Will Ninth Street’s Ethiopian Pioneers Survive?

(This article was originally published in captialcommunitynews.com by Amanda Abrams)

A thriving business district faces development pressures

Is it possible to be a victim of your own success—not just once, but twice in a row?

The answer could be yes for Washington’s Ethiopian community. In their search for a neighborhood that feels like home, the area’s Ethiopians have been pioneers of economic growth in two formerly down-and-out neighborhoods—first Adams Morgan’s 18th Street, and then the block of 9th Street just south of U Street. But the phenomenon of rising property values that finally pushed the community out of Adams Morgan could repeat itself on 9th Street, if that neighborhood’s growth continues.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Washington’s Ethiopians opened businesses on 18th street, at a time when Adams Morgan was a dangerous, no-go zone and rents were cheap. “You couldn’t go there in the daytime, let alone the nighttime,” said Hagos Seyoum, who opened the first Ethiopian restaurant in the United States in 1979. “There was only one other restaurant on 18th Street at the time. My investors didn’t want to put any money into it, so I did it myself.”

Nine years later, he left Adams Morgan, but by that time business on the street was booming. The neighborhood was home to a number of Ethiopian restaurants, as well as many bars and other entertainment spots, and it continued to swell. Within a few more years, however, rents became prohibitively expensive, and the community sought out a new neighborhood—to buy buildings this time, rather than rent.

In search of cheap prices and easy parking, they wound up on the 1900 block of 9th Street, just south of U. The block had once been part of the African American arts and entertainment district that comprised the greater U Street corridor. During the first half of the 20th century, Addison Scurlock, Washington’s best-known photographer of black society, had his studio in a brick building at the corner of 9th and U streets. The Washington Conservatory of Music, containing the largest collection of compositions by black composers, was a block away in a massive turreted home on the corner of 9th and T streets.

But gradually the area had fallen into disrepair. In 1978, Mr. Seyoum bought two houses near the corner of 9th and T streets for $13,000 each. One of the only Ethiopians in the neighborhood for many years, he remained there through some of its worst times.

Ninth Street, you couldn’t walk on it, it was so dangerous—there was shooting at night,” he said. Standing in front of one of his properties, he pointed out all of the houses nearby—a majority—that were vacant when he first came. “They were very, very shabby. They were all boarded up.”

For years, there was no appreciation of property in the area. It was only in the 1990’s, as Ethiopians began to arrive in the neighborhood, that things gradually changed.

Axum Restaurant was the first Ethiopian-owned restaurant on 9th Street. Gebre Kahassai, the restaurant’s current owner, was the manager in the early ‘90s. “Back then, it was kind of hard to do business here,” he said, sitting in Axum during a break one afternoon. “There used to be trash, illegal things going on in the street, and it was dark, hard to walk. But the city paid attention.”

Little by little, the neighborhood transformed. More Ethiopian businessmen—and women—set up shop on the block, as Ethiopian cabdrivers and other service workers gravitated towards the new hub. Gradually, some savvy Ethiopian entrepreneurs shifted their business models to appeal to a wider audience; meanwhile, a few non-Ethiopian businesses moved in, seeking cheaper rents and proximity to U Street.

Today, the neighborhood is thriving. “This area is born again, like a baby, a good baby,” said Mr. Seyoum with a broad smile.

Alex Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets, a nonprofit organization that encourages economic development in the area, agreed. “There were plenty of boarded up buildings here. It’s through the Ethiopians’ hard work that the neighborhood is productive,” he said.

Wandering down one side of 9th and up the other, it’s easy to feel that the block is on the cusp of something exciting. On a given weekend evening, passersby might be Ethiopian, African-American, or white, visiting any number of establishments.

Maybe they’re heading into Haregewine Messert’s bakery, Chez Hareg, located halfway down the block, for cookies and cappuccino. The café’s door sports Obama posters, and Ms. Hareg, who opened the bakery last year, glows with optimism and inclusiveness. One of the business owners on the block who tries to market to a wider audience, she says, “I’m trying to offer something different. I have seven kinds of vegetarian cookies, with no animal products. I want anybody to come and feel like they belong here.”

Other passersby might be coming from the Velvet Lounge, a bar and alternative music venue on U Street just west of 9th that’s under new ownership. Owners Abdul Kayoumy, a Californian of Afghan descent, and Haile Berhane, an Ethiopian, are excited about the changes they’re making. “It’s gonna be really great,” said Mr. Berhane, showing off the club’s new bathrooms and newly expanded space for socializing. The two recently bought a building next door that they plan to make into a separate nightspot.

