A Shaw resident takes aim at vacant properties with his paintbrush, his imagination, and his French.
Vacant properties remain the most visible and least appreciated of the District’s many muses: They provoke pep talks by busybodies, arouse odes by city administrators, create romance among rodents. And on one afternoon in late January, they whispered their inspiration to Ray Milefsky, a 52-year-old State Department employee.
Milefsky answered their call.
On a whim, Milefsky sized up the ramshackle buildings next door to his town house in Shaw and let loose with his paintbrush, giving birth to the idea that had been “festering” in his head.
When Milefsky was done, he had transformed the formerly drab facades of 819 and 821 Q St. NW into a colorful mural depicting a cafe and a pastry shop. Milefsky christened his creations with French monikers: Bistrot au Ghetto and Patisserie Imaginaire.
“I’m sick of vacant buildings,” says Milefsky, who has been living on Q Street for 16 years. “My dream is to have a coffee shop there.”
Smack in the middle of the mural, Milefsky painted a Starbucks logo. “For a lot of people, Starbucks is the epitome of evil,” says Milefsky. “I think Starbucks are reliable and predictable. I took some photos of the mural and sent them to Starbucks with a note saying, ‘Wish you were here.’”
The buildings are owned by Michael Sendar, of Potomac, Md., a 55-year-old lawyer and owner of a local chain: Big Wheel Bikes. Sendar says that he has no plans to start peddling bikes on Q Street. He is, however, looking to sell the property.
The Bistrot au Ghetto and the Patisserie Imaginaire weren’t always idle: The buildings once sheltered the District’s only Nubian-Islamic-Hebrew cult. Before departing, the former tenants looked at the dilapidated structure and, like Milefsky, saw in the brick walls a blank canvas. To this day, Egyptian iconography adorns the walls on the 9th Street side of the corner building.
Although Sendar is familiar with the pyramids and Pharaohs, he has yet to see Milefsky’s work. “I’ll check it out as soon as I can,” he says.
Despite its cheerful colors, a touch of melancholy permeates Milefsky’s mural. Above the doorway of the Bistrot, Milefsky has painted a sign reading toujours ferme, or “forever closed.” “Everything in this neighborhood is closed,” says Milefsky. “We don’t have any legitimate businesses.”
“That was the only bitchy part of the mural,” he adds. “Otherwise, it’s totally benign. If Sendar doesn’t like it, I’ll paint over it.”
“I see the mural as a positive thing,” says Alexander Padro, a Ward 2 advisory neighborhood commissioner. “It’s nice window dressing that might help us get something in that corner sooner rather than later. Before too long, we’ll hopefully have a real cafe there rather than an imaginary one.”
In the meantime, the 800 block of Q Street NW, where four out of nine properties are vacant, will go by the name Milefsky has temporarily lent it: Blvd. des Reves Brises, “boulevard of broken dreams.”
“I just want to see something in there,” says Milefsky. “Something more than a dream.” CP