Meet the Few African-American Owners in D.C.’s Bar Boom

Still behind in the gentrification game in Washington, H Street Northeast is a good place for African-Americans to open bars.

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Half­time Sports Bar in North­east Wash­ing­ton has gone through sev­er­al lives in the last 50 years. It was a TV re­pair shop, a Carib­bean res­taur­ant, and most re­cently a rat hotel. The store­front has wit­nessed H Street’s trans­form­a­tion, from a shop­ping dis­trict to a burned-out ghost town to a gentri­fy­ing power­house. Own­er Karl Gra­ham has seen each of these ver­sions. He grew up six blocks away, and now he’s ready to make his mark on this neigh­bor­hood’s new­est form.

“This is where my mom brought us down to go shop­ping,” the 56-year-old says, sit­ting in his Wash­ing­ton sports-themed bar that opened earli­er this year. “This was down­town for us. Once the ri­ots hit, there was noth­ing for a very long time. But the whole city has changed.”

H Street is just one of sev­er­al neigh­bor­hoods here in the cap­it­al where busi­ness own­ers are flood­ing in, boost­ing a loc­al eco­nomy that’s pro­pelled by a wave of young pro­fes­sion­als who didn’t grow up in the city. Where aban­doned, boarded-up build­ings stayed dormant for years, now hip, in­vent­ive gast­rop­ubs and tav­erns reside.

Li­quor is where the money is in Wash­ing­ton. Last year, the D.C. gov­ern­ment brought in $5.9 mil­lion in whole­sale al­co­hol­ic-bever­age tax rev­en­ue—the largest sum in five years, and likely the largest in many years be­fore that. While that num­ber rep­res­ents all li­quor sales in D.C., from bars to stores, it does show that with a boom of new res­id­ents comes a boom for selling booze.

But Gra­ham is a rar­ity in the bar boom: He’s an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an own­er, and he’s from the Dis­trict. Like the new res­id­ents of D.C.’s gentri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods, the own­ers of the bars that are com­ing in don’t look like the his­tor­ic­ally black pop­u­la­tion.

Of the 44 li­quor li­censes is­sued for tav­erns that have opened suc­cess­fully over the past two years in six his­tor­ic­ally black neigh­bor­hoods (Columbia Heights, H Street NE, Pet­worth, Shaw, Trin­id­ad, and U Street), only 13 were by black ap­plic­ants—sev­er­al of whom are not from the Dis­trict. Half of the ap­plic­ants were white. And while some white own­ers grew up in D.C., such as Ghi­bel­lina (14th Street) own­er Ari Ge­jden­son, most did not.

Own­ers ap­ply for li­quor li­censes through D.C.’s Al­co­hol Bever­age Reg­u­la­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, where they sub­mit pa­per­work, pay a fee, and seek ap­prov­al through the Bever­age Con­trol Board for tav­erns, res­taur­ants, nightclubs, and ho­tels. Bars fall un­der the tav­ern cat­egory since food ac­counts for at least 45 per­cent of a res­taur­ant’s an­nu­al re­ceipts.

White ap­plic­ants over­whelm­ingly dom­in­ated U Street and Shaw in suc­cess­ful li­quor li­cense ap­plic­a­tions—two neigh­bor­hoods that are al­most un­re­cog­niz­able com­pared with five years ago. Over two dozen res­taur­ants have opened along 14th Street in the past two years alone, com­ple­ment­ing new in­teri­or-design and high-end cloth­ing shops. The trans­form­a­tion there star­ted long be­fore oth­er neigh­bor­hoods to the east.

H Street is dif­fer­ent, where a plur­al­ity of ap­plic­ants were loc­al Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans; one of them is Avery Leake. The own­er of Avery’s Bar and Lounge grew up near East­ern High School, served for nine years with the Cap­it­ol Po­lice, and then pur­sued a ca­reer in party pro­mo­tion. For someone with lim­ited re­sources like Leake, H Street worked.

