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A new era for Mount Pleasant?

In February 2011, DC’s ABC Board terminated the so called “Voluntary Agreement” between Don Jaime’s and Haydees Restaurant and the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA).

This news of the terminations came within days of the opening of the Mount Pleasant Temporium, a “pop up shop” featuring local artisans and performers. Initiated by Mount Pleasant Mainstreet, this project brought together SpeakeasyDC, Hello Craft, Radio CPR, Partners for Livable Communities, the DC Office of Planning, and several neighborhood-based community groups to build a venue for arts, culture and successful retail in the neighborhood.

It's fitting that the events coincided. The energy and community organizing behind the Mount Pleasant Temporium’s approach to the neighborhood embodies the exact opposite approach taken by the MPNA, who’ve spent years trying to keep Mount Pleasant’s restaurants from being venues for music and culture through the liquor licensing protest process. MPNA’s main argument has been that late night music and dancing is not “appropriate” in the neighborhood and up until recently the city’s ABC Board allowed them, on that basis, to impose restrictions on all Mount Pleasant Street’s licensees. Not only did MPNA’s VAs restrict live music and dancing, they dictate where many restaurants can seat patrons based on whether they order food or not.

That’s why, in addition to the terminations, the last month of energy behind the Mount Pleasant Temporium has been such a breath of fresh air, representing just the kind of approach our community needs to take on the road to recovery. Instead of a small group of people standing up and saying “this is what we don’t want and damn the rest of you if you disagree with us,” the organizers behind the Temporium stood up and said “this is what we do want, and can have, so let’s just get together and make it happen.”

And this time, instead of the city stepping in to encode the fears of a small group of activists into the law, they provided the funding to bring the hopes of an energetic group of community builders to fruition. The result, supported by a grant from DC’s Office of Planning, has been an exciting and dynamic month long project that demonstrates what’s possible on one of the city’s most unique commercial strips when artists, residents and small business owners work together. They’ve shown just how powerful organizing around a vision fueled by hopes of what a neighborhood can be compared to what’s dominated the neighborhood for way too long: activism fueled by the fears of a few over what it could become - ie “Another Adams Morgan,” a phrase that alternately makes me yawn and makes me want to scream)

Standing at the Mount Pleasant Temporium on opening night, I remembered my inauguration into the neighborhood’s liquor license wars when Marx Café first opened on Mount Pleasant Street eleven years ago. The owners knew of the MPNA’s anti live music stance and tried to find some middle ground. Believing that going before the public at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting to demonstrate their willingness to compromise would enable them to offer at least some entertainment, Marx Café signed a VA that would have allowed them to host live music events that would end by 11PM twelve nights a year. They agreed to give surrounding neighbors written notice two weeks before each monthly event and keep musicians from performing “above conversational level.” Even though many in the community thought these restrictions a bit much, many believed that supporting the ANC VA would finally allow some live music, albeit limited, back into the neighborhood’s restaurants.

They were wrong. Even twelve nights a year of live music that had to stop by 11PM, played no louder than conversational level, was too much for the MPNA. They vowed to fight Marx Café’s license application until they agreed not to offer any live music at all. The owners caved.

In the aftermath I wrote on a listserv to myself as much as anyone:

It is important for those of us saddened by this latest chapter not to play the MPNA’s game, finding ourselves so overwhelmed by what we are against that we lose sight of what we support. There are hundreds of neighbors working to create spaces for culture and music – opening up their homes and church halls to bring people, ideas and communities together in new and exciting ways. We should keep building on these efforts and let the MPNA seethe away in the bitter little box it has built for itself.

I hope that the success of the Temporium and the termination of the MPNA’s VAs means the end of one era in Mount Pleasant and the beginning of a new one, where the focus is on community building rather than fear mongering and the “you're either with us or against us” activism that’s been so destructive to this great neighborhood. The Mount Pleasant Temporium is ending next week, and a new shop, Nana, owned by a local family, will open in the space it has occupied. Hopefully, the excitement generated by the Mount Pleasant Temporium, the capacity built and the networks strengthened by it, will spawn more investment and community involvement in the neighborhood’s revitalization.'

And at the risk of getting overwhelmed by what I am against - the city's broken liquor licensing process - I still strongly believe the City Council needs to reform the current liquor licensing process. Yes we need strong laws, robust enforcement and proactive programs to manage and minimize the impact of nightlife and hospitality businesses on residents living in mixed use neighborhoods. But deputizing private citizens to make laws on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis is terrible policy and bad urban planning. It has not only harmed economic development and discouraged investment, it has absorbed communities in counter productive battles that get stakeholders no closer to actually solving problems and resolving real issues. Worse it draws time, energy and political will away from the kind of community capacity building leadership that our neighborhoods really need if we are to weather the city’s current financial and political crises.

So here’s to a new era in Mount Pleasant! I can’t wait to shop at Nana and I can’t wait for the next open mic night at Haydees. I’m so glad to have been part of the Mount Pleasant Temporium and looking forward to rolling up my sleeves to work on more such efforts. It’s time to do some healing. But its also time for the CIty Council to take some action on the broken liquor licensing process and grapple with the real harm it does to community economic development in our neighborhoods.

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