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
Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Phil Spalding, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for an area that includes the west side of
He continued, “Then there’s the Broadway Atlantic project, being done by a huge developer from
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,
There’s even a small development planned for the very heart of the 1900 block of
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.
The Ethiopians who work and hang out on the block are also watching developments closely. In
“The future? It’s going to be more crowded, bring more business,” said
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
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.”