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Joe Englert: The Life of the Party

Over the past 20 years, Englert has reshaped Washington nightlife with his quirky bars. After his all-in bet on H Street, the question now is whether DC has finally changed him, too.

Illustration by Josue Evilla.

Joe Englert can’t sit still—not in an interview, not in life. Since coming to Washington in the 1980s, he has opened more than two dozen nightspots here—more than one a year. The first was called Club Random. The second, 15 Minutes.

Englert’s best-known bars are cathedrals of camp. At the Big Hunt, tribal masks stare down from walls and a man’s arm dangles from a dragon’s jaw. At H Street Country Club, mini-golf players putt around a fiberglass Marion Barry. The lamps at Trusty’s Full-Serve are fashioned from vintage motor-oil cans and beer is served through the windows of a yellow school bus. At the late Insect Club, patrons munched on “mealworms Rockefeller” beside a giant ant farm depicting a history of the world from the Crucifixion through the first space walk.

Englert opened bars on Northwest DC’s U Street and Northeast’s H Street when those strips were synonymous with drugs and violence, and he helped turn them into two of the city’s hippest nightlife districts. But more than anything, his places, in number and design—flying bread loaves, stuffed unicorns, Presidents’ heads cast as Easter Island giants—are a symptom of their owner’s need for constant stimulation.

Skip Coburn, head of the DC Nightlife Association, a 400-member trade group, ranks Englert as the city’s most prolific opener of new bars. “The king,” Coburn says.

Teddy Folkman, the acclaimed chef and Food Network celeb whom Englert lured to the restaurant Granville Moore’s, says that Englert, who turned 51 in January, is “like a super-highly educated 12-year-old.”

“Joe spends his money as fast as he gets it—on the next place,” says Joe Lyon, one of several bartenders Englert groomed into bar owners. “He can’t help himself. I don’t want to call it an addiction, but it’s what fascinates him: ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to buy this old firehouse and turn it into a neighborhood bar?’ It’s how creative it will be or how the neighborhood will think it’s really cool. Or how he’ll be the only place in town selling chocolate French fries.”

When Englert showed me his office, on a back alley on Capitol Hill, it took me a moment to realize it was a place of work; the desk seemed an afterthought amid the pinball machines, bubble-hockey table, and bench press. But even it bores him.

“He comes in like a whirlwind—maybe 20 to 30 minutes, an hour if I’m lucky,” says Cheryl Webb, his assistant, “and then that’s it—‘I’ll see you the next day.’ “

Englert opened his laptop the instant he sat down for one of our interviews. “Can I multitask or will you be offended?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t mind so long as he was coherent.

“That never happens,” he said.

As a boy in Catholic school in Pittsburgh, he told me, the nuns beat him for turning away while they were talking to him.

The matter of Englert’s attention span is no longer academic. In 2004, he startled local officials by buying eight decrepit buildings on H Street and seeking liquor licenses for all of them. On a strip beaten down by poverty and neglect, Englert glimpsed a future of postcollegiate hipsters—“beardos,” he calls them—guzzling drinks at nightspots with names like the Rock & Roll Hotel and the Palace of Wonders (now called Red Palace). He went all in: taking out equity from other bars and spending close to $3 million to buy and renovate the buildings.

In the old days, Englert handed new bars off to partners and went looking for the next big thing. Now he’s all but living on H Street. He checks the jukebox in one place, the rooftop bar being built at another. He stops unannounced at a pie shop to crack jokes and hand out flyers.

“For the first time in my life, I’m not in expansion mode. We’re trying to bring in a lot of businesses. We want the bike store. We want the rollerblade store. We want the mom-and-pop clothes emporium. We want the small deli.”

H Street is at a crossroads, he says, and he has had to hunker down, focus. He hired one man to sweep the streets and another, with a Prius (the Eco-Cab, Englert called it), to shuttle customers to and from Union Station. To call attention to the corridor’s rebirth, he named its east end the Atlas District, after a historic movie theater that reopened as an arts center in 2006. He began hosting a series of “Street Talk” meetings at a coffeehouse, inviting business owners and the public to brainstorm ideas for the strip’s future. Along the way, he has grown close to Ward 6 councilman Tommy Wells, relaying gripes from H Street business owners and helping Wells build support for his own initiatives in the neighborhood.

