13 September 2010

Don't forget local history

Nob Hill. Photo from Metro Weekly, May 22, 2003.
A couple weeks ago, New Columbia Heights and Prince of Petworth ran stories about the 6th anniversary of The Wonderland Ballroom, a bar located at the corner of 11th and Kenyon Streets NW.

Both blogs told a story about the period before Wonderland opened, with Andrew of New Columbia Heights saying, "When it opened, the Wonderland Ballroom was maybe the only place to get a beer in the area: I have friends who lived here before then, and the closest spot for them was Chief Ike's Mambo Room on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, kind of a hike," and Dan of Prince of Petworth saying, "I hate to be that old guy who says “I remember when” but I remember when Wonderland was not open."

In both instances, they're leaving out some important history. A quick read of both Dan and Andrew's accounts could lead one to a false belief that no bars existed in that part of Columbia Heights before Wonderland opened. That is not the case.

This story raises the question of how in-depth a neighborhood blog should go to report a story. These outlets are not peer-reviewed journals, or even a traditional broadsheet newspaper with full editorial and research teams, so expecting a fully-researched story is unrealistic.

What makes blogs a unique form of writing, though, is the crowdsourcing aspect, where those reading can add to a story, and the author can update as more information is brought to the attention of all.

This is the model that Jaime and I believe should be standard for all neighborhood blogs, and is a reason why we were excited to join the TBD Community Network, because we saw the potential for many voices to come together and tell as thorough of a story as possible when reporting the news or items of interest.

A quick Internet search (or a glance at the Cultural Tourism DC sign on the street in front of the bar) finds that another bar existed at this location for nearly 50 years before The Wonderland Ballroom opened, and that bar was called Nob Hill.

Nob Hill was unique in that it was a black-owned gay bar, and until the time of it's closing in the spring of 2004, it could claim the title of the "oldest gay bar in Washington." Stories about Nob Hill exist in the archives of local publications like the City Paper and Metro Weekly. These stories note that the clientele was not exclusively gay, and the bar was open to all neighbors, though ownership did cater to black gay men.

The Metro Weekly article, published in May 2003, tells the story of a bar that is doing well financially, but a follow-up story less than a year later in February 2004 notes that the bar closed, apparently due to a fall-off in business. The story also seems to hint that ABRA helped to close the bar because of charges of code violations, which may or may not have come from neighbors moving into the neighborhood during rapid demographic change in the last decade.

Even though the bar is closed, it still holds an important place in the history of DC, especially in the gay community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation notes that a strong case exists for the site to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(DC's official tourist website, washington.org, could stand to update things, though, as it states Nob Hill is still open.)

Only six months passed between the closing of DC's oldest gay bar and the opening of what would become its popular replacement. DC is full of rich history beyond the standard textbook stuff that happens on the Mall or Capitol Hill, and Nob Hill is one of those stories that we need to be reminded of, else we forget our past.

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  1. Wonderland has the old Nob Hill sign. It's on the first floor, on the ceiling of the hall near the restrooms.


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