Unemployed men still hang out at 11th and U streets NW, but not on the northeast corner. Anyone who wanders by there is liable to be hired by Al Afshar, who is racing to reopen a Washington landmark.
Afshar is about to open a jazz spot, upscale restaurant and dance club in the exact spot that played host to Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, the very same building that rioters gutted in the fires of 1968, the precise place where legendary heroin dealer Eddie Adair and his "Nigerian Connection" network plied their trade in the 1980s.
Anyone who believes this city isn't roaring back needs to stand at 11th and U and dare to say it aloud.
Afshar is not a native of the District. He's from Iran. When he first came to Washington, he ran a transmission shop in Northeast. Later, he and his brother opened a Georgetown bar called Saloun. In 1998, Afshar bought this shell for $427,000, pumped $2 million into reconstruction, and fell in love with the history of the Bohemian Caverns, previously the Crystal Caverns, where Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonius Monk and other greats played after gigs at white clubs.
Afshar spent months at the library, searching for authentic detail from 1926, when the place opened, to 1968, when the riots put it--and the rest of U Street--into suspended animation. Afshar has succeeded splendidly. You walk downstairs into a cave, with stalagmites and stalactites, and waterfalls in the walls. Even the john is a cave.
There'll be valet parking, a souvenir shop, a cigar vendor. Gas lamps outside and a pink granite bar inside. And a huge mural featuring U Street in the '20s.
Some in Shaw look at the new apartments and town houses across from Afshar's club, and at the clubs and businesses sprouting all along U Street, and see a threat. And yes, gentrification is the engine of demographic change.
In this city, demographic change implies racial change, which is taken to mean that blacks will be pushed out by whites, which is too often assumed to be willful, mean-spirited displacement.
Afshar has heard this line of thinking--and dismisses it. "People who worry about who's moving in and who's moving out and inspecting each person's color--that's not what this is about," he says. "When I came here two years ago, there was a whole bunch of drug dealers right up the block, and the more I developed, the more they disappeared. If that's who's being pushed out, then I say push them out." Four workmen installing the club's bar--black men who live nearby--volunteer agreement.
"There's nothing to apologize for here," adds Darnell Sutton, the 40-year-old president of Affinity Marketing, which handles bookings and promotion for the club. Sutton is a D.C. native who lives in Potomac, but is shopping for a new house--in the District.
"If Nancy Wilson comes here and tickets cost $50, so be it. Some people spend $200 for tennis shoes. Will there be a price point that not everyone who lives around here can afford? Yes. Does that mean we're trying to run people out? Not at all."
Sutton has heard the grumbling, and his reaction is even stiffer than the owner's. "Take the nipple out of your mouth and stop crying," Sutton says. "I grew up in the 'hood. I'm an African American man. My church is moving to the suburbs, but I am moving my family into the city. This isn't about race. It's a migration of people who are excited about city life. It's great to hear the sirens again. The birds just weren't doing it for me."
This is boosterism, of course. In fact, change always creates winners and losers. Rising rents and taxes will force some people to move. The city must not stand by and watch but should provide incentives for developers to build units for a variety of income levels.
But there is no stopping change, and when it comes like this, it ought to be celebrated. A rich vein of D.C. history is being mined.
Sutton looks up at the faces of greats who once played the Caverns and now look out from portraits along the second-story windows. "Man," he says, "we want to play with those ghosts."