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Photo of Andy Shallal by Darrow Montgomery

Andy Shallal has a knack for inserting himself into the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. The owner of Busboys and Poets, the local restaurant chain with an activist, community-centric bent, has opened six locations of his popular gathering spot—four in D.C. proper and two in the suburbs. Often his restaurants serve as anchors of new developments, and additional businesses frequently follow his lead. 

Shallal plans to open a seventh location by the end of the year on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia. The area is just beginning to experience the interminable swell of what some call development and others call gentrification.  

Other major projects are in the works, including MLK Gateway, a 50,000-square-foot development that would bring retail and apartments to the neighborhood, and the 11th Street Bridge Park, which would connect Anacostia to Capitol Hill with a park spanning the Anacostia River.  

Along with the development, housing prices are rising, too. According to real estate website Trulia, median home sales prices in the neighborhood rose $33,500, or 13 percent, in in the past year. Median home sales prices rose slightly more, by 14 percent, city-wide last year. 

Historic Anacostia is rich with African-American history—the same kind of history that Busboys and Poets aims to lift up and celebrate. The neighborhood was home to the city’s first non-segregated movie theaters and abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived his final years in a house on W Street SE. 

Busboys and Poets’ name honors another famous black Washingtonian, poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s. 

The artwork at the restaurants celebrates black history; a mural at 14th and V streets NW, created by Shallal, features images of activists like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., who have eased the plight of oppressed people. Every location offers programming, from author talks to community meetings and open mics, and President Barack Obama even paid a visit to the 14th Street NW location in 2016. 

The restaurants remain popular with both locals and out-of-towners who like their vegan nachos with a side of social justice and can afford a $14 burger. Entrees at the restaurant range in price from $9 for beans and wild rice to crab cakes for $26. Prices are standard across all the existing restaurants, regardless of the neighborhood or the median income of its residents. 

The question is whether Shallal’s businesses can pay homage to black history and contribute to the cultural richness of the District without also leading a wave of development that negatively impacts black residents.

Southeast D.C. resident Nicole Odom doesn’t think they can. “They want to move forward with this redevelopment, but it’s not really benefiting my family,” she says. “We don’t need a Busboys and Poets. We need childcare. We need schools.”

Odom lives at Barry Farm, the public housing community near Anacostia that will be demolished and redeveloped by the city beginning this spring. She sees a connection between the upcoming opening of Busboys and Poets and the upcoming razing of her home. The city government and D.C. Housing Authority will relocate Barry Farm residents during the construction process. 

“Are they going to be able to come back to enjoy a Busboys and Poets?” asks Daniel del Pielago, the organizing director of community advocacy group Empower DC. “When we speak to residents who live in neighborhoods in Anacostia, that’s not what they want or need. The services that have lacked historically—we’d like to see those, instead of priority being given to the developer class. ” 

He continues: “What we’re seeing is the next frontier in development sprawl, the preparation of an area as prime real estate for redevelopment. … It’s the same model that Busboys and Poets followed on 14th Street [NW].”

Indeed, there were similar concerns before the first Busboys and Poets opened at the corner of 14th and V streets NW in September 2005. In December of that year, several months after the opening, Todd Kliman wrote in Washingtonian about the restaurant’s intrinsic paradox: “With his new restaurant, Andy Shallal is taking on the problems of race and class on U Street. But for some, the solution itself is a problem.”

In the 12 years since the opening, the neighborhood has become one of the city’s most desirable—according to the residential real estate website Trulia, the median home sale price for the U Street neighborhood in August 2017 was $706,000. That’s $100,000 more than the city at large. But it wasn’t always that way, according to Shallal. 

“14th Street has gone through some really serious transformation,” he says. “They looked at me like I was crazy, opening where I did. U Street was developing, but it was as if V Street was miles away,” he says. “At some point things started to change, but that’s way more than I’m capable of doing. Change happens and we just happen to be one of the businesses that’s part of it.”

The other three Busboys and Poets locations in D.C. were early residents in neighborhoods that saw single family home prices increase after the restaurant’s arrival. The Takoma outpost opened in February 2015; Mount Vernon Square in September 2008; and Brookland on New Years Eve 2014. 

The median price of single family homes within a 0.7-mile radius of the Brookland location in the six months prior to the restaurant’s opening date was $575,000. In the six months after, it jumped to $700,000. In Takoma, sales prices jumped $45,000 in the same time span surrounding its opening. (The figures were obtained from the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems database.) 

Busboys and Poets’ specific role in these price spikes is hard to define, but the observed correlation was dubbed “The Busboys and Poets Effect” by real estate blog UrbanTurf. 

“Many people selling condos in the area started including Busboys and Poets in their sales pitches, and our name is regularly mentioned on Craigslist ads and other promotions around town,” Shallal told UrbanTurf at the time. 

Shallal has made a habit of opening Busboys and Poets as a first tenant in conjunction with developers who are opening new, multi-use projects, like City Vista in Mount Vernon Triangle. The strategy proves mutually beneficial for the developers and Busboys and Poets, according to Shallal.

“I work really closely with developers that want us there,” he says. “They have to play a part in making sure we succeed. We bring an added value to a new development. That is desirable to a lot of developers and they have initial funds that they can use to support us, to make sure that the economics work for me from the get-go.”

The strategy has also led individuals to label him a gentrifier. New construction, and the architecturally out-of-place developments that it sometimes brings, can be a visible sign of a changing neighborhood.

In Brookland, Busboys and Poets opened as part of the Monroe Street Market development. The $200-million project, which brought 720 residences and more than 100,000-square-feet of retail and amenity space to the area, was met with community opposition during its planning stages. It has also encouraged new residents to move to the area, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ed Garnett of single member district 5E01.

“As far as changes in the neighborhood, I am a product of that change,” he says.

Garnett and his wife had considered moving to Edgewood before the opening of Monroe Street Market, but decided against it because the neighborhood lacked the amenities they were looking for. 

“Fast forward to Busboys and Poets opening—we came back in early 2015, and we thought, ‘This feels a lot more vibrant, it feels like the kind of place where we’d like to live,’” he says.

Shallal hopes his restaurants can span the divide between new residents like Garnett and long-time ones like many of the constituents Garnett now represents.

“We’ve become a bridge for the people that live there and the people that are coming. That’s what Busboys and Poets does best,” Shallal says. “We have a cross section of all of D.C.”

The programming at the restaurants aims to ease tension—events like open mics, community forums, speakers and movie screenings—but Daniel del Pielago of Empower DC says those programs don’t truly help the community.

“We want to see social justice in practice, not just a place where people can pontificate about it,” he says. “By now, Andy Shallal should know the impact that his restaurants and developments have on the community.” 

Another way Shallal hopes to create a bridge between longtime and incoming residents in Anacostia is by partnering with organizations in Wards 7 and 8 that are training residents for careers in the culinary and hospitality industries. 

For Odom, the longtime Ward 8 resident, the promise of future jobs isn’t enough. “As low income residents … the only thing that seems to be on the table is the opportunity to possibly work at these places,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking that we’d come back to these communities to work where we once lived.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.