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Alireza “Haji” Hajaligholi likes to tell the story of the time in 2003 when he called contractors to repair the roof at his restaurant Saki after it suffered some water damage. When he arrived at the establishment, located at 2477 18th St. NW, he expected repairs to be well under way. But instead, Hajaligholi says, he was told “some inspector with a ponytail” had stopped by, inquired about a construction permit, and snapped a few photographs. The workers, fearful they were breaking the law, froze in their tracks, he says.
That ponytailed “inspector” was Denis James, now president of the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and a longtime thorn in the side of Adams Morgan bar owners. He was checking to see whether the restaurant owner was making unauthorized changes to his establishment, James says, an allegation Hajaligholi vigorously denies.
Hajaligholi was so incensed by the incident, he says, he tried to get a stay-away order banning James from the entire 2400 block of 18th Street. James hired a lawyer and told the judge he represented a civic organization. Upon hearing that, James says, the judge dismissed the charges.
But the experience proved instructive for Hajaligholi, and he put his learning to use a couple of weeks ago. In June, Hajaligholi says, some Adams Morgan residents mentioned that James had been doing construction at his Kalorama Road home in the middle of the night. Hajaligholi decided to take a page from James’ book and do some investigating. One night in early July, he went to the alley behind James’ house and looked around. “I saw that he had plastic on the window and spotlights,” Hajaligholi says. “I saw his shadow. It seems he had been working there.” He had an employee, Arondo Holmes, take some pictures. At one point, Hajaligholi even sifted through James’ trash. He said the bags were covered with duct tape, as if James didn’t want anyone to discover what was inside. He looked anyway and found what he describes as insulation materials.
Then Hajaligholi brought Bill Duggan, who owns the 18th Street restaurant Madam’s Organ, along with him. Duggan says he saw exposed 2-by-4s in a wall, which suggested the early stages of construction, and heavy-duty electrical cords snaking through James’ window. The following day, Duggan called the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to find out whether James had a permit for construction at his house. He didn’t, he says, adding, “Obviously, this guy believes he’s above the law.”
On July 16, a DCRA inspector served James with a stop-work order for failing to obtain and post the required permit for framing on the top floor of his home. He was also slapped with a $4,000 fine. James, however, denies he was doing illegal construction. He says what appeared to be ongoing construction is really a wall in “an unused portion of my house that I was framing out many years ago that has never been completed.” He says he articulated this to DCRA’s chief building inspector, who removed the stop-work order on July 20. DCRA spokesperson Karyn-Siobhan Robinson says, “Based on views from the street, it appeared that new construction work was being done….Mr. James did allow an inspector into his house. The stop-work order was lifted. There was no new construction being done.”
The incident exposes the intensity of the widening war between certain Adams Morgan business owners and James, who has been the community’s most polarizing activist on nightlife issues for nearly seven years. Sure, the KCA donates money to local educational institutions and supports initiatives like the archaeological survey of the Colored Union Benevolent Association Cemetery at Walter Pierce Park. But it’s the KCA’s supervision of Adams Morgan’s nightlife that has earned the group, and James in particular, the ire of many local business owners.
Depending on whom you ask, James is either Adams Morgan’s biggest hero, constantly crusading for peace, order, and quiet along the saturated strip of 18th Street, or its biggest nuisance. James says he considers himself a “live and let live” kind of guy. “If my neighbors don’t bother me, I don’t bother them,” he says. Around 2000, James realized his neighbors were bothering him. A lot. The popularity of 18th Street made it difficult for him to find parking, he says, and the party atmosphere kept him up at night. “I thought, Surely, there must be a way to improve this situation.”
He studied up on alcohol law and zeroed in on voluntary agreements, which allow communities to place limits on bars, restaurants, and clubs. James seized on these agreements, sometimes collaborating with the local advisory neighborhood commission and sometimes crafting his own agreements on behalf of the KCA. Bryan Weaver, chair of the Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commission, says the commission seeks to steer a middle course between James and the bar owners. “Denis may see us as playing good cop, bad cop,” he says of his neighbor’s relationship with the commission. “I see us as keeping the bar owners and Denis in the realm of reality.” Attorney Andrew J. Kline, who represents Hajaligholi, says the KCA, through James, has negotiated more than 30 voluntary agreements, regulating everything from hours of operation to trash pickup.
Mary Belcher, a KCA member, says James is the neighborhood’s “No. 1 activist” on liquor issues, and she commends him for it. After all, she says, “it’s my perception that when guys are pissing on the lavender bush in my front garden while talking on the cell phone at 12:30 at night, things have gotten out of hand.”
Duggan, however, says James has cost Adams Morgan businesses heaps of money in legal fees, not to mention countless hours before the Alcoholic Beverage Control board. “This guy is such an asshole,” he says. Hajaligholi says he’s had enough. “We just really want to let him know we’re not going to take it,” he says.
So, in addition to monitoring James’ alleged home-improvement efforts, Hajaligholi is flexing some legal muscle, too. Kline represents Hajaligholi in his applications to convert Chloe, at 2473 18th St. NW, and Saki from restaurant licenses to tavern licenses. (On July 10, D.C. Council approved a moratorium on tavern licenses for the neighborhood, but Kline says Hajaligholi’s applications got in under the wire). The ABC Board is scheduled to hear these cases next fall; James is representing the KCA as a protestant, and Kline is lobbying for the KCA’s protest to be thrown out on the grounds that it didn’t meet the protest deadline and only reflects the vote of the group’s executive committee. “We actually have motions to dismiss pending,” he says.
That’s not all. Kline has sent a subpoena to the KCA asking for a full roster of its membership and the minutes of any meeting where Chloe and Saki were discussed. He has also submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of correspondence between James and the alcohol administration. “There’s a lot of enforcement activity in Adams Morgan,” he says. “We know Denis James has been involved in over 30 voluntary agreements. So we’re looking at to what extent he generates this enforcement activity.” Kline says scrutiny of James is intensifying, and the construction issue might mark a tipping point. “I think the hypocrisy of nitpicking every violation of law coming from someone who has allegedly ignored the law in his own doings makes people angry,” he says.
But Belcher believes “the leadership of the KCA is doing a good job representing neighborhood concerns,” and she worries about the blowback from James’ activism on liquor issues.
For instance? In November, the KCA president was chatting with a neighbor on his way to the group’s monthly meeting when he was hit in the head by a steel object. He received 16 staples as a result. In December, the KCA’s executive committee wrote a note in their newsletter stating, “the circumstances of the violent assault suggest that Denis was a targeted victim.” Belcher says she found the assault “suspicious.”
James is more forthright. Although the police never found the assailant in his attack, he says, “I believe it was an ABC licensee on 18th Street that arranged for it.” As for the stop-work order, he says, “I doubt it was just a DCRA inspector who was walking by. Various licensees know where I live, and they’re looking for anything to pin on me.”
“It seems to me someone would have had to peer into his window,” says Belcher. “It seems Nixonian.”