17th Street: Morte Torium

by Borderstan.com May 23, 2013 at 10:00 am 11 Comments

From Dito Sevilla. Email him at dito[AT]borderstan.com, follow him on Twitter @DitoDC.

"17th"

17th Street NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Last century, back in 1990 — before many of us were even born — the then residents of Dupont Circle were just beside themselves. They were deep in the throes of fighting a war. Their neighborhood was under attack.

Something simply had to be done to stem the rapid and unrestricted investments made in their community by evil, cash-hungry, noise-making, trash-piling restaurant and bar owners.

These greedy, profit-piling, pillagers came in — most of them foreigners — and started leasing and buying up empty, sometimes abandoned storefronts. They began, through years of hard work, clever financing, mutually beneficial partnerships, and other arrangements commonly employed by the “business community,” to transform them into money-making ventures.

Some succeeded, others failed. Some are still open for business. Most served a popular intoxicant, a liquid found throughout the world, an ancient substance with unknown properties: alcohol. What was worse, the owners of the storefronts, building, basements and the like also found themselves motivated by the much touted American dream of feeding their families, and making an honest buck.

So in one selfish act after another, they threw the deep love they were supposed to feel for their neighbors by the wayside, and they sold out, they rented space, or sold their land to these horrible people — to these bar owners. It just makes me sick.

That war begun 23 years ago has raged on, leaving a trail of casualties in its midst. Many of those residents are now dead. Those who survived are now 23 years closer to death, these veterans and heroes.

Though what one can imagine required the all-day efforts of countless retirees, the residents decided to take real action. Why fight each and every evil business person head on, why write so many letters, and voice so many complaints? That would have taken much more diligence than these sound-haters could muster. Even if they had time for it, which they did, why admit it?

Wasn’t it better to pretend they had to get up for work the next day? Well, of course it was. Rather than address the uncooperative, cash-rich, booze-sellers, why not abuse an element of DC government put in place after Home Rule was instituted in 1974? Why not manipulate the system granting Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs ( they even sounds flaccid ) “great weight” in the granting of liquor licenses?  What better way was there for small group to influence entire neighborhoods?

In their lame fury the residents succeeded in beating down the wrong adversary. You see, rather than face the current threat, rather than engage in a conversation hoping to negotiate a peace with the existing “business community,” the restaurateurs and bar-owning scum of the era — those who caused them annoyance beyond convenience — they decided, rather than fight what was, they would wage a battle into the future, they would prevent more businesses from daring to open new alcohol selling businesses on their streets.

Not in their back yards, no ma’am. No, never again.

As they could not win against what was already there, the residents would prevent new businesses from opening. Brilliant! The new investors would be punished for the sins of their ancestors. Sounds fair.

Thus was born the East Dupont Circle Liquor License Moratorium, although it’s commonly called the 17th Street moratorium. It has come up for renewal every five years since 1990 — it is up for renewal in 2013 because the decision was made three years ago to review it again this year instead of waiting five years.

I walk past their success everyday. Empty, unpainted, uninhabited storefront after storefront bedazzled with fading “For Lease” signs. What a beautiful sight it is, their success. The little group of residents got exactly what they wanted. Their victory against progress took the shape of a moratorium, a theoretically temporary cessation in the granting of more liquor licenses, the success of which is obvious.

Twenty-three years later there are fewer restaurants and bars on 17 Street — while moratorium-free, business friendly 14th Street has been transformed into a thriving community. This moratorium, set to expire on September 23, after four extensions (each supported by ANC 2B) of it’s original sell-by date has severely handicapped competition. It has made the idea of opening a new business on 17th Street near to impossible — and the impact of that is real.

A quick stroll down from R street to P street will leave one wondering in just how much laundry, and pill popping our community engages in. Pharmacies, and dry cleaners outnumber restaurants. The lateral expansion of two highly rated, critically acclaimed restaurants was a highly contested, and costly affair. Both Hank’s Oyster Bar, and Komi were finally allowed to expand to buildings adjacent to their existing locations, but not before hearings, and meetings, and “listening sessions,” all designed to address the same complaints of the past, from the same five people — complaints that were never directed at either restaurant to begin with.

Whether or not this moratorium is allowed to expire is anyone’s guess. Eventually it will, but when? In five more years, when another five storefronts are empty? Residents and businesses must realize that the future of the neighborhood in which they live and operate in is at stake. Our street’s bars and restaurants have each been open for years — their owners and operators have proved themselves to be valuable contributors to the community. Any suggestion otherwise is insulting.

On our street the reality is, longevity is the rule. Annie’s, the Paramount Steakhouse has been serving burgers here since 1948. The Trio restaurant predates even that.

Jr’s Bar has opened their doors — and their checkbook — for our community since 1985!  Floriana Nestore bought the failing Mercury Grill in 2001, re-branding it Floriana, and it continues to thrive in the hands of her son. Generation after generation has proven themselves to these people, but it never seems to be enough.

Maybe as I age I will need enough medication and artwork to see the benefit of another pharmacy, and a third frame-shop on my street. But until then, I find myself hungry for something better. I guess I’ll walk over to 14th Street to find it.

The next ANC “listening session” will take place June 24 at 7 pm at the Chastleton Ballroom, 16th and R NW.

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