The first time I went into Don Juan’s, sometime in 1997, I couldn't believe I was even stepping inside. It just wasn't a place I'd ever imagine going. It was only a few blocks from my house and I walked past it almost every day. Its windows were tinted and it always seemed to be filled with men, men who'd look at you when you walked in; who wore cowboy hats and big belt buckles. They sat together at tables, while waitresses in low cut tops glided around, serving burritos and soup and drinks. It was a for real Cantina, with for real regulars.
My friend Athena took me there. She and I were going there to visit Alberto, Don Juan’s owner, to ask if we could have a cabaret at his place with local musicians. Athena was his neighbor, having lived down the block from the place for over a decade. We wanted to put on a show, a real Mount Pleasant show with music and poetry and politics. Don Juan Restaurant seemed like a perfect place.
Alberto came to join us at our table. Athena asked him what he thought of the idea of hosting the cabaret and he said “sure“ and we chose a date. Then a trio of mariachis came in the door and Alberto called them over and asked them to play some songs for us. It was one of those traveling moments -those moments that transcend the particulars, that get a special lighting treatment in your memory. Surrounded by the music, the neon light and smell of smoke and fried beef, I felt transported. When I pushed the door open, I was surprised to find myself standing on Mount Pleasant Street and not some dusty village in a far away country.
A few weeks later, we had the first Cabaret Del Barrio at Don Juan Restaurant on a rainy September night. We had Salvadoran and Vietnamese poets, a soul singer, a blues singer, a punk band and a comedian. Our crowd of Mount Pleasant hipsters, old timers, poets and aging hippies sat at tables amongst Don Juan’s regulars, mostly male, mostly Salvadoran who hung out at Don Juan’s after getting off work from construction jobs, cleaning downtown offices, working in restaurant kitchens. By the end of the night, nearly everyone was smiling.
The memory of that night still remains a touchstone for me because something happened in that room that I rarely get to experience. I’ve lived in “diverse” DC neighborhoods for most of my adult life but except for a few church services and protest rallies here and there, it's pretty rare that I’m in truly integrated spaces where people from all walks of my neighborhood’s life are actually communing. That’s a thing that music can do, music performed in little hole in the walls, raw and unpolished. It can bring people with hugely different experiences and reference points to some shared plane of being, if only for a few moments.
We planned a follow up. The second Cabaret del Barrio included an equally eclectic bunch of performers. We flyered the neighborhood with leaflets in three languages, Vietnamese, Spanish and English. We invited all of our friends. We borrowed a sound system. We confirmed the performers.
But on the morning of the event, Athena got a phone call from one of her neighbors who belonged to the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA) a civic group dedicated they say, to “improving quality of life” in the neighborhood.
“Look,” he told her, “Members of the MPNA saw your event posted an a listserv. They say Don Juan’s shouldn’t be having live music. They are going call the authorities and use it to fight the place’s liquor license. I just wanted to warn you.”
The event was a mere eight hours away. We didn’t know quite what to do. Cancel? Go ahead but risk trouble for Alberto and his wife? Move the event to another restaurant? But that was impossible because the MPNA had used the liquor license process to prevent every restaurant on the street from hosting events like ours....What to do?
Then our friend Amanda called. “We can have it at La Casa.” she said. “Let’s not risk Alberto’s license.”
La Casa is a building owned by “Community of Christ,” a group that settled in Mount Pleasant in the late 1960s to start a lay lead congregation. Amanda’s family was active in the group and when she told them of our predicament, they opened their doors to us.
So Amanda and I spent the day preparing the space while Athena called the performers to tell them about the location change . We borrowed round tables from another church. We got table cloths from friends. We hung Christmas tree lights around the space and tried to make it look as festive as possible.
Athena made flyers explaining what had happened. And, around show time, her kids, Elvis and Cleo, stood at the entrance of Don Juan’s handing them out and directing people to La Casa.
At our displaced cabaret, it was harder to attract people from outside each performer’s circle of friends. It didn’t feel as risky or improbable as that first one. No one had to cross a threshold into a space that made them uncomfortable. There were no regulars, leaning against the bar, thinking to themselves “what are these gringos doing here anyway?” There was no end of the night, where people had moved past that initial discomfort to find themselves on this different plane, somehow connected.
