Maybe it was an omen that Steve Choi should have heeded. The address of his newly purchased buildingthe one for which he’d coughed up more than a million and a halfwas 1818 New York Ave. NE. That number1818was it a blessing or curse?
According to Chinese numerology, it looked like a sure winner. The combination means prosperity, all sorts of wealth and good fortune in double doses. If there was luck to be had, Choi could use all of it. His new property was the old IBM building, and it had become one of the ghosts of New York Avenue for some very good reasons.
The boarded-up, weed-infested property had been a local eyesore for years on a strip not known for its scenic beauty. Worse, the building had become prey to a den of thieves who’d camped inside while they stripped the place of copper and electrical wiring. Looting had helped drive the price down to a mere $1.7 million. Choi saw some old-style elegance in this hulking, 80,000-square-foot shell and something reassuring in its sheer solidity amidst its decay. The IBM edificewhich was built a half-century ago when the company was in the punch-card business and nobody had even heard of PCswas the sort of clunky pile they just don’t build anymore. He was especially taken by the street-side brick façade, enlivened by architectural touches that are a rare find anywhere, let alone on New York Avenue. Besides, he didn’t have the money to tear it down and put up a new building.
But there was a second interpretation of the address number that was somewhat less promising. “Eighteen-eighteen,” when spoken in Korean, is a cuss word, probably the most severe, all-purpose profanity in the language. It translates as “shit-shit” or “fuck-fuck,” depending on the context. Not exactly the sort of nickname you want to give to your new home-sweet-home away from home.
Choi is an entrepreneur, not a numerologist, and he boasts a degree in international business administration from American University. The 39-year-old is a member of the so-called “1.5 generation,” Koreans who came to the U.S. as children. Baptized with Americanized first names, many feel more allegiance to their adopted country than their native land, and they speak English as well as Korean.
Choi doesn’t abide by many of the old country’s ways, but he still holds to some Korean traditions. He couldn’t help but enjoy pondering the number 1818’s positive connotations, superstitious though it might be. It somehow reassured him that this gamble he was takingby far the biggest in his professional careerwas an undertaking blessed by the powers that be. Besides, the building was as large and imposing as a grounded ocean liner, and it would take a lot of good fortune to get it seaworthy enough to attract passengers. Right now, it resembled a shipwreck, right down to its waterlogged solid-oak floors, a priceless relic that couldn’t be salvaged.
As for the profane double-entendre of the Korean pronunciation, Choi laughed it off as a sort of silly coincidence, not something to be taken seriously. He even incorporated the address into the building’s phone number. “I wanted to be unique,” he says. “I wanted something to catch the customer’s attention. Something easy to remember. I’m Americanized, so, I figured, it’s just a word.” Besides, only Koreans would be privy to the inside joke, and he expected his new enterprise to be much more than a place for fellow former countrymen to do business and scratch each other’s backs. That’s why he decided to call it the International Business Mall.
To drive the point home, Choi designed and installed a pair of neon signs, as tall as a McDonald’s arch and meant to be just as inclusive. The twin marquees depict the globe spiked with flags from countries around the world, stamped by a brown fist and white fist locked in a handshake that announces, “Let’s do business.”
He built it. They didn’t come.
Five years and nearly a million dollars later, Choi’s dream office building is in deep trouble. The International Business Mall is not even half-occupied, and the tenants that have managed to survive are mostly Korean cohorts, constituting precisely the sort of insular business enclave Choi was trying to avoid. If he’d wanted to erect another immigrants-only shopping center, he could have gone out to the suburbs.
In fact, the mall’s largest occupant is Choi’s own business, Best Equipment, the restaurant-supply company he’s been running for 15 years. He moved the firm here in an attempt to shore up the forlorn place, cramming most of the first floor with a staff of 20 and an inventory ranging from two-ton ovens to tomato peelers. But it has only served to make the rest of the mall appear that much more abandoned and desolate.
The neon signs on New York Avenue have become totems of defeat and targets for hoodlums. A barrage of well-aimed rocks short-circuited the power hook-up and busted jagged holes in the globes, which remain unrepaired. These are merely the most visible wounds from the ongoing war with vandals that began when Choi spent nights at the building during early stages of renovationa pit bull his sole companion. That was back when he was brimming with optimism about the future of his magic “1818.”
Shit and double-shit and triple-shit. It seems that Choi should have paid less attention to the street number than to the latter part of the address: New York Avenue.
The Devil’s Bowling Alley, as it was once called, is the most heavily trafficked street in D.C. And it’s long been a road to ruin, at least for commercial businesses. Through the years, less fortunate companies have fallen one by onethe ginger ale plant and the Greyhound bus garage among the most notable victimsleaving the misnamed thoroughfare to its original purpose as an industrial corridor, a destination point only for delivery trucks and derelictsand dreamers like Steve Choi.
