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On one downtown block, shoppers have tired of hurdling barricades.

On the 700 block of 15th Street NW, just around the corner from the White House, a merchant is going all-out to buoy post-Sept. 11 patriotism. In a window display sit three headless plastic torsos sporting stars-and-stripes bikinis with miniature American flags tucked into the straps above their hips. And two “G.I. Patriot” dolls, complete with camouflage uniforms and plastic trumpets that play “God Bless America” at the touch of a button, recently joined the patriotic parade.

The window dressing, however, conceals a less upbeat reality in the retail space behind it: The Bikini Shop, which once did business here, is gone. “The landlord is allowing them to keep their display,” explains Jill Wilson, director of property management for SJG Properties, which owns and manages the building.

The swimwear is about the only sign of life on a block buffeted by the feds’ fixation on security. The 1995 closing of Pennsylvania Avenue brought the first fleet of barricades to the area, and the siege mentality has only deepened since Sept. 11. Yasser Hijazi, who owns the Cave, a nearby store selling carved African statuettes, estimates that his sales are down 65 percent from a year ago: “Business has been slowing down for the last year and a half, but since Sept. 11, the downturn has been drastic.” He’s nicknamed the block “retail ground zero.”

Hijazi is hoping to avoid the fate of the neighboring Happy Mart newsstand and Rugs Express, both of which have closed. The empty deli across the street in the Southern building still has menus tacked to the walls and overturned tables chained to the counters. “The barriers all say to pedestrians and others, ‘Don’t come near here,’” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

“Shops like to aggregate around other shops,” says Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, noting that many areas of downtown now lack a critical mass of retailers. The result is a graveyard of empty storefronts in an otherwise affluent and picturesque location. Retail space along the 700 block of 15th Street rents for only $20 to $30 per square foot—approximately half of K Street prices—but landlords still have trouble luring tenants, according to Bradley.

“It’s the great paradox of D.C.,” says Bradley. “We have the third-largest office market in the nation and numerous national attractions, including the monuments, but our retail market has gone downhill since the late ’80s.”

Bikini Shop owner Colleen Corrigan-Shaughnessy is using the 15th Street window space to promote her other outlet, on M Street, as well as to provide a bit of star-spangled whimsy. “A block from the White House, it lifts people’s spirits,” she says. CP