As You Are Bar co-owners Rach Pike and Jo McDaniel Credit: Joe Reberkenny

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Update 1/10: The vote on As You Are Bar’s liquor license originally scheduled for Jan. 11 has been pushed back to Jan. 25 to allow more time to negotiate a settlement agreement. “We appreciate that the ANC met over the weekend to consider the issues, we look forward to receiving their response to our last proposal and hope we can meet with them about a resolution soon,” the bar’s attorney, Richard Bianco, told City Paper over the weekend.

It wasn’t surprising when a three-hour neighborhood meeting about As You Are Bar, a new queer cafe and lounge on Barracks Row was a little vicious Thursday night. Neighborhood news site The Hill is Home got a hold of a letter a neighborhood resident sent advisory neighborhood commissioners in advance of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee meeting and tweeted it. City Paper also obtained a copy of the email with the subject line “As You Are, Another Tragic Mistake.” 

The bar, from partners Jo McDaniel and Rach Pike, aims to have a first floor cafe and lounge and an upstairs dance floor for patrons 18 and older. They signed a lease for 500 8th St. SE in November 2021, and hope to create a safe and inclusive space for members of the LGBTQ community to gather. McDaniel and Pike most recently held management roles at A League of Her Own in Adams Morgan and participated in a documentary about the disappearance of lesbian bars in the U.S. 

“We have been happy to have every other kind of business in this neighborhood, even Popeyes with its rats,” Pope Barrow wrote in the email. “We once had a porno studio on 8th between E and G. … But ‘As You Are’ is a step too far. We will be miserable if it gets licensed, and when the calls to the owners, the police and ABC enforcement authorities begin to flood in, together with fines, the new owners will be miserable as well.”

The tweet wound people up, and perhaps contributed to the fact that 120 people logged on to the virtual meeting platform to speak or listen. Expecting a challenge from the neighborhood, As You Are Bar also asked supporters to join the session to share why they’d like to see the project come to fruition. Hannah Stokes, a ANC 6B resident, was one of them. She works for an organization that supports queer and trans youth but spoke as a private citizen.

“To have a space that will cater to young people who are 21 and younger during the day— especially when there are not a lot of safe spaces for people to go outside of school and when school closes for the day, home may not be a safe space to go,” she said at the meeting. “To have another place where they meet with friends and do homework, the same way we’d go to work at cafes during the day, is important for a sense of community and a sense of belonging.” 

Stokes also brought up the history of queer bars in the neighborhood, including Phase 1. It once carried the nickname “Gay Way.” As You Are Bar, she says, “would be an incredible nod to that.” There was actually a gay bar that occupied the same address As You Are Bar is taking over—Bachelor’s Mill. It opened in 1978 and its owner, Beatrice “BB” Gatch, died last year.

Barrow, who said he’s lived 250 feet away from the establishment since 1972, turned up at the meeting with another strong message. “We have had several bars and nightclub-type establishments here,” he says. “They have all failed. As much as I think this is a good mission for these people to have, the kind of establishment they want is not and they will fail.” 

He is most concerned about noise. “When people emerge from this place—any place that has got people drinking and partying at 3 a.m., 2 a.m., 1 a.m., hell I go to bed at 8:30—that is not fun for us,” he said at the meeting. “They have a good idea and a great vision, but they’ve got the wrong location. They have moved into a very, very hostile neighborhood.”

Meeting participants voiced concerns whenever someone spoke on behalf of the entire neighborhood. ANC 6B Chair Brian Ready played the role of moderator, except when his computer crashed, and largely kept people from talking over each other. He also spoke on behalf of the whole neighborhood once too, but only to assert that members of the LGBTQ community are welcome there. 

Some accused speakers of being homophobic in the chat following particularly strong criticism of the business or when people asked questions they didn’t think were relevant like what food would be served and what genre of music would be played. 

“I am in SUPPORT of As You Are and the diversity they will bring to the neighborhood,” a meeting participant, AMAYA, typed into the chat. “So saddened to see the homophobic and racist messaging from some of my fellow neighbors. We are an inclusive neighborhood! Lets give them a chance before we demonize them. Safe Spaces are NECESSARY!”

