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Music venues can and should engage the public realm

Music clubs can help revitalize neighborhoods, but too often, they do little to nothing to activate or engage street life, and instead wall themselves off from the activity around them.

Photo by Alan Bowser on Flickr.

The Fillmore Silver Spring opened last month, and local music venues are voicing concern that the Live Nation-owned music hall could threaten promoters in the District and even Baltimore. Already, the venue has beaten most local rock clubs on one aspect: it actually embraces the street, with big windows, bright lights, and even a couple of sidewalk benches.

Music halls don't necessarily need windows. They have shows at night and audiences come to watch the band, not the street. But these venues still are still part of their community fabric during the day, when the neighborhoods they reside in play host to other activities.

The 930 Club!
The 9:30 Club in Shaw. Photo by the author.

Having blank, featureless fašades discourage street life and can send the wrong message. Last year, the Black Cat, which anchors the shopping and entertainment district along 14th Street NW, painted a mural of a cat on their boarded-up second-floor windows.

2010 07 01 - 1319 - Washington DC - Black Cat
The Black Cat in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Nonetheless, it doesn't look much different from the outside than it did as an abandoned shell in 1988. Clubs like the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club a few blocks away have helped revitalize their neighborhoods, but by looking like abandoned bunkers, their aesthetics can perpetuate a run-down image.

Venues outside of the District are no better. While in Baltimore last weekend, I took my friends to The Ottobar, a tiny club in the emerging Station North neighborhood. Judging from its completely blacked-out storefront, they thought it was abandoned. I can imagine someone walking up North Howard Street, assuming there's nothing there, and turning around, missing out on a wonderful coffee shop just a block away.

Left: Baltimore's Ottobar. Right: The Birchmere in Alexandria.

In Alexandria, the venerable Birchmere Music Hall is largely invisible from the street, despite being in a fairly dense, urban neighborhood. If it weren't for the murals on the side, this club would just look like a warehouse behind a parking lot.

One exception would be the Recher Theatre, located in the center of downtown Towson. I drove through Towson last weekend and was impressed at how busy the downtown is, despite being home to one of Maryland's largest shopping malls. With a big marquee left over from the theatre's days as a movie palace and an adjacent bar that's open every day, the Recher keeps the streets active in a way that other area clubs don't.

The Recher Theatre. Image from Google Streetview.

Of course, rock clubs thrive on an aura of obscurity, while windows suggest openness and transparency. But perhaps venues can create window displays that affirm their image while creating a more interesting streetscape. For example, the Trocadero, a rock club in Philadelphia, has engaging, albeit suggestive, Barbie Doll dioramas in their windows.

Great streets require the participation of all the buildings that front them, even rock clubs. By creating storefronts that are visually interesting, or by providing uses like cafes or bars that are visibly open when shows aren't going on, clubs can create safer, more vibrant neighborhoods.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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by greent on Oct 3, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

I think that's on purpose. They want to appear edgy, make you feel like you're slumming, in a bad part of town, and stepping into a building that only you and a few hundred others know is really a hipster concert venue instead of an abandoned warehouse. It was sorta cool when 9:30 club did it 10 years ago. I think it's old now.

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 3, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

I'll gladly throw my hat into the ring and agree that the 930 Club and Black Cat both do a terrible job of maintaining their venues. The downstairs portions of the Black Cat are especially disgraceful -- I'm not asking for the owners to turn the place into something out of Clarendon, but compared to the rest of the vibrant spaces on 14th St, the Black Cat is looking awfully impoverished.

The Rock & Roll Hotel on H St does a much better job; and their layout is the opposite of the Black Cat's -- their bar/restaurant is on the upper floor, and somehow manages to be cleaner, have better food/drinks, and attract more people, despite being located away from the street.

I'd love to see the guys who manage The National Theatre in Richmond and the NorVa in Norfolk to enter the DC market. They take *so* much better care of their venues than any of the promoters in DC. (Maybe they could convince Doug Jemal to convert the Uline arena into a music venue once again)

by andrew on Oct 3, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport

The black cat has a bar (red room) and a cafe (food for thought) that are open 7 nights a week. I don't know what you mean by "visibly open" but the door is in fact open for all to see and there are always people milling about outside. It's quite obvious to anyone walking by that something is going on and it is not an abandoned warehouse.

by b on Oct 3, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

As someone who has been to the Black Cat I think that the venue's appearance is intentional. I think the run-down entrance matches the ambiance they are trying to project. They cater to those who like "alternative music" and the grunge-like appearance that comes with it. If it had a more "welcoming" streetscape or appearance I think it would totally undermine the image the club is trying to project. That "sketchy" appearance is what they want to market to customers.

