Fourteenth Street NW -- for years identified with blight, prostitution and narcotics -- is undergoing a transformation as it becomes home to more theaters than any other area of the city.
With the opening of two renovated theater buildings in the next month -- including the first production in new quarters of the Studio Theater tonight -- there will be seven theaters within a six-block span. Promoters hope that in the future, 14th Street will become widely known as the center of the District's thriving experimental theater.
City officials welcome the theaters, as well as numerous artists' studios, as the first step in the rebirth of 14th Street, much of which was burned or looted in the riots of 1968 and came to symbolize the business community's skepticism about investment in the District.
The area is now drawing more young professionals as residents, and increasing attention from developers planning office complexes. "This will establish a new image for the 14th Street community that will be a much more positive one and hopefully will last for generations," said Kwasi Holman, who, as director of the District's Office of Business and Economic Development, leads the city's effort to aid theaters and artists. "With the addition of office tenants and new residences, it will create the kind of community on 14th Street that people will enjoy living in."
The strip still bears vestiges of its former self: boarded-up storefronts, some drug addicts and street people. But the 1985 opening of the D.C. municipal office building at 14th and U streets began a rebirth.
Urban experts said the arrival of an arts colony in the redeveloping neighborhood is part of an urban life cycle repeated in cities throughout the nation: struggling theaters and artists move into a low-rent area, help bring a neighborhood revival; new offices and shops soon follow; rents and real estate taxes shoot up, and soon the theaters can't afford it anymore.
With that possibility years away, the city's theater community is expressing delight at the thought that on any given evening when the theaters are playing to full houses, more than 500 people could be converging on the area to see live theater.
"There's a sheer excitement of so many theaters being together," said Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theater, which is moving next month to a building on Church Street off 14th Street. "We want to be planting it in people's minds that if you want to go to the theater, go to 14th Street."
The coming together of a new theater district is actually a revival, because the area around 14th and U was for decades before the riots the center of black night life in the District, with numerous nightclubs and theaters. City officials and developers have been planning the renovation of two venerable theaters that now are empty: the Lincoln Theater at 13th and U streets, and the Howard at Seventh and T streets.
Fred Greene, the District's planning director, said the city is planning to offer a series of financial incentives for developers who set aside space for the arts in new buildings on U Street.
Most of the theaters on 14th Street put on new or slightly experimental productions. Some people call the area "off Kennedy Center" -- a variation of the term "off Broadway."
The Studio Theater, which spent $800,000 renovating a former automobile repair shop at 14th and P streets, opens tonight, with the Washington premiere of a comedy about working women called "North Shore Fish." The theater moved from its most recent home a block away on Church Street, and now is renting that building to Woolly Mammoth, which will open next month with a production of "Harvey," the play that inspired the James Stewart film about a man with an invisible rabbit friend.
Today also is a milestone for the Source Theater, a seven-year resident of the 14th Street neighborhood. Source Theater officials are holding a news conference today, at which Mayor Marion Barry will announce city aid to the venture.
The District government will offer a low-interest loan to Source to buy the $365,000 building that houses its Warehouse Theater, one of two theaters it operates on 14th between S and T streets.
The 14th Street theaters run from the more established Studio, which is 11 years old, to the Moving Target, which has been operating for about two years in a church building on V Street. Java Rama is a coffeehouse-performance space, which promoted its most recent offbeat presentations with a telephone tape advertising poetry readings, plus "Lydia Lunch" and "Bikini Girls from Mars."
Theater organizers said that some people interested in buying tickets express fears about crime in the area, but that they find the area safe once they attend a show.
"I hope people are encouraged not to be afraid, to come on up," said Garland Scott, a Source spokesman. "It just takes one visit."
Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth said that he expects his theater to have slightly smaller audiences for a while because of fear about the neighborhood, and added that the theaters should promote the area to get across the "14th Street message."
Shalwitz said his theater chose its new location after years of playing in a variety of temporary locations around the city and searching for inexpensive quarters.
Noting the financial pressure on most experimental theaters, he confronted a difficult decision in deciding where to locate his theater: the cheaper the rent, the shabbier the reputation of the neighborhood. One reason 14th Street is attracting theaters, Shalwitz said, is that it represents an acceptable balance between inexpensive rents and a neighborhood on the upswing.
Several of the theaters have moved into old warehouses and automobile repair shops left over from decades ago, when that stretch of 14th Street was the center of the city's automobile business.
Joy Zinoman, Studio's artistic director, said these large structures are suited for theaters because they have ceilings of more than 15 feet, and often wide spaces without obstructing pillars.
The neighborhood still has its drawbacks, theater promoters concede. There are few restaurants nearby, for example, and theater officials said most theatergoers eat on 17th Street.
The biggest disappointment for theater officials came last year, when Herb White, owner of the established Dupont Circle restaurant and artists' hangout called Herb's, ended plans to locate his restaurant -- including a performance stage -- amid the new theaters on 14th Street.
Bitter about what he said was bureaucratic red tape associated with zoning requirements and various city permits, White instead set up shop in a less financially risky location, in a Holiday Inn downtown on Rhode Island Avenue NW.
City officials say White, a strong supporter of local theaters, is exaggerating the difficulties he confronted. But he has repeatedly given speeches and spoken out publicly about city agencies' delays, which he said made the gamble of moving to 14th Street too costly.
"I was committing myself to several million dollars all told to set up my business," he said. "It wasn't worth the risk."