“For the first time in my life, I’m not in expansion mode,” Englert said when we met late last year. “We’re trying to bring in a lot of businesses. We want the bike store. We want the rollerblade store. We want the mom-and-pop clothes emporium. We want the small deli.

“But where do they find the capital?” he said. “How is it going to turn into 14th Street,” the now-vibrant corridor that intersects with U Street?

For a man who likes to joke about his attention deficit disorder, commitment is strange territory.

“All of a sudden it’s not my little fun kingdom where I’m building bars and restaurants,” he says. “Now I’m trying to facilitate and marry up like-minded people. But, man, phase two”—drawing businesses to the street that aren’t either bars or restaurants—“is hard going.”

Could it be that at age 51, Englert, the class clown, has finally grown up? He has a wife, a house in DC’s Cleveland Park, a pair of teenage sons he takes to batting cages in the suburbs. He’s even writing a memoir. When I asked people whether getting serious would save or destroy him, some said I’d overlooked another possibility: that Joe was just going through a phase.

Englert is a man of Falstaffian proportions and predilections. He is a shade over six feet tall, with a broad nose, a dimpled chin, and a barrel chest atop disproportionately trim legs. He plays tennis every weekday morning and often goes the rest of the workday—meetings with business partners, council members, bankers—without a shower or change. Most days find him in a sweat-stained T-shirt, athletic shorts, New Balance sneakers, and white crew socks.

“I’ve been to million-dollar real-estate settlements with him and he’s wearing the same thing,” says Joe Lyon, the former Englert bartender, who now owns the 51st State Tavern in DC’s Foggy Bottom.

The only hint of vanity is the toupee Englert has worn since he began balding in his twenties. The receding hairline “visibly aged him in a way that was so 180-degrees different from his very being and spirit,” says Chris Clifford, a college friend who followed Englert to DC.

Englert takes taxis everywhere, even to drop his kids off at school. Cars, he’ll tell you, get you one thing: parking tickets. Metro? Not social enough. On the buses in his beloved hometown of Pittsburgh, Englert says, “people show you pictures of grandkids and they talk about restaurants they like to go to. If you talk to anyone on Metro, they think you’re insane.”

He reflects for a moment, then breaks into a smile: “Maybe it’s because I’m always in shorts.”

Despite all of its diversions, Englert’s “office” bores him. He rarely stays long. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

When I first e-mailed Englert requesting an interview, he wrote back: “I would like to lay down some ground rules.”

My heart sank. I had once covered national politics as a newspaper reporter. “Ground rules,” I came to learn, were the sine qua non of the Washington interview. What’s on the record, what’s off, how to identify sources—all are subject to torturous negotiation.

Then I read Englert’s list: “You may not accompany me to any Ancient Order of the Hibernian meetings or quilting bees. No mentioning of my former career as a power forward for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. No photographs of me in a unitard during hot yoga sessions. I will not reveal my deviled egg recipe.”

That, in a capsule, is Englert’s view of the postures and pretensions of official Washington, with its sometimes insufferable air of seriousness.

If there’s a balloon anywhere, Englert is inclined to pop it. In the late 1980s, he published a parody of the Washington City Paper called the Cilly Paper: Washington’s Weakly. An Onion-like lead story, headlined do the white thing, described a plot by then-mayor Marion Barry to bring about his own overthrow by a white mayor.

“I’ve done my best,” (the bogus) Barry, then deep in scandal, is quoted as saying, according to a contemporaneous account in the Washington Times. “I’ve lied, cheated, even listened to country and western music. What else can I do?”

When the Times asked why he’d taken aim at the City Paper, Englert replied, “When things get on a plateau, it’s time.”

Each of the mini-golf holes at H Street Country Club is a grotesque of a DC bugbear: an overzealous parking-meter attendant, a row of K Street lobbyists rendered as Lego-style robots, the Springfield interchange pretzeled into a loop-de-loop roller coaster.

“The obstacles in the putt-putt are really metaphors for the obstacles”—real or imagined—“in Joe Englert’s life.”