The purpose of an ABC Committee meeting is to make a recommendation to the full ANC about whether or not to protest an alcohol license. Often parties can reach a settlement agreement containing compromises. “We want to focus on issues that are coming up and how we’re going to come up with solutions to those issues,” Ready reminded participants during the meeting more than once. 

The prime issues named were the sound and vibration of music emanating from the second story, where the dance floor is located, street noise when patrons leave the establishment, the late-night hours of operation, and parking. While the address is located in a mixed commercial and residential zone, a significant number of residents live within a couple hundred feet on 8th Street SE and E Street SE. 

McDaniel and Pike shared their sound mitigation and safety strategies at the top of the meeting. They talked about window inserts bolstered with asphalt, plywood, and drywall; sound-deadening blinds suspended by springs to better tame base; triple-layer, floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes; and a base trap. They’re working with sound engineers on the project and described a staggered closing approach so that the dance room and lounge don’t empty out at once. The dance area would only operate on weekends. There will be no live music, only live DJs spinning recorded music. 

Pike described how they will hire and train multiple safety management employees who will be manning the only exit onto 8th Street SE as people depart. The idea is for these safety employees to also watch for intoxicated patrons and make sure underage customers aren’t served alcohol. “We’re prioritizing people over profit,” Pike says. “There’s no hesitating about cutting people off. That’s a huge piece of our culture and our mission.” A few neighbors said they want to see these measures committed to in writing in the settlement agreement. 

In October, the owners proactively met with the community, which helped them step up their sound proofing strategy. Still, neighbors expressed doubts that anything could dampen dance floor music. “I think that all the neighbors support the bar and cafe aspect of this,” Katherine Szafran said at the meeting. “It’s the dance club issue that’s causing concern. Because that’s where noise comes from. There are other bars in the area. That’s an appropriate use for this space. A restaurant would be better, but I understand we don’t always get what we want.”

The hours of operation, including the entertainment endorsement, are currently proposed to last until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends. Some neighbors said they felt As You Are Bar initially agreed to earlier hours before extending them. The business’s legal counsel, Richard Bianco, says this isn’t true and the hours have been consistent throughout this process, save for when the neighborhood marked up a settlement agreement with their desired hours. “We are willing to negotiate something reasonable,” he says.

Amber Jones, who said she lives across the street, sought a reduction in the hours of the entertainment endorsement to 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. “We have a lot of people on the street who are sleepers—elderly and babies,” she said at the meeting. “We have been colored by the previous tenants of that establishment who were very, very loud. I don’t think your community will be troublesome like they were, but the fact that you asked for longer hours is concerning.”

District Soul Food occupied the building most recently and consistently battled with neighbors and city agencies. “We don’t have a lot of faith in ABRA’s ability to enforce what agreement there is,” said Alison Brooks, another nearby neighbor, at the meeting. “You’re stepping into decades of experience with this establishment. I’m willing to say maybe you can soundproof it, but I’m like, ‘Show me.’” As You Are Bar plans to hold a nighttime sound test as soon as the majority of their sound-proofing materials are installed.

Jones and Brooks were not the only participants to bring up the prior tenant, which Ready said wasn’t fair. “I’d be happy to talk about that to make sure ABRA does what they’re supposed to do, or more, but that’s not this applicant’s responsibility or fault,” he said. “Each applicant should be viewed singularly and one bad applicant should not be put on a new applicant who comes in the future.”

As You Are Bar is different from the previous tenant. They applied for a tavern license, while District Soul Food had a restaurant license. “It really merits serious consideration whether the ANC should go along with that at all—to grant a tavern license in a space that’s already been such a problem,” a neighbor, Matt Jones, said at the meeting. He thinks the impact on the neighborhood will be substantial and doesn’t want to rush the negotiation process.

The As Your Are Bar founders and a handful of people who voiced support for the concept focused their rebuttals on how it isn’t just another bar, but rather a place for marginalized people looking to come together and celebrate.

