Not all places are ideal to start off a Friday night, so Richard Spiecker’s text message to his friends made the plans clear. The time: 9 p.m. The location: Biergarten Haus on H Street NE.
The “where” was almost a foregone conclusion. Spiecker, a rising senior at Gallaudet University, and the dozen or so friends who’d be joining him were all deaf.
And over the past decade, H Street has emerged as the city’s nexus of deaf youth culture.
“It’s all about service,” Spiecker said in sign language as his group entered the German brew pub. The bartender immediately handed out menus and waited for each person to point to their selection. Then, the bartender signed the price.
“They know what to do here,” signed Spiecker, a stocky former midfielder on Gallaudet’s soccer team, his hair recently shaved to a buzz cut.
When businesses began sprouting up on H Street, they catered to a different type of urban pioneer. Their earliest patrons in the mid-2000s were students from nearby Gallaudet, who were tired of slogging to places such as Adams Morgan, where bars had little idea of how to help them.
“They were the influx of college students that H Street needed to succeed,” said Jason Martin, a co-owner of many H Street establishments, including the Rock & Roll Hotel and Sticky Rice. For a time, “it was hard to get people over to H Street because there wasn’t much public transportation and taxicabs used to be scarce.”
The Gallaudet students, he said, really helped.
Now, deaf waiters work at restaurants. People of all ages walk up and down the street using American Sign Language, or ASL. Bartenders know the sign for Jagermeister.
The simple accommodations fostered a sense of belonging for the deaf community on a street that was evolving from chicken-wing shops and shuttered funeral parlors to $12 cocktails and indoor mini-golf.
Like many redeveloping communities, H Street has struggled to balance the desires of older, black residents and its burgeoning young, white population. The deaf culture of the street adds a deaf-hearing element to this familiar tension, though progress is evident.
But for all of the area’s success, some can’t help but wonder what will happen to the deaf-friendly atmosphere as the area becomes even more popular.
“I’m hanging out there less and less,” Spiecker said. “It’s becoming too expensive.”
Still, Spiecker and his friends welcome the changing street that first welcomed them.
They started their evening at Biergarten Haus for several reasons: There was good lighting, so it was easier to sign to one another. The tables were long, so conversations could be carried across the room. The beer was cheap. (And none of them could hear the polka music that played incessantly.)
Hearing customers largely left them alone, though they drew a number of stares — and not necessarily because they were deaf. Mostly athletes and sorority members, they were distractingly attractive.
As Tenja Smith, 21, and her friend conversed in sign language about when — or if — D.C.’s streetcar will ever start running, they caught the attention of a couple of guys on the other side of the bar. The men started walking toward them, noticed the signing and then stopped, concluding their pickup attempts might be futile.
“Damn,” one of the men said to other. “All of a sudden, I wish I knew ASL.”
Gallaudet’s campus is diverse and varied — Spiecker’s friends are far from a representative sample — as more students are arriving on campus without proficiency in ASL. But no one in Spiecker’s group used cochlear implants, which can stimulate nerves to create a sense of sound, nor do they read one another’s lips. Many went to deaf camp together or played against each other in a deaf sports league.
Sometimes, hearing patrons will cozy up to one of the Gallaudet students and ask for a phone number using text messages.
It might yield a date or two, but it “never usually works out,” Spiecker signed. “They don’t speak our language.”
But trips to H Street for the Gallaudet students are not ethnographic forays to learn how hearing lives are lived. They’re about having fun with friends.
“When I came to Gallaudet, I was fascinated by the strong deaf culture here. Some people are very proud to be deaf. We all support each other. We understand each other. We do the twitchy-nose thing,” he added, speaking of a common gesture used to show agreement with another deaf person.
For years, students received the same message: Stay inside the campus bubble. The outside neighborhood was an impoverished, dangerous place that never fully recovered from the 1968 riots.
The adventurous students went to Georgetown or Dupont Circle, but most stayed within the dorms, said Fred Weiner, the university’s community liaison, who was a freshman at Gallaudet in 1979. And that was all right.
“But we have students today who want to go out and be a part of the world,” said Weiner, even if they still communicate among friends. So H Street is a selling point in the competitive world of college recruitment.
The result has been an unmistakable cultural footprint in one of the District’s hippest neighborhoods. A few days before he went to Biergarten Haus, Spiecker and a fellow student were trading tales at a pizza shop. Nur Abdulle told the story of a panhandler who pulled a pen and paper out of his pocket, then scribbled: “Do you have a dollar?”
Even the beggars have adapted. The two were laughing when a staff member at H&Pizza tapped Abdulle on the shoulder. “More water?” she signed.
Every person at H&Pizza is trained to learn basic signs: “thank you,” “hello,” “pepperoni?” Michael Lastoria, the restaurant’s co-owner, said he quickly realized those skills were needed to succeed. His first eight customers were deaf.
Gallaudet staff members also held weekend crash courses for business owners to learn about deaf culture. They instructed the owners about etiquette, from always carrying around a pen and paper to feeling comfortable with tapping deaf people on the shoulder to get their attention.
“But there’s been an interesting shift over the past five or six years,” Weiner signed. “A lot of things happen to include deaf people in the neighborhood, without our help. It’s taken a life of its own.”
The ultimate dream goes beyond restaurateurs being courteous to customers. It is to be able to use the street’s emergence as a way to create a sustainable, deaf-friendly neighborhood in the nation’s capital.
That requires creating more stable roots than a rotating cast of students every four years, Weiner said. Six staff members have bought houses in the area recently, and many students plan to stay in the neighborhood after they graduate.
If a community establishes itself outside the university, perhaps neighbors would learn how to sign to communicate with other neighbors. Or their children could be taught ASL at school.
“There could be so much more,” signed Derrick Behm, 22, a recent Gallaudet graduate. “We have people working at restaurants, but we can own the restaurants. We can invest in the neighborhood. This can get so much deeper for us.”
Even now, there are signs of that cultural exchange. At Biergarten Haus, Spiecker watched as Anthony Palmer, 22, a Gallaudet quarterback, recounted his experience at a barbershop Spiecker had recommended, which happened to be all-black. Both students are white.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Palmer said. “They told me to come over, and it was all good. They gave me a good haircut.”
“It’s the best,” Spiecker replied, twitching his nose. “Now I never want to get my hair cut by anyone but a black barber on H Street.”
“I don’t know if I ever want to leave D.C.,” Palmer added. “This is the deaf community right here. The hearing world, it’s hard.”