As for Live Nation they command a large share of the promotions business. I think they also own Ticketmaster, who sells the tickets to the events. Smaller promoters are likely to eventually be pushed out by them. Live Nation seems to be the Wal-Mart of the entertainment business. And much like what happened to "mom n pop" stores across the country once Wal-Mart came into their communities, Live Nation will push them out of business. Live Nation is just too big for smaller promoters to compete against. The only smaller promoters that I could see surviving are those perhaps catering to very niche form of talent or talent trying to get their name out before they end up going to larger firms.

by Rain17 on Oct 3, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

Two things about the black cat,

They're pretty committed to being all ages so when not being 21 was an issue for me and my friends they were one of the few places in the city where we could just hang out even if we weren't seeing a band.

The black cat has hosted record fairs and such that bring a lot of people out from the community. For a place thats mostly closed during daylight hours thats a cool use of the space that if I owned a venue I'd want to be a part of.

Besides these places tend to be the anchors of neighborhood development so I'll give them a little bit of a pass. Plus my first concern is do they book bands that I like.

by Canaan on Oct 3, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

Depending on the venue, there is often virtually no activity happening during "normal" business hours. Aside from the booking office, the venue may be dormant at non-operating hours.

The likeliest rationale for the bunkerlike setting -- while the clubs themselves are often urban pioneers in finding enough space to accomodate a crowd, the popularity can be a mixed bag, as the area becomes more popular, safe and attractive beyond nightlife. For an early adopter in a gentrifying neighborhood, their viability may be at risk as newer residents discover these urban frontiers. Lounge Ax in Chicago's Lincoln Part is the classic example, where they were essentially shuttered due to the financial strain of legal bills incurred while fighting noise complaints by a yuppie lawyer who moved into a nearby condo.

Birchmere may be in an urban setting, but it's essentially a warehouse in a sea of parking. It feels entirely suburban. A marquee is a nice throwback touch in urban areas, but it's little more than an aesthetic feature and workes better for a theater space. The Black Cat is a good example of making the exterior work, but it doesn't offer much to the level of street activity beyond its events (box office aside).

by anon on Oct 3, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

And also the "sketchy" appearance is what makes the Black Cat look hip to the demographic they are trying to reach.

by Rain17 on Oct 3, 2011 3:13 pm • linkreport

What about IOTA? I know it's out in icky Virginia, but unlike the other venues you mentioned, it's actually open pretty much all the time, serving food and drinks when there's not a show.

by Gray on Oct 3, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

Also we have to talk about the importance of trying to maintain DIY music spaces in the birthplace of the DIY punk/hardcore aspect of performing. It's getting harder to come up with DIY spaces in DC proper.

by Canaan on Oct 3, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport

@ Gray:I know it's out in icky Virginia, but unlike the other venues you mentioned, it's actually open pretty much all the time, serving food and drinks when there's not a show.

That's because Virginia does not have bars. All it has is restaurants. I.e. you don't get a liquor license unless you sell food. It's one of the best silly rules that I am aware off.

by Jasper on Oct 3, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport


Good point! IOTA is a pretty nice club in terms of "engaging the street." It's just a basic storefront, but it's open all day and has a full food menu. As a venue, though, it's kind of miserable. That column in the middle of the space is a killer.

by dan reed! on Oct 3, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport

to be fair, the 9:30 club is the best looking building on that block.

by guest on Oct 3, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

I guess I am old, but during the time and place when a lot of these venues opened, you did not want a lot of glass and openness. These venues were purchased because they were vacant large spaces for cheap, in parts of town nobody wanted to hang out in, thats why they were cheap. Yes they could engage the street a little better, but you start opening them up with glass and people milling about on the sidewalk, and you will get lawsuits and noise complaints that will assuredly drive them out of business.

by spookiness on Oct 3, 2011 3:49 pm • linkreport

"compared to the rest of the vibrant spaces on 14th St, the Black Cat is looking awfully impoverished"

Black Cat is fine. There's nothing wrong with having a dive bar on 14th Street. This is one of the anchors of the neighborhood and it doesn't need to have a polished exterior to do its job.

by Boomer on Oct 3, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

The Trocadero was an old burlesque theater before it became a music hall. The suggestive dolls are playing off of its heritage.

