When people think of Washington, D.C., thoughts of being the “most powerful city in the world” and nation’s political pulse often emerge.
However, if Shawn Townsend has his way, the District will be known as one of the best places to have a good time and party safely.
On Nov. 28, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) selected Townsend to be the city’s first director of nightlife and culture, saying that he “is going to help us ensure our city’s growth is benefiting more D.C. residents and local businesses.”
“Together, we’re going to work with the community to overcome challenges, create new opportunities for Washingtonians, and spread prosperity across all eight wards,” the mayor said.
The District has long had night clubs, dance spots, bars and restaurants that have entertained residents and tourists. Before the 1968 riots, U Street became known nationally as “the Black Broadway” with its array of clubs, theaters and eateries where stars such as Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway performed and Blacks patronized.
After the riots and before 2000, many District residents of all races went to the suburbs for entertainment. That changed as Metrorail expanded in the city and more people came to D.C. to live.
While the District goes through gentrification, U Street has been transformed, along with H Street NE, Adams Morgan, downtown and Georgetown, becoming well-known neighborhoods to go to if one wants to have a good time. Townsend wants that high level of entertainment activity to grow.
When the position became available last year, scores of people applied and Townsend notes that some had a misconception of what it entailed.
“It has come to my attention that there were event planners and promoters who wanted the job,” Townsend said with a chuckle. “This is not a party position.”
The idea to have a director of nightlife came from D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), who noticed that New York City had the position as well as European cities such as London and Amsterdam. He spearheaded legislation that created the nightlife director and a commission on nightlife last year.
Townsend said his duties are to see from a bureaucratic point that the District’s nightlife thrives.
“We are taking a holistic approach to this,” he said. “It is my job to deal with traffic, trash, infrastructure, trash collection and removal, noise management and rodents. We will work with businesses, the community and District agencies to see that issues that come up are taken care of.”
Townsend holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University and at one time launched and managed a bar and lounge in Charleston, South Carolina. He has worked as an investigator for the District’s Office of Police Complaints and the District of Columbia Public Schools and recently served as a supervisory investigator at the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, where he led six investigators.
While Townsend plans to work with all District agencies equitably, he plans to work closely with the police department to ensure that people seeking entertainment will be safe.
“I know all of the District commanders,” he said. “I want to make sure that business owners are trained in de-escalation of conflicts and how to deal with shootings with active shooter training.”
Townsend knows that the entertainment options east of the Anacostia River are sparse but he doesn’t intend to ignore the over 150,000 residents there.
“I would like to see entertainment spots over there and would be willing to support tax incentives for businesses to go there,” he said. “We also want to hire the residents there and make that a priority. There is no question that east of the River is a nightlife desert just as some areas of it are food deserts.”
Townsend would like to set up a system of rewards for business owners who comply with government regulations along the lines of a gold-star system.
Todd said that even though the director of nightlife position has only been in existence three months, Townsend impresses him.
“He has hit the ground running,” the council member said. “He wants to make sure that safe entertainment options are available to residents of all eight wards and wants to involve all of the stakeholders, government, business and the community in the process of building the night economy.”
There are some critics who say that the Bowser administration wants to turn the District into another New York City or Las Vegas with its emphasis on entertainment. Townsend disagreed: “We want D.C. to be D.C.”