Dante Ferrando watched as the neighborhood around the Black Cat lost its quirky bagel shop, its card shop, its sneaker store, pet shop and post office, and filled back up again with a Trader Joe’s, a Madewell and high-end apartment complexes with floor-to-ceiling windows and rooftop pools.
By the time the hair salon and the Southeast Asian restaurant with the all-white interiors moved onto 14th Street NW, the giant cat scrawled in purple paint on the facade of his nightclub had already started to look a little . . . peculiar. Soon it was surrounded by an artisanal ice cream shop, a Lululemon and a SoulCycle. But the Black Cat kept rocking.
This weekend, the club celebrates its 25th anniversary with two nights of shows by D.C. rock luminaries, including Ted Leo and Mary Timony. And Ferrando is announcing big plans that he hopes will carry his legendary club into the future:
He’s going to shrink the Black Cat by half.
By the end of the year, its ground-floor Red Room bar — where, for years, young Washington’s edgier population convened to pound PBRs and Tecates — will close, along with the Backstage, the Black Cat’s small secondary performance space.
Both operations will squeeze into a much smaller nook upstairs while Ferrando carves up the sizable square footage on his club’s street level to make room for one or two retail tenants that fit in better with the new landscape of the booming Dupont-Logan neighborhood.
If you can’t beat ’em, after all, perhaps it makes sense to join ’em.
For once, it’s not rising rent driving an established local business from its perch on one of the city’s busiest — and priciest — stretches of real estate. Ferrando owns the building, along with his wife and a handful of investors.
Instead, a collision of broader cultural shifts — the new vibe of the neighborhood, and an influx of money — have sapped the Black Cat and its other independent neighbors of their clientele.
The punks don’t live here anymore.
For years, on the weekends in particular, the Red Room was the city’s de facto meetup joint for Washington’s overeducated-and-underpaid set, for bike messengers and tattooed kids with dark temperaments. A decade ago, you might have spotted Kate Moss coolly slumming it, pressed to a pinball machine in the Red Room while her then-boyfriend waited to play a concert upstairs with his band the Kills, or the legendary outsider songwriter Daniel Johnston, puffing on a cigarette, asking for directions to his own show.
But “the dynamics have changed a lot,” says Ferrando. “People don’t spend two hours after the show hanging out at the bar till 1 in the morning.”
Twelve years ago, the city’s smoking ban started sending his customers outside, Ferrando says. “That’s an opportunity to leave.” Then there’s pot, which “makes them drink less,” and “hipster bars,” as he calls them, populating every corner from Adams Morgan to Shaw.
Plus, “everyone’s job now involves hauling that phone around with you, and being bothered when you’re not working,” he adds. “It’s a different world than it was 15 years ago, and maybe that means you were going to come here tonight, but now you can’t.”
Last, there is online dating, which has profoundly transformed the restaurant business. His bar, with its blasting rock-and-roll and shortage of intimate tables for two, isn’t exactly designed to foster a get-to-know-you chat.
“Before the smoking ban, when there was no competition, and there was a show, could we fill this room?” Ferrando asks as he looks out over the Red Room, a cavernous bar whose walls are painted a shade of David Lynch blood-red. “Yes, absolutely.”
The club’s main stage, he says, can still draw music fans from around the region. But a packed crowd in this oversize space, with its jukebox that always seems to be playing Sonic Youth, and its cafe churning out plates of vegan nachos — that simply doesn’t happen anymore.
The twist, of course, is that the Black Cat was itself a symbol of first-wave gentrification in the corridor, which through the 1970s and ’80s was lined with pawnshops and auto-body garages (not to mention folks engaged in far more unseemly trades). If a new, moneyed tide is washing over the neighborhood, it began to trickle in with the rock club in the 1990s.
“It’s a lot prettier than it used to be,” acknowledges Rod Glover, co-owner of Home Rule, a home-goods store that opened in 1995, just a couple doors down from the Black Cat. When the owners first took down the plywood that had boarded up the space for decades, they found shattered glass from the 1968 riots on the floor inside.
Glover doesn’t want to disparage what the neighborhood has become in the years since — he’s glad to see more density — but he looks back upon the strip’s independent streak in the late 1990s and 2000s as its neighborly peak.
“What’s changed is the type of people who live there,” he says. “I’m not sure it has quite the same sense of community as it once had. . . . It used to be a lot more diverse neighborhood, and it is a lot more white.”
The neighborhood’s main lure has become its restaurants and national furniture chains; the newly built apartments rent for several thousand dollars a month. Ferrando remembers a time when most of his employees lived in the neighborhood and could walk to work. “If my employees have been priced out,” he says, “my regulars have been priced out.”
Glover agrees: “The similar thing that we all share is that we’re losing the customer base that will support local business.”
Khalid Pitts and his wife, Diane, opened Cork, a wine bar, 10 years ago, taking over the spot of an indie coffee shop that was one of 14th Street’s first hipster beachheads. For years Cork flourished as the neighborhood’s lone fine-dining spot, serving avocado toast long before it became a cloying trend. So the couple bought another storefront, across the street from their first and next to the Black Cat, and opened a market. More recently, though, they’ve consolidated their businesses back into one building.
Pitts notes that the 10- and 15-year leases of the strip’s early independent businesses are coming up for renewal, and suddenly landlords are demanding the new market rate — twice as much as what they had been, in some cases. Which explains why the new tenant in the old Cork location will be an outlet of a New York-based chain.
“You have to be forward-thinking about change,” Pitts says. “Every building owner has thought about when to cash in. We get offers every week.”
Ferrando gets them, too, and he wants to be clear that the Black Cat’s new moves are not a retreat, nor the beginnings of some long goodbye. It’s strategy. It’s survival.
But does the Black Cat even fit in on 14th Street anymore?
“Did we ever?” he asks with a laugh.
Outside the club on a busy night, just beyond where a few smokers linger outside, a guy in baggy white pants and slicked-back hair is taking up a lot of space on the sidewalk.
“You know,” he says loudly to the blonde on his arm as she focuses on her artisanal ice cream, “I never went to the Black Cat. Ever.” He cranes his neck to look inside, and then shrugs dramatically. “I’m not really much of a punk.”