Soon, like all the other restaurants on Mount Pleasant Street, Don Juan stopped being able to have mariachis or cabarets or any live music at all. The owner finally gave into the MPNA’s demands and signed an agreement to have "no live music". In exchange, MPNA withdrew their protest against the restaurant’s liquor license.
Meanwhile, my friends and I started putting on shows at La Casa on a regular basis. We at first borrowed and then built a stage. We got our own little sound system. We’d string up Christmas Tree lights and clear out all the church furniture. Sometimes we handed over the front room to an art curator who created a little gallery for local artists. La Casa emerged as a live music venue on Mount Pleasant Street, hosting bands from Chicago, New York and San Francisco along with ones from closer to home. After the break up of his band Fugazi, Ian MacKaye started a new group called the Evens. When it came time for a debut, Ian and his bandmate and wife, Amy, chose La Casa for their first show.
It's so funny that la Casa, this humble little carpeted space with a hand made stage that had to be dragged up from the basement for every show, became part of DC music scene lore – site of some really transcendent musical moments and pretty epic shows. I can remember this one time, doing the door at La Casa while this band I really love played and it was like the whole space had levitated, the music and the vibe were just so great and beautiful.
I love the music people perform for each other in small improbable rooms. Unfamous people playing songs they wrote in their bedrooms or banged out in some basement practice space. And I love it when some raw musical moment fills a space so that it’s almost like floating and when its over, you walk out of the club, or hole in the wall bar, or church basement and you think “where am I?” Like the night I walked out of Don Juan’s when the group of mariachis serenaded our table.
But when I walk out of Don Juan’s I am not in some dusty mythical place. I am across the street from a park where homeless people congregate, next to a bus stop. I am in Washington DC. I am facing Mount Pleasant row houses.
And in these houses live occupants with wildly different stories about Don Juan’s and what it means to them. The house directly across the street from Don Juan’s is split into apartments where two families live; one with young children, the other whose children grew up there and are now in college. Both families say Alberto is a good neighbor, they’ve never heard loud music from the place and not once had a problem. They say that the booming music they sometimes hear comes from car stereos or people playing boom boxes in the park. It has nothing to do with Don Juan’s. Their windows face the restaurant and are closer to it then anyone else.
But their neighbors across the street complain bitterly about Don Juan’s, saying the place nearly drummed them out of their home. The husband testifies before the Alcohol board, telling them, under oath, that he will “be toast” if Don Juans is allowed to have karaoke, nevermind actual "live music". He will put his house on the market he declares, if Don Juan's has any entertainment at all. To me, he declares, “that man cares nothing about my quality of life.”
His neighbor, who moved with her family just a few years ago says she feels intimidated just walking past Don Juan. She says that its very presence threatens her family’s safety. And though she has never met Alberto or his wife Rosa she composes long tirades on the neighborhood listserv about what an eyesore it is, about its terrible clientele, about how bad it is for families. Others, posting anonymously join in. One writes that anyone who’s fed their children food at Don Juan’s should get them checked for diseases.
Another neighbor who raised her children on the street says she feels safer walking home from work late at night, knowing that Don Juan’s is there. She says that there have been times when it's late and she feels unsettled and she’s ducked into the carry out and asked the owner or a staff person to walk her home, and they do. Another neighbor who has lived behind Don Juan's for thirty years, says he has never had a problem with noise or trash from the place. He tells of being laid up after surgery and looking out his window to see Alberto and his son's shoveling his walk after a blizzard.
Navigating this dizzying thicket of contradictory stories, I find myself washed up on those same shores where I found myself in 1997 when the concept of “neighborhood” took on new meaning, when it was no longer possible to think of Mount Pleasant Street as a backdrop; when I began thinking about it as a living, breathing and very flawed organism.
I think of my grafittied street sign, the one marked up to read “there is more than ONE WAY to live a day” and how it stands as a beacon – an articulation that directly challenges the stated mission of the MPNA “Quality of Live in Mount Pleasant.” The marked up street sign repudiates the whole notion that quality of life is something fixed, a concept whose parameters are generally agreed upon. Embracing the reality of urban life – the reality of dissensus within a confined area – encountering difference on a daily basis and figuring out how to co-exist with your neighbors despite those ones you find most inscrutable or maddening – without judgment. It’s an every day challenge.
to be continued.....