Councilman Tommy Wells told me that Englert apprised him of plans for the golf course over breakfast: “Joe says, ‘Yeah, one of the holes will be Marion Barry coming out of the ground like The Awakening,’ ” Wells recalled, referring to the Seward Johnson sculpture, originally at Hains Point, of a mythical giant clawing himself from the earth. “I said, ‘Joe, you’re spending too much time lying awake at night thinking about stuff.’ But then he goes and does it.”

In the finished mini-golf course, Wells sees autobiography. “It’s part of his working out his frustrations with DC,” he said. “The obstacles in the putt-putt are really metaphors for the obstacles”—real or imagined—“in Joe Englert’s life.”

Englert was born in 1961 and raised in New Kensington, a working-class town a half hour northeast of Pittsburgh. A grandfather had left southern Italy for a job as a laborer at Alcoa, the aluminum company that was the town’s major employer. Englert’s father, William, was a department head at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.

The family lived on a tree-lined street populated by the upwardly mobile sons and daughters of the first wave of white ethnic immigrants. “Diversity was the different countries of Eastern Europe,” Englert says.

His older brother was the serious, obedient student, his older sister the homecoming queen. Joe, the youngest of three, was a chubby boy given to suspenders. He played Santa Claus in the first-grade play and amused relatives at age five by climbing into the band shell at a local park and strumming a toy guitar while singing Beatles songs.

In a possible harbinger, Englert took a childhood interest in beer cans. His father fed his collection with odd containers scavenged on business trips. Soon Englert was making trades at local conventions and the attic was awash with cans from around the world. “We still have some up there we’d like to get rid of,” his mother, Sylvia, says.

In their youngest son, his parents saw imagination dueling with irreverence. In high school, he started a comedy newsletter, “The Irregular Citizen,” that outed a library teacher for shopping on the clock. When the local chamber of commerce sponsored a high-school essay competition on ideas for improving New Kensington, Englert’s entry—which was passed over—suggested a wholesale bulldozing of the town.

At Penn State, Englert threw theme parties that turned the rooms of his off-campus group house into stage sets. For a Star Trek shindig, Englert built the deck of the starship Enterprise out of appliance boxes and fashioned hundreds of tribbles—purring, hairball-like aliens from an episode of the TV show—from tennis balls and wig scraps found at the Salvation Army. Another party mimicked a small-town homecoming dance. On the living-room floor, Englert marked out the lines of a basketball court in masking tape, set out a Nerf hoop and punch bowl, and asked a couple of girls to dress up as chaperones, complete with name tags.

These were not parties, his college friend Chris Clifford, told me: “These were events.

Englert stayed in State College, Pennsylvania, after graduation and ran a singing-telegram business for a couple of years—“ape costumes, chicken costumes”—before moving into a large house in Northwest DC in 1984 with a group of college friends.

Typically, Englert had his hand in a dozen things at once. He freelanced quirky features for local papers. He wrote ad copy for motor oil. He edited a newsletter for the US Merchant Marine. He penned two never-published novels (“nowhere to be found,” he said when I asked to see them), and cowrote a movie, Woobie’s Geography Lesson, shown at the Kennedy Center, about an Ethiopian immigrant struggling to make his way in Washington.

He dreamed of being the next Kurt Vonnegut or Jean Shepherd, but reality set in. There was one job, however, for which no one doubted his qualifications: theme-party impresario.

In the 1980s, DC by and large shut down at 5 pm. What little there was of nightlife was formulaic. Preppies went to the Third Edition in Georgetown. People with black jackets and tattoos went to Posers in the West End. Capitol Hill staffers to the Hawk ‘n’ Dove. Lawyers and bankers to Bow Tie’s.

“I guess I wanted people to mix it up a little,” Englert says. “I had no problem hearing Public Enemy with Frank Sinatra with the Ramones in the same place on the same night, but you would never get that.”

