Unlike its metropolitan neighbors on the I-95 cowpath, D.C. doesn’t have many factories, foundries, production lines, smithies, refineries, canneries, tanneries, mills, plants, or places where people perform Adam Smith’s “one simple operation.” Our worker bees toil either in air-conditioned office buildings making executive, judicial, or legislative decisions or in the service industry catering to those decision-makers.
Still, somehow, D.C. does have its rust belt.
Crowding New York Avenue as it winds through Northeast from the Wendy’s at Florida Avenue to the wild woodlands of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, these neighborhoods make their bones struggling against or surrendering to their geography’s marginal, industrial character. Consider the New York Avenue diaspora: the Florida Avenue Market, Howard Johnson’s, the anthrax-plagued Curseen-Morris Mail Processing and Distribution Center (named for two postal workers Cipro couldn’t save), Home Depot, the Brentwood DMV, BET, the Washington Times , and, running through this mess of chain-link fences and empty parking lots like a carotid artery, a jumble of rail lines.
Hubcapitol Hill is not beautiful, nor are all of its streets tree-lined, nor are its intersections pedestrian-friendly—New York Avenue is the only Washington thoroughfare more notable for its warehouses than its colonial homes or embassies.
The strip clubs in Southeast bulldozed to make way for National Stadium? They’re relocating to Ivy City, a gritty collection of carryouts and housing projects that hugs Mount Olivet Road. Looking for a quick trip from your cheap Brentwood abode to downtown? Check out rush-hour traffic on New York Avenue, and watch out for sinkholes. In Hubcapitol Hill, there’s no there there: Commuters commute through it, gentrifiers can’t quite re-do it, and, unless you’re retrieving your car from the Brentwood Impound Lot or adopting a dog at the D.C. Animal Shelter, many tourists and white Washingtonians have never been to it.
There are indeed reasons to stay away. Near to the iconic intersection of New York and Florida Avenues, for example, is the Florida Avenue Market, a collection of wholesalers long famous for piling altogether too much trash out back. Heading east, behold the warehouses where homeless squatters once specialized in harvesting copper pipes and other fungible assets. Then comes the trash-transfer district and its history of heated
NIMBYism. And forget not the alleys that run near New York’s easternmost extremes, where car-dwelling men are available around the clock to repair your sputtering auto.
The city archives would be much easier to index if it weren’t for all the initiatives to revitalize this corridor. Well-meaning politicians from Harry Thomas Sr. through John Ray and Anthony A. Williams have at one point or another commissioned studies, sponsored bills, or otherwise tried to get the weight of officialdom behind sprucing up the avenue. Those efforts invariably cited a single motivating factor for revitalization: New York Avenue serves as the primary automotive gateway into the District—why not create a better first impression? The market forces behind the corridor’s ugliness have consistently overwhelmed whatever piece of paper made its way out of committee.
But it’s easy to knock the area’s aesthetics without a nod to its history and character. Bold gentrification in Trinidad has transformed H Street from a riot-ravaged black business corridor into the semi-bustling and developer-named “Atlas District”—a metamorphosis that may or may not outlast the economic downturn and recent spate of murders and Baghdad-style security checkpoints. Redevelopment of Edgewood Terrace near Rhode Island Avenue by an affordable housing nonprofit has been less dramatic, but healthier—the neighborhood cannot boast of destination restaurants, but fewer residents have been displaced.
Farther south and east, the Kingman Park-Rosedale Community Garden is an urban agriculture success story, but waiting lists for plots and a losing battle to traffic in the long shadow of RFK stadium make for a less-than-storybook ending. What many NIMBYs don’t know is that most of the weirdo oeuvre of Mingering Mike—a local outsider artist who makes fake album covers that house cardboard LP’s by fake bands—was unearthed in a now-defunct flea market in the stadium’s parking lot.
To the north, Gallaudet University on Florida Avenue has been the nation’s premier university for the deaf and hard of hearing since its founding in 1856. It’s home to a unique campus culture and politicized student body that ousted an incoming president in 2007. The warehouses of Ivy City are also good bets for finding practice spaces for your band, auto parts at below-market prices, and granite countertops without trying to flag down an orange-shirted Home Depot customer service representative. Langdon Park’s go-go clubs play a large part in the genesis story of the District’s No. 1 cultural product, but the Bladensburg Road club strip ain’t what it used to be. Check out Familiar Fridays at Mirrors (33 New York Ave. NE) for an earful of the sound that made D.C. famous. Northern Langdon Park is quieter and more residential, in large part because the National Arboretum’s 446 acres have oxygenated this hood since its founding in 1927. Those azalea-filled acres, spitting distance from New York Avenue, take some of the rust out of this rust belt.
But how shiny can Hubcapitol Hill get? Ask the developers of Washington Gateway, a million-square-foot residential/retail project near the New York Avenue Metro due to be completed in 2010. These folks are betting on a brighter future for this corridor. With large, empty spaces and sprawling warehouses to reimagine, a 21st-century D.C. may yet emerge in a place too many view as the road to someplace else.
• Art Enables at 411 New York Ave. NE is an art-therapy program/gallery for developmentally disabled adults with an awesome motto: “outsider art inside the Beltway.”
• Love nightclub at 1350 Okie St. NE brings big names in R&B to the District, and is always good for a Dave Chappelle or Chris Tucker sighting.
• Your credit card’s no good at the cash-only Lowest Price Gas at Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue, but a gallon of regular unleaded usually delivers on the joint’s name.