When D.C. crowned Shawn Townsend as the city’s first-ever director of nightlife and culture in November, he beat out at least 500 applicants. Mayor Muriel Bowser and legislative lead Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd created his position in tandem with an Office on Nightlife and Culture, established to “promote efficiencies for the District’s after-hours economy by serving as a central point of contact between D.C. government, the nightlife industry, and District residents.”
Townsend served as the acting director from December until earlier this month, when the D.C. Council confirmed him, making it official. Nearly six months into the job, City Paper sat down with Townsend offering to dispel misconceptions about the role colloquially known as “night mayor” and to understand what issues are emerging as early priorities, especially as the city turns up the volume on the importance of cultural preservation with the #DontMuteDC movement. He’s already launching initiatives to support nightlife businesses, but the cultural component of his role is more cloudy.
The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration employed Townsend most recently. He supervised six investigators who conducted routine inspections of businesses with licenses to serve alcohol.
When he read the job description for the director of nightlife and culture, his one concern was “making sure the responsibilities of this office didn’t overlap with my previous employer, ABRA.” Others were worried, too.
“This office is not an extension of ABRA,” he affirms. “I’ve read articles and heard from a few folks in the nightlife industry and they said there was the concern that I wouldn’t be able to turn off that enforcement cap. That’s a myth. I have completely stepped away from enforcement and have transformed into an advocate for businesses.”
The transition is more akin to a food critic becoming a chef. “Who else would you want in this position other than someone who has good knowledge of ABRA regulations and other city agencies’ regulations that could help the business?” he asks.
A significant part of his job is refereeing disputes between businesses and residents. Take the one brewing on H Street NE between Dangerously Delicious Pies and a neighbor who has allegedly complained repeatedly about the pie shop’s new live music program, for example. “We try to help address issues that ANCs, residents, or civic associations may have, but we are certainly advocates for the business,” Townsend makes known, adding that he tries to find solutions that are viable for both parties. “Every situation is not going to be the same.”
Townsend is already taking proactive measures based on feedback from meetings and roundtable discussions where it emerged that business owners and staff that serve D.C.’s nightlife scene need opportunities to engage with District agencies to demystify compliance issues, licensing and permitting processes, and other topics that touch nightlife. He declined to name specific businesses he’s met with. “Some of our owners and employees just aren’t informed,” he says.
He’s introducing a program called “Training Day.” On a quarterly basis, Townsend will pull together various District agencies such as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to put on 30-40 minute presentations to educate operators and staff. “Not only does it change the culture for the nightlife industry, it changes the conversation and dynamics for the District agencies so they can start forward thinking about life at night,” he explains.
The Office of Nightlife and Culture has also partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department, the Safe Bar Collective, DC Rape Crisis Center, Uber, and NO MORE (an organization committed to ending domestic violence and sexual assault) to launch the “Stand Up, Don’t Stand By” bystander awareness initiative that aims to prevent sexual assault. It teaches those working in the nightlife community how to recognize unsafe situations and then intervene. D.C. is the third city in the U.S. to launch this initiative, according to MPD. Las Vegas and Los Angeles were first.
Finally, Townsend says, he’s putting resources toward workforce development by linking up with the Department of Employment Services and private partners like Diageo’s Learning Skills for Life. “It’s programs like these that prepare our District residents for jobs in an industry that isn’t going anywhere,” Townsend says. “I get texts and calls all the time with people asking, ‘Do you know a good bartender or manager?’ These are good paying jobs and there’s high turnover in nightlife.”
But some bartenders and servers have lobbed criticism at the Office of Nightlife and Culture because none of the members of the office’s guiding body, the Commission on Nightlife and Culture, work the night shift in D.C. Some operators and employees were even banking on one of their own becoming the director of nightlife and culture, making the committee appointments sting more. Vinoda Basnayake, an attorney who invests in nightclubs like Heist, and restaurant owner Ris Lacoste are on the committee, but that’s not the same as a bartender, server, or cook.
“So we do have one restaurateur,” Townsend says in response to the criticism. “She represents the restaurant industry. And she has unique experience from doing some sexual harassment stuff and being a longtime restaurant owner in the city. She has an affiliation with the [local] restaurant association, RAMW. She has a lot of knowledge and support behind her as to what her voice should be on the commission.”
“To say a restaurateur will represent every person in the industry is just not accurate,” says bartender Zac Hoffman, who currently works at Roy Boys. He’s been outspoken about the role of the director of nightlife and culture and even applied for the job. He says putting business interests first doesn’t always line up with what workers need.
“I understand the staff may not necessarily feel like [Lacoste] is the vessel for some of their issues,” Townsend says, offering that nightlife industry workers are welcome to attend the committee’s regular meetings to voice concerns or share opinions. (The first one will be on June 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Franklin D Reeves Municipal Center.)
That’s not enough for Hoffman, who wants the Council, the mayor, and “all aspects of government to have the backs and interests of workers at heart.” He does note that even though he and Townsend don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, he considers him a friend and says he’s doing the best he can.
Part of the reason workers want to have more of a voice is because Townsend’s counterparts in other cities focus on taking care of the nighttime labor force, making sure they are safe, fairly compensated, and have access to transportation after their shifts. “I can see those issues being addressed from a broader approach in terms of creating or identifying policy or maybe even legislation to push towards City Council,” Townsend responds.
Townsend says the nightlife and culture parts of his job are being handled simultaneously, but it feels off balance. Cultural preservation being left behind is one concern former nightclub owner and current restaurant designer Brian Miller had back when the office of nightlife and culture was taking shape.