In 1988, Englert approached the owner of Danker’s, a downtown steakhouse that was closed on weekends. His proposition: Let me turn your second floor into a dance club on Friday and Saturday nights; you keep the bar receipts, I keep the door. With a $180 ad in the City Paper advertising alternative music, Englert recalls, he had “an instant crowd,” visits from Washington Post reviewers, and a couple hundred bucks in his pocket every weekend. He called the place Club Random.

Danker’s tossed Englert out a few months later after alcohol inspectors found a 16-year-old who’d slipped in, but by then Englert had his eyes on his own place. In 1990, 15 Minutes opened in an old cafeteria on 15th Street between K and L in downtown DC. A Post reviewer called it a “chameleon club—‘not too black, not too white, not too young, not too old’ and not too smart for squares.” Chairs were painted with skulls and crossbones; a fish tank swarmed with snakeheads. DJs played everything from Cajun and progressive to hip-hop, and funk bands jammed in the back room.

Steve Zarpas, a partner in some of Englert’s early bars who later broke with him, was then a young commercial-real-estate broker who admired Englert’s derring-do. He found Englert the location, floated the lion’s share of the start-up costs, and handled the paperwork. “Joe had blind ambition and the hubris of ‘why can’t I?,’ which was infectious,” Zarpas says by phone from Norfolk, where he lives. “People wanted to help him out and see him succeed.”

The club was an overnight phenomenon. “It cost us $8,000 to get into business,” Englert says, “and we’d do that much on a Friday night.”

Eve Zibart, the nightlife columnist for the Post in those years, says Englert seemed to foresee DC’s rebound in the 1990s as the District straightened out its finances and young professionals began rediscovering cities. His places were “pretty much a complete departure,” Zibart says. “He recognized a whole new Washington developing that the high people had not noticed.”

Growing up near Pittsburgh, Englert collected beer cans and wore suspenders. Photograph courtesy of Joe Englert.

When I called Englert’s parents, his father initially misheard the publication I was writing for as the Washington Times. “We’re proud conservatives!” he proclaimed. His son, however, was less forthcoming about his own political allegiances. “I love Republicans/Democrats equally,” Joe Englert wrote in an e-mail. “They are all God’s misguided children.”

Apparently, they all also drink at his bars. “I am apolitical, especially because of owning a bar on the Hill,” he says. But it’s clear Englert has views. During the many hours I spent with him, he told a number of jokes that feminists, fans of the current President, and supporters of, say, Occupy Wall Street might find less than funny.

Yet the message of Englert’s bars isn’t political or even parodic. If his postmodern playgrounds signify anything, he says, it’s only in contrast to the drabness of establishment Washington. “I want to cry when I go to a Nationals game,” he says. “It’s almost a billion dollars for nothingness. It might as well be a Costco.”

More than anything, Englert’s bars seem to say: Lighten up, you’re in a bar. Fine, you work at a senator’s office or a fiscal think tank. Ooh, you lobby for Lockheed. Good on you for your tireless campaign to save the spider monkey. But when you take off that laminated security badge, do you also have to go to a serious bar?

People in Washington may need a firmer nudge than their counterparts in edgier cities like New York or Los Angeles. They need permission. To judge by the crowds on weekend evenings, many seem to find it in the carnival weirdness of an Englert drinking spot.

“Joe likes to give people comfort in oddness,” says Lee Wheeler, an artist with a long, graying chin beard who has been the principal designer of Englert’s bars for two decades.

“I thought for sure he’d reject it—I thought it would be hideous,” Wheeler says. “And he goes, ‘This is wonderful, Go for it, build this big back of ribs.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, f—- me.’ “

Next to the back bar at the Big Hunt, Wheeler had an idea for a room he called the Belly of the Beast. He wanted people to feel as if they were inside the rib cage of some prehistoric mammoth. The walls were to be framed by rib bones made of stucco, painted varying shades of blood red, and textured to resemble, Wheeler says, “very loose shredded meat.”

“I thought for sure he’d reject it—I thought it would be hideous,” Wheeler says. “And he goes, ‘This is wonderful, Go for it, build this big back of ribs.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, f—- me.’ “

When I visited the Big Hunt on a recent Friday, the Belly of the Beast was nearly shoulder to shoulder with twentysomethings.

