City Paper is not for tourists
Marc Barnes defines the status quo at D.C.’s hottest nightclub.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
You’ve heard the radio promotions. Friends and co-workers have told you how luxe the building is and how beautiful the people are. And maybe you’ve even received one of those cool credit-card fliers that entitles you to free admission and a shot at putting a dent in the buffet.
But if you’re not a member of the city’s black bourgeoisie, or at least well-versed in its customs, you’d better make careful preparations before visiting Dream.
You can’t just throw on your jeans and Timberlands, grab a group of friends, jump in your hoop ride, and roll out. First, you have to find something to wear. Like many clubs, Dream enforces a strict ban on athletic wear—no T-shirts, sneakers, or anything else that is remotely comfortable.
You could throw on your standard dress-up outfit—the suit that you don for every funeral and job interview, or the threadbare little black dress that you wore to your cousin’s wedding— but if you’re hoping to sneak your way into one of the club’s VIP lounges, you’d better hit the mall for something with a bit more finesse.
After donning the new outfit, you’re ready to hit the dance floor, right? Almost—first you have to find somewhere to park. You have three options. If you fancy yourself a big-time baller and shot caller, you’re going to head for the $30 VIP parking—you wouldn’t dare risk leaving your drop-top Benz or your Cadillac Escalade on the mean streets of Ivy City.
If you’re an average Joe pushing a 1992 Toyota Tercel, you’ll head for one of the several lots sprinkled around the nightclub that cost, on average, 10 bucks, and walk the few blocks to Dream. Or you can park in front of a fire hydrant and pay one of the neighborhood kids $5 to watch your ride. Either way, you’ll hop out quickly, hoping that no one saw you pushing a 10-year-old jalopy to the hottest club in the city.
Owner Marc Barnes, 38, opened this 52,000-square-foot nightclub in November 2001 with the tastes of the buppie in mind. The enormous four-level party palace—tucked away in a once-forgotten hive of New York Avenue’s warehouse district—is a maze of bars, lounge areas, dance floors, outdoor decks, and elaborate VIP rooms. The interior, the parking, the dress code: The entire environment of the nightclub-cum-bourgie-meeting-place aims to romance one profitable demographic—and weed out everyone else.
Barnes could have played it safe and simply expanded Republic Gardens, the U Street nightclub he is best-known for in black Washington. Instead, he is betting that his target audience is large enough, and loyal enough, to fill Dream each weekend in a city where new night spots open every day and other shrewd club owners are eager to steal his crown.
“The people are very mature. It’s well-kept—not shabby. It’s…what’s the word I’m looking for? It’s elegant,” says Upper Marlboro, Md., resident Sabrina Tullos, 26, who is at Dream tonight to participate in a model search. Tullos has shown up on a Friday night, which is predominantly black at Dream; the international crowd comes on Thursday night, and Saturday night is mostly white.
Tullos isn’t put off by the cost of drinks, the parking, or the investment in new threads. “If you want something good, you pay for what you get. It’s worth every dollar,” she says. “If it weren’t, I wouldn’t come back.”
The members of Washington’s young black bourgeoisie aren’t necessarily born into money, and many have yet to amass it themselves. They can usually be spotted by their nice cars and expensive clothes, but not always. They may not be pulling down six figures, but armed with college degrees and bolstered by both the decent economy of the last decade and the financial security provided by hardworking parents, they are certain that the big payoff is just around the corner.
They are the first generation of black Americans to feel a true sense of entitlement. They don’t max out their credit cards on a $250 bottle of champagne in a nightclub just to impress; they do it because they deserve it.
Gone are the nationalism and activism of the ’60s and ’70s and the gangster posturing of the late ’80s and early ’90s—it’s finally OK just to be rich. African-American music, art, and other cultural expressions are singing the praises of making it big, reflecting a whole segment of Black America that is flaunting its success to the point of excess.
Washington has always been home to a respectable number of middle-class blacks—blues singer Leadbelly didn’t dub D.C. “Bourgeois Town” for nothing. The metropolitan area’s black middle class is largely sustained by Howard University, the nation’s premier black institution of higher learning, and Prince George’s County, Md.—the richest black suburban enclave in the country.
