Washington DC: City of surprises
Washington DC has a reputation for being dull, but beyond the museums and monuments, Peter Geoghegan found a lively city full of character, great food and buzzing nightlife
Published 15/01/2011 | 05:00
Not so long ago, a fiery debate raged in the letters pages of 'The Washington Post', one of America's most venerable newspapers. The question at hand wasn't the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, gun control, or the performance of President Obama. No, it was more serious still -- does DC need a nickname?
While New York is 'the Big Apple' and Chicago 'the Windy City', Washington has been straddled with the rather lame sobriquet 'the nation's Capitol'.
Unfortunately The Post's readers were hardly more inventive: the most popular suggestion 'DMV', plays on the US Department of Motor Vehicles and District, Maryland, and Virginia, which make up the DC metropolitan area.
Not quite 'Sin City' in the catchiness stakes.
Washington has a reputation for being worthy, if a bit dull. Sure there's the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the seemingly endless parade of world-class museums, but DC isn't the sort of city where you could wander into a 7-Eleven on a Tuesday night and find 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' blaring out over the PA system.
Except -- whisper it -- it is.
It's late evening, and as the final lines of Gil Scott-Heron's incendiary classic fade out -- "The revolution will be no re-run brothers/The revolution will be live" -- I step back out onto bustling U Street.
The open-top tourist buses don't venture this far into the most north westerly of Washington's quadrants, but, if they did, they would find a vivacious neighbourhood brimming with culture, history and street life. Capitol Hill is barely three miles away, but it feels like another world.
Formerly known as the 'Black Broadway', the U Street corridor, which runs from 9th Street on the east to 18th Street and Florida Avenue on the west, was once the centre of African-American Washington. From 1900, as the city became increasingly segregated, the beautiful Victorian-era row houses became home to affluent African-Americans and the streets heaved with jazz and blues clubs.
Directly across the street from the African-American Civil War memorial (and the stop for the city's excellent metro train service) is another DC landmark: Ben's Chili Bowl. It might look a little ramshackled -- windows covered in fly posters, counter coated in grease -- but plenty of famous names have signed this fast-food joint's visitors books.
Bill Cosby was once a regular, Obama has brought his family and, in March, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stopped by for a bowl of signature chilli, while Carla Bruni chowed down one of Ben's famous 'half-smokes', a traditional pork and beef smoked sausage.
Founded in 1958 by an immigrant from Trinidad, Ben Ali, a dental surgeon at nearby Howard University, Ben's has been one of the few constants on U Street over the past 50 years. Initially, jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Nat King Cole dined here. However, by the end of the 1960s, U Street was in a state of serious decline.
Ben's survived the notorious 1968 riots partly because one of the leading activists, Stokely Carmichael, obtained special permission for it to remain open after the curfew, but its presence was unable to prevent the area from becoming a hotbed of drug-trafficking in DC. U Street's once prosperous avenues ceded to addicts and pushers.
All that changed in the 1990s, when a major gentrification scheme began. Today, U Street is probably more popular with white college students than African-Americans, but the neighbourhood retains a pleasingly eclectic feel. The streets are lined with restaurants and bars, as well as many of the best music venues in the city.
While jazz aficionados flock to Twins Jazz, an unassuming yet friendly second-floor club, DC's indie kids head a few blocks south to the Black Cat, a spit and sawdust ballroom that hosts everything from local bands to international artists such as Gary Numan and Two Door Cinema Club.
If U Street feels a little like Dublin's Camden Street, then H Street, in the oft-maligned north eastern quadrant, is DC's version of our own capital's Stoneybatter: off the beaten path, a little rough around the edges, but full of local colour and atmosphere.
In the late 1990s, Washington's murder rate was among the worst in the world. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Areas such as H Street between 12th Street and Maryland Avenue, once dangerous after nightfall, are now among the city's most vibrant neighbourhoods.
Back in the day, Granville Moore was a Washington doctor who provided treatment to the district's poor. Now, there's an upmarket Belgian-themed gastropub named in his honour.
If Grenville Moore's is one of H Streets more understated locales -- the brickwork has been left exposed, and despite carrying more than 80 Belgian beers the focus is definitely on the food -- the same cannot be said of the raucous Rock & Roll Hotel.
Housed in a former funeral parlour in the centre of H Street, 'the hotel' boasts just about everything except accommodation. Downstairs is a 400-capacity venue, while upstairs, in the slightly more bijou bar, inflatable giraffes swing from the ceiling.
On my visit, the lounge is filled with youthful hipsters clutching cheap cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, so I head for the tawdry glamour of the Presidential Suite. Here, along the royal-blue walls, you're offered a glimpse of Alice Cooper delivering an address at the White House and Gene Simmons from Kiss hopping out of Air Force One.
