City Paper is not for tourists
Del Ray’s first coffee shop marked the beginning of neighborhood revitalization—and the end of the old way of life.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
The clouds were not foreboding. They were cheery-looking—white, billowy puffs made of plaster that appeared overnight on a vacant storefront on Mount Vernon Avenue in the spring of 1996. They floated in a snaky line below the overhang, which had been painted bright turquoise.
Residents of the Del Ray neighborhood, in Alexandria, Va., gossiped about what might be coming to the blighted stretch of the avenue. Then the coffee cups showed up, two feet high and brightly colored. The clouds were steam. Above the entryway, there was now a sign:
“St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub—Coming Soon!”
As a lifelong resident of Del Ray, I was delighted to see a coffee shop opening on the main drag. I wouldn’t go there in the mornings, unless it sold cigarettes and gum, but it looked like the perfect place to satisfy late-night cravings for coffee drinks requiring fancy syrups and other accouterments that the local convenience stores lacked.
Until that spring, if you wanted to drink coffee from a non-Styrofoam cup, it required a 10-minute car trip—plus a 20-minutes hunt for parking—to congested Old Town to go to Misha’s or Starbucks. However, my excitement at being able to walk two blocks for a java fix was tempered by suspicion: Who would want to open up a coffeehouse in Del Ray?
Although I grew up in the neighborhood and wax nostalgic about its past at every opportunity, it was hardly the land of frothy, whipped milk and organic honey. The sidewalks of my childhood were either cracked or nonexistent; the houses were cute but tiny and peeling. Where King Street in Old Town boasted ethnic cuisine and clothing boutiques, Mount Vernon Avenue had dry cleaners and beauty salons, mixed in with old, abandoned buildings.
But by 1996, Del Ray had begun to attract a new sort of resident—people who mowed their lawns at 7 a.m. and took up all the street parking with their multiple cars. The recent arrivals were stripping aluminum siding off bungalows, replacing their porch awnings with wooden roofs, and trucking giant appliances into their tiny kitchens.
Alexandria native Scott Mitchell was in the thick of the redevelopment, buying and rehabbing houses for the newcomers. St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub was part of his first commercial purchase in his neighborhood, a large building on the corner of Mount Vernon and East Del Ray Avenues. He bought it to house his own offices, he says, but wanted to find interesting tenants for the rest of the space.
On a visit to Roanoke, he had his inspiration. “I went into this coffee shop while I was visiting my niece down at college,” Mitchell says. “They had a great big library, a bulletin board that had listings for jobs, apartments—it was unbelievable. I came back and said, ‘I gotta find somebody to do this.’”
The coffee companies Mitchell contacted were unenthusiastic about the space. “One said it was too dangerous,” he says. “Another said that they thought they would be overextending themselves by opening another store. And the last one I tried said that they just didn’t think that it would work—they thought Mount Vernon Avenue was dead.”
After the final rejection, Mitchell decided to make a go of it himself, enlisting the help of longtime friend Nora Partlow, who was working for the Bread and Chocolate coffee and bakery chain at the time. “It was pretty much a leap of faith,” Mitchell says. “It was a cool residential area, but the commercial area wasn’t there yet. People think that I knew what I was doing, but when I look back, I must have been crazy.”
St. Elmo’s quickly became the focal point of the entire neighborhood. For recent transplants, it became a home away from home, with its lending library of magazines and books donated by customers and live music in the evenings. For older, more wary residents, it became a place to sit across the street from and laugh at the people who talked to their dogs like children and kept their children on leashes.
That was only the beginning. After St. Elmo’s arrived, the retail on Mount Vernon Avenue began to turn over quickly; service-oriented mom-and-pop businesses gave way to pricey restaurants, yoga studios, and day spas. The building I remember holding Mac’s Place, a watering hole for loudmouthed drunks, became Taqueria Poblano, an upscale Tex-Mex eatery. The halal butcher was replaced by Bodywave, a balneotherapy body work center. Red Carpet Real Estate became a day spa.
According to City of Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning figures, the mean household income in Del Ray jumped from $46,684 in 1989 to $80,118 in 2000—more than $20,000 over the mean income in Alexandria as a whole that same year.
St. Elmo’s succeeded, in large part, by taking advantage of the influx of monied residents. But before long, that dynamic started working in reverse: People started moving to the area because of the existence of the coffeehouse.