After years of partying behind closed doors and being ashamed to display the wealth gained on the backs of previous generations, especially in a city where so many of their peers are struggling, young black professionals are now eager to put the trappings of their success on display. And Dream is providing a grand stage for the show.
On Friday nights, the club is packed with doctors, lawyers, and other Cosby-esque professionals, but a quick scan of the room looks more video casting call than networking cocktail party.
The women have expensive hair—either short, choppy, deconstructed haircuts or long locks that skim the waists of their ultra-snug, low-rise pants. Far from the scrutiny of disapproving parents and supervisors, they are finally able to wear the skimpy outfits that allow them to show off their tattoos—mostly Chinese symbols or their names etched in loopy script. Everywhere is experimentation with big floppy hats, gold ’80s-throwback jewelry, and other Lil’ Kim trickle-down trends that are just a little too wild to wear outside of a nightclub setting.
The men fall into two general categories: the flamboyant—business suit, pinky ring, diamond stud in each ear—and the minimalist—tight, nipple-baring shirt and creased slacks. Both wear far too much Issey Miyake cologne and many get way too drunk sipping cosmopolitans and champagne cocktails.
As some in the crowd soak up liquor, it becomes more passive rather than more boisterous. Even when the club is packed and people are elbowing each other, stepping on each other’s feet, and spilling the occasional drink, everyone is pretty mild-mannered and calm. But when you’re young, beautiful, and successful, is there really that much to scowl about?
“People just want an excuse to party,” says Barnes. “You just have to give them that.”
Barnes never secured a degree in persuading the black elite to part with their disposable income, and his previous business experience didn’t exactly groom him for a career in club management. Out of high school, Barnes’ first job was slinging envelopes for US Express, a local courier company. After just one year of working for someone else, however, he branched off and started his own service, Personal Courier.
While running his business, Barnes spent much of his free time hanging out with friends at Howard University. “I didn’t go to college, but everyone thinks I went to Howard,” he says. “I always had a dorm room there.” His very first parties were small events staged at Howard dorms. The campus get-togethers led to other, larger parties at venues such as the Old Post Office Pavilion.
Barnes’ status as a budding Washington social engineer yielded a big break into the party-promotion biz. Barnes introduced himself to hiphop moguls Russell Simmons, president of Def Jam records, and Andre Harrell, then-president of Uptown Records, at a party in New York City in 1991. Barnes and a group of friends struck up a conversation that devolved into Barnes and Harrell’s comparing notes about who threw the better party. Barnes says that after they bickered back and forth for some time about who was the better host, Harrell threw down the gauntlet. “He said to me, ‘I’m coming to D.C. next week. Throw me a party.’”
Barnes immediately called his wife, Anne Barnes, and told her to cancel a weekend vacation to Los Angeles that the couple had planned. “I told her that we were throwing a party and that this was our chance to get out of the courier business.”
“The party cost $25,000,” Barnes continues. “I held it at my house. I just created hype—inviting every good-looking guy, every bad chick, telling people they had to be on a list to get in. I just kept hyping it up, and it blew up. I had 1,200 people at my house. The neighbors were in an uproar.”
Although Barnes says that the event bolstered his reputation on a “national level,” it also saddled him with debt. “I owed everybody,” Barnes says of his early days. Still, he continued to throw increasingly successful parties at venues owned by others, most notably downtown’s Spy Club and Pennsylvania Avenue’s Blossoms, while saving and planning for a nightclub of his own. In 1996, he was finally able to open his first spot—Republic Gardens.
“I was Republic Gardens,” says Barnes of the club, which closed in 2001 as he focused on opening Dream. He hopes to reopen it
sometime this year. “The Gardens” anchored the black U Street social scene for more than five years.
The club was the first upscale black nightclub within walking distance of Howard. Barnes quickly won over the Howard crowd with the key to any college student’s heart: freebies. Republic Gardens reeled them in by offering free admission, a free buffet, and happy-hour drink specials.
“I think Howard is a huge link for me—I love what Howard stands for,” Barnes says. One of the reasons that Barnes has had little difficulty packing Dream with black urban professionals is because he gained their loyalty back when they were college coeds who partied at Republic Gardens.
“I’ve been here too many times,” says Bobbie Goodrum, 25, a special-education coordinator and one of the Howard graduates who followed Barnes to Dream. “I enjoy the music, and once Republic Gardens closed, everyone came here—it’s the same crowd.”
