Memories of D.C.’s old 14th Street

John Kelly
Columnist July 23, 2013

Who mourns the old 14th Street?

I’m not talking about the stretch between Thomas Circle and Florida Avenue NW, a newly trendy bit of real estate that, as recounted this week in The Washington Post, is packed with bars and restaurants and condos. I’m talking about the blocks around 14th and I, an area that today is chock-full of rather drab office buildings and hotels.

There are no historical markers celebrating this downtown stretch of 14th Street, which at one time was among the seediest places in the District, home to a collection of strip clubs and porno theaters.

Home to a vibrant collection of strip clubs and porno theaters, I should say, for there once was an undeniable energy on 14th Street, even if it was a skanky energy.

If you were a male growing up in the Washington area between about 1970 and 1990, a visit to 14th Street was something of a rite of passage. This was Washington’s red light district, our version of New York’s Times Square and Baltimore’s Block, home to such establishments as Benny’s Rebel Room, the Casino Royal, the Gold Rush, This Is It? and Doc Johnson’s.

Some, like the Casino Royal, were theaters, showing X-rated movies on a big screen, communal carnality at odds with today’s hermetic, digital pornography. Some establishments featured peep shows, celluloid intimacy in flickering booths doled out in two-minute installments. Others sold what were coyly referred to as “marital aids.”

And some featured strippers, or as they preferred to be called, dancers.

The dancers were the last living link to 14th Street’s past. For all their nudity — save for a requisite garter with an efflorescence of dollar bills — they were live performers. The neighborhood had once been home to jazz, rock, blues and bluegrass nightclubs. When audiences didn’t want to see bands anymore, promoters brought in burlesque queens, who — with their live musical accompaniment, their lavish costumes, their drawn-out and theatrical disrobement, their modesty-preserving tassels and pasties — still had an air of semi-respectability.

And when burlesque died you were left with Angel or Tiffany spinning around a brass pole at the Butterfly Club like a naked May queen.

Of course, young men knew 14th Street was not a nice place to go. But at the time, it seemed an important place. If, as we’d been told as children, the night was full of scary things, it seemed important that we confront them — or at least recognize them.

It seemed vital that we learn how to nurse a beer, and there is nowhere better to learn how to nurse a beer than in a strip club.

It would be wrong to say there was something innocent about that place and that time. There was always the hum of potential violence, like the crackling in the air before a thunderstorm. But if you kept your head down — if, in the midst of misbehaving, you behaved — odds are it wouldn’t be you bloody on the street, tossed by a bouncer after getting fresh with a dancer.

When I was younger, people used to say this about Washington: The city changes suddenly from block to block. This was meant to describe the geography, how a “bad” neighborhood wasn’t far from a “good” one, and thus you’d better be aware of where you were and not stray.

But now I see it as a temporal description, too. The city changes year to year and block to block. The older we get the more we’re able to see it in our mind as a time-lapse photo, the new consuming the old, only to be consumed itself.

Send a kid to camp

I met a snake at Camp Moss Hollow last week, a black snake that threaded its way through the pavilion in search, I was told, of mice. You probably prefer a different lunch, which is why I recommend heading Wednesday to any Clyde’s restaurant, Old Ebbitt Grill, 1789 or the Hamilton and order the BLT sandwich or jumbo lump crab cakes with corn and tomato salad. Part of the proceeds will benefit Moss Hollow.

Or donate by going to washingtonpost.com/camp and clicking where it says “Give Now.” Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15251-0045.

And don’t forget: If you donate between $150 and $249 from now until the end of the campaign, you will receive a $25 gift certificate from Clyde’s. Donate $250 or more, and Clyde’s will give you one for $50. (Certificates will be sent in September.)

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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