“It’s not really a bill to help nightlife, it’s a bill to resolve complaints about nightlife,” Miller told City Paper in October. He did a comparative analysis between the job description and the duties of night mayors in London, Amsterdam, and New York. “Town [Danceboutique] closed, the go-go scene is almost gone, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for D.C. government. There’s no cultural component here.”
When first asked about culture, Townsend pivoted back to nightlife, talking up his work helping restaurants get ready for health inspections and aligning agencies so new restaurants aren’t bleeding rent money before they’re allowed to open.
Pressed again, Townsend says he’s been tackling arts and culture issues as they arise. “The go-go issue came up when they wanted to do the third installment [of a concert].” He’s referring to Moechella, which was a go-go concert that drew thousands to the intersection of 14th and U streets NW. It had an air of activism following the #DontMuteDC movement, which was borne out of the viral moment when a D.C. resident tried to compel Metro PCS to stop playing the go-go music it’s known for in nearby Shaw.
Townsend says he contacted another organizer, Dominique Wells, on the same day as the third installment of Moechella asking her if she’d like to meet. “You have this momentum, you have all of this support, you have 80,000 people who signed a petition. How do we transform this momentum into something positive and with substance moving down the road?” Townsend asks, rhetorically.
Wells says of their conversation: “He asked questions about who was who and doing what. I told him that I would relay the messages from the mayor’s office and we’d welcome whatever support or advice they’re willing to give. He asked to meet, but we haven’t had time yet.”
Wells, who curates music for Apple and DJs, explains that she’s one of several organizers, including #LongLiveGoGo movement leader Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson. She encourages people not to fully conflate the group behind Moechella with the activists who fought to restore go-go music at Metro PCS, including Ron Moten and Tone P, though they overlap and share much of the same mission.
“These are the community leaders, they’ve all had their own grassroots efforts and are now currently working to come together to have an impact on political and legislative issues and things that spin out from gentrification,” Wells explains.
Kymone Freeman, the co-founder of We Act Radio, described the situation as dire to DCist on May 9: “We’re rebelling against the status quo that gentrification is natural and we have to get prepared for it. We’re here to say to the powers that be that gentrification is cultural genocide, and the result of public policy without public input.”
“I reached out,” Townsend reiterates. “I made myself available and that’s a cultural piece. We have all this other stuff going on, but as the issues come up, we try to address them and do what we can with what we have. I wouldn’t say the nightlife stuff comes first. It’s hand-in-hand. We definitely have seen and heard from more nightlife folks about their issues as opposed to arts and culture communities, but they have some champions over there who have raised issues to me that I have passed on.”
When it comes to arts and culture, Townsend seems to be more of a liaison. “We’re another vessel to approach the Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment,” he says. The Arts Commission is currently in turmoil and not everyone is on board with the city’s Cultural Plan released earlier this spring.
Townsend says he wishes he had been part of putting together the Cultural Plan, but also says he hasn’t read the whole thing. “From what I’ve read, go-go is part of D.C. culture, that’s specifically in there,” he says. “The mayor is definitely supportive of go-go as part of D.C. culture. I’m glad it was spelled out in there.”
Go-Go music is mentioned 17 times, but largely in sweeping statements like: “The culture of Black people in the District has left a lasting impact on the city, nation and world. Whether it is the monuments produced at the hands of Black artisans or the sounds of R&B, go-go and pop music that evolved in racially inclusive clubs that speckled U Street, it would be impossible to ignore the significant cultural contributions from numerous Black people—past and present—who call or have called our nation’s capital home.”
Reporter Kriston Capps, writing in CityLab, argues that the Cultural Plan doesn’t spell out how go-go will be preserved and protected. “Nowhere in the 224-page document will you find an immediate answer to the cultural crisis unfolding in D.C.: a neighborhood noise complaint involving go-go music, the city’s signature sound.” He tells City Paper it’s “soft on solutions.”
Townsend says he’s a fan of go-go and so far his role has predominantly been about public safety and crowd control. “I’m glad there were some go-go activists out there early on,” he says. “It’s not a fight with D.C. government. It was more to do with new residents to D.C. really understanding that go-go is part of the culture. I am supportive of go-go. I’ve been here for quite some time. I’ve attended some of the shows. I know what it is and understand it, but there are some folks out there who don’t understand it.”
Townsend assumes his new position at a time when questions about the future are swirling around the city like a storm about to strike. How will D.C. balance keeping cultural institutions like Bohemian Caverns and the departed Town Danceboutique in place while also making way for new development? City Paper asked Townsend for his vision. He passed the baton.
“That issue requires inter-agency collaboration with DMPED [Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] and the Office of Planning,” he says. “Those two agencies specifically I believe are more involved with the planning of where we go from here, five or ten years from now. We’re having conversations with those agencies to make sure we’re preserving not only nightlife but the arts and cultural communities.”
Townsend wants to remind Washingtonians that the Office of Nightlife and Culture is being built from scratch. “As the office gets established and as we grow, we’ll get more leverage and more resources,” he says. In the meantime, he says, he’s out “on the ground and in the field” having one-on-one conversations.
“I’m able to take that information and pass it up to these agencies who are in positions to help shape D.C. moving down the road,” he continues. “I have a seat at the table. It’s not just this office in particular that will be implementing, planning, or changing anything. It’s several District government partners and the mayor. She has to be on board in order for it to move.”
This post has been updated. The first meeting of the Commission on Nightlife and Culture with be on June 10.