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There doesn’t seem to be much happening 
behind the unassuming black door at 2009 14th Street Northwest, but I push through, undeterred. I’m following a reliable insider tip, confident that there’s a legitimate enterprise awaiting me at the end of the inconspicuous hallway just beyond. Then, to my surprise, I discover that the suit-clad gatekeeper of this tucked-away D.C. establishment – called the Gibson, according to my source – isn’t some intimidating Secret Service agent with an earpiece and a stony, seen-it-all demeanour. Instead, I’m greeted by a skinny twentysomething kid, with a pink orchid boutonniere, reading the Harvard Business Review.

“Can I help you, sir?” asks Jake Hall, who spends his daytime hours interning at the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, on Capitol Hill. Momentarily bamboozled, I pull a quintessential D.C. manoeuvre: the Name Drop. “Matt Quirk sent me.” “Of course, he did,” Hall says, pretending for my sake to recognize the name of a young local magazine editor of rather limited political clout. The moonlighting bouncer opens a second door, and a wave of crackly jazz floats out. Mission accomplished, I think as I walk into a barely lit cocktail bar, its walls painted black, and ask the bartender with the pink bow tie for a Belvedere Weather Station.

The GibsonThe Gibson – and its expertly mixed drinks – is a bright light in the D.C. night sky.

This is how the new game is played in Washington, D.C. The town that JFK called “a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm” was for decades an aloof capital where visitors came to marvel at its grand monuments and museums by day. By night, it turned into a fishbowl where political influence bought you the best tables at power steak houses. But, lately, a new creative cohort – overeducated and underpaid and hungry for stimulation – is emerging and with it a very Millennial belief that access to the finer things in D.C. ought to come not just to those high-status names splashed throughout The Washington Post but to anyone who puts in the legwork required to be “in the loop.” They’re looking beyond the traditional zones of a city that organizes itself on a large alphanumeric grid with axes that cross at the U.S. Capitol Building. Instead of calling out addresses in the Bs and Cs, the 3rds and 4ths, the cultural vanguard is giving taxi drivers directions to H Street and 12th or to U Street and 14th, where you’ll find the Gibson. Unlike the 70-year-old senator, who would advise you to avoid the once downtrodden H Street Northeast, formerly home to boarded-up barbershops and Chinese takeouts, the 25-year-old intern would eagerly send you to what is now known as the Atlas District, a trendy row of tiny, hyperpopular bars, galleries and restaurants.

The Atlas DistrictThe Atlas District is the new place to see and be seen.

Leigh Conner saw the area’s potential earlier than most, when she relocated her influential art gallery here in 2007 from a proven location in established Dupont Circle. Sporting a black scarf and short, lightly salted dark hair, she leads me through Conner Contemporary Art’s 7,000-square-foot stark-white exhibition space, a former auto body shop on Florida Avenue Northeast, just north of H Street Northeast. Here Conner exhibits such artists as Wilmer Wilson IV, the 22-year-old Virginia native whose 2011 performance and photography installation 
I Voted was the buzz of the 2011 (e)merge Art Fair in D.C. One of the photographs, in which Wilson covered his entire body with the work’s eponymous stickers, is still proudly displayed in Conner’s office.

Conner Contemporary ArtConner Contemporary Art showcases artworks inside and out – as in this sculpture courtyard.

“When we first came out here, looking to purchase a building so that we could expand the gallery, the area really had the flavour of all D.C. – young and old and black and white,” says Conner in her native Georgia drawl. “There’s a whole stratum now of people who are young, culturally curious, upwardly mobile. The city’s like a layer cake, and this particular layer 
is growing.”

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THE GUIDE     UNITED STATES     WASHINGTON    

Comments… or add another

American Observer

Wednesday, May 1st 2013 17:39
Spot on! This article reminds me of many a hot summer night seeking the best of DC....I can attest to both the quality of this author's recommendations as well as the feeling of the city that he so aptly captures. Good stuff!
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