The relentless traffic is strictly drive-through. Every day, more than 100,000 vehicles roar down the six-lane road. Much of this stampede consists of haul-ass trucks and tractor trailers carrying goods into the city from points north along the Eastern Seaboard. The rest are commuters and tourists, whose first glimpse of the nation’s capital is the tawdry four-mile stretch that hugs the railroad from Route 50 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the former People’s Drug warehouse at Florida Avenue, a gutted brick monument to a bygone era. It’s more Rust Belt than Beltway.
New York Avenue has a long history of obdurate immunity to anything resembling economic development. Its passive resistance to all sorts of do-gooding irritates city officials to no end, but it tends to make speculators and egghead planners salivate. Where you see misery, they see potential. There have been endless meetings and consulting reports and commissions and more meetings, and all have come to the same conclusion: New York Avenue as it now exists should be wiped off the map, everything except the asphalt and the Hecht’s building. “It is an eyesore, and it is a lost economic opportunity,” says Ron Linton, head of the New York Avenue Development Task Force. “It is, in short, an embarrassment.”
Of course, there’s money underneath all that filth, at least potentially. The purpose of Linton’s task force is to make those dollar signs very clear to investors. In his eighth-story office not far from the White House, Linton has a consultant’s grandiose plans perched on an easel, elaborate color-coded posters, and artists’ renderings that show New York Avenue as some sort of bucolic L’Enfant boulevard, crowned by a landscaped, tree-lined circle at the site of the now-hellish intersection of New York and Florida Avenues.
A former lobbyist who first came to Washington during the Kennedy administration, Linton has been making his pitch for years now. When he tells people the project will cost around $2 billion, most simply wish him good luck. But he’s willing to wait, because he knows the corridor’s notoriously wretched condition is also its selling point for revitalization: “New York Avenue has been a sore point in the District for a half-century,” he says. “Anyone in the bureaucratic/transportation/economic development community quickly recognizes what we have in that gateway. This is the major gateway into the nation’s capital.”
While Linton and other downtown bigwigs have pondered the myriad ways that a divvied-up corridor could lure big money back into D.C., Steve Choi and his brothers have been busy trying to develop the avenue the old-fashioned way. In 1995, as Steve was preparing to open the door of the International Business Mall for prospective clients, his older brother Phillip purchased the D.C. Farmers Market at New York and Florida NE, home to the city’s oldest and largest fresh-produce center. He has transformed the rat-infested stinkhole into a rejuvenated marketplace, complete with customer parking and bathrooms withget thisworking toilets.
The other Choi brothers, led by Sang Oh, have been mainstays at the neighboring wholesaler market that dominates the property, known as the Capital City Market. In 1986, they built a string of warehouseswith the help of a land donation, aid from District officials, and a hefty bank loan. This L-shaped row hosts the city’s largest wholesaler, Sang Oh’s Sam Wang Produce, along with other clients that have transformed the market from a Greek, Italian, and Jewish stronghold to a nearly exclusively Asian-run operation. (This has not endeared them to everybody, and some long-timers will tell you that the place went downhill once the European immigrant families closed up shop.)
Altogether, the Choi brothers have poured millions of dollars into New York Avenue. Granted, the ventures that built the Farmers and Capital City markets into potential moneymakers were not long-shot investments. They are several milesand a whole other worlddown the corridor from where the International Business Mall sits stranded. That’s where the real economic danger lurks, and that’s where the Chois are headed: Last year, Phillip tried to purchase the former Greyhound building; his $2 million bid was rejected. Now being bulldozed, the building isn’t worth much, but the site is, even if it harbors hazardous waste and a potentially huge price tag for anybody who has to clean it up.
Steve Choi has already bet the bank on his very unbankable property, and he’s mostly just hanging on. “I’ve sacrificed everything for this,” he says. “I’ve put my whole heart into this building. I have a clear vision that this is someday going to be developed. But I don’t know how long I can wait.”
He’s not counting on any aid from the District; in fact, he’s usually at odds with one D.C. official or another. “There is prejudice against me because I am Asian,” he says. “They don’t think that us Asians are Americans. And we don’t have any Asian voice in the government.”
The District recently forced him to shut down construction of a sidewalk (in which he’d invested $10,000) that would have joined his property, which includes a vacant lot next door, to the Salvation Army rehab center down the road. “I was using my own money to improve public space, and they made me stop. It doesn’t make any sense.” He admits he lacked the necessary permits, but he says he has learned that trying to cut a legitimate path through the red tape precludes any chance of completing any improvement projects. “I don’t expect anything from the city,” he says. “I’d rather try to help them.”
