More than 150,000 people are expected to crowd Columbia Road NW to celebrate the sixth annual Adams-Morgan Day on Sunday, but not everyone in Adams-Morgan is cheering about the event.
Promoters of the community festival predict nearly $1 million will be spent in a few hours at the traditional array of beer booths and street stalls selling exotic foods and handicrafts against a backdrop of rock and roll, Reggae and Latino music in the heart of Washington's most ethnically diverse community.
Attendance this year is expected to exceed previous records, in part because organizers received $2,500 from the Mayor's Committee to Promote Washington to tout the colorful fest as a major tourist attraction.
But some long disgruntled community leaders continue to gripe that, despite appearances, Adams-Morgan Day has never been staged for or by the community. It is instead, the critics say, put on primarily by one man whose business, and those close by, reap the benefits of the annual flood of commerce.
Hal Wheeler, owner-manager of Columbia Station restaurant, 1836 Columbia Rd. NW, organized the first Adams-Morgan Day that attracted 10,000 people to a one-block area in front of his business. Wheeler readily acknowledges that the day is the busiest of the year for his restaurant.
In Adams-Morgan, critics contend, the event has traditionally received mixed reviews, with reactions divided along much the same lines as many issues in the area that today is both the principal point of entry for many poor immigrants and an increasingly more affluent neighborhood of young, primarily white, city professionals.
Six years ago, community leaders picketed the first Adams-Morgan Day in protest to its benefit to businesses catering primarily to the monied newcomers they said were displacing low-income and minority group residents.
Wheeler, and a staff of two people who are paid out of beer and booth sales from the previous year, are still the festival's principal organizers. They decide what space the event will occupy and how profits from it will be spent. One year, the receipts paid for $750 worth of video equipment for a senior citzens center in Adams-Morgan. Last year, $1,000 went to the Ellington School of the Arts. This year, proceeds will be used to seed a scholarship fund, Wheeler said.
"It's nice of them to tell us," said a sarcastic Marie Nahikian, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and former candidate for the City Council from the area.
"We had a very active Adams-Morgan Day Committee earlier, but they the community leaders sort of thumbed their noses at us," Wheeler said. "They never showed up for meetings and after a while it got to the point where the meetings were a joke."
This year, Wheeler said, the festival had become so standardized there was little need for others' involvement. He said he instructed the paid director, part-time home improvement contractor Pat Patrick, not to hold committee meetings.
Patrick did, however, seek opinions at ANC meetings, but commissioners complained their principal suggestion--to expand the festival into more blocks of Columbia Road--was turned down as unworkable.
"The issue has always been one of access," Nahikian said.
"I just think folks would like to have more say in things and feel more a part of what takes place that day," said O'Bryant Kenner, chairman of the Adams-Morgan ANC. "I'd like to suggest maybe a whole Adams-Morgan week where we could honor folks who are making a contribution to the community and even more people could get involved.
The festival would "probably look very different" if it were planned by the community, Nahikian said. "It would be less slick. There would probably be less rock and roll and more reggae and folk music. There would be less commercial vendors and more of a mix of what is presented there." And it would have more space east of 18th Street, as ANC leaders said they urged to Wheeler and Patrick.
"Last year, it was physically miserable on the community" to have 110,000 people packed into the small barricaded area, Nahikian said.
ANC commissioner Nancy Shia charged the streets were too crowded for safety. The crowds were so dense that many families with children chose to leave, she said.
Patrick and Wheeler said they have addressed the problem by extending the festival 75 yards farther west, by building booths in rectangular instead of circular groupings to leave more space for walking and by opening a special children's festival in Kalorama Park at 19th and Kalorama streets.
Both men said that to extend east across 18th Street would have created "security" problems. Police would be required to direct traffic on 18th street monitoring the crowd, they said.
"Let's face it, that part of Columbia Road east of 18th is kind of the funky side of the neighborhood, considerably more diverse in color but more like the real Adams-Morgan," said Nahikian, echoing the views of others.
"It's the poorest part of the neighborhood," Shia said, "and one where the businesses and people--there's tenants groups up there that are trying to buy their buildings--would really stand to benefit."
"They don't bring it up here because they want to take all the business for themselves," charged Abe Satar, owner of the Cafe Don restaurant, 1721 Columbia Rd. NW.
"It's just a lot of rhetoric from a very small group," Wheeler said. "It's the best festival in the city and everyone has a good time." To emphasize his point, he said the mayor's committee has also given him $7,500 to make a videotape on how to plan festivals.
"Some of us would just like it to be what everyone thinks it is, a real celebration of Adams-Morgan and the diversity of people who live here and a benefit to the comunity as a whole," Shia said.