“Joe just has this crazy eye for splattering something in front of the public that says, ‘Hey, there’s no rhyme, no reason,’ ” says Kyle Remissong, a partner at the Big Hunt. “If you’re not cool enough to see what we’re saying here, that’s okay—there’s plenty of Glory Days sports bars all over the place.”

Englert is a gourmand when he’s out with friends, ordering cocktails and sweet liqueurs and about twice as many dishes as there are people at the table. He bought a vacation home in New Orleans’s French Quarter as a beachhead for sampling that city’s delicacies.

But with the exception of Granville Moore’s, lauded for its mussels and frites, you won’t find great food or froufrou cocktails at his bars. Artisanal mixed drinks are a time suck for bartenders, Englert says, and food is negligibly profitable and hard to do well day after day. His menus tend toward beer and burgers, and only a few of his places are open for lunch.

“I can pour 270 beers or 300 beers at six bucks a crack and make two grand in an hour,” he says. “God bless these guys making those cocktails, but how am I going to do volume?”

He gives longtime bartenders an ownership stake or brings on as partners young people with cash and business instincts. That lets Englert tend to the big picture and the next project while partners toil on the day-to-day details. When I ask about the division of labor between him and the on-site partners, Englert cracks, “It’s understood I will do nothing and take all the glory.”

Like many Englert jokes, this one holds a grain of truth.

“That was his brilliance,” says Steve Zarpas, who gave Englert the start-up money for 15 Minutes and was involved in other early bars. “By giving a rather modest percentage to a potential partner, he could reap an amazing benefit. The bartender who never could have opened a bar on a bet got to be able to say, ‘I’m the owner,’ and Joe got a loyal, dedicated, hard-working partner.”

Englert says he has come to see DC as the best place in the country—with the possible exception of New York City—to own a bar. “People have income, and the crowd always is young,” he says. “There’s always a replacement for that 28-year-old who decides to settle down.”

The spoils from 15 Minutes fueled a restless expansion. In the early 1990s, Englert and a parade of new partners opened about a dozen nightspots, where he refined his bar-as-theme-park aesthetic: Planet Fred (a trip through the solar system), State of the Union (Bolshevik chic), Andalusian Dog (Surrealist fantasy with a facade of melting clocks).

His push onto U Street in the early ’90s drew notice. The strip near 14th Street had once been Washington’s black Broadway, but it had become a wasteland after the 1968 riots.

“The reputation of the area was horrible,” says Frank Smith Jr., then the area’s DC councilman and now director of the African American Civil War Museum. “Only the brave people were willing to come out at night.”

When Englert opened bars and a coffeehouse, the Zig Zag Café, near 14th and U, Smith says, “it was a signal that people were willing to come back into the area.”

Englert married his wife, Lynne, in 1994, the year after she wandered into the Zig Zag Café with her childhood friend, who was helping decorate the place. She is a stay-at-home mother, seven years his junior, and very private, Englert told me. “I made a promise to her when we got married,” he says. “I would never run for public office or make her stump for me in any capacity.”

Friends say she tempers her husband’s madcap velocities. “All she has to do is roll her eyes at him,” his college friend Chris Clifford says, “and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah—you’re right.’ “

Englert gets invitations to speak on panels about turning around neighborhoods. But when I asked about the attraction of places like U Street and H Street, he waved off any suggestion that some grand civic vision, let alone altruism, was at play. He had only so much money, and these neighborhoods were cheap. And in retrospect, they weren’t as risky as many presumed. U Street was a 15-minute walk from booming Dupont Circle and had just gotten its own Metro stop; H Street is a hop from Union Station and was slated for a major streetscape makeover.

“The city had to fill in,” Englert says.

Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H St., NEA music hall with a lively dance scene and flying guitars on the ceiling (left). Red Palace1210 H St., NE Known for its burlesque and vaudeville shows; also has a museum of oddities (right). Photographs by David Phillipich.

He refuses credit for the revivals as quickly as he rejects blame for the demise of older, minority-owned businesses. Virtually all of the 27 businesses that have folded on H Street since 2003 were owned by blacks or Asians, according to Anwar Saleem, executive director of the nonprofit organization H Street Main Street. Many lacked the capital to survive the disruptions caused by street improvements and couldn’t keep up with rising property taxes or rents. Of the 174 new businesses that have opened, Saleem says, just a fifth are minority-owned.

