It was 83 degrees around noontime on an August afternoon in Washington, D.C., when Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s sole congressional delegate on Capitol Hill known for her infamous stance on D.C. statehood, made her way down to the District’s evolving Shaw neighborhood. The year was 2015. The D.C. Brewers Guild’s executive director, Kathy Rizzo, invited her to come taste the local brew at the then two-year-old brewpub, Right Proper Brewing Company.
Walking into Right Proper that afternoon, Congresswoman Norton was wearing her suit and sensible heels, recalls Rizzo. She marched straight through the door, past the kitchen, and into the brewhouse for a tour. She then sat down at the counter and shared a pint, or two.
“So you have to explain this to me,” Rizzo recalls Congresswoman Norton saying to her while she sipped on a glass of ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’, which evidently wasn’t her favorite beer she tried that day. “You brew the beer and make food right here, in this spot?”
“Yes, that’s what happens,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo said Congresswoman Norton was really into the fact that there are more manufacturing industries in D.C. now, like breweries, that are doing things to give D.C. a little more of a “flavor” and elevating it from being just a city of monuments.
“But she did really like the Ornette beer,” recalls Rizzo. “That was a major win for Nathan.”
D.C. native Thor Creston and Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company owner John Snedden opened Right Proper Brewing Company in 2013. They tapped Nathan Zeender, former nonprofit database administrator turned professional brewer, to be their head brewer. According to their website, Right Proper describes itself as “a small, community-focused brewery committed to producing soulful, balanced beers for our neighbors in Washington, D.C.” But what neighbors are they actually brewing for?
Right Proper has two different kinds of neighbors in Shaw. One population is mostly African American and has witnessed the race riots of 1968 first-hand that led to the closing of the iconic Howard Theatre, while the other is mostly white and has only lived there long enough to see its reopening in 2012. One has gone to the same church every Sunday morning for the last 60 years, while the other goes to a different brunch spot every weekend. Is anyone from these two generations of Shaw residents sharing a glass of Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne together? Probably not.
The Howard Theatre towers over Right Proper brewpub from across the road on the corner of 7th and T Streets NW. It’s stood in this historically black, middle and lower class neighborhood, in one form or another for over 100 years. In it’s heyday, it was known to cater to African-American clientele. The brewpub's patio packed with picnic tables overlooks the theater’s lit-up vertical sign stretched along the building’s edge reading, HOWARD. Walk by during the day, and bikes are lined up along the patio’s fence, entrenching groups of 20 or 30 somethings eating from cheese plates and drinking their locally brewed pale ales.
Just beyond Right Proper and The Howard Theatre are huge luxury apartment buildings built on what were previously laundromats and barbershops. Real estate developers are rebranding the area to attract mostly young, white millennials to their new buildings by listing local attractions, like a brewery, on their websites. Rent on average in Shaw has skyrocketed to upwards of $2,200 a month for a one bedroom apartment according to Zumper.com, a home and apartment rental search site. What was once an affordable neighborhood has now become one of the most expensive, and it’s mostly due to D.C.’s rapid rate of gentrification.
D.C.’s type of gentrification started taking shape in the early 2000s. It’s different from others that occurred in New York City and Chicago, says Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University and author of the forthcoming book about D.C.’s Shaw/U street area, "Making the Gilded Ghetto: Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City."
From the 1970s to early 2000s, more people were leaving D.C. then coming in. Then, people started to move back to look for jobs, especially after the 2008 recession. Most were millennials, between the ages of 24 to 34. They were attracted to D.C.’s outlying neighborhoods, like Shaw, for its close proximity to downtown.
“It was gentrification gone wild,” says Hyra.
Shaw used to be 90 percent African-American in the 1970s, says Hyra. By 2010, they made up only 30 percent of the neighborhood population and young, mostly white people made up the majority of the rest. D.C.’s robust housing laws protected many of the long-term residents from being priced out of their homes.
“You walk down 14th Street, U Street, 7th street, and you’re like woah, what a diverse community,” says Hyra about what Shaw looks like today. “We got low income, upper income, students, people who are Latino, whites, African-Americans. But when you go into the social fabric and civil institutions of the neighborhood, it starts to segregate.”
This social fabric, like the new specialty coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and even breweries, are on a micro-level, segregated, according to Hyra.
“I think the breweries do strive to be a part of the pre-existing community rather than change the community they enter because beer really is an accessible commodity for people of various socio-economic classes,” says Rizzo. “The price difference between a pint of Bud Light and a pint of DC Brau within the city is often only $1-2 different, which can be significant when you're purchasing large quantities, but not cost prohibitive to someone looking to try a new beer.”
Hyra says most likely, the people who are going to microbreweries are millennials. Although they might differ in race, he says long-term neighborhood residents probably wouldn’t be found sitting at a table at Right Proper anytime soon.
Although D.C.’s craft beer movement today may look like another byproduct of gentrification to some, it wasn’t always viewed that way. Before 1917 when prohibition threatened to extinguish D.C.’s thirst for alcoholic beverages, the Germans came to town and brought with them this really inclusive beer garden culture. The biggest beer garden in the District at the time was Alhambra, run by the Washington Brewing Company. It sat on Capitol Hill where what is now the site of the Stuart-Hobson Middle School.
“It was open to everyone”, says Garrett Peck, historian and author of "Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t," about Alhambra and beer garden culture back then. “Mixed races could come, families could come with their kids. Once people were done with work, people went to the saloons and beer gardens to socialize. We don’t really do that anymore though.”
Rizzo says her mission to educate people and communities about D.C. breweries will not stop anytime soon. She plans to hold more events in neighborhoods around the city to try and get communities more involved in their local brewery. According to D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, there are 10 breweries currently operating in the District, with more on the way. Incorporating this new industry into the social fabric of what is already the flavor of D.C. will prove if these new craft breweries reflect the communities they opened up shop in.
Beer has three main ingredients: grains, hops and yeast. The yeast is the beer’s life source. It ferments the sugar to create alcohol and unleash all kinds of flavorful compounds. It’s what makes beer, well, beer! In Shaw, that life source is the people. Over time, the people have changed and brought with them all kinds of different styles and cultures, adding to the flavor of Shaw. For many of its longtime residents, this new flavor is threatening the historical fabric of Shaw in more ways than what anyone a hundred years ago would’ve thought possible.
“I’ve always thought of ourselves as a yeast-forward brewery,” says Nathan Zeender of Right Proper, “because we embrace the flavors and life force of the yeast.”
Perhaps the residents of Shaw, both old and new, can bring back that beer garden culture of sitting down under the lights of the Howard Theatre sign and share a pint together.