If you walk down H Street on a Friday or Saturday night, the once-blighted neighborhood is bustling. Sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians, the restaurants are full and, depending on the time, a line of people waits outside the live music club, the Rock N Roll Hotel.
Just five years ago, H Street was, to put it lightly, underdeveloped. Some say it had never fully recovered from burning after the Martin Luther King Jr. riots. Oddly enough, the neighborhood's turnaround in recent years is due in no small part to live music.
One of the businesses that helped anchor H Street's revitalization was the Rock N Roll Hotel, which opened in August 2006. When booking agent and manager Steve Lambert started working at the club, he said the H Street corridor seemed like a ghost town.
"I would be down here in the morning, and there would literally be tumbleweeds blowing down H Street," says Lambert. "I literally saw tumbleweeds. I don't know where they came from, but they blew down H Street. I don't see why, for any other reason, if Rock N Roll Hotel wasn’t as successful as it is, and brings the amount of people it does down this street, there is no other reason for some of these bars and restaurants to be down here."
Can live music help revitalize a neighborhood? Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, says yes. Sims has seen communities across the country rally around live music clubs. He watched it happen in Seattle in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when Sims was the executive of King County, Wash. And Sims applauds the efforts of cities like Austin, who encourage live music.
"If you have a strong musical scene, you can bring back any community, because people will migrate there. What happens is, all of the sudden, you get new investments. It's not just the musical venue that occurs. Then the restaurants show up and then the small theaters show up. It becomes more of a total arts district, not just in a musical form, but a variety of them. And when I traveled around the country, you can see that happening."
It's certainly happening on H Street, where a number of bars, restaurants and sandwich shops have popped up in the past couple years. The city's office of planning designated the area an arts and entertainment district, which makes it more attractive for live music clubs and other cultural institutions.
Jason Martin, co-owner of Sticky Rice, a sushi restaurant on H Street, says he looked to the Rock N Roll Hotel as a gauge for the neighborhood's improvement. The better the club did, the more he was encouraged to open and expand his own restaurants.
Martin, who was one of the initial investors of the Rock N Roll Hotel, opened Sticky Rice in May of 2008, and followed it with Dangerously Delicious Pies. These days, the pie shop sells more food late at night, when the club and surrounding bars let out, than it does at dinnertime. In the coming months, Martin said he plans to expand Sticky Rice into the building next door.
"Because of Rock N Roll Hotel, the Argonaut, Sticky Rice – a slew of other businesses have been opening up," says Martin. "We opened up Dangerously Delicious Pie shop next store, and the overflow of foot traffic from people going to every business is benefiting everyone, and it has a lot to do with the music venue."
The sheer number of people the Rock N Roll hotel brings to the neighborhood has a lot to do with it. Between 2,000 and 2,500 concertgoers will drop by the club over the course of a good weekend, says Lambert. And the club will host anywhere from four to seven shows a week. After a couple of years, other prospective business owners began to see that, and invest in the neighborhood.
"They saw 'OK,' this can happen," he says. "You can build something, you can bring in the right amount of artists and bands that are attractive to the general public and people will come down there. After the two-year mark, more businesses started to show up for sure."
The Rock N Roll Hotel brings in a range of different musical genres, from rock to rap and DJs. During the slower summer months, when many bands are playing large festivals, Lambert books private parties in the club. The last stretch of 2010 and first few months of 2011 have been the club's best yet, he says.
For decades before it was a live music club, the building used to be a funeral home. Now, it's helping give new life to a once-ailing neighborhood. Sims isn't surprised.
"You cannot underestimate the power of musical venues," says Sims. "If you decide you don't want them, you're basically signing the death warrant to your communities. When you embrace them, all of the sudden you're willing to say, 'Our community has a future. It’s going to be vibrant, it’s going to be attractive, it's going to be creative.' It is a statement of 'we are.' And I think that’s what we need. That’s why I’m sold on them. I just – I'm sold on them."