When a community leader called a meeting in 2005 to discuss the wisdom of opening eight bars at once on H Street, Englert chafed at the implication that the neighborhood would be worse off.

Why shouldn’t residents, old and new, have nice places to eat and drink, he asked in a post to a neighborhood listserv. “Why are my 6 and 10 year old afraid to walk around H St. on a Saturday morning?” he wrote. “Answer: Perhaps it’s the two dozen or so homeless, urinating, yelling, screaming and guzzling malt liquor crazies populating the street corners that no one had the bravery to move along… . I have a plan to clean up H St, to recruit not just restaurants, but bakers, chocolate shops, museums, flower shops and more to the strip. What have others been doing except for joining alphabet groups and simply talking, not doing?”

Members of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission told me that despite some initial hesitation, they gave their blessing to his liquor-license applications. His record elsewhere in the city and his responsiveness to concerns about noise, litter, and safety made an impression.

“Why gentrification is sort of not real,” Englert says, “is that usually whatever is lost is found somewhere else, or what’s lost is lost because it would have went away anyway. If there was some mom-and-pop place that was a great soul-food place or a great pupuseria, if the kids didn’t want to sell the soul food anymore or the grandkids didn’t want to sell pupusas anymore, what kind of tragedy is that?”

All the same, some black business owners, struggling to stay afloat, have found his dismissiveness tone-deaf. A few told me they chafed at the notion of Englert as “the great savior.”

“The richness of H Street doesn’t start today in 2011. It goes way back.”

“The richness of H Street doesn’t start today in 2011,” Bachir Diop, a Senegalese immigrant who owns a building a block from Englert’s bars, told me when we met last year. He was alluding to the street’s midcentury history as a thriving commercial hub patronized by African-Americans. “It goes way back.”

On a rainy Friday, I joined Englert at the East Potomac Tennis Center at DC’s Hains Point, where he takes lessons every weekday morning. When I entered the five-court tennis bubble at 8:45, he was in the midst of a doubles match. Englert wore a baseball cap and a T-shirt that said stewed, screwed and tattooed. The other players wore sportswear in muted solids.

Englert struggled at times to move his heft across the court. But he had a powerful forehand and was aggressive at the net. As I settled in on the sideline, he served an ace against Mary Granger, a white-haired professor of information systems at George Washington University.

“Take out an old lady!” he said. “See that?” He glanced over at me and let out his hallmark cackle, a boyish heh-hee-ha-ha-hee-hee.

After the game, I asked Granger, who has played with Englert for several years, about his style on the court.

“He’s really improved,” she said. “Early on, it was ‘Let’s hit the ball as hard as I can,’ which is how I think he is in life. Now he’s … . ” She paused, searching for the words.

“Got more finesse?” I offered.

Englert’s doubles partner, Joe Jozefczyk, a tennis coach at the Potomac School in McLean, snorted. “You will never see ‘Englert’ and ‘finesse’ in the same sentence, let alone the same paragraph,” he said. “Even though everyone agrees he’s a jackass, we still let him play with us.”

The bars Englert opened on U Street in the 1990s didn’t last long enough to see the run-up in property values there over the last decade. He spread himself so thin after his early successes that all his bars there—and a few elsewhere—failed or had to be sold. “We thought we were invincible,” he says. “It was a disaster.”

He considered getting out of the business, but he was a new father and worried about finding other work. Then out of more bad news came a stroke of luck. The landlord of the downtown building that housed the Insect Club wanted to end Englert’s lease. AARP needed the space. As compensation, the landlord offered him a lease on a Korean restaurant on Capitol Hill whose owner had been evicted.

Englert called the place Capitol Lounge and festooned the walls with political memorabilia. The bar was three blocks from the Capitol, closer than the standby Hawk ‘n’ Dove. Young Hill staffers packed in nearly every weekday night—a feat in an industry in which Friday and Saturday nights often subsidize the rest of the week’s losses. The bar became his highest-grossing. Within five years, he had made enough money to buy the building and open another bar—Politiki, with a Polynesian theme—down the street. Awash with cash, he flipped houses in transitional Northeast DC during the sweetest stretch of Washington’s real-estate boom.