“It’s not fully there yet, and the rent isn’t as high,” the 30-year-old says. “So, it’s a good place for a minor­ity to start a busi­ness who doesn’t have a lot of cap­it­al. Take the same busi­ness up on U Street, and you’re talk­ing about maybe double the rent.”

But even with the lower costs, Leake’s path here was far from easy. He couldn’t get a loan, he didn’t have good cred­it, and he had to settle for a second-floor bar un­til he made enough to buy the rest of his build­ing. With lim­ited cap­it­al, he couldn’t change the build­ing struc­tur­ally, but he could fix up the place with the help of friends and IOUs. The guy who was sup­posed to paint the bar’s logo on the wall didn’t even show up.

“I got a level, and I sketched it out,” he says in his hip-hop-themed bar. “My stars were not per­fect, and I was like, ‘You know what, it shouldn’t be per­fect be­cause everything about this place isn’t per­fect.’ I got steep stairs. I’m a second-floor bar. I can’t even af­ford a sign right now. I’m just go­ing to em­brace every neg­at­ive thing that’s happened and turn it in­to something great.”

The fin­an­cial bar­ri­ers that Leake ex­per­i­enced are not un­com­mon for loc­al Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans try­ing to make it in these gentri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods. It’s dif­fi­cult to se­cure loans in high-risk, low-yield busi­nesses. And your busi­ness his­tory also af­fects a new busi­ness own­er.

“It’s dol­lars and cents,” says Half­time’s Gra­ham, who just sold his oth­er H Street bar, the El­roy. “It costs a lot of money to start up a bar. You ain’t start­ing up a pops­icle stand. There are a lot of spe­cific­a­tions. You can’t be a crim­in­al. You can’t owe the Dis­trict any money. And be­sides that, you need some kind of busi­ness back­ground.”

Gra­ham, as a gen­er­al con­tract­or, didn’t have the same con­struc­tion bar­ri­ers as Leake. He was able to get around a lot of the over­head that oth­er people have in re­mod­el­ing a new bar. But he, too, couldn’t se­cure any prop­erty on U Street or in Shaw, be­cause of the cost. Nor could he take ad­vant­age of grant pro­grams from the Dis­trict for new busi­nesses, be­cause they don’t cov­er bars. But of­fi­cials did hold his hand through the ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess.

While this isn’t for every­one, he warns, loc­al Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans in­ter­ested in open­ing a bar shouldn’t shy away from it. The black com­munity, he says, needs strong busi­ness lead­ers. And even though the change in the city has meant a chan­ging face of Wash­ing­ton, neither man is up­set with gentri­fic­a­tion.

“This was our Geor­getown for so long,” says Leake, who thinks back to his great-grand­par­ents who owned a busi­ness on H Street. “It wasn’t pretty. It was what it was. But we have to ac­cept the fact that D.C. is not the old Chocol­ate City. I think change is great. Evolving is great. If H Street evolves, every­one has to evolve with it.”

But the city can’t for­get its past. And that’s why it’s dis­heart­en­ing to the com­munit­ies’ long­time mem­bers that the ones tak­ing ad­vant­age of the boom don’t look like the people who lived here for so long. It’s why Leake wants his bar to serve young Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans who are look­ing to spend money “with someone who looks like them.” And while Gra­ham wants to serve all fa­cets of the new H Street, he says his his­tory here is in­valu­able to people look­ing for a neigh­bor­hood bar run by someone who saw every ver­sion of what the prop­erty looked like.

“A lot of out­siders have come in, maybe just to cap­it­al­ize on what they think is a boom,” Gra­ham says. “I’m not an out­sider. I’ve been here. I can talk about the city. I used to climb the fence at RFK to sneak in­to the Red­skins game, back in the day. I re­mem­ber when the Sen­at­ors played and Frank Howard hit home runs. I was here. This is my home.”

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