It's a hell of a music hall. I saw my first live show there when I was 17. Totally recommend catching a show there while you live in Philadelphia.

by Cavan on Oct 3, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

Replacing the parking garage/deck between the 9:30 Club and U St with something better would go much farther towards making the block surrounding the 9:30 Club seem less bleak. What else can the club do (without changing the structure of the building), decorate the building with unicorns and rainbow colors?

by grumpy on Oct 3, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

@grumpy-unicorns with their manes dyed black and spiked, and with multiple piercings and tats

by Tina on Oct 3, 2011 5:26 pm • linkreport

Sprucing up grungy music halls? That's not very rock and roll, Dan. ;)

Seriously, though, these places don't survive without being what they are or the way they are. What would Black Cat or 9:30 Club gain by investing millions in "sprucing" up their facilities (and would it even look any better)? The 9:30 Club already had to move from downtown because of gentrification (9:30 referred to its former destination on 930 F Street). Comparing the Birchmere, 9:30 Club, and Black Cat to Recher or Trocadero (or State Theatre more locally) isn't fair because those facilities were originally built to be theatres. If they weren't performance venues they'd be a CVS and we all know how we like the urban theatre CVS retrofit. ;) Likewise, comparing them to smaller facilities like Iota isn't helpful either because they serve a different niche and purpose. The 9:30 Club is one of the pre-eminent mid-sized live theatres in the United States and many artists praise its crowd energy, layout and acoustics. Really, not everything has to "match" the surrounding built environment. The buildings look the way they do for a REASON, they're utilitarian and proudly so.

by Mike O on Oct 3, 2011 5:41 pm • linkreport

I love having the Black Cat in my neighborhood, but do wish they could improve the front wall. The cafe looks dreary even when open, especially disappointing given that the origin of the cafe is the club owner's father's once-vaunted "Food for Thought" cafe in Dupont. And a window for the Red Room bar would be welcome - maybe even just for displays.

The 9:30 club is another local treasure, but wish they would also invest in the exterior. Neon lights would be awesome.

by Michael on Oct 3, 2011 6:21 pm • linkreport

1. Nice piece.

2. Clarendon Ballroom...

3. Recher Theatre... thank god for Towson U. Without it, and the walking traffic that the nearby campus generates downtown, Downtown Towson would be dead in terms of street activity, but not car-generated shopping activity.

FWIW, I worked there for 6 or 7 weeks before I walked a different way and saw the Macy's at Towson Town Center. I didn't even know there was a mall... I just used the Trader Joes and the Barnes & Noble (+ a great Farmers Market on Thursdays).

by Richard Layman on Oct 3, 2011 9:09 pm • linkreport

I think Black Cat and Birchmere are not great but certainly adequate in their curb appeal. 930 club however should step up it's game a little bit with some attractive signage and maybe a few more exterior details.

by Paul S on Oct 4, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

Richard, can you clarify what you mean with Clarendon Ballroom? I didn't know they did performances that they were just a regular club. Is there something about their design.

by Canaan on Oct 4, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

Both venues are fine as they are.

Black cat should stay the way it is, so something on 14th street is not as pretty as the redone street - a little grunge is good on that fancy strip, and when this area turns to Georgetownification, the Cat will outlast all the others on the strip that didn't buy their land. 14th Street street foot traffic does not suffer because of the Cat

As for 9:30, when Howard U steps up and does ANYTHING with all their property over there, then maybe 9:30 can add some paint. Until then, crackign on the 9:30 is ridiculous. The 9:30 club is not the reason for the craptastic streets that surround it.

These 2 locally owned and operated DC music venues are great, and don't need to look like the corporate culture of Silver Spring.

by LeaveLocalVenuesAlone on Oct 4, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

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