Just across the street from the Velvet Lounge is Nellie’s, a gay sports bar occupying Addison Scurlock’s old photography studio. On a recent weekend night in June, Nellie’s was packed with athletes in town for the 2008 International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics championships, held in DC this year. The bar seems to have achieved instant popularity since opening last summer, and many in the neighborhood welcome it. “I like the gay club,” said Axum’s owner, Mr. Kahassai, a few doors down. “They bring different people. We need more different people.”

Despite some gripes about increased parking hassles, business owners’ optimism about the neighborhood is palpable. Weekend foot traffic is growing, and new restaurants and services are opening every month. But the pace of change may increase spectacularly in the near future.

Big Changes on the Horizon
Geographically, 9th Street is somewhat isolated from the rest of U Street. As a result, the development that transformed U Street in the past few years—the condos, cafes and upscale chain restaurants—largely passed it by. Finally, however, a number of major, large developments are slated to be built in the vicinity. Within five years, the landscape around the Ethiopian neighborhood could be massively transformed.

Phil Spalding, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for an area that includes the west side of 9th Street, listed some of the projects currently on the drawing board. “Metro owns a section of Florida Avenue east of 9th Street [to 7th Street] and is planning to develop it; that could take out a couple of buildings on 9th, as well as the area now used as the flea market [at 9th and Florida]. In the next month or two, it’ll be clear who won the contract, so that development is a couple years down the line.”

He continued, “Then there’s the Broadway Atlantic project, being done by a huge developer from Manhattan. It’s big—900 units—and all approvals are in place.” That will be a couple of blocks north of the Ethiopian neighborhood, and should be built in the next two years.

Those are the ones with the biggest impact. But there are also plans for another building in that area with 350 units and retail at ground level. Meanwhile, Howard University is planning the Howard Town Center, a mixed-use development on Georgia between V and W streets, two blocks east, and another mixed-use development that will house the headquarters of DC’s Radio One is scheduled to be built to the south, at 7th and S streets. And scattered around the neighborhood are many smaller projects: a building renovation here, a school reuse there.

There’s even a small development planned for the very heart of the 1900 block of 9th Street. A parking lot next to Axum Restaurant has been sold to a local developer, who will be putting in a four- or five-story live/work space for artists. Although it may mean trouble for the restaurants that currently use the parking lot for street access, Mr. Spalding is excited about the project and describes it as “just right for that area.”

About the rest, though—the condos, the retail, the changes—he worries about the pressure it will put on Ethiopian business owners. “With all that development, I’m not sure this area can sustain these businesses,” he mused, pointing out that owning the buildings—rather than renting, like in Adams Morgan—is no insurance against change. “The value of these buildings will go up and up, and the current owners will start getting offers. When they understand that the value is going from $300,000 to $1.3 million, they will have an incentive to move on,” he said.

At the very least, he said, the nature of the businesses will have to change. Places like Axum that serve as an “internal social club,” as Mr. Spalding put it, with a largely Ethiopian clientele who come to speak their native language and feel at home with friends, will face pressure to widen their customer base or leave.

Mr. Spalding’s observations are difficult to argue with. Ninth Street may once have been a remote hinterland, but it’s becoming increasingly central in a DC that keeps reinventing itself.

The Ethiopians who work and hang out on the block are also watching developments closely. In Axum one Saturday night, reactions to the neighborhood’s current and planned growth are mixed, but few people speak negatively—on the record, at least—about its prospects.

“The future? It’s going to be more crowded, bring more business,” said Axum’s owner, Mr. Kahassai. “A lot of things might change, but I’m not going to worry.”

Haile Gebro, a former contractor who was nursing a bottle of beer, said, “So far, the changes are for good. But it’s very hard to talk about the future because it’s changing so fast.”

His friend, Negasi Teklu, a former correctional officer who has lived the area for 25 years, was more specific. “The neighborhood has definitely changed. It’s like 18th Street—I saw how it changed. The Ethiopians come here, open businesses and open eyes. Now the changes might drive us out of here.”

But his response sounded a rare negative note. At this shining time when the neighborhood is flourishing and seems to hold enormous promise, most Ethiopians are overwhelmingly optimistic about the future.

“I think it’s going to be good,” said Danny Kebede, the manager of Chez Hareg’s bakery. “To see this area cleaner and safer means more business to the strip—I don’t see the negative at all. Starbucks is absolutely welcome to this block. More business is better.”