Back when heading east of 16th Street after dark felt risky, Adams Morgan was ground zero for Washington's nightlife scene. One of the city's most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods, the community had a quirky vibe and a reputation for tolerance, and the area's spine, 18th Street NW, was studded with dozens of eclectic restaurants and bars.
That was a couple of decades ago. These days, Adams Morgan's restaurants and bars are still there, but the surrounding city has changed dramatically. Little by little, neighborhoods all over the area - from Arlington's Clarendon to H Street NE - have been colonized by swanky eateries and intriguing nightspots, and the city's range of going-out options has mushroomed.
Adams Morgan, meanwhile, doesn't seem to have changed much at all. During the day, 18th Street's garishly painted buildings and empty storefronts give it a look bordering on seedy, and in the evenings, the place has become almost a caricature of itself. Crowds of partying 20-somethings, many hailing from Virginia and Maryland, clog the streets and sidewalks for hours every weekend, regularly resulting in drunken brawls, crime, and trash-strewn streets.
The evening craziness has turned the neighborhood into Washington shorthand for "out of control" - as in "We didn't choose to live in an Adams Morgan-like environment," the justification one Barracks Row resident recently gave for supporting a moratorium on liquor licenses along that stretch of Eighth Street SE.
Within Adams Morgan, though, residents are enthusiastic about their neighborhood, citing upsides including its central location, its plethora of independent businesses, and that multi-ethnic, mixed-income variety of residents that has always been the area's hallmark. And with a few tweaks - developments that are slated for the next few years - the community's strengths may once again become clear to the rest of the city, too.
Walking around the neighborhood is a study in contrasts. On 18th Street, there's Tryst, the ever-crowded coffee shop and hipster magnet; Idle Time Books, a used-book store; and Amsterdam Falafel - all quirky, locally owned businesses with strong followings. And with its hole-in-the-wall shops catering to the area's Latino population, plus a few new outliers such as Urban Sustainable, which sells hydroponic gardening equipment, Columbia Road is always bustling.
But there's also the dusty B&K News Stand, with its extensive "over 18" section; Tattoo Paradise; and several papered-over windows, some belonging to establishments that have been "coming soon" for months and others that closed after only a brief tenure.
Sefika Kurt explained what it takes for a business to thrive in Adams Morgan. Her store, A Little Shop of Flowers, isn't visible from 18th Street, but she said she's built up strong relationships with residents in the 20 years she's worked and lived in the area. "Adams Morgan is about more personal service; it's not a Metro location, so whatever business you're in has to be personal," she said. "Most of my clients are in the neighborhood." But she also complained that the late-night "get drunk" crowd (as she put it) pushes away potential customers.
Most residents seem to have long accepted that their main street turns into a zoo on weekends. "The bars aren't a huge issue; people get upset on principle, I think," said Mike Gould, 72, who lives west of 18th Street.
But John Glick, a homeowner living east of 18th Street, pointed out that he worries more about potential trouble from drunk rowdies who hit the streets after the bars close than he does about the gang violence that has beset the neighborhood from time to time. There's currently a moratorium on new liquor licenses, but, of course, that doesn't affect the bars currently operating.
Members of the area's Business Improvement District are aware of the issue. "We have great restaurants and bars and gift shops, but I'd like to see more diversity," said Kristen Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan BID. "We always want to attract more daytime retailers, but we don't have the foot-traffic numbers."
Some new additions, however, could have a serious impact on that. The most significant is the boutique hotel that will incorporate the hulking, unused First Church of Christ, Scientist, sanctuary near the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road. Hotly debated throughout the neighborhood, in part because the developers asked for a $46 million tax abatement, the project was approved by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and, in late December, by the D.C. Council. It still awaits zoning approvals and probably won't be operating until 2015, but with 174 rooms, it may add that foot traffic much desired by local businesses.
Then there's the streetscape project, a 15-month District Department of Transportation effort that's about to get underway. It's likely to transform 18th Street, eliminating diagonal parking spaces, widening sidewalks, and adding new streetlights, trees and bike racks.
"The hotel plus the 18th Street reconstruction could be a game changer for us," said Wilson Reynolds, chairman of ANC 1C, the committee that covers Adams Morgan. He added that the committee is also starting to see an uptick in new development proposals, especially in the area east of 18th Street, which is already home to a number of small condo developments nestled among older rowhouses.
And then there's the WY18 condos, two historic buildings on 18th Street that are undergoing gut renovations and will emerge as condominium buildings, with 43 units in total expected to be priced between $300,000 and $600,000.
So change is in the air for Adams Morgan, though the result is unclear. Some residents say they hope things won't change too much. "I love it. It's got everything," said Gould, who has lived in his rowhouse near Calvert Street since 1987. "It's next to the park, you can walk to restaurants, I can ride my bike downtown, it's aesthetically beautiful, it's diverse - no, it hasn't really changed, but my God, what more could you possibly want?"