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Lifestyle: D.C. Culture

Punk Partiers, Suburban Blondes and the Best Ethiopian Food in Town

Welcome to D.C.'s 18th Street

By Ryan Marshall

Revelers line up outside of Madams Organ, one of 18th Street's most popular bars. Photo by: Jonathan G. Williams.

At 9:30 on Saturday night, the street is quiet.

Traffic is light. Couples wander down the sidewalk, hand in hand. They linger over late dinners at one of the several kabob restaurants or scan the shelves at the used bookstore. Darkness has settled over Washington, D.C., and a crisp January breeze slices through the air. But the night is young and in a few hours the street will become a honking, snaking mass of cars and people.

The corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road in Washington’s Adams-Morgan neighborhood is the collision point between two very different worlds.

By day, it’s the hub of a gritty, working-class neighborhood, an ethnic mixing bowl of colors, cultures and languages that reflect all the diversity Washington has to offer.

By night, the three-block stretch of 18th Street between Columbia Road to the north and U Street to the south drips with alcohol and a heavy dose of attitude.

Muffled punk music roars from the dingy interior of Club Asylum. Just a few doors down, a crowd begins to thicken around the bar at Left Bank, a sleek Euro-style watering hole.

Walking history

Along the Adams Morgan Heritage Trail, visitors discover the culture and diversity of one of Washington's most colorful neighborhoods. Laressa Bachelor reports.

Eighteenth Street is unique among Washington’s nighttime destinations. It lacks the self-conscious glitz of Georgetown and the strained hipness of U Street’s jazz clubs. The crowd is younger, the shots are cheaper. It’s earthier, rowdier. Funkier.

It wasn’t always like this. Roby Thompson, a real estate agent who handles properties in the area, says when he lived on 18th Street in the mid-80s, there were only two or three hip bars in Adams-Morgan. Now, the area has become a party mecca for the yuppies and students who crowd in every weekend. The cars on 18th Street stream in from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

The three-block stretch turns into a big, open-air party after sunset, says Thompson. “You don’t see that in other cities.”

As much fun as it may be for visitors, Adams-Morgan’s reputation as a thriving night spot causes headaches for the people who live there.

Residents have mixed opinions about the area’s reputation, says Mindy Moretti, a member of the Adams-Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The streets around 18th can’t handle the volume of traffic the bars attract, Moretti says. Noise and traffic make up the bulk of complaints she hears from her neighbors.

Certain problems come with the territory. “Entertainment is the number one business in the [area],” says Alan Heymann, director of constituent services for Councilman Jim Graham, who oversees the neighborhood. Graham’s Web site lists the number of licenses that serve alcohol in Ward One, where 18th Street is located, at 250. Adams-Morgan has the highest concentration of those licenses in the ward, according to Heymann.

Heymann is anything but unsympathetic to the residents’ complaints. Graham has made improving traffic, parking and pedestrian safety a priority, Heymann says, as well as “spill-over effects” like noise.

The city is looking at how to get traffic moving more smoothly, Heymann says, a step that will probably include widening the street’s congested sidewalks.

Traffic Builds to a Crescendo >>