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Big K Liquors, which looms over the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Morris Road SE, makes a big impression.
Three signs make sure you don’t miss it. There’s the two-story big k in blue and red on the whitewashed side of the building. A metal awning, royal blue trimmed in white, says it again across the front of the store. And a neon sign juts out from the storefront, glowing the words big k liquors.
But Yavocka Young doesn’t think it’s a good impression—not for a business located at the southern end of the Historic Anacostia shopping district. Young, the executive director of Main Street Anacostia, has a different vision: A dainty red awning will take the place of the dingy metal one. The neon sign will be replaced by a simpler lighted sign, and the wall will hopefully be painted over. And a name change would be nice, too, Young says. She likes “Big K Fine Wine and Spirits.”
Or take the hodgepodge of small signs and advertisements cluttering Gold Spot Check Cashing’s front window. Young envisions a simple black awning with gold spot printed in large white letters over the door—that’s it.
“Once you have this nice sign with gooseneck lighting,” Young says, “you don’t want this stuff to be cluttering everything up.”
Main Street Anacostia (MSA) is a nonprofit funded by the city, corporate sponsors, and other nonprofits whose mission includes luring new businesses to Anacostia’s commercial corridor. But before any of that can happen, Young wants to spruce up the establishments already there. Over the summer, MSA was awarded a $300,000 grant from the city’s Neighborhood Investment Fund (NIF) to make improvements, and now Young’s spending it on the little things—a new awning here, a more modern, understated sign there.
“We’re trying to create more of a retail and restaurant destination,” Young says. “We really want to showcase the area’s tourist attractions, and we want to add some color and funk to the buildings but in a way that’s tasteful and honors the history.”
In an area that has long been mentioned as the next front in the city’s ongoing gentrification, businesses have been either slow to come or quick to close down. Still, Anacostia seems to have the makings of a thriving commercial hub. Interstate 295 spits traffic directly onto Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Good Hope Road, the corridor’s other main artery, crosses back under I-295 and deposits you into Anacostia Park, which is reminiscent of the greenway between the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River that leads into Old Town Alexandria—a place she sees as inspiration. “The Anacostia commercial corridor has the potential to be to Ward 8 and the east-of-the-river community what Old Town is to Alexandria,” Young says. She lists the corridor’s pros: “It’s historic, it has tourism potential,” she says. “It has a great location, great scale, great restaurant and retail potential, a great village feel.”
The wealth of vacant storefronts up and down the Anacostia commercial strip on MLK and Good Hope Road, however, would seem to indicate bigger problems than awnings and gooseneck lighting can solve. But as Young sees it, making Anacostia a friendly place for business begins with the details.
For instance, making the turn onto Good Hope Road, there’s a distinct difference in the street’s feel; it seems somehow shabbier than MLK.
“Here they didn’t take the wires down,” Young explains, pointing to the power lines that swing overhead. “The city doesn’t want to give Pepco the money to bury them, yet everywhere else in the city they’re buried. Every time we bring it up, it’s a money issue. That’s really bad, and it makes it look like a ghetto shantytown.”
She points down at the brick sidewalk on MLK, built in the early ’90s. The mortar is breaking apart.
“Whatever contractor the city hired did not do it right because as you can see, you have all these holes,” she says, poking her heel down between the bricks. The District has been slated to outfit the corridor with new bricking, globe lights, banners, and street furniture since 2002, she says, yet the neighborhood is still waiting.
“Every year it’s supposed to be coming,” Young says. “It’s just amazing to me how these other neighborhoods seem to get things done so quickly. Then they get all these kudos, but really it was the city investment in the streetscape.”
Erik Linden, spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), says that Anacostia is on his agency’s radar and the 2002 funds were for banners only. “The bottom line is that DDOT is proceeding with improvements in Anacostia now—more than $8 million is in the pipeline for construction to begin next year on streetscape there,” he writes in an e-mail.
“That’s what we get all the time: ‘pipeline,’” Young scoffs. “We’re looking for implementation.”
So while the transportation department dithers, Young has been taking things into her own hands by fundraising and taking advantage of city programs.
Ann Cobler owns LaThreadz, a shop on Good Hope Road that sells trendy, colorful clothes for adolescent girls and young women. Right now, her storefront bears LaThreadz’s funky multicolored logo, but Cobler says she’s looking forward to getting her new sign. She says the new sign, complete with gooseneck lighting, is more befitting a boutique and will blend in better with the rest of the stores.