“Agents used to advertise properties as being close to Commonwealth Avenue, or ‘two blocks away from Commonwealth’ to avoid saying they were near [Mount Vernon] Avenue,” says Nancy Dunning, a real estate associate with McEnearney Associates Inc. who specializes in Del Ray properties. “Now listings say ‘two blocks from St. Elmo’s.’ People want to be close to Mount Vernon Avenue.”
The success of St. Elmo’s prompted Mitchell to make another large commercial purchase. In 2001, he bought the entire east side of the 2400 block of Mount Vernon Avenue and the adjacent Sheila E. Doud Human Services Center, which houses the city’s Department of Human Services. With a grip on the strip’s most coveted commercial properties, Mitchell is widely regarded in the neighborhood as the king of Del Ray.
“Oh yeah, I actually have a contract to buy the Masonic Temple—then I’ll own all of Alexandria,” he says, laughing. “People talk—and it’s more fun to let them talk.”
Though other developers may own more real estate, it was Mitchell who started the change on the avenue—to his credit or, in some residents’ eyes, to his blame. The same forces that pulled in newcomers have left longtime Del Ray dwellers feeling pushed out.
“We’re all gone,” says Alexandria City Councilmember Joyce Woodson, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years. “The people that are the same age as my husband and I—they’ve gotten rid of us. This community had all types of people—they’re gone because of the cost of housing.”
“The avenue’s changes have been brought about by the people,” Woodson continues. “It’s gentrification in action. Some of it is good—buildings are fixed up that were once sad and drooping, homes are fixed up that were once sad and drooping—but the people who were here were not sad and drooping.”
Mitchell maintains that the redevelopment of Mount Vernon Avenue is a step up for the neighborhood, not a step backward. “Some previous landowners weren’t progressive in redevelopment,” he says. “It took a long time, but little by little, over the years, myself and others have managed to bring a nice mix.”
But what constitutes a “nice mix” is relative.
“I think we need a good mixture of service businesses and retail,” says Marilyn Doherty, a former Del Ray Citizen’s Association (DRCA) president who has lived in the neighborhood since 1970. “Things go in cycles—there is room for change, but I don’t want to see us lose what was good from the past.”
And the gentrification process hasn’t ended with coffee and pottery shops. Mount Vernon Avenue is now in the midst of a second wave of transformation: Flagship businesses that gave the avenue its new, consumer-charming identity are being priced out. To the chagrin of many neighbors, the strip has even acquired its first national chain store. Prosperity changes everything—including prosperity itself.
Many of my weekends as a kid growing up in the Del Ray of the early ’80s were spent orchestrating “bank robberies.”
The owners of the bank just across the street from my house used to leave old deposit slips and other unused forms outside its back doors for neighborhood kids to play with, presumably to color on.
Instead, we jumped on our mag-wheel dirt bikes and used the papers to stage elaborate “robberies.” We first “stole” the slips from the bank and then hid them all along the avenue. Then we would “steal” them back from various business owners, who were happy to let us run around their properties.
On school days, as I walked home from Mount Vernon Elementary School on the avenue, I would stop in at Thompson’s—a small grocery store that catered to local winos by selling alcohol singles. On the occasions that I thought I could sit still long enough to have my hair braided, I would rummage through the store’s large selection of synthetic hair in various colors, but most days my friends and I went in for the candy.
When she saw us coming, the proprietor would pull down a giant drum of 2-cent Jolly Rancher candies from a high shelf and let us dig through it, picking out the flavors we wanted.
As we headed home, sticking out our red-, green-, and orange-stained tongues for inspection, we periodically turned around to take a look at the abandoned furniture store near the school. We told stories about the ghosts we believed to inhabit the place and wondered what amazing and scary things went on inside that made our parents caution us to never, ever go in there.
Whenever my dad’s watch broke, I would go with him to Henderson’s Watch Repair, where the owner would give me a brief demonstration of the tiny tools he used to keep the neighborhood’s timepieces ticking. When our TV broke, my mom took it down to Cotton’s TV Repair, where fix-it man James Cotton held it hostage for a week—undeniably the most agonizing seven days of my childhood.
Every once in a while, as my friends and I roughhoused on my front lawn, my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Larkin, would stand on her front porch and tell me about how Del Ray used to look back in the ’30s and ’40s, when she was a kid. “There was a movie theater here—did you know that? It only cost a nickel. See where that Crestar Bank is? There used to be houses there,” she said. “I’ll tell you, this place has really changed.”