But as the housing market topped out, Englert grew fidgety. In 2004, he got a call from Pranee Kensler, who had once owned a diner where Capitol Lounge staff ate after work. She wanted a new place and had heard that buildings on H Street were going for a song. Like U Street, H Street had never fully recovered from the 1968 riots. Did Englert want to give the place a once-over?

Kensler decided against buying. Like many others who had eyed the street then, her late husband thought the neighborhood wasn’t right. But Englert was smitten. “I was compelled by the fact that it was empty, nearly deserted,” he says.

How was that a selling point? “Separation,” he says—the potential for the sort of orders-of-magnitude growth impossible in built-up areas such as Georgetown and Dupont Circle. “A $150,000 building less than two miles from the Capitol?” he says. “Even if you just held and paid the bank for ten years, how could you not double your money?”

The city had set the stage for a comeback a couple of years earlier, promising tens of millions of dollars in street improvements along with tracks for a trolley line. But before the jackhammers arrived, Englert took a risky, early bet, snapping up eight buildings in a few months. When the press caught wind, property owners, sensing a shift in the market, began raising prices.

In fits and starts, young professionals ventured to a part of town long absent from tourist maps. New restaurants and cafes clustered around Englert’s places like Antarctic penguins huddling for warmth. Families with young children moved into the surrounding neighborhood, as did developers, who have announced plans for hundreds of luxury rental units and condos. In five years, commercial property values tripled.

The Flats at Atlas, a high-end apartment building opening this spring, advertises itself as “157 steps to the nearest bar” in “one of DC’s most of-the-moment entertainment, dining, and nightlife districts.” A decade and a half earlier, the strip was best known as the place where a 28-year-old DC police officer was killed in an unprovoked shooting.

But H Street is still at a pivot point. The construction mess churned up by the streetscape makeover—a five-year ordeal that ended in 2011—hurt many businesses. There’s no sign yet of the trolley. And daytime businesses have been slow to arrive. The street isn’t yet a safe enough investment for many national chains—which is fine by many people—but the owners of commercial buildings are asking rents beyond reach of the small entrepreneurs willing to move in now.

Englert would have loved to have 20 buildings on H Street, he told me one night, sipping a Baileys Irish Cream on the rocks at the Willard Hotel’s Round Robin bar. “We just ran out of money and people to run the places.”

Capitol Lounge, 231 Pennsylvania Ave., SEA Hill staffers’ hangout filled with political memorabilia. Photograph by David Phillipich.

In the early morning of Friday, October 15, 2010, Ali Ahmed Mohammed, an Ethiopian immigrant who worked as a security guard and deli-sandwich maker, showed up at DC9, a club on Ninth St., Northwest, just off the U Street corridor, that Englert and a couple of partners had opened in 2003 as a showcase for alternative bands.

It was after the 2 am closing time, and Mohammed, who was 27, was turned away. A few minutes later, he returned, hurling two bricks through the front window. Englert’s partner, William Spieler, and four employees ran after Mohammed and held him on the ground until police arrived. Mohammed was barely conscious by the time officers got there and was taken to Howard University Hospital, where at approximately 3:15 am he was pronounced dead.

Early witness accounts suggested that the five men had beaten Mohammed to death. Before the day was out, DC police chief Cathy Lanier held a news briefing to announce that police had charged Spieler and the DC9 employees with second-degree murder for an act of “savage … vigilante justice.”

Almost as quickly, the case began unraveling. The charges were reduced to aggravated assault a day after Lanier’s news briefing, then dropped. An autopsy found no injuries consistent with an assault and concluded that Mohammed had died of some combination of “excited delirium,” heart defects, alcohol intoxication, and physical exertion while being restrained. Last June, after a six-month probe, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia concluded there was insufficient evidence of any crime.

In interviews with local news outlets after the incident, Englert called Mohammed’s death a tragedy but felt certain that Spieler and his employees were innocent.