“It’ll make [the corridor] more uniform and give it a makeover,” she says.
That makeover, Young says, is needed to help change the image of an impoverished Ward 8, where even some of the occupied buildings in the neighborhood aren’t helping. Those belong to the ward’s nonprofits.
During her 14 years owning a home in the neighborhood, the 38-year-old Young has watched nonprofit after nonprofit set up in the corridor. While the services these organizations provide—job training, food aid, and substance-abuse programs—may indeed be needed, she says, they’re not what a business corridor needs. In fact, she says, they’re death to a business district because they deter would-be businesses.
But Duane Gautier, president of ARCH Training Center, the 20-year-old nonprofit that occupies a 9,000-square-foot building on Good Hope Road, disagrees. “It is better for commercial development to have occupied property than ugly vacant properties that are not utilized,” he says, pointing out that his organization has renovated vacant storefronts for years.
Gautier believes that if the former Woolworth building that ARCH renovated as its new home had been rented out to a for-profit company, it would most likely have 10 employees and 40 people coming in and out each day, as opposed to the 40 employees and 80-plus students ARCH attracts. “Having ARCH as a not-for-profit brings more money to the community than if it had been a for-profit facility,” Gautier says. “And that’s an economic fact.”
But Young maintains that the nonprofits are one of the reasons for all the vacancies because of the image they promote. “When someone wants to open up a restaurant, and they look and they see all nonprofits,” she says, “they think, These people don’t need a new restaurant, these people need help!”
On Good Hope Road, another one of those nonprofits resides in a nondescript, one-level white building with no windows. It’s the Good Hope Institute—a methadone clinic. Residents and business owners didn’t want the clinic in their neighborhood, Young says, but the fight was futile.
“It’s terrible particularly on Saturday mornings,” she says of the addicts who migrate from all parts of the city to Anacostia. “It’s not all black people; it’s white people, too. It’s a diversity of clients, but they’re all drugheads,” she says. “We’ve managed to attract a diverse population to the corridor after all, but it’s to patronize the methadone clinic.”
T’Chaka Sapp, a 43-year-old urban-development consultant and advisory neighborhood commissioner, also sees the byproducts of poverty blighting the neighborhood. “They need to get rid of all these social-service programs,” he says. “When you have this business corridor, you need to have businesses that can generate income and taxes and employ people.”
As a young professional—that elusive Ward 8 resident with disposable income—Sapp is just the kind of resident Young wants spending money in the corridor. But he doesn’t, he says, because there are no restaurants or other businesses for him to patronize.
Besides the nonprofits, the most sustainable business models for the area seem to be carryouts, tax prep, and pain-therapy centers for auto-accident victims. Young would like to see a hardware store, more sit-down restaurants, and a coffee shop come to Good Hope Road or MLK. But right now, the only thing close to a cup of joe around here is the handwritten sign in an abandoned storefront window that reads “fresh coffee and doughnuts.” Young says that building hasn’t been occupied for the last five years. And when it was occupied, it housed an ice-cream shop that stayed open for about a year.
On MLK, Young stops in front of a mural that was painted in 1987. It depicts black men working on a construction site. “Say No to Drugs” is scrawled next to “I ran away from slavery.” “Better Housing Now” is painted beside “Vote Right Now.” Young cites the painting as another plague to investment.
When asked what she would like to see on the wall, Young’s vision is simple: “Nothing.” To her, image is everything, and murals like this are “ghetto,” unprogressive, and hostile to a healthy business climate. When it comes to art, Young says she thinks it’s great in the form of galleries and art shows.
“I think that whenever that was [painted] it was a good thing,” she says, “but I think it’s time for this neighborhood to move on.”
Young says she can’t offer would-be businesses a whole lot of incentives aside from location and projections of gentrification. If she details the current demographics, they’re not all that attractive. The average individual income in Ward 8, she says, is less than $20,000 a year.
“We’ve got to start thinking about sustainability and this area’s economy, or it’s always going to be the poor ward,” Young says. “Don’t have us spinning our wheels if there’s not going to be any real support for this turnaround. If the real plan is that Ward 8 houses the city’s poor, then say that upfront. If that really is the plan, then I wish somebody would just stand up and say that so that those of us who are working in economic development can do something else.”CP