First came the artists, then the galleries. Now the rejuvenated area around the 900 block of F Street NW is about to welcome its first nondisco night spot. The 200-seat 9:30 club, which opened Friday, represents not only a time and place (it is located at 9:30 F. St. and its shows start at 9:30 p.m.), but a faith in downtown that has been absent since the riots of 1968.
When arts-oriented real-estate developer Jon Bowers purchased the 90-year-old Atlantic building a year ago and first thought about opening a club, there were no marketing surveys to guide him. In the past dozen years, the only nondisco clubs to open downtown were 1977's d.c. space (located at 7th and E streets, it is more in the line of a New York-style loft) and the ill-fated new wave Atlantis (located on the site of the new club).
People were simply not coming downtown at night -- mostly the result of a vacuum that left no clubs and few movies and restaurants outside of Chinatown. vAll that, of course, is changing as low rents precede the speculation everyone expects through the next decade, encouraging an influx of creative and social energies.
The Eagles, a mostly gay night spot, has established itself in the 800 block of 7th Street; Metro's expanded lines and hours have encouraged downtown travel. "If people can hang in there," says Bowers, "that's where the future is." With the Lansburgh's building finally occupied by arts organizations, and with a solid number of galleries relocating on the 7th Street corridor, downtown Washington is reaching for a Soho-Left Bank image that has eluded other parts of town.
The moving spirit at the 9:30 is 28-year-old Dody Bowers, whose husband owns the building. Coming from a background that includes Fine Arts study at the Corcoran, two years at Paris' Ecole Jacques Lecoq and a stint with the Phoenix Dance Theater, Bowers has punched plaster, carted lumber and slapped down paint since December. "She's the energy around here," says Bill Warrell, who, along with Interzone, is helping make the club's booking policies. Warrell has also been involved with the more experimental d.c. space. But the 9:30 represents a significant change in what he perceives to be the audience needs of the '80s.
"People are just not watching music anymore," Warrell says. As a result, Thursdays at the club will feature specially chosen deejays for Washington's most concerted effort to follow the major trend emerging from New York in the last 15 months: rock discos. There are a few others currently operating -- Reeks, Scandals, One Flight Up. According to Warrell, "rock discos are opening at the same rate that discos did in '70 and '71. It's the new dance music -- people are just dancing a lot more now." Wednesdays will feature local bands drawn mostly, but not exclusively, from Washington's well-developed new wave scene -- but "It's going to have to be danceable," says Warrell.
The L-shaped club, situated around the corner from Ford's Theatre, is attractively functional, with a spirit of decor somewhere between old and new: high-tech engineering and a '30s or '40s gentility. Four large vaulted rooms beneath the club are currently undeveloped, but there are plans for an ambient room, screening room, kitchen and restaurant (until then, 9:30 will be catered from the excellent kitchen at d.c. space.). Cover charges will be $3 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, $5 on weekends. Shows begin at 9:30 and midnight.
Responsibility for booking weekends will lie initially with Interzone, a three-year-old outfit that has drawn on the proximity of New York to present the more avant-garde and experimental progressive rock figures to Washington audiences. After years of shifting sites, the 9:30 offers a permanent venue for these acts as well as avant-garde classical and conceptual performers. Weekends will be extremely varied, from new wave to reggae to jazz to special video events.
The club has also installed the most extensive video system in Washington: There is a closed-circuit system capable of feeding up to 25 TVs, though normally only four to six will be in operation. Dan Dowdall and Marty Martin of RGO6 have moved their offices into the Atlantic building, where they hope to continue their extensive taping of local bands. Their library is as impressive as their methodology -- a recent Urban Verbs concert brought out a crew of 24. They also have access to the large body of videotapes drawn from record companies and individual bands like the Flying Lizzards and XTC that taps their own special projects.
The new club will have to face two problems. For Washington's active, loyal and vocal new-wave audience, the club will have to overcome memories of the Atlantis and its protracted battles between the former owner, bands and fans. The 9:30 is decidedly after an image and ambience that, they hope, will both present artistically challenging music and set a style. New-wave music -- live, recorded and videotaped -- is an integral part of that image, and that may present a built-in conflict between management and audience.
More important, the subtle truce that has existed in race relations while the predominantly white-owned art studios and galleries have inundated the area will be strained during a summer that promises higher than normal unemployment among blacks, particularly teenagers. If it's a long hot summer, there is bound to be a certain tension directed from people with no spending money toward people with obvious and visible expendable income.
"That's what kept people away from d.c. space," says Warrell. "People thought they couldn't go there." Business jumped noticeably with each expansion of Metro (Metro Center is only a block and a half from the 9:30). The midnight closing, however, tends to stifle an extended night on the town for those without cars. If blacks feel that they're being pushed out of downtown, whether by artists or by developers, it's bound to remain a touchy issue.