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Embzam Misgina, a 40-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, didn’t think he’d run into much resistance in stretching “Little Ethiopia” farther south down 9th Street NW. The cluster of Ethiopian hangouts near 9th and U Streets, after all, has helped to propel the revitalization of an entire neighborhood. “It was a very bad area, but we opened a lot of restaurants up there and it became very safe and commercial,” says Misgina.
When Misgina went about opening a restaurant at the corner of 9th and P Streets, though, he found himself treading on the turf of a historic black institution: His Queen of Sheba restaurant is across the street from Shiloh Baptist Church and next door to its Child Development Center. As it turns out, Shiloh would much rather keep the borders of Little Ethiopia right where they’ve been, as opposed to welcoming a liquor-serving establishment to its block.
At a hearing before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Wednesday, Sept. 14, members of the Shiloh congregation filled the room to capacity in protest of Queen of Sheba’s liquor-license application. Outside the hearing room, the Rev. Robert Felton, director of Shiloh’s Human Services Program, shared his strong feelings on temperance: “I’ve had personal contact with so many folks who have alcohol problems. Why should I want them to have contact with another place of no redeeming value?”
A place like Queen of Sheba, though, is exactly what the corridor needs for redemption, according to many Shaw residents. “Neighbors are clamoring for development on 9th Street,” says Christopher Dyer, chair of the Shaw advisory neighborhood commission’s (ANC) Community Development Committee. ANC surveys indicate that alcohol-licensed restaurants top the list of the community’s most desired businesses.
They sure beat boarded-up windows. Empty buildings dominate the stretch of 9th Street between Massachusetts and Rhode Island Avenues: On the 1200 block, the shiny new Washington Convention Center faces a row of empty buildings with poster-plastered boards blocking old storefronts; the south half of the 1300 block is lined with abandoned buildings on both sides of the street; the 1400 block has several vacant properties, most of them boarded up; the 1500 block features Shiloh Baptist Church, an electrical-supply store, a corner carryout, and a strip of abandoned and decrepit town houses, all but one of them owned by Shiloh.
The city’s strict historic-preservation restrictions catch some of the rap for the blight. Although zoning regulations along 9th Street allow for significant commercial and residential development, the buildings themselves are often tiny—and historic protections prevent developers from tinkering too much with the space. “It’s frustrating. You own something, you want to make it nice, and the obstacles are manifold,” says Michael Sendar, who owns two empty buildings at the intersection of 9th and Q Streets. And Richard Ceccone, a real-estate broker who represents the owners of six buildings on the 1200 block of 9th Street, says developers won’t bite on the properties. “They can’t build to what the zoning allows,” he says.
But in the view of Shaw’s armchair economic-development analysts, Shiloh Baptist has outdone building regulations in slowing the corridor’s renaissance. “The church has held the neighborhood’s development hostage,” says Shaw ANC Commissioner Alex Padro, pointing to the nearly dozen abandoned buildings the church owns and its opposition to liquor-licensed restaurants.
“I don’t see why they oppose us,” says Misgina, who is now unsure if he’ll ever open for business at 9th and P. He doesn’t understand why the church would protest a liquor license for an Ethiopian restaurant when there are already two businesses—a Giant supermarket and a corner liquor store—selling alcohol within a block of the church. Misgina also doesn’t see why on-premises drinking would be more offensive than selling booze and letting people walk out onto the street with it.
Campbell Johnson, head of the Urban Housing Alliance and a member of the choir at Shiloh Baptist, sees all the portents of a nuisance in the liquor-license placard in Queen of Sheba’s window. It indicates closing times as late as 3 a.m. on weekends as well as live music and dancing. In Johnson’s world, those features don’t add up to a restaurant. “If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and has webbed feet, it’s not a bunny rabbit—it’s a nightclub,” he says.
Johnson and other Shiloh members detect the same nightclub-behind-a-restaurant packaging at Vegetate, a vegetarian restaurant one block south of the church that’s due to open within a month. Shiloh congregants jammed the room at Vegetate’s liquor-license hearing on Sept. 7. “The very idea that rampant restaurant, lounge, bar, nightclubs are what are [sic] youth need to see is a total insult to this historic African American Community,” wrote Johnny Howard, chair of Shiloh’s Board of Deacons in an Aug. 9 letter regarding Vegetate.
Husband and wife Dominic Redd, 34, and Jennifer Redd, 32, co-owners of Vegetate, are flabbergasted by the church’s beef with their business. They say their efforts to meet with church officials to show them around the restaurant failed. (Johnson denies that they tried.) Had their efforts succeeded, the Redds are confident, the church would’ve realized that Vegetate won’t be a nightclub but an upscale, smoke-free vegetarian restaurant with ambient music and bimonthly art openings. The focus of the restaurant will be food, the Redds insist. As for fears that the place would become a nightclub to meet rising rent, they counter that they have a 10-year lease with rent control.
“You’d think a historically African-American church would support a small, independently owned African-American business,” says Jennifer Redd. Dominic Redd says that Vegetate has already helped the neighborhood—he has cleaned up liquor bottles, hypodermic needles, and piles of human excrement in the vicinity of the restaurant.
Some Shaw neighbors only wish that Shiloh were as motivated to deal with its own eyesores as it is to protest liquor licenses. Carlos Arias moved to Shaw in October 2000, next door to an abandoned building owned by Shiloh on P Street, around the corner from the church. The front yard filled up regularly with trash, and Arias could hear the critters that had settled in the house. He tried to get the church to take care of the place, and Shiloh eventually sold the property.
Johnson, who lives in Adams Morgan, says that the church is closer than ever to doing something about the buildings: “Paperwork for something significant will be struck within the next six months,” he says. He insists that contrary to appearances from the street, the church has always been concerned about the empty buildings and has addressed a number of proposals over the years for dealing with them. Shiloh owns the entire 1500 block on the west side of 9th Street except for three addresses, one of which is the historical Carter Woodson House—a significant obstacle to taking the whole block and turning it into something like an assisted-living facility, which Johnson says would be ideal in the church’s view.
Padro and other Shaw property owners allege that the church simply doesn’t want to be forced to make changes and deal with all its empty, decrepit buildings. The gripes over real estate inevitably spill into other perennial urban-space problems. Ray Milefsky, a self-described curmudgeon who lives a block from Shiloh, notes that much of the congregation—“black bourgeois from P.G. County”—commutes to the neighborhood on Sundays, clogging the streets with cars.
Felton, who lives in Clinton, Md., says that just because relatively few members of the congregation live in Shaw doesn’t mean Shiloh doesn’t know what’s best for the community. The church has provided programs for local children, the homeless, the deaf, and the elderly. “People from Virginia and Maryland are doing more to benefit the city than people in the neighborhood,” he says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.