“There was a migration,” adds her friend Torie Jones, 25, an attorney and also a Howard alum.
“It’s getting hot in here! So take off all your clothes!” urges St. Louis rapper Nelly through vibrating speakers on the club’s second level.
Jozette Wingfield, 29, a secretary from D.C., leans against a wall, nodding her head to the music, but the song isn’t providing enough inspiration for her to hit the dance floor—Nelly isn’t exactly the sound she’s looking for.
“I’ve been here six times,” she says. “It’s a nice club—a nice hiphop club—but they don’t play go-go! If you go to the nice clubs in Miami, they still play booty-shake-bass music. In D.C., you’ve got to have go-go.”
Although Dream is housed in the city where go-go was created, Barnes doesn’t allow the music to be played at his club. “I don’t play it. I don’t allow it. It brings in a different type of clientele,” he says.
Most partygoers respected Barnes’ decision until Yman, an outspoken columnist for urbanflavorz.com, an e-mail distribution list that reaches more than 25,000 black young adults each week, revealed that Barnes had told a national magazine that he didn’t play go-go because it attracted “riffraff.” (Barnes says he has no recollection of the comment.)
On May 1, Yman, who had previously written a rave review of Dream, asked Barnes to apologize for the comment by playing a go-go set at the club the following week. On Friday, May 3, the sounds of rototoms and congas finally filled the club, and Yman announced that he was satisfied.
Barnes, however, says that he didn’t play the set to silence Yman or anyone else who might have a problem with his no-go-go policy: “That wasn’t Marc Barnes trying to appease someone. That was an accident by a DJ, who could have been fired because of it. I’m a corny guy—I’m back to that. I’m not looking to be cool.”
Barnes stands by his moratorium, even at the risk of offending some of his neighbors. Bladensburg Road NE, barely a mile away from Dream, is a historic district of sorts for go-go clubs. Breeze’s Deno’s Metro club—known simply as Deno’s—and the now-closed Ice Box long catered to the fans Barnes shuns.
Deno’s owner Daniel “Breeze” Clayton acknowledges that although Dream is just up the street, it’s at least one culture away. “We’re shooting at two different things; we have different clientele. [Barnes] can’t hurt my business. I wish him all the luck in the world—that’s all I have to say about Dream,” says Clayton. “I support any black business that opens up in this city. I’ve been at this for 21 years—I don’t have to play catch-up. He has to play catch-up.”
Go-go is often criticized for spawning violence, and every aspect of Dream’s presentation is geared toward disassociating itself from the genre’s reputation. It’s a carefully calculated business decision: Many middle-class blacks simply don’t listen to go-go. “I went to a Catholic high school—I wasn’t really into the go-go scene,” says Dream patron Nicole Cox, 28, a part-time teacher and graduate student from New Carrollton, Md. “I know that it’s popular, but I didn’t really grow up on it.”
So instead of throwing elbows in the dance pit, Dream patrons prefer to throw down at the club’s buffet, which features real plates and silverware. Knowing that management doesn’t expect you to fashion a shank from a fork translates into respect for the environment, Barnes reasons. He doesn’t allow food on the upper levels of the club, and no one tests the rule. The bathrooms are clean; staff members check them periodically for clean-up, but no one throws used paper towels on the floor or leaves empty glasses on the sink.
Dream has a security check, but not one that violates basic standards of decency. Barnes sprung for a metal detector so that men aren’t asked to remove their shoes for inspection and women’s breasts aren’t
prodded for contraband as they are at other area clubs.
Barnes brags about the model behavior of his guests, but unlike many go-go club owners, he has the money to spend on the extras—surveillance cameras, additional security, the VIP rooms—that discourage youngsters from becoming too rowdy.
Dream even has a detox room in which to corral patrons who have overindulged and helps sober them up with water and coffee. “We don’t want people wandering around drunk, so they sit in here and wait,” says Barnes of the cement-floored room equipped with upholstered chairs, which doubles as a daytime loading dock. “There’s always a lot of drama back here, and everyone wants to stop and see it, so we have to tell people to keep moving.”