Del Ray started out as just a bare, 254-acre piece of land, but it was developed in the late 1800s as a community for the men who worked at the nearby rail yard and their families. Bounded by the Jefferson Davis Highway, or Route 1, to the east, Braddock Road to the south, Russell Road to the west, and Glebe Road to the north, the neighborhood became dilapidated and run-down in the ’60s and ’70s. But as an affordable area close to the District, it attracted pioneering hippies and young government workers who wanted to settle down and start families.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, most change was slow and unremarkable. Henderson’s Watch Repair became Spurlock’s Watch Repair. A restaurant at the corner of E. Howell and Mount Vernon seemed to change hands and change names every other month, but it kept serving the same burgers and baked potatoes.
Now, each opening or closing is taken as a sign of something. And what you buy and where you buy it has implications for the whole neighborhood. While working on a home project in the fall of 1997, Charles Buki, who moved to Del Ray in 1992, went shopping for glass at Del Ray Hardware. At the store, he says, he struck up a conversation with a man working there.
“We were chitchatting and talking about the neighborhood,” Buki says. “And I asked if he ever went to St. Elmo’s, and he said, ‘No—never. I get my coffee at 7-Eleven.’ I asked him why, and he said that the coffee was cheaper.
“I told him that coffee at St. Elmo’s was [only] $1.25, versus 75 cents at 7-Eleven, and he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s cheaper.’ I said, ‘Well, by that logic, I would’ve gone to Home Depot to buy the glass I needed.’ He told me he’d never thought of that.”
Del Ray Hardware went out of business five years ago. Its building is now occupied by Potomac West Interiors and Antiques.
During a late-afternoon lull in business, Dan Maljanian, 39, takes a break and sits at a sunny window table inside Ann MeMe’s Bakery and Cafe. As he eats a sandwich and reads the newspaper, a high-pitched voice punctuates the quiet.
“I’m so sad to hear you’re leaving!” says an older, female customer to Maljanian, on her way out of the bakery. “You have to stay in the neighborhood!” The woman balances a coffee cup and a treat-filled paper bag in one hand and uses the other to prop open the bright blue door. Cool air escapes onto Mount Vernon Avenue. “I hope that you’ll reopen—and that you’ll reopen in the neighborhood.”
“Thank you—I really appreciate that,” replies Maljanian. After the customer leaves, he says that he and his wife, Patrice Maljanian—who own and operate Ann MeMe’s—have been hearing similar sentiments from customers since they placed a sign in their window in early September, announcing that the shop would close at the end of the month.
“A lot of times, I just don’t have the heart to tell them that we probably won’t be coming back,” says Maljanian.
Ann MeMe’s is a bright yellow building amid a block of beige—only the colorful playground of the elementary school across the street rivals it. Inside, the cafe is decorated with a large mural depicting the Last Supper and pictures of the two young Maljanian children dressed up for Halloween and hunting for eggs at Easter.
When the couple began selling sandwiches, pastries, and Armenian specialities in November 1997, they were one of the first sit-down eateries on the avenue. The other establishments on the block were mostly service-oriented: a 12-step drug- and alcohol-counseling center, Mackey’s Barbershop, Cotton’s TV Repair, and a tax preparer.
Like St. Elmo’s, a block away, Ann MeMe’s became a neighborhood hot spot in a matter of weeks. Residents exhibited an immediate appetite for $3.50 lemon tarts and $5.50 sandwiches. There were plenty of customers for the bakery and the coffee pub to share, Maljanian and Mitchell agree. “There is room enough for both of us,” Maljanian says. “People’s tastes are different.”
In December 2001, Mitchell bought the cluster of buildings on the 2400 block of Mount Vernon Avenue, including the one where Ann MeMe’s is located. Over the past nine months, all of the businesses in the cluster have closed, with the exception of Ann MeMe’s. New occupants will include a studio, an antique store, and 17 apartment units.
Residents assumed that Ann MeMe’s would remain as an anchor for the new development. So when the Maljanians taped up the sign announcing their departure, rumors flew that Mitchell was trying to push them out of business after all, in an effort to corner the market on coffee and pastries in Del Ray.
But the reasons have more to do with the real estate market than the caffeinated-beverage market. Maljanian and Mitchell both say that Ann MeMe’s is leaving not because of rivalry, but because the two parties couldn’t agree on the terms of a new lease. With Mitchell planning to renovate the buildings, every other commercial tenant on the block was likewise unable to keep up with the rising rents.
“Based upon years of lower-than-market rents, [businesses] opted out when the rents went to market,” says Mitchell. “Some of these businesses had survived because of the low rent, but a business should be able to survive at market rent while providing services that people want.”
Maljanian says that the new lease terms weren’t unreasonable for current conditions in Del Ray, but they were more than he and his wife could afford.