Still, associates say the media glare, the uproar in the Ethiopian community, and the long investigation left Englert uncharacteristically depressed. For two decades, he had enjoyed a reputation among DC authorities as a responsible business owner. Now reporters were knocking on his door at night asking him to respond to charges of murder.

Englert learned of the allegations at 7 am the morning of the incident in a phone call from Spieler’s wife. Englert then called Tommy Wells. The councilman admonished him to cooperate with the investigation and not to burn bridges by taking too public a stand. Wells told me he then called police officials and Jim Graham—the Ward 1 councilman who oversees the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration—on Englert’s behalf to urge them against a rush to judgment. Englert “made a good case there needed to be another voice out there,” Wells says.

Englert and I met at Sova, a coffee shop on H Street, on the first anniversary of the incident, as Mohammed’s family gathered outside DC9, across town, to announce a $15-million wrongful-death lawsuit against Englert, Spieler, and several others. Reporters were calling Englert’s cell phone; he politely declined to comment.

“You’re used to people in their highest, most animated state: ‘Hey, I’m done with work, I love you, you’re the man with the booze.’ It wasn’t a familiar situation.”

To me, he maintained that neither he nor his employees had done anything wrong. He predicted another vindication in civil court. To satisfy liquor-control officials, Englert outfitted DC9 with a system of security cameras, gave his staff intensive new security training, and instructed workers not to perform citizens’ arrests on suspects whose only offense is property damage.

I asked about his state of mind in the weeks after the arrests. He said he slept fitfully and “wanted to hide.” He grew fearful of new risks: “I think you just get scared and in general sheepish about putting yourself on a limb.” Mostly, he felt bad for his partner and employees, who were tarred by the police chief as vigilantes and forced by alcohol regulators to sever ties with Englert’s bars until their names were cleared.

“People come to us to celebrate birthday parties and release their latest CD and to have going-away parties—you’re not used to making people unhappy in any way,” he said. “You’re used to people in their highest, most animated state: ‘Hey, I’m done with work, I love you, you’re the man with the booze.’ It wasn’t a familiar situation.”

That the man with the booze is not always loved seems to have been a particularly difficult revelation.

A week later, Englert and I met again a few blocks from Union Station. He was so determined to give me a tour of the changes coming to H Street that he drove his own car. I got in—he has a Honda Element—and we cruised along Second Street, Northeast, before turning east onto H.

That vacant lot, he said, nodding to his left, is going to be a Giant supermarket. Jair Lynch, the developer and former Olympic gymnast, just bought those buildings over there for $51 million for “hundreds and hundreds of condos.” That tired strip mall will make way for luxury apartments over first-floor retail. In a couple of years, a trolley will coast along those tracks, carrying Washingtonians from Union Station to streets brimming with “the hipster restaurants, the boutiques, and the gym.”

The pace of change worries him. He doesn’t want to see the street lose its distinctiveness, its grit. He doesn’t want a raucous party district like Adams Morgan or the chain-store sterility of the new Columbia Heights.

“H Street is going to be a completely different place in five years,” he said. “So here is the challenge: What keeps it—what makes it—unique and different?”

A couple of weeks earlier, he had demurred when I’d asked whether he had a broader vision. But today he was expansive.

Why not team up with local art schools and designers to set up a fashion district here, he asked. Vacant warehouses on nearby Bladensburg Road could be turned into textile shops, where new immigrants could earn paychecks making locally designed clothes. Tech companies could partner with area universities and turn the neighborhood into a design hub for, say, electric-car batteries. A big, overgrown lot down that street could be made over into soccer fields.

One of his shoelaces was untied, and he was wearing the stewed, screwed and tattooed T-shirt. But he sounded surprisingly adult—like a man thinking about the long term, about something bigger than himself.

In some not-so-distant future, he told me, “you go to H Street to have the food you can only have on H Street, the music you can only have on H Street, the clothes you can only have on H Street. Then your kids are playing five blocks away from H Street in a gigantic public soccer arena. How hard can that be?”

Ariel Sabar is the author of two books, “My Father’s Paradise,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and “Heart of the City.”

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Comments
  • Chefcorr

    A great story about a great man!

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