The co-chair of Saturday’s second annual 17th Street Festival wasn’t yet born when JR.’s Bar & Grill opened 25 years ago this month.
Stephen Rutgers, a 24-year-old recent George Washington University graduate with an advanced degree in sports and event management, had only heard tales of the long-warring neighborhood factions and the incessant battles over business development on the recently renovated east Dupont Circle commercial strip before helping produce the first event.
But that soon changed.
Weary of what he quickly references as a small group of entrenched “negative Nancys” whom the neighborhood has long been known to harbor, Rutgers earlier this month penned an online essay published by the Dupont/Logan/U Street community blog Borderstan, itself one of more than 30 sponsors of the festival.
“Since getting involved in the neighborhood a year ago, . . . there seems to be a never ending divide of residents fighting any expansion or new project that will benefit the neighborhood. It’s not only splitting neighbors, but will eventually damage the success of our local businesses,” he wrote.
As a fresh voice and with more than a little chutzpah, Rutgers detailed how a small group of neighborhood complainers is fighting a proposed apartment building planned for an eyesore parking lot at 17th and O streets.
Of course, the developer and architects had already made significant compromises to the building’s design and composition in anticipation of the usual hostile reaction of a handful of opponents whining about “renters” and the potential that some of the tenants might be young people able to afford the inclusion of planned studio apartments (since reduced and replaced with more expensive two-bedroom units to quell the naysayers).
Sensing a neighborhood being left behind as community economic development and new retail shifts eastward, even the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) has softened its historically anachronistic posture as a result of resident wariness over past anti-business shenanigans and the injection of new faces on the commission – and in the neighborhood. Although obstructionists such as long-time gay commissioner Ramon Estrada, a veteran of nearly every acrimonious battle fought in the neighborhood during the past two decades, are now more isolated and impotent among the nine member group, recommendations to city agencies by the merely advisory body are never easy to predict.
The well-known city licensing struggles suffered by respected and popular neighborhood eatery Hank’s Oyster Bar – only one of a lengthy litany of additional community business fights with the ANC and small cadres of neighborhood objectors over the years – soon became familiar history to Rutgers.
That history also became his motivation to continue coordinating activities for the street festival – as well as serving as vice president of the recently formed Urban Neighborhood Alliance. Alongside existing community organizations Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association and Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, a small group of volunteers seeks to support community enterprises and local independent retail. They strive to unite businesses and residents to support a lively and prosperous urban environment celebrating the shops, restaurants, bars and entrepreneurs in the area.
Rutgers believes that by uniting the various friction-producing elements of the neighborhood – both the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), the primary instigator of local business opposition over the years, and ANC-2B are festival sponsoring organizations – the area can reclaim its reputation as a dynamic and deserving destination for entertainment, commerce and living.
The festival is expected to attract more than 7,500 attendees – “the kind of foot traffic we don’t see anymore,” laments Rutgers.
If only someone could get the notorious “Gang of 5” alcohol licensing protestants and perennial commercial development opponents on board, maybe Rutgers’ hopes for a neighborhood living up to its full potential might prove as successful as this weekend’s festival promises to be.
(The 17th Street Festival on Saturday, Sept. 24, from 2-6 p.m., is a free community event running from P Street to Riggs Place, N.W., sponsored by the Urban Neighborhood Alliance and Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets and Platinum Sponsors D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development and the Washington Blade, along with 30 local businesses and groups. JR.’s Bar & Grill will host a beer garden with a $5 admission fee donated to the festival.)
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.