The metal kids who used to come down to the river all seem really cute in retrospect. Of course, we were cool city kids with hipster aspirations, so we made fun of them back then: peach-fuzzed boys in Slayer shirts, big-haired girls with big butts wound in tight spandex, they drew drive-by snickers as they pulled into the Washington Harbour parking lot. They’d pay for parking, since God only knew what might happen to the parental station wagon on the dangerous urban streets of Georgetown. They’d show up every time Ace Frehley or Britny Fox or whatever other has-been or half-famous hair band came to rock the Bayou. A few hours later, their heads sufficiently banged, they’d return to Fairfax with ripe memories of seedy urban prowling. After all, they had to cross K Street under the Whitehurst overpass. No sweet suburban street-crossing, that one.
Across the street from the Bayou during the metal years, Washington Harbour was built, a towering homage to the Disneyfication of American leisure. The Harbour’s “festive” approach to retailing and eating, along with its boats-as-props motif, made the city seem as safe and consumable as a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Four summers into the alterna-years, though, tastes seem to have changed. On Labor Day weekend, the Bayou is deserted for the day, its marquee advertisements for acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ meaningless to a demographic that grew up chewing through Nine Inch Nails. They are the new urbanites, the People in Black who would take a decent coffee shop over a metal bar any old day. The first annual Bohemian Festival is going all out to recreate a human circus of urban life, stylistically antithetical to the Harbour but a mirror of its intent. Ten bucks makes you a citizen of the faux city for a day.
The very name of the Bohemian Festival makes an inviting target for ’90s mockery. Lest there be any confusion, the festival logo, featuring a beret-clad, goateed bongo-drummer, makes it clear that the event conjures images of Ginsberg and Cassady rather than ethnically proud Czechs. There are attendees who look like they might have a sufficiently dog-eared copy of The Subterraneans lying around, but on closer inspection most of them are working as performers or as employees of the downtown clubs that—along with the D.C. Lottery, Samuel Adams Beer, and Pepsi-Cola—are sponsoring the event.
The crowd is older than you’d expect. There are more babies in backpacks than there are baby-size backpacks. And if you speak to the vendors, you’ll soon find out that the commodification of the alternative isn’t going all that well. “They didn’t want me to come,” says boot vendor Norm Mensh. “They told me, “We’re not doing used combat boots here.’ I should have listened.” Mensh cleaned up at Lollapalooza but hasn’t sold a boot all day. But even if the hard goods aren’t moving, the rest of the boho fare is selling well. People seem to be having a good time strolling in the sun, eating pad thai or red beans and rice, and tapping Teva’d toes to the music of Bad Livers or Southern Culture on the Skids. “It’s a nice, urban feel,” says Jill Hansen of Arlington, dancing with her toddler daughter to the sounds of New Orleans’ Dash Riprock. “I like it.”
“We wanted something offbeat, a campy, alternative feel,” explains festival organizer Joe Englert. “There should be a lot of stimulation.” They pretty much pulled it off. The festival is a combination neighborhood carnival and altie-rock fest, offering would-be Bohemes a little bit of everything to graze on. There are musicians playing on two stages, one for the main bands and the now-requisite “second stage” for the folk-singers, poetry-readers, and assorted alternatives to the alternative. There are craft vendors,eclectic ethnic food stalls, and retro-games—dunking booth, bean-bag toss, ring-the-bell. A couple of teen-age girls canvass for the AIDSWalk and on “Eco-Island” there is a sufficient smattering of politics—Greenpeace and PETA—to give the event a patina of relevance. That doesn’t explain why AT&T has a booth, but the phone company’s presence seems somehow appropriate.
Street musicians have been installed as well. “I usually play at Dupont,” says Opal, a violinist. “But someone came and gave me a couple passes if I’d play here.” She’s trying to find a quiet corner of the festival to play in. “It’s too loud, no one can hear me, so I’m not getting any money,” she explains. After a while, she gives up and decides to try her luck a couple blocks up Wisconsin, where Georgetown shoppers and strollers have fewer distractions to choose from.
Oscar “Oz” Smith sings gospel songs to a background tape through a hand-carried amp. He jokes between songs (or, rather, between the same song he sings over and over again). “I hope y’all won’t forget the gospel side of the Bohemian fest,” he calls.
Not far from Smith, patrons can hear about another sort of miracle. Though the crowd is disappointingly small, the D.C. Lottery saleswoman reports that her table is doing a pretty good business. “A woman just won $42,” she says, enticingly. As further inducements to pay the idiot tax, she offers free gifts: a D.C. Lottery jar opener for a $1 scratch-off gamble, lighters and playing cards for higher risks. “We’re just here to help out the community,” she says. “The lottery’s helped a lot of people. Gotten a lot of people rich.”
Organizer Englert could probably use some lotto luck. He says the festival needed to draw at least 10,000 people to break even, in part because the city’s budget crisis means large fees for the required extra police and other city services. (Englert later said about 6,000-8,000 people attended.) Linda Mann of Silver Spring, who got in with a free pass, isn’t impressed. “The thing is,” she says, “they want you to pay all this money and it’s like a street festival, which you can see anywhere.”
Well, Linda, you really can’t. Adams Morgan Day 1995 will be a shadow of its former self, since the city is broke and in no mood to help foot the bill. Alterna-era or not, the march towards the antiseptic in urban and suburban planning continues. So if you want canvassers to ignore, street gospel singers to avoid, freaks to gawk at, and vices to choose from, it’s increasingly likely that you’ll need a ticket to become part of the fabric of the city.
The festival draws to a close with a round of drag bingo. Beforehand, the drag queens who will call the game walk around the festival grounds handing out cards and crayons. “Look Mom!” exclaims a boy, pointing. “They’re dressed like girls!” His mother’s eyes meet those of her husband, who grins.
“Well,” she says to him, “that’s life in the city.” Sort of.