H Street Wanderings

Typical of most Georgetowners, I rarely ventured beyond Healy Gates in my four years there, and beyond the obligatory 8th Grade field trip with the 15 minute visits to every site imaginable (plus the hour tour of the Holocaust Museum – that’s enough time to donate to mass genocide, isn’t it?) and outings with the ‘rents (read: art museums), most of DC remained foreign to me until well after graduation. This was fine with me, since the highest concentration of free booze and girls resided within the surrounding 100 acres anyway, but within a few months of leaving the Hilltop the weaning process forced me to look elsewhere for weekend exploits. Although I have since frequented revamped locations such as Logan Circle and the U St Corrider, I hadn’t yet had the chance to make my way to H Street, which, I had heard, has been “revitalized”, with new bars being built and a facelift for the nieghborhood taking place. So when the opportunity arose to watch the College Ultimate Frisbee Championships at Argonaut (link), I decided to check it out.

Looking on my NotForTourists Map at home to see how to get there (14th and H NE), I noticed that the description on top of the page read: “This is one of the of the rougher neighborhoods still not fully recovered from the ’60s riots”. I also noticed that there were no Metro stops nearby, although apparently there are plans in place to add an old streetcar system for the commute. So being short on time (and admittingly not overfamiliarly with the bus system) I hopped into a cab and made my way to the Argonaut. I had never been to a pirate-themed bar before, but as I stepped inside, I wasn’t going to argue with the semblance. The bar as a whole looks like it has been around forever, with bottles and various pirate and sea-themed knick knacks aligning its walls. The rooms, partly as a result of being situated on the intersection of street corners, end at odd corners, and with its dark wood paneling manages to balance a familiar-but-still-foreign feel. Even the bathroom smelled like seaweed (although perhaps on second thought this was not intentional).

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The Argonaut Bar on H ST

Save for a couple sitting at the bar, the place was deserted as I walked in hortly after noon. While I hadn’t expected the bar to be filled with regulars, I had expected a better turnout for watching the championships. I decided to take a look around quickly (so I wouldn’t look completely awkward) but after a quick look around and an attempt to check out the upstairs (my way literally blocked by a gigantic sea chest), I returned to the front bar. The couple asked me if I was there for frisbee, and, as I clearly had no other reason to be at a bar on H St at noon, I replied yes. They were a bit confused why the TVs were not showing any games, but we talked to the bartender, a dimunitive Irishman, who promptly typed in “Frisbee Football” in the DirectTV listing search feature (he insisted this must be the correct name, although he had never heard of the sport before and wondered why it would even be on the television). We convinced him it was in fact “ultimate frisbee”, and finally located CSTV, which was airing the games.

Eventually a score of other people ventured in to wach the game. With no other customers he sat next to us and watched for a bit, asking us about the rules to the game. I think he eventually gave up, partly because his Irish accent, while not that of a pirate, made it virtually impossible to understand his queries sometimes, and a severe lack of reference points (while describing fouls, as in basketball, he replied, “I don’t watch basketball”). He did laugh at us (and the sport) though at various points, wondering why a player on the Wisconsin team went by “Q-Tip” (think My Myself & Irene) and also mocking a friend of mine who insisted graphics displaying the women players’ major were irrelevant, that what we really needed are their phone numbers and availability. Yes, its a tight knit crowd (for more see link here). Luckily for us, all food and drink went on the League tab, so I decided to check out the food menu. It mostly consisted of American cuisine, with a Caribbean flair, and while the pulled pork looked good I settled for a bacon cheeseburger. I have to admit, it was quite good, especially considering about five us ordered food the minute the chef strolled in.

After watching the men’s and women’s championships, and coming away really impressed by the atheleticism and flow, I needed to head back home to get to a BBQ for a friend who is going away to law school. While I could have grabbed a ride in another hour, I had to leave earlier, so I decided to walk along H St to Union Station, a 14 block walk my friend insisted was the easist way back. I asked whether this neighborhood was sketchy, and he said yes, that would probably describe it, although he had just walked back from Adams Morgan last night and on 18th and California saw a car pull up, two men exit with a bat, and proceed to beat a man for 15 seconds straight before getting back in the car and pulling away, so really, no place is safe, is it? Thanks, that made me feel a lot better.

Walking along H St for those 14 blocks gave me a first hand look at the neighborhood. Just opposite the bar is the Army Recruiting Center, one of the larger and less decrepid establishments (surprise, surprise). The sidewalks were strewn with trash, and every building seemed either a barbershop, a liquorshop, a place to get checks cashed, or completely vacant. I generally have a rule (ever since I visited Georgia Ave for a doctor appointment – never again!) to avoid any place in which Subway sandwiches are served through 3 inch bulletproof glass on a swivel, and while I did not see a Subway in sight (although there was a Checkers), I wouldn’t be surprised if this was still one of those places. I did not meet another white person during my walk, and the sidewalks and street corners were full of people loitering around. Only two blocks in, as I was crossing a side street, a women staggered on my way, mumbling something, a white substance surrounding her mouth. I took a sidestep, gave her an apologetic shrug, and moved on. On the next street corner I passed three men standing on top of boxes, holding signs and shouting religious epitaphs, a small crowd gathering on the stoop of the convenience store facing them. Shortly after passing two cops cars huddled together, I saw a man resting against a doorway, as another cut open the lock to a bike. The man stole me a glance as I walked by, slinked in a little to the shadows, but otherwise the two men carried on as if I was not there. Eventually H Street gave way to the overpass by the train tracks and towards the high rise office buildings surrounding Union Station, but the differences clearly remain stark between the area west of the station and the neighborhoods I had just left.

There were a few bright spots along H Street, with a couple of new buildings and others undergoing renovations, and a few worthwhile destinations, such as the Rock & Roll Hotel (to which I have never been to but intend to go soon). However, I was bit underwhelmed by the area, and feel as if it will be several years before a substantial transformation takes place, much less gentrification. The current owner of the Argonaut, who also runs Lucky bar and Big Hunt, has already slated three other bars to open along the street, which should at least bring younger crowds with money to spend and add some much needed virbrancy to the area. One can only hope that this process is a bit more organic than other city districts attempting a comeback, and developers will work side by side with those who have, and hopefully will continue, to call it home.

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