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Photo: Trent Johnson

DC’s Director of Nightlife and Culture Reflects on First Year

To embark on any new endeavor – creative, personal or professional – can be a daunting hill to climb for anyone, and DC government is no exception. Even with the support of Mayor Muriel Bowser and others, Shawn Townsend, who became the first-ever director of the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture (MONC) early this year, has a lot on his plate.

His energy and excitement to be first in this role is apparent as is his mission: to make nightlife accessible to everyone. In addition to helping shape the position for the first time in the District’s history, Townsend’s tenure has been greeted with skepticism of which he’s well-aware.

After a four-year stint at DC’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (also known as ABRA), he knew he could offer a unique perspective and wealth of experience to the city, but worried constituents would see him as another enforcer of the law. However, some of the public’s concerns were born from a simple misunderstanding of Townsend’s role.

“Critics will say, ‘He comes from enforcement, so he’s going to be looking to write folks up and get people in trouble,’” he says. “But we don’t have any regulatory authority or enforcement authority. We’re simply here to connect the dots between stakeholders, businesses, residents and agencies. All of that helps make nightlife better.”

Townsend’s role involves more listening and creative conflict resolution than anything else. He says his team hit the ground running on a wide array of issues since Mayor Bowser appointed him to the new position in November 2018, and they’ve resolved 98 percent of the 63 issues under their purview.

He notes that one of his proudest moments so far involved helping a local music venue apply for a grant to receive funds for better noise abatement technology after receiving constant complaints. With a MONC letter of support and a grant application through the DC Department of Small & Local Business Development, the venue was able to make the necessary improvements to mitigate the noise and continue business. According to Townsend, it’s evidence that slowly but surely, he and his team are seeing the fruits of their labor.

“The idea is to have someone on the government side serve as a liaison to the nightlife economy – to really put an emphasis on changing the dialogue from the city government thinking about life in the daytime to thinking about [and] allocating more resources to our life at night, because the cities have generated so much revenue from [it]. It’s a catalyst for revenue and a catalyst for jobs, [and] for social inclusion [and] cultural diversity.”

While this misunderstood territory is uncharted for DC, it’s not for other cities. They look to, and follow, the best practices of other locations with similar roles. Still, the District’s unique music history – Black Broadway, renowned venues, and iconic genres like go-go and hardcore, to name a few standouts – makes it a different beast to tackle altogether from a bureaucratic standpoint.

With the added elements of nightlife safety and respecting the city’s creative legacies, Townsend must take into account the many intersections that exist within what happens on DC streets when the sun goes down.

“When it comes to the culture piece, we’ve sat down with festival organizers,” he continues. “We’ve discussed the #Don’tMuteDC movement with artists and creatives. We have some artists and folks in the performing arts and creative industries on our nightlife and culture commission. So [we are] really having those conversations to figure out what the agenda is of the creatives, and how we can help push that agenda forward to other agencies and to the Mayor and say, ‘This is what we’re hearing on the ground.’”

And while Townsend is quick to say he’s a fan of all nightlife in DC, he’s certainly taken office during a time both challenging and exciting to be at the helm of such a project. When asked about any standout moments that reflect how DC nightlife is changing, he mentions the poignancy of watching the Washington Mystics take home the WNBA championship trophy last month.

“[At the] Entertainment and Sports Arena, standing there and seeing the clock wind down to a sold-out crowd and [the Mystics] bringing a championship trophy to Southeast was an experience for me,” he recalls. “I’ve been in the region since the early 90s, and I remember what that area used to be.”

He says it touched him to see Monumental Sports and the Leonsis Family collaborate with local government and Events DC to help boost the economy in that quadrant of the nation’s capital.

“It’s an example of us investing in parts of the city that don’t necessarily have nightlife amenities, including sports. I look forward to the expansion of the St. Elizabeths campus to have more nightlife.”

The office has made great strides, and Townsend and his team hope to continue bridging creative and commercial gaps for years to come.

For more on MONC, visit www.moca.dc.gov and follow the office on social media @DCMONC.

202Creates Helps District Connect Arts Community

Three years ago, a month became a movement for the DC creative community.

“There were so many things coming to the forefront of the creative community,” says Angie Gates, director of the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment (OCTFME). “It started out with the intent to highlight our diverse and vibrant community. The original [idea] was to have the month of September be the main focus of highlighting our creatives. What we quickly realized after year one was: we can’t stop.”

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser established 202Creates in September 2016 to celebrate the city’s creative economy and culture, with input from the DC’s OCTFME, Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and Office of Planning and Economic Development. What began as a designated month of events has since transformed into a relationship between the local government and its luminaries including fellowships, studio space and networking opportunities.

“To know that the mayor and the community are behind the creatives speaks to the climate of where we are and [the community’s] understanding of the arts in the District,” says local musician James Poet of indie group FutureBandDC. “There’s such a melting pot of creatives in the area. There’s so many visual artists and filmmakers and [musicians]. They’re part of the pulse of the community. It makes sense for the city to come in and make sure we have a voice and platform.”

Though the idea rapidly outgrew 30 days, September still holds significance for 202Creates. This year’s kickoff event on August 29 at Eaton DC will promote art installations, musical performances, dance activations and more. Other festivities included in the celebration are Art All Night on September 14, the DC Radio Anniversary event on September 19, and the 202Creates Month closeout event on September 28 featuring Poet and his band.

“I think 202Creates is a staple in DC,” Poet continues. “It’s the go-to for creatives in providing a platform for us to elevate our talents. They’ve created this platform to support the creativity community in all its functions, and we definitely wanted to make sure we support this initiative.”

The 202Creates community has grown because of the city’s willingness to increase support and provide a foundation for people looking to get their foot in the proverbial creative door, Gates says, mentioning the OCTFME television and radio stations.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Gates says. “I fondly refer to DC as the capital of creativity. Not only have [we] had an impact here in the District, but nationally people are [recognizing] what we’re doing here.”

And this form of support isn’t limited to people in the entertainment industry or people who deal in traditional mediums like photography or painting, as the city also considers practices like cosmetology and cooking to be artistic expressions that fall under 202Creates’ purview.

“It wasn’t so much about the government as much as this is how the government can help you find a creative pathway to the middle class,” Gates says. “What it really does is highlight the different resources and platforms that we have as a government that we can provide our creatives. It’s really about the creatives having a seat at the table and showcasing the talents of the city.”

Three years in, she says there are still people just learning about 202Creates and its programs, whether it be artists-in-residence or the coworking office on 200 I St. Through installations and social media, the movement has touched all eight wards of the District, unearthing and shepherding talent in a supportive manner.

“I think it would be a travesty if we didn’t grow each year,” she says. “When you have other artists and other things to spark your creativity around you, you start to expand and grow and develop. That’s the beauty of it all: to look at where we were in 2016 and where we are today.”

So how can locals gain access to these resources? Gates says it’s as easy as sending an email via www.202creates.com, but she’s also fielded pitches in person and over Instagram.

“We’re asking everyone to just come out and meet us,” she continues. “We have an open-door policy at our studios. The goal is to make sure our creatives can work closely with us. The main thing is to get engaged once you’re here and familiar with it.”

For a list of participating 202Creates Month events or for information on the initiative, visit the website at www.202creates.com or www.entertainment.dc.gov. Follow along with the community on Instagram @202Creates.