City Paper is not for tourists
for toughing out Metro construction: eviction.
At the corner of Park Road and 14th Street sits Value Expre$$, one of Columbia Heights’ few monuments to survival. For five years now, Metro has been ripping its way through the neighborhood, promising Columbia Heights a subway station and the economic glories that come with it. The price has been steep. Fourteenth Street, the area’s main corridor, has been tunneled under from below and sandblasted from above. Predictably, many of the businesses that once dotted the street have fled. Value Expre$$—a variety store hustling T-shirts, tank tops, and generic shoes—is one of a handful of establishments that have managed to hold on.
“We didn’t expect [the construction] to be like this, where they’d close off the streets,” says Gerald, the Value Expre$$ manager.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Gerald is surveying a store empty of customers but full of signs touting clearance specials like a two-for-one deal on plastic flip-flops. Out front, he points to the chain-link barrier separating the store and sidewalk from the street. “They didn’t tell us they were gonna put a fence here,” he says.
Gerald, who refuses to give his last name, says that the store’s profits have declined by at least 60 percent. Since subway construction began, he says, most of the store’s business has come from providing soap powder and fabric softener for locals using the laundromat next door. It’s a rare upside of the construction: Laundromat customers who forget their soap at home don’t want to re-navigate 14th Street’s fences and concrete barriers, so they just pop over to Value Expre$$.
With the subway station nearing completion, you’d think Gerald would be glad to have weathered the storm. Instead, the manager just keeps staring out the empty store’s window as he explains that he’s about to close up shop. The property that houses Value Expre$$, it seems, is being sold to a developer by its landlord—who, the dollar-signs in the store name notwithstanding, is himself looking for a bigger value than a joint specializing in cut-rate laundry soap. “We can’t do nothing,” says Gerald. “The city knew this was going to happen. [Now, the landlord] has given us six months to liquidate everything in the store.”
To listen to the media frenzy surrounding the planned redevelopment of Columbia Heights, you’d think prospectors had struck gold at the corner of 14th and Park. In fact, many of the residents who stuck around while Metro dug up their front yards are excited about the new subway station opening and the economic development slated to come with it. Four competing bids now sit before the District’s Redevelopment Land Agency—promising to remake Columbia Heights into a shopper’s heaven. These ’99ers promise, among other things, a movie theater, a grocery store, and an ice-skating rink.
If their promises come true, Columbia Heights residents will finally have the services that have been luring residents out to the suburbs for decades. But some neighbors are afraid that the people who’ll enjoy those services won’t be the ones who’ve watched Metro wreak havoc on their neighborhood.
The dead zone begins at the intersection of 14th and Girard Streets and extends up 14th to Monroe. When you stand on the strip, it’s hard to believe that this neighborhood is supposed to be a major piece of the brave new D.C.
These days, whole lots are filled with construction equipment. Piles of displaced soil sit indiscriminately throughout 14th Street. The 1300 block of Harvard is walled off by a fence. Nearby, an obsolete traffic light stakes down what used to be a corner. Blocks of businesses have abandoned the neighborhood, and a bank of row houses is boarded up and decorated with Fubu ads.
A line of concrete dividers extends up 14th, bunching one of Northwest’s major throughways into one lane. During rush hour, traffic tightens like a lump in a nervous man’s throat, and the 52 bus takes an eternity to maneuver through the chaos of bumpers and beeping horns. Predictably, the mayhem has done a number on businesses in the area. Merchants have grappled with noise, fenced-off streets, and floods of rats driven from their underground lairs. “When you have 60 percent of the sidewalk restricted, it hurts [business],” says Robert L. Moore, president of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights.
And the damage has extended past 14th Street. Voncie Cruel and her husband own and manage Arthur’s Grocery. The store, at the corner of 11th and Lamont Streets, is three blocks removed from the 14th Street corridor. But Cruel’s store is not immune to the aftershocks of subway construction: For two years Lamont Street was closed off, slowing business to a crawl. “We weren’t as devastated as 14th Street,” says Cruel, perched on a milk crate and surrounded by empty boxes in the back of her store. “But they stayed here for two years, [and] we suffered.”