“Our patrons are a wildly respectful community,” Pike said at the meeting. “They have concerns for their own safety as LGBTQ members and so they have great respect for others. This gets developed or enhanced because of mistreatment we’ve experienced ourselves. Our community doesn’t have many safe spaces, so we build our culture around taking care of the spaces we do have so we can continue to experience them.” 

“As a person who has frequented their business as a patron and then as someone who is a friend, they’re not people who have ever disrespected the spaces that they’ve worked in,” said a speaker who identified themself as Zayn T at the meeting. They did not share where they live. “They’ve always made sure people were safe, comfortable, quiet, and respectful. They immediately kick out people who are being disrespectful, loud, and rude.” 

“We are a different communities all sitting on a Zoom call and trying to reach a compromise and I’m truly in the spirit of compromise hoping we’re all reaching that,” they added. “The intention is what matters here and these are two folks who have all the intention to make sure that they’re not just imposing themselves in your neighborhood.” 

The meeting concluded with the goal of doing just that. ANC commissioners and As You Are Bar and its legal counsel will work over the weekend to craft a settlement agreement that can be voted on at the full ANC 6B meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 11. The commissioners were sympathetic to the idea that the process shouldn’t drag on long enough to significantly delay the opening, scheduled for March, because As You Are Bar is a small business that will be on the hook for rent. 

While this is promising for As You Are Bar fans, it will be hard to forget how tense the meeting became at times. The chat read like trolls subtweeting each other; at one point, Barrow guaranteed that the business would fail. Amber Jones defended him.

“When Mr. Pope spoke earlier, he is one of the elderly residents of this block, the comments in the chat were just horrendous,” she said at the meeting. “I thought you were going to be good neighbors and appreciative and respectful of neighborhood, and now I can see you absolutely are not. I’m disgusted by those comments, I wish I could send you back to another neighborhood and get you out of here now.” 

City Paper checked in with Barrow on Friday morning to see if he’d had a change of heart. “As You Are could either agree to reasonable closing hours or select a location on Barracks Row that is not so closely exposed to residences,” he responded in an email. “I don’t speak for other neighbors, but  personally would be happy with either of those options and I would then eagerly welcome them to the neighborhood.”

People sounding off in the chat don’t necessarily represent the business or its clientele. “Yes, there was hostility that came from the neighborhood and that was responded to in kind by people who were harmed by the comments about us failing or needing to go back to where we came from,” Pike tells City Paper Friday. “But by and large, the commentary was productive and positive. We’re interested in being good neighbors and improving this community.”

The last speaker of the three-hour ordeal was Dave Kasten. He said he’s lived in ANC 6B for the better part of a decade. “I’m a straight white guy,” he said at the meeting. “I’ll top that, I voted for George W. Bush. I’m exactly not someone who is close to this community, part of this community, or frankly likely to go into this location. If my comments on the chat are part of why some folks are saying they don’t want to support it, this ain’t on that community, it’s on me. The fact that so many things that were said by residents of 6B, the decision makers of ANC 6B, were so incredibly inappropriate hurts me as someone who isn’t a part of this community and makes me feel awful.” 

He argues gay bars are the “most cracked down on spaces we have in society,” and don’t get away with serving minors or breaking laws. “These folks care, they understand the stakes, they’ll be the best tenants you’ll ever get. Give them a shot and you won’t regret it.” 

Has social media made us nastier? Or, have we always been this way? What would the rhetoric have been like on Twitter or on Zoom back in 1996 when Ta-Nehisi Coates covered clashes between neighbors and the Black owners of Heart & Soul Cafe for City Paper. The same night a fight broke out at the bar, there was a murder a few blocks away, leading to a raid by police and ABRA officials. 

“Capitol Hill busybodies marked the raid as a victory for their community,” Coates wrote. “For months, residents had sent e-mails, collected petitions, and otherwise bitched about the restaurant’s late hours and the rowdy crowd it attracted. After the murder near the club, concerned neighbors printed up an e-mail “Heart & Soul murder” flier and circulated it to houses close to the restaurant.”