Tracey Stewart, Barnes’ close friend and right-hand man at the club, recalls, “One night there was this girl in there who was just vomiting everywhere, and her boyfriend was in there with her,” he says. “And she said to him, ‘I look terrible. You don’t love me anymore!’ and vomits again. The boyfriend says to her, ‘Of course I do!’ and then they start making out!”
Barnes is quick to note that because Dream takes such preventive measures, the club hasn’t had a single serious incident thus far. However, the Metropolitan Police Department has received 111 service calls to 1350 Okie St. NE since the club’s opening. Most were calls to investigate lost property and vehicle break-ins, but there were also 12 calls concerning simple assaults, four concerning domestic-violence assaults, and one concerning assault on a police officer.
“People act like how you treat them,” says Barnes. “If you treat them like idiots, then you attract idiots. Decent people don’t want to be treated that way.”
On one Friday evening in July, the female patrons of Dream are more dressed up than usual—the heels are higher, the clothes more revealing, the make-up a bit thicker. This evening, the club is hosting “Absolut Honey,” an event sponsored by Absolut Vodka and Honey magazine. Many of the women are dolled up to participate in the model search sponsored by Honey: The line of wannabe cover girls extends the entire length of the second floor. And even the nonparticipants, who are also doubly perfumed and styled, are hoping to stand out in a sea of beautiful women; tonight they have a chance to meet Morris Chestnut.
Chestnut, a popular actor and sex symbol, is one of the many celebrities that the club books to make quasi-public appearances. At Dream, artists who are under paid contracts don’t engage in the typical celebrity nightclub routine—sitting at a table signing autographs and then retreating to the VIP room to hide out. Here, the stars roam free and mingle with the patrons—as if they’d come of their own free will.
“The celebrities we pay—like Boris [Kodjoe of Showtime’s Soul Food], Morris Chestnut, Alicia Keys—we’ll book them around a themed event,” explains Gloria Nauden, the club’s entertainment and marketing director. “We come up with a theme, book the celebrity, and find a sponsor to pay for it—usually a liquor sponsor. They’re always interested, because we move so much alcohol here.”
Chestnut’s contract gives the actor $10,000 (paid for by Honey) in exchange for a two-hour appearance at the club, a walk-through to meet and greet the patrons on each floor, and one radio promotional tie-in, in which he essentially says that he’s going to be at the club during one of Dream’s normal radio spots.
Nauden says that the appearances benefit the celebrities who participate in them, as
well as the club. “We’re passing out 10,000 credit-card fliers a week, we’re doing radio spots where their names are being mentioned 40 times a week—they get a lot of press
The heavy promotion of the celebrity events pays off—tonight the club is filled, along with the usual crowd, by fans of Chestnut who have come exclusively to see him.
Torie Jones says that her friend Tanisha Bracey, 26, a charter-school manager from Richmond who now lives in D.C., is at Dream tonight to catch a glimpse of Chestnut.
“She’s stalking Morris Chestnut—that’s why we’re here! Put that in the paper!”
“I am!” admits Bracey.
Bracey and Jones are joking, but many of the women at Dream don’t seem to be playing when it comes to getting close to a famous man. Unaware of what time the actor is scheduled to appear, they strike their sexiest poses and prepare to wait by the door all night. At one point, a security guard is stationed by the front entrance to keep the women at bay so that incoming patrons won’t have to fight through the Lycra and lipstick just to get inside. When the guard instructs everyone
to move back, the women begin circling the area instead.
Celebrities who come to the club attract gorgeous groupies, who attract slightly less rich and famous men, who bring out women looking for semi-wealthy men, who bring out regular guys looking for fine women, hoping they’ll be drunk enough by the end of the night to part with their phone numbers.
In addition to the paid personalities and artists who give concerts at the club, Dream attracts famous names who actually do drop in just to hang out and be seen. Barnes and Nauden run down the list: Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning, former University of Maryland star and Houston Rocket Steve Francis, Michael Jordan, a contingent of Baltimore Ravens players, comedians D.L. Hughley and Martin Lawrence, Magic Johnson, P. Diddy, BET CEO Bob Johnson.
“And he never hangs out,” says Nauden of Johnson. “So that’s really saying something.”
“We literally make money just from them being here,” says Nauden. “We don’t advertise that they’re here—we can’t, because we don’t pay them to appear—but we benefit from the talk, the buzz—’Did you hear so-and-so was at Dream the other night?’”
