It was nearly 8 p.m. when D.C.’s new director of nightlife and culture dashed into a Starbucks south of Dupont Circle.
But it wasn’t the promise of coffee that sent him darting inside. It was the trash cans he spotted, uncovered and overflowing — an invitation for rats.
“Hey, who takes the trash out?” Shawn Townsend asked as bewildered customers looked up from their drinks. “I’m from the mayor’s office. No one’s in trouble. I just want to talk.”
Transitioning from enforcer to advocate, Townsend has repeated this refrain to business owners, assuring them he isn’t there to write citations or investigate misconduct. He is there to listen.
Critics of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s selection to lead the new Office of Nightlife and Culture have lamented her choice of a bureaucrat over a business owner. Other cities, like New York, London and Orlando, hired from within the nightlife community. New York’s nightlife mayor used to own a nightclub. London’s night czar is a DJ and performer. Orlando’s night manager has run entertainment venues.
Townsend, who took over the office Dec. 10, previously ran a team of six investigators at the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. He led inspections of bars, restaurants and stores to ensure compliance with city liquor laws.
In his first weeks at the helm of the city’s newest office, Townsend has packed his days with meetings: regulators and D.C. agencies during the day and business owners at night. He’s fielded calls from residents complaining about late-night issues in their neighborhoods and business owners trying to feel out his new role — and the person in it.
The office was created to “promote our nighttime economy, to help deal with any conflicts that arise in a nightlife economy and to make sure we’re looking at all the different ways that we can think differently about attracting people and visitors to support what happens to D.C. after dark,” Bowser explained last month as Townsend was publicly introduced.
That means handling after-hours noise complaints, problems with permitting, crime, traffic congestion, overflowing trash cans, occasional street vomit and, yes, rats.
“It is strange to have a director of nightlife come from a government office and not necessarily from a nighttime venue, but that said, Shawn worked the same hours we did,” said David Strauss, who owns bars in the Dupont Circle and Mount Vernon Square neighborhoods. “He knows what it takes to run a bar, and he knows what it takes to run a bar safely. I think he’s really going to do this job well.”
Townsend said chief among the issues he wants to address is exploring how the city can help small businesses stay competitive amid rising rents and an influx of chains. He also pointed to pop-ups, warehouses and nonconventional venues transformed into temporary event spaces.
“I’m looking at ways to come up with a process to help businesses who are interested in doing these pop-up events get licensed properly,” he said. “Most of these warehouse spaces aren’t up to code. They’re licensed to be a warehouse or an office — not an event space. We want people to be able to put on these events, but we want them to do it safely.”
Townsend eventually will oversee two staff members and a commission of five volunteers who will help direct programs and decisions around nightlife. He will be paid about $117,000 a year, according to the city.
On his 10th day in office, Townsend stopped at several restaurants and bars around the District, asking a few core questions: How’s business? How’s the neighborhood? Are there issues you’re seeing that you would like me to know about?
He got a range of answers.
Some asked for extended Metro hours to accommodate the schedules of overnight workers. Others complained about congestion, others still about the lack of foot traffic.
Townsend’s first stop was Union District Oyster Bar and Lounge, near Union Market. The restaurant is among several recent additions to a changing neighborhood.
“How’s business?” Townsend asked, his voice rising to a near-shout over the cacophony of customers.
“Good. Live performers have been getting in contact with me,” said Le’Greg Harrison, who was hired to help with the restaurant’s opening.
Upstairs, a drum set sat on a vacant stage. Harrison turned the conversation to the restaurant’s vision for an outdoor patio, walk-up coffee bar and more.
“And y’all have the permits for that?” Townsend asked.
The listening tour is as much for him as it is for business owners, Townsend said. It’s a way to see up close the issues venues are facing, while giving owners a chance to raise concerns face-to-face.
“I don’t want to get into the business of being the police out here,” Townsend told Harrison. “I look at this as an opportunity to learn, but there’s also an educational component . . . I’m an advocate for nightlife, but I’m sensitive to the issues residents have. I’m a D.C. resident, too.”
In a neighborhood like Union Market, where warehouses and old rowhouses have given way to burgeoning businesses and mixed-use, high-rise buildings, the challenges businesses face differ from an area like the U Street corridor or Dupont Circle, where bustling nightlife has long been a staple.
“I’m trying to be as visible as possible in as many neighborhoods as possible,” Townsend said. “The last thing you want is people asking where the nightlife director is at night.”
Later that evening, he was greeted by Stephanos Andreou, owner of soon-to-be-opened Tokyo Pearl in Dupont Circle. Townsend paced the cavernous space, under dim lightbulbs hanging low on yellow wire. He rapped on the back windows, staring at an apartment building across the way.
“So your speakers will be going in this direction?” Townsend asked, gesturing away from the window.
“Of course,” Andreou said. “We soundproofed the whole wall because there’s residents right there.”
Negotiating the needs of residents and businesses has become increasingly fraught as D.C. has grown. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), who introduced the bill to create the Office of Nightlife and Culture about a year ago, said the idea stemmed from his own ward, where Upshur Street NW has transformed from a quiet neighborhood center to a bustling strip of bars and restaurants.
“It’s a wonderful thing for a city to have a food and beverage, art and culture renaissance — and that’s what we’re living right in the middle of in D.C. — but there are major problems we’re seeing now because that expansion has happened so quickly,” said Strauss, whose bar, Morris, was the final stop on Townsend’s walkabout.
Between stops, Townsend walked the streets, pointing out rats as they scurried through bushes and behind trash bins.
“Even when I’m off, I’m on,” he said with a grin. “That’s the job.”