Doing my best to ignore the bust of Richard Nixon at my elbow, I plonk myself down on the fancy Carter-era furniture -- I'm sure 'Hot Shot' never imagined his presidential chaise longue would end up propping up flagging Irish journalists!
Luckily, the nearby Palace of Wonders is guaranteed to put a spring back in any step. From the sword-swallowing barmen and the two-headed cow stuffed and mounted on the back wall to the hundreds of vaudeville props, including voodoo dolls, cursed necklaces and the severed trigger finger of Pancho Villa, this museum of oddities-cum-pub is a genuine curio. Shows take place five nights a week, while the remarkable PT Barnum-inspired exhibition is well worth a visit in its own right.
As American cities go, Washington is surprisingly compact. A $20 (€15) taxi ride takes me all the way from the H Street corridor to the up-and-coming Adams Morgan neighbourhood, back in the city's north western sector.
Long popular with migrants, particularly from Latin America and, more recently, Africa, the main drag, 18th Street, hosts a panoply of ethnic restaurants, including Spanish, Mexican. Ethiopian, Guatemalan, Ghanaian, Eritrean, Peruvian, Palestinian, Israeli and Brazilian.
Indeed, the name Adams Morgan is a product of ethnic integration: it derives from two formerly segregated elementary schools in the area which were forced to desegregate following a Supreme Court ruling in 1954.
Nowadays, most immigrants have found themselves priced out of Adams Morgan, but the area retains a distinctively global flavour. After a late night at Habana Village, a four-storey Cuban restaurant and dance club, or Chief Ike's Mambo Room, there's nowhere better than the Amsterdam Falafel Shop, where politicos and college kids join in line for a helping of Scotty, the owner's, celebrated hummus wraps.
If Adams Morgan and the H and U Street corridors represent up-and-coming Washington, then Georgetown is DC at its most august and dignified. Nothing typifies Georgetown's genteel tranquillity like Dumbarton Oaks, a 19th-century Federal-style mansion with gardens landscaped by Edith Wharton's niece, Beatrix Farrand.
Don't expect Washingtonians to tell you about the breathtaking grounds -- most have never been, and those that have would prefer to keep it free from out-of-town tourists -- but take the short bus ride north and you'll soon understand why the United Nations held their historic 1944 conference on international peace and stability in this rural idyll.
Georgetown is home to the main campus of Georgetown University, scores of embassies, designer shops and a beautiful waterfront vista along the Potomac. Coffee shops bustle with policy wonks discussing matters 'on the hill', while remarkably well-dressed students parade up and down M Street's wide boulevard.
But Georgetown -- like Washington itself -- isn't all diplomats and politics. A little further along M Street, I pass by a gas station. Behind the empty forecourt, tucked away in a corner, are a set of stone steps. As I stand at the bottom of the stairwell the sun disappears and a cold wind blows; it's an eerie reminder that the devil threw Father Karras down these very steps in 'The Exorcist'.
In fact, William Peter Blatty, author of the novel and the screen play on which the film is based, lived on Prospect Street, the narrow, tree-lined thoroughfare at the stairs' summit. It mightn't be Washington's most famous house, but Blatty's childhood home is another of the city's myriad hidden gems.
DC may be 'the nation's Capitol', but look a bit harder and you'll discover a city full of surprises. Now, if only Washingtonians could come up with a nickname that encapsulates this city of Surprises'.
NEED TO KNOW
Fly from Dublin to Washington with Aer Lingus (connecting in New York) from €450.
Located in the fashionable West End, the stylish Fairmont Washington DC (2401 M Street NW. Tel: 001 202 429 2400 001 202 429 2400 ; fairmont.com/ washington) is just three blocks from historic Georgetown and boasts one of the city’s largest health clubs. Rooms from $209 (€150).
A stone’s throw from the White House, when it comes to location the W Hotel Washington DC cannot be beat (515 15th Street NW. Tel: 001 202 661 2400 001 202 661 2400; starwoodhotels.com/ whotels). Rooms are spacious and comfortable, but the amazing view from POV — the exclusive rooftop bar overlooking the Treasury Building, pictured above right — is this hotel’s real USP.
Rooms from $329 (€249). A press-pack favourite, The Tabard Inn is one of DC’s most famous small hotels (1739 N St NW. Tel: 001 202 331 8528 001 202 331 8528 tabardinn.com). Some rooms are palatial, others a bit grotty, so make sure you have a look before you check in. Rooms from $120 (€85).
FIVE THINGS TO DO OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Peruse the front page of the day’s ‘Irish Independent’ in the Newseum, DC’s remarkable interactive museum of news and journalism.
Take a stroll through the Eastern Market. This excellent Sunday market behind Capitol Hill features more than 100 stalls, many of them selling genuine antiques and collectibles.