“The increase isn’t astronomical,” he says. “Only when compared to what we were paying before. We negotiated down to a 60 percent increase,” he says. “We could’ve paid and stayed, but we didn’t want to work just as hard for a $20,000 pay cut.”
“We were doing well, but we already work 60 hours a week,” Maljanian continues. “We can’t raise our salary to make up for expenses. We like it here, it’s a neighborhood business, but we have two small children—we have to make a living.”
“I absolutely wanted them to stay,” Mitchell says. “They’re a local family with a relatively successful business, but there are economic changes that occur when someone buys a property.”
The Maljanians considered moving their business to Crystal City or Eisenhower Avenue, an Alexandria strip with several large office buildings—places with more of a noontime lunch crowd. But they were daunted by the prospect of starting over from scratch. “We would have to build a place to our specification,” Maljanian says, “or find an existing space with everything that we need, which is hard.”
The Maljanians continue to explore their options but have negotiated with Mitchell to stay until the end of December.
“Ann MeMe’s will stay until the end of the year, and then we will have a new restaurant coming in—I’m not sure what that will be yet,” says Mitchell. “They asked to stay longer, so we gave them four more months so that they can enjoy the holiday season.”
Rob and Sarah Gabriel thought that their neighbors would be thrilled when they decided to open up a new business on Mount Vernon Avenue. The couple already owned one business in Del Ray, Gabriel Custom Framing on Commonwealth Avenue, and both were active in the community.
As a member of the Potomac West Business Association, Sarah, 36, helped to create the neighborhood’s popular “First Thursday” event, in which participating businesses on and around the avenue stay open late and offer special deals and freebies to customers. Rob, 47, a musician who grew up in the area, has a radio show that features local blues artists on Radio Del Ray—the neighborhood’s Internet radio station.
And the Gabriels say they came up with their new venture to meet the needs of their existing customers. At their 5-year-old framing store, clients kept asking for packing and shipping services. “We were inundated with requests to ship artwork, especially during the holidays,” Rob Gabriel says. “We couldn’t do framing, because we were so busy with the packing.”
The Gabriels converted part of their shop into a packing and shipping station, outfitted with rolls of bubble wrap, tape, and other essentials. When demand overwhelmed their makeshift mailing house, they decided to open a separate store to cater to the neighborhood’s shipping needs.
Instead of building another business from the ground up, the Gabriels decided to become franchisees with one of the nation’s best-known packing and shipping companies, Mail Boxes Etc. “I went to Mail Boxes University last January, and then a great location opened up—right next to St. Elmo’s,” Rob Gabriel says. “People walk in all of the time and tell us, ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’”
But many Del Ray residents did not welcome the business, which opened in February 2002, with open arms. The Mail Boxes Etc. store took over a space that had been occupied by two businesses, Atticus Books and Pat’s Place, that were beloved elements of the post-St. Elmo’s boom.
Pat’s Place, an antique shop, was owned by Potomac West Business Association President Pat Miller. Miller declines to comment on the terms under which she closed the business and says she has nothing but good wishes for the Gabriels’ new venture. “Mail Boxes Etc. is doing a wonderful job,” she says. “Sarah and Rob are vital to the community—they always have been and always will be.”
But as with Ann MeMe’s, residents were dismayed to lose businesses that were seemingly in line with their vision for the neighborhood. Four months before the Mail Boxes Etc.’s opening, an article documenting the concerns over the chain store appeared in the DRCA newsletter. In April 2002, the DRCA sent the Gabriels a letter warning them that their neon sign “violates the Mount Vernon Avenue Design Guidelines….The purpose of the guidelines is ‘to encourage high-quality, thoughtful, and appropriate development.’”
Sarah Gabriel thinks that the support they’ve received from the community far outweighs the complaints. “There was discussion before we moved in, but I think that only a very small minority was involved,” she says. “It was in the newsletter, but no one would give their name—I think the concern was short-lived.”
Much of the opposition came from neighbors who were afraid that the arrival of Mail Boxes Etc. on Mount Vernon Avenue meant that chain stores were descending and that the newly quaint little block would soon resemble a strip mall.
“In general, there is a consensus that chains have a place in the community, but probably not on Mount Vernon Avenue,” says Rob Krupicka, current president of the DRCA. “Mount Vernon Avenue is trying to distinguish itself, and the more chains we have, the more we start looking like Route 1. That said, if you’re going to have a chain, Mail Boxes provides a valuable service to the community.”
