U Street Music Hall has the beats and spinners, but no paparazzi

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; C01

It's Wednesday night in the green room of U Street Music Hall, and club owner Will Eastman is explaining his vision for a "no-frills dance club . . . no attitude, no bottle service, no velvet rope, no bull--" THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.

Deep frequencies come throbbing from the adjacent dance floor, as if his recently opened nightclub was divided like the chambers of a beating heart. "We put the focus on the music," Eastman says. "Every decision we made emanated out in concentric circles from the music."

So while the bass thumps in infinite shapes at U Street Music Hall, there's one sound patrons will never hear: the ker-click of a camera shutter. Eastman's vision doesn't include photography. Tired of the overzealous party photographers who swarm Washington's most popular dance nights, he and co-owner Jesse Tittsworth banned picture-taking.

Over the past few years, party photography has reached a saturation point, with flash-happy photogs fiercely attempting to record every shimmy that transpires on our city's dance floors. To go dancing in Washington now is to repeatedly say "cheese" for the Internet masses.

Not at U Hall. Tucked beneath the 7-Eleven on U street between 11th and 12th streets NW, the 300-capacity venue is owned by DJs: Eastman is still responsible for the wildly popular "Bliss" parties formerly held at the Black Cat (now held at U Hall), while Tittsworth continues to spin records for adoring crowds from Bethesda to Beijing.

Together, the duo decided to try opening a club that could deliver world-class DJ talent with minimal pretentiousness. The walls are a stately shade of charcoal, the dance floor is cushioned with cork, the drinks are cheap and the speakers are mighty. Bass drips like subsonic honey from U Hall's six-figure sound system, an incredible machine that trumps any nightclub's in the city.

Firm stance

U Hall's doors opened to the public only on March 17, but its buzz across town is already creating a mythology. Plenty of that has to do with the no-photo policy, and the response they've received from it. By and large, the DJs are relieved, the photographers are crestfallen and the patrons are conflicted.

But the owners are firm. "We really want to encourage people to not give a [expletive] about how they look and just enjoy the moment," Tittsworth says by phone from Miami, where he was DJing at the annual Winter Music Conference last week.

"I've been to countless cities, coast to coast, where photographers will create these false moments by antagonizing people, getting women maybe with low self-esteem to expose themselves, or antagonize guys to be more aggressive. . . . It creates a manufactured moment that looks crazier than it was."

Party photography can be seen as a direct symptom of the Facebook age. We're so busy trying to record ourselves having an amazing Friday night that we don't give ourselves the opportunity to actually have an amazing Friday night. Smile! Click. Upload. Repeat.

Photo exhaustion

Getting some fresh air outside of U Hall in the smallest hours of Saturday morning, patron J.J. Kelley says he has grown weary of the flash. "It's like that paparazzi feel," he says, a frown beneath his brown mustache. "This place feels more gritty . . . more authentic."

His exhaustion isn't unwarranted. Even the founder of the Web site that made its name in 2006 by being the first in town to publish oodles of party photos agrees. "There was a time when there were too many party photos being taken," says Svetlana Legetic, editor of Brightest Young Things. "I'm the first person to say that."

Initially, Legetic hoped her site could give Washingtonians what sites like the Cobra Snake gave Los Angeles and Last Night's Party gave New York -- an endless stream of snapshots that made the city look like the center of the nightlife universe. "It made everything seem really shiny and fun," Legetic says of BYT's party-photo glory days. "People felt more like a part of the experience."

But the experience has become irksome to many. Two weeks ago, a couple of hundred fans crammed into a warehouse off New York Avenue NE for a DJ set by California's Dam-Funk. The promoters had rented an impressive lighting rig, but they need not have bothered. At one point, at least four photographers were on the dance floor firing off flashes like strobe lights. (One was covering the event for The Washington Post.) The crowd split into two factions -- those hoping to be photographed and those trying to stay out of the shot.

This is the kind of psychological clutter that Eastman and Tittsworth hope to avoid at U Hall. But they haven't been able to avoid the irritation of picture-snappers.

"I was a little annoyed," says Dakota Fine, a photographer for Brightest Young Things. "I was looking forward to attending and documenting the opening of what I thought would be a very significant venue in D.C. I wanted a piece of that magic. . . . I think they've limited freedom of speech inside their venue."

Fine stresses his "love" and "respect" for Eastman and Tittsworth, but that didn't stop him from snapping a few covert iPhone pictures at U Hall last week.

Eastman isn't too bothered. "We don't walk around confiscating cameras," he says. "It's the spirit of the policy that matters more than the draconian implementation of it. We're not gonna be cops."

Dealing with it

Fitsum Belay, who has been documenting Washington club life for 20 years as "Sexy Fitsum," is one of the most respected party shooters in town. "I think this will be part of U Hall's narrative. But I think my disappointment is losing the opportunity to record that moment," he says. "[It's also] egotistical. Once you're accustomed to that kind of access, you don't want it taken away. But you gotta deal with it."

Brightest Young Things is dealing with it. As a gesture of goodwill, U Hall invited the Web site to host a concert from local rock troupe Bluebrain last week. BYT promoters handed out pens and paper and asked attendees to play courtroom sketch artist. If Brightest Young Things' goal was to get the audience involved, this did the trick.

But Legetic -- as well as Fine and Belay -- still wonder if the club might cave eventually. How will people know how great this place is if they can't see it?

"Photos are an integral part of the promo game," Tittsworth admits. "If we fall flat on our face, it might be time to reconsider our strategy."

For now, U Hall has earned rave reviews and drawn enthusiastic throngs since opening two weeks ago, including a lively crowd Friday in which Michelle Saghafi was dancing with friends. Did she know about the no-photo policy?

"Awww, really?" she said. "I think it [makes it] more memorable when you can see pictures with your friends. I like to look online the next morning. But I get why they're doing it. There's no bottle service here, no VIP, nothing sleazy."

Then, with the bass thumping away, she returned to the dance floor, closed her eyes and got back into the moment.

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