The other buzz that benefits Dream comes courtesy of the free drinks that flow at its Friday happy hour. For early birds, the regular admission, which fluctuates between $10 and $20 depending on the evening’s event, is waived from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. for those with an e-mail invite. The Internet concept is a social sieve of sorts: By making the fliers a perk for the PC-savvy, Barnes eliminates those who plan their Friday nights based on party fliers stuck to car windshields.
Happy hour also includes an open bar from 6 until 7 and a free buffet from 6 until 8. By 6:30 on most Fridays, the place is already filled with people who either ditched their high-powered jobs early or else changed in the back seat of their Lincoln Navigator to suck down rail drinks and jerk chicken.
Because Dream isn’t exactly a cheap night out, loosening up the patrons with free food and liquor lessens the blow of paying for things like parking, table service, and more alcohol later.
Lyndon Chan, 25, a financial consultant from Florida who now lives in D.C., appreciates the price breaks. “I like the music, the people, and they give out free passes. The discount is an incentive—most clubs don’t
The final link in the chain that manages to lasso the city’s black elite every week is Dream’s dizzying system of lines, hand stamps, and armbands that allow or restrict access to certain parts of the club.
When Showtime throws a sneak-preview party for the season premiere of Soul Food on a Friday night in June, it is held on the second floor of the club, but only those with a “2” stamped on their hand can head upstairs and watch. Those with the coveted marker, almost without exception, make sure that everyone in the club realizes just how important they are.
They all wave their stamped hands at the security guard positioned at the bottom of the staircase, who lowers a red velvet rope to let them pass. One by one, they saunter up the steps, stop about halfway up—pausing both to be seen and to sniff at the pit of bodies they emerged from—and then continue up to the private party.
In the ladies’ bathroom on the first floor on the night of the Soul Food screening, two strangers talk between the stalls, complaining about the level of access.
“I’m ready to go,” says one woman. “Everything is VIP—you can’t go anywhere.”
“So you wouldn’t come back?” asks the other woman, over the sound of flushing.
“Maybe—I’d make sure I was on their VIP list.”
If Barnes is to be considered the city’s No. 1 club maven, then Abdul Khanu, owner of the downtown VIP Club, is, at the very least, a close second. Like Barnes, he has designed his club, formerly DC Live, to appeal to the taste of the city’s young, black elite—a demographic he describes as “young up-and-coming 21- to 45 year-olds with disposable income.”
There is only so much of this target audience—buppies content to spend large sums of money in the name of fun—to go around.
So rather than directly compete with each other to see who the real king of the D.C. nightclub is, Khanu and Barnes decided to divide the wealth.
Whereas Dream hosts its international night on Thursdays and a primarily black crowd on Fridays, VIP holds an international party on Fridays and its black night on Saturdays.
“We had a conversation,” Khanu says. “We decided that it would better serve both of us.”
“There’s no need,” says Barnes of same-night competition. “It’s like having a Tyson-Lewis fight on the same night as a Holyfield fight. There is no point in splitting it.”
Barnes says that a third party could possibly get in on the deal, “but they’d have to do it on another night”—highly unlikely since Barnes and Khanu have Thursday through Sunday locked down. He adds that there is room out there for another major club, but anyone who decides to compete with either himself or Khanu “better come strong.”
With the duopoly established by the owners of the city’s two largest super-clubs, it would seem that they would bury smaller places that can’t afford to book big names, decorate their spaces like hotels, or offer free food and drink. But it appears that the only clubs that Barnes and Khanu wipe out are each other’s.
Although neither will admit a direct correlation, Barnes concedes that the opening of DC Live in 1997 did affect business at Republic Gardens, although it didn’t directly lead to its closing. DC Live closed in January, only two months after the opening of Dream, only to re-emerge as VIP in May. So will Dream be forced out of business by VIP?
Barnes doesn’t seem worried. “We’re at the same level that we were pre-opening of VIP,” he says.
“What it boils down to is customer service,” says Khanu. “Aesthetics are aesthetics, but a beautiful club is nothing if it can’t attract customers, which both of us have shown that we can do, and if it can’t provide quality customer service.”