As the afternoon wears on, a string of customers files into the store. They grab milk or bread or beer and greet Cruel and her son by their first names. Cruel’s husband first set up shop 29 years ago—just after the riots that are often cited as the beginning of Columbia Heights’ downfall. Cruel, who says her ties in the community will make up for whatever business she loses to fancier new developments, says she’s still planning to be there to watch the new neighborhood grow. Of course, if those new developments also bring fancier new residents with them, it’s unclear how much Cruel’s community ties will mean.
Unfortunately for Cruel’s customers and many of Columbia Heights’ other current residents, the very development that they’ve clamored for may drive them right out of the neighborhood.
Dorn McGrath, professor of urban and regional planning at George Washington University, says that Metro’s economic-development record has historically been unpredictable. When the Orange Line came to Benning Road, not much spinoff development came with it. But after the Green Line construction at U Street, the block around the station soon became a hot spot for District nightlife. McGrath says that it’s all a matter of location—and because Columbia Heights is almost exactly in the center of the city, it has great potential for developers. Development “moves everything up a notch,” says McGrath. “Everybody wants the neighborhood to improve…but it’s like throwing a pebble into a pond: The waves spread out and touch everything.”
Chief among those slated to be touched are Columbia Heights’ poor Latino residents and the mom-and-pop businesses they patronize. When rising residential rents start to erode the stores’ customer base, the clock will begin ticking. “I don’t have anything against [development],” says Fernando Lemos, who heads Mi Casa, a nonprofit that develops housing for poor immigrants. “But you have to protect [small businesses].”
In the 1400 block of Park Road, an enclave of Latino and Asian merchants has managed to avoid the commercial cataclysm that has hit the rest of Columbia Heights. Feeding mostly off nearby foreign-born populations, many of these immigrant businesses have been able to survive even as traffic from outside Columbia Heights declined. Though Park Road’s dingy storefronts don’t exactly evoke Fresh Fields, there are also very few boarded up along the strip.
Many Latino entrepreneurs in the area are either unaware of the impending changes or simply not paying much attention to them. “I heard about [meetings], but I couldn’t make it,” says Neftalis Ramon, manager of Los Hermanos, a grocery store on Park Road. Sitting behind a cash register, Ramon says that he doesn’t expect the new businesses to affect his small grocery.
Anna Unana, who manages the Park Road Waffle House—which, incidentally, doesn’t serve waffles—asserts that many of the businesses cater to specific ethnic markets and won’t be duplicated by the new development. “I think once construction is finished, everything should pick back up,” says Unana, standing behind the sit-down counter at the restaurant. Her menu is all in Spanish, which is fine with today’s entirely Latino clientele.
But McGrath says the accompanying development could spell the end of many of Park Road’s small businesses. “They’ll probably disappear,” he predicts. “The clientele will move out, and the businesses will disappear. The rent will go up, and they’ll probably have to move.”
Lemos says the process has already begun: “Rent is already going up in the area. Most of the small businesses are supported by the community. When you displace residents, the businesses disappear. It’s simple economics.” Lemos is afraid that many Latino merchants—who live in an insular, Spanish-speaking community—have little concept of the changes that are in store.
The perilous future of Columbia Heights’ local businesses has sparked charges that area advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) and development representatives did not consult enough with local merchants. “I’m sure that [community representatives] that did this work could point to two or three people they talked to,” says B.B. Otero, founder of the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Center. “But in terms of broad consultation of the immigrant community, I don’t think it was there.”
ANC commissioners and developers say that they have made overtures to the immigrant community, inviting merchants to meetings and explaining the changes that would soon engulf the neighborhood. “The ANC had a town hall meeting in April,” says Valerie Mitchell Sigwalt, vice chair of ANC 1A. “And we had translators there.”
Merchants and activists alike say they would like to see Columbia Heights maintain an ethnic and economic blend. Moore, for instance, says that he hopes to convince many of the local merchants to move into some of the new store spaces that will be created by development. But there is a sense among all parties that they are dealing with forces beyond their control. As much as Moore says he’d like Columbia Heights to still be Columbia Heights, he also says if the incomes of local residents don’t rise they almost certainly will be pushed out. “The incomes have to improve. Education has got to improve” in order for low-income residents to remain in Columbia Heights, Moore says.
“We know how to redevelop a neighborhood,” adds Moore. “We just don’t know how to revitalize it for the people that live there.” CP