The H Street Festival, which could draw 150,000 people to Northeast Washington tomorrow, has grown into one of the largest street parties in the District while still keeping a strong connection the community it serves. The British-themed Queen Vic pub turns a double-decker bus into a satellite bar. Dangerously Delicious Pies sponsors a messy, hands-free pie-eating contest. The Rock and Roll Hotel keeps music pumping all day, with bands and DJs on three levels.
Compare that local vibe to the Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle, where stages are sponsored by Famous Dave's and Johnsonville Brats, or the Capital Pride Festival, where Amtrak and Nissan sponsor the festival stage and the dance stage. The H Street Festival has always had a corporate presence, but it's been more low-key: Geico, Car2Go, and WB50 operate booths in the middle of the street, tucked between fashion shows and music stages, elbow-to-elbow with clothes vendors and representatives from DC Water offering free water bottle fillups.
But this year, for the first time, the H Street Festival will feature a beer garden run not by a local restaurant, but organized and programmed by an international corporate sponsor. The parking lot of the AutoZone -- a large, open space at the heart of the sprawling 10-block festival -- is turning into the ModeloZone, featuring beers from Modelo, the Mexican brewery owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, as well as a shot bar with Kraken Rum, Patron Tequila and Jameson Whiskey, and an ice luge with Republic Restoratives' Civic Vodka.
Since 2010, activities in the AutoZone parking lot had been curated by Miles Gray III, who originally used it as a way to preview the neighboring Smith Commons bar and restaurant. It eventually turned into something much bigger: There were stalls for local T-shirt companies, bars pouring local craft beers, a half-pipe for local skateboarders, and a stage providing a showcase for up-and-coming hip-hop, rock and electronic acts.
But this spring, Gray says, he got a letter from Anwar Saleem, the executive director of the non-profit H Street Main Street organization, informing him that a corporate sponsor had made a large guarantee for use of the AutoZone lot during the festival. The sponsor would handle its own programming, and as part of the deal, no "competing" products -- such as local beers -- would be sold in the ModeloZone.
(The AutoZone lot is owned by WestMill Capital Partners, but it is the organizers of the festival who determine what goes in that space each year.)
Saleem says the corporate sponsorship is necessary. "It's going to help us pay for the festival," he says. "That's a big expense." But Gray sees it differently. "The epitome of gentrification is local business being displaced by more monied interests," he says. "I understand that there are hard costs associated with productions at the magnitude of H Street Festival, but it’s disheartening to see integral pieces of the festival sold off to brands that seek to exclude local businesses. Those of us who have invested in H Street Festival over the years employ dozens of local residents, students, bands, artists and local creatives, as well as showcase local businesses."
Gray has taken sponsorship money in the past to pay for programming in the AutoZone lot, including funds from Red Bull and AB InBev. But he says last year's deal with Budweiser and Bud Light didn't include a non-compete clause to prevent local beers from being served alongside the country's best-selling beers, for example.
The ModeloZone won't be the first branded drinking area at the H Street Festival: Last year's event featured a branded Patron Tequila garden, and this year there will be a Diageo Liquor Garden at 11th and H, where festival-goers will be able to purchase drinks made with Ciroc, Crown Royal and Tanqueray -- all brands owned by the international spirits conglomerate Diageo. But this is the first time a company from outside the neighborhood is displacing what had been a locally organized part of the festival.
The question is, can the H Street Festival keep that neighborhood focus as it expands and its costs increase? Or does the ModeloZone mean a few years from now, bands will perform on the Cricket Wireless Music Stage at the H Street Festival Presented by Whole Foods?
H Street Festival: Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. H Street NE between Fourth and 14th streets NE. Free.