the past decade, H Street has emerged as the city’s nexus of deaf youth culture.
“It’s all about service,” Spiecker said in sign language as his group entered the German brew pub. The bartender immediately handed out menus and waited for each person to point to their selection. Then, the bartender signed the price.
“They know what to do here,” signed Spiecker, a stocky former midfielder on Gallaudet’s soccer team, his hair recently shaved to a buzz cut.
When businesses began sprouting up on H Street, they catered to a different type of urban pioneer. Their earliest patrons in the mid-2000s were students from nearby Gallaudet, who were tired of slogging to places such as Adams Morgan, where bars had little idea of how to help them.
“They were the influx of college students that H Street needed to succeed,” said Jason Martin, a co-owner of many H Street establishments, including the Rock & Roll Hotel and Sticky Rice. For a time, “it was hard to get people over to H Street because there wasn’t much public transportation and taxicabs used to be scarce.”
The Gallaudet students, he said, really helped.
Now, deaf waiters work at restaurants. People of all ages walk up and down the street using American Sign Language, or ASL. Bartenders know the sign for Jagermeister.
The simple accommodations fostered a sense of belonging for the deaf community on a street that was evolving from chicken-wing shops and shuttered funeral parlors to $12 cocktails and indoor mini-golf.
A selling point
Like many redeveloping communities, H Street has struggled to balance the desires of older, black residents and its burgeoning young, white population. The deaf culture of the street adds a deaf-hearing element to this familiar tension, though progress is evident.
But for all of the area’s success, some can’t help but wonder what will happen to the deaf-friendly atmosphere as the area becomes even more popular.
“I’m hanging out there less and less,” Spiecker said. “It’s becoming too expensive.”
Still, Spiecker and his friends welcome the changing street that first welcomed them.
They started their evening at Biergarten Haus for several reasons: There was good lighting, so it was easier to sign to one another. The tables were long, so conversations could be carried across the room. The beer was cheap. (And none of them could hear the polka music that played incessantly.)
Hearing customers largely left them alone, though they drew a number of stares — and not necessarily because they were deaf. Mostly athletes and sorority members, they were distractingly attractive.
As Tenja Smith, 21, and her friend conversed in sign language about when — or if — D.C.’s streetcar will ever start running, they caught the attention of a couple of guys on the other side of the bar. The men started walking toward them, noticed the signing and then stopped, concluding their pickup attempts might be futile.