“We’re both jockeying to be the best at what we do,” he continues. “Which one of us is No. 1 and which is No. 2—that’s for the public to decide.”
Khanu, 34, started out throwing parties at his alma mater—the University of Maryland at College Park. He moved on to nightclubs in the early ’90s and became a partner in DC Live in 1997 and the president/owner of the club in 2000.
It was Khanu who made the decision to close down DC Live, the city’s first multilevel “super-club,” and reopen it as VIP.
“When DC Live opened, we had the first VIP room in the city. People used to die to get in—mobs standing outside,” says Khanu. “I said that one day I would open up a club and call it VIP. Since every night everyone is banging down the doors to get in, there needs to be a VIP club where everyone is treated like a VIP.”
Khanu calls the opening of Dream a “wake-up call.”
“In 1997, we were the Dream—the whole country knew about DC Live,” he says. “We’ve got a great space, a better location—Dream opened our eyes to what we could be. In a sense, we wanted to answer the call, to make the playing ground more level and let people know that we could reclaim the throne.”
It may be too soon to tell how well either club will do—Dream hasn’t been open a year yet, and VIP isn’t even in its fourth month. Ron Hunt, owner of arguably the most long-lived black nightclub in the city—the now-closed Mirage—says that larger clubs, such as Dream and VIP, don’t typically last very long. Hunt, who now owns of the Nexxus Gold “gentlemen’s club” in the Mirage’s old Southeast location, says it is impossible to maintain the buzz needed to draw tens of thousands of people each weekend.
“At the Mirage, we knew how to sustain success. After a club is successful for four or five years—that’s when you write about it. I’ve been doing this longer than anyone in the city. It won’t last—they can’t sustain it,” Hunt says. “Dream has one popular night, which is Friday night, the black night. Thursday and Saturday don’t do that well.”
Although the overwhelming number of Dream’s guests belong to Washington’s black elite, the club also manages to attract a fair number of out-of-towners who travel to the city for the sole purpose of visiting the club. On any given night, the long line outside is likely to have people from Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City mixed in with the locals.
Barnes notes that his club has become a bit of a “tourist attraction,” and even fuels the depiction by offering directions to Dream from other cities on the club’s Web site. The fact that Dream would become a mecca worthy of a pilgrimage from far-away locales was inevitable—the club has been profiled on television, in national magazines, and marketed in more subtle, indirect ways, as well.
Cam’Ron, an artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc-a-fella Records, shot the video for his latest single, “Hey Ma”—currently in heavy rotation on both BET and MTV—entirely on site at Dream. In the video, Cam and his label mates Freeway and Beanie Siegel and Roc-a-fella co-CEO Damon Dash run around the nightclub and dodge deformed groupies, dance in front of the abandoned Crummel School across the street from the club, and spray bikini-clad women with champagne on the building’s rooftop deck in a Jacuzzi installed just for the shoot.
This ultimate advertisement has served Dream well, attracting a new crowd of followers who hope that scenes of the video can be relived when they enter the club. Cynthia Jenkins, 43, a computer operator from Richmond, says that she and her friends drove to Dream because she saw it on BET.
Most visiting clubgoers leave impressed. “I like it. There is nothing like this in Orlando,” says Becky Olan, 25, a Florida hospital worker visiting friends for the weekend. “Our clubs are packed by 12 and close at 2.”
Other guests, however, have a difficult time adjusting to many of Dream’s bourgie mores. To reserve a table at the club costs $300 to $1,800 a night, with up to 70 percent of that figure able to be applied to liquor purchases. Barnes says most of his guests have no problem paying the fee. “Our tables sell out—people want to make sure that they get a seat,” he says.
If you’re not among the richest of the young mover and shakers, however, you’ll most likely be standing up for the night. The prohibitive cost of chairs does not always sit well with those used to plopping down free of charge in their hometown’s clubs.
“My feet hurt!” says Renee Harrison, 28, an administrative assistant from Baltimore, as she enviously eyes seated patrons. “I’m not used to this. I need to sit down for a minute.” Her host, however, has little sympathy for either her or her aching dogs.
“You can’t build excitement if you have 30 or 40 people sitting down. Because we attract a lot of tourists, we get people who aren’t used to going out,” says Barnes. “But we want people who know how to party. Go home if you want to go to sleep—this is Dream.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.