Rob Gabriel says that the Mail Boxes Etc. store generates the revenue to survive on the now-thriving strip. “I understand that people wanted something ‘funky’ here,” he says, “but you have to sell a whole lot of funk to stay in business.”
And joining up with a national chain, rather than opening up another independent store, gave the Gabriels a financial advantage. Opening a Mail Boxes Etc. franchise requires an initial investment ranging between $125,000 and $200,000, according to corporate literature. But that’s often cheaper than starting from scratch, and franchises have lower operating costs.
“To join a franchise was just a better deal,” Rob Gabriel says. “They can buy 500,000 boxes at a time to save money. We pay franchise fees, but it just boils down to a better deal. And we can call the Old Town store and borrow boxes—there is support, and there’s name recognition.”
Despite the opposition, Mitchell stands by his choice to allow in the franchise operation. “It’s very difficult for small shops to make it,” Mitchell says. “We all like to see them, but I know firsthand from St. Elmo’s that it’s not easy….The last thing I’ll do is say no to a needed business—even if it is a franchise.”
And for all the resistance, the Gabriels’ Mail Boxes Etc. franchise has more of an intimate, mom-and-pop feel than many of the nonfranchise businesses on the avenue. When customers walk through the door, Sarah greets many of them by first name. She remembers which shipping peanuts they prefer and which courier services they don’t, the names of their children and pets. Rob Gabriel affectionately refers to the store as “Del Ray Packing and Shipping.”
Much of the fuss and paranoia have died down, and the Gabriels are looking forward to the one-year anniversary of their business. The corporate bigwigs at Mail Boxes Etc., however, are still reeling from the initial backlash.
“We usually don’t get complaints when we open a store,” says Rick Milner, an East Coast representative for the company. “We get hugs and kisses.”
The more attractive Del Ray becomes, the harder it is to enjoy. This is true on the avenue, and it’s just as true in the neighborhoods that support the commercial strip.
“A lot of people can’t afford to live here anymore—it’s getting outrageous,” says real estate agent Dunning. “My brother was visiting from out of town, and we drove by this unimproved two-level duplex listed at $270,000. My brother said, ‘Well, that’s nice—you can live in one side and rent out the other. I said, ‘Actually, that’s just for one side.’”
“There is a certain sadness,” says Councilmember Woodson. “Not sadness because the buildings have improved, but because a way of life is gone. Every generation, children have been able to come back to Del Ray, buy a starter house. But now a starter house in Del Ray
The houses now have large additions to accommodate home offices and guest bedrooms. The lawns are greener and trimmer than ever before. Here and there, you can actually see white picket fences.
When I was a kid, the only division between the back yards of all of the houses on the block came from waist-high chain-link fences. They were old and rusty, with dull little barbs along the top rails—posing a challenge for kids retrieving stray balls from the neighbors’ yards, but leaving everything open and visible.
The fences were so unobtrusive that they created the illusion of one big back yard that ran the entire length of the block. Neighbors were able to exchange pleasantries, yell out gardening tips, spy on each other’s summertime barbecues.
One summer day when I was 9 years old, my brother and I were out playing in our back yard—cleaning shit out of the sandbox that the neighborhood cats used as their litter box each night. The job was interrupted when our neighbor Jacob Oquendo, 5 years old, leaned out of a second-story window of his parents’ duplex home two doors down.
With a towel tied around his neck, he called out to us. “Hey, look at me,” he said. “I’m Superman!”
We glanced up briefly, then returned to the business of throwing sand in each other’s faces, until we heard a loud thud, followed by a high-pitched scream. We hurried over to the fence and saw Jacob, splayed out on the ground.
I ran into the house to tell my mother what had happened. She immediately called 911 and then went over to the Oquendos to find Jacob’s mother kneeling over her wounded immortal crime fighter, crying and praying as they waited for the paramedics.
An ambulance came and carted off Jacob, who managed to escape with only a few cuts and bruises and a valuable lesson in the frailty of the human form. When my dad got home from work that evening, we rushed to the front door to fill him in on the excitement.
“I guess that’s one good thing about those old chain-link fences,” he said. “Otherwise, you never would have seen him.”
My parents still live in that same house, two doors down from the Oquendos. But new neighbors have moved in between. Last year, they replaced the old see-through fence with a 6-foot wooden stockade model—with the clean side pointing in, leaving us to look at the posts and crosspieces. We can still smell their freshly mowed grass, hear their dog barking, and even catch the occasional strobelike glimpse of them through the slats. But we’re cut off from seeing the whole picture. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.