City bureaucrats, vandals, and thieves. Choi has a whole ready crew of villains at hand, but he knows he’s only got himself to blame for his dilemma. No one told him to sink everything he had into a place that has historically been a black hole for capital and good intentions. That’s what speculation is all about: big risk, big returnif you’re lucky, anyway. “All my assets are stuck in this building,” he says. “Everything. I need help. I’m the guinea pig.”
Tipping forward in his creaky vinyl swivel chair, Eppa Diedrich leans his lanky frame over his cluttered desk to pick up the phone. Like most of the junk in his cubbyhole of an office, which has an oily, ragged tarp instead of a door, the phone is a relic, a faded turquoise model that nonetheless gets the job done. Diedrich takes the call, then hangs up, disgusted. “Have you ever dealt with the government downtown?” he says. “You get the most incompetent people you’ll ever meet up with in your life. Everything they do is wrong. They’re either lying to you or they’re stupid as shit, one or the other. I can’t believe anyone would even come into this damn city. I’m looking for property out in Maryland, but I can’t find what I want. If I did, I’d leave here in a frigging minute.”
At 72, Diedrich has never left the District; in fact, he was raised just a few blocks from here. He still runs his own business, Okie Truck Repair, out of a building in between Hecht’s and the Greyhound property on New York Avenue. He used to work as a Greyhound mechanic until he was denied a pay raise, whereupon he opened his own shop. The high-ceilinged brick structure used to house an Eastman Kodak film-processing plant, and now it’s his. He bought it back in ’77 and spray-painted the name of the firm on the wall next to the garage door.
Things are busy enough for now. Repairing garbage trucks used to be Diedrich’s speciality, but he’ll take a crack at any rig that can fit inside the bay doors. There are always trucks needing to be fixed, and fixed fast, and a few thousand of them roar by on a daily basis, so there’s no lack of business. Diedrich is well aware of the dire situation over at the International Business Mall; he sees the mostly empty building every time he drives into work, and he says he feels for Choi.
“He paid too much for it, sounds like,” says Diedrich. “He had some grandiose idea, and it hasn’t panned out, and I hear he’s hurting real bad. He thought he got a steal, but it turns out he didn’t. There’s a situation where a man could lose everythinghe could lose it all.”
Diedrich has seen it before, and he’ll no doubt see it again. “He’s in over his head. He can’t find no tenants to rent. He can’t find nobody to come in as partner. He can’t this and he can’t that. First thing you know, he’s gonehe’s lost it all. He’s lucky if he can walk away from it. A lot of people, when they get hurt like that, it follows them to their damn grave. I don’t know….I wish him well.”
Despite its staggering numbers, the traffic on New York Avenue doesn’t translate into potential customers, according to Diedrich. “It stays busy night and day out there, but he can’t stop those cars, I don’t give a shit what he does. He can put up signs or fluorescent lights or naked womenhe might get a few of them if he puts up a naked-women signbut he can’t stop all those people passing through. This is a route from the inner city to the suburbs or vice versa, and he can’t stop them from coming and leaving. Plus, he don’t have anything that they want, anyhow. He’s got to do something out of the ordinary, but I’m not sure what that would be.”
There’s one part of Choi’s dilemma Diedrich can’t abide: the way vandals have never let up on Choi’s place. It’s the same kind of crap he has to endure on a daily basis, like when some hoodlum steals his tools and then has the nerve to try to sell the damn things back to him. And there’s Choi, down the street, working his ass off trying to make a better place. And what do the locals do to welcome the newcomer? Throw rocks at him. “That’s America now,” says Diedrich. “That’s what America’s about: Hooray for me and the hell with you. Nobody cares anything about the other man anymore.”
Diedrich is tired of all the chatter about the revitalization of New York Avenue; it was never anything but a truckers’ speedway and a gasoline alley anyway. “Maybe there is going to be a big boom. I’ve read several times that they are going to rejuvenate New York Avenue. I don’t know if that’s bullshit or not, but I don’t have a lot of time. I’m an old man. Maybe my boy can see it happen, but I don’t think it’ll ever happen, I really and truly don’t.”
Longtime observers of the corridor say that economic development is definitely coming; it’s just a matter of when. Ron Linton envisions a New York Avenue that will be world-class, complete with Metro stops at New York and Florida, and farther east, near Ivy City. There will be tunnels to take the truck traffic off the road as they head for deliveries at the new convention center at Mount Vernon Square. The avenue will be lined with high-profile computer firms, like the famed technology corridor along Interstate 270 in Montgomery County. That’s all in the future, he admits. But it’s still going to happen.
“If everything would take place like they’re talking about, then maybe now is the time to invest in that corridor,” says Paul Pascal, an attorney in the District who has brokered many a deal in the area. “That area is the ideal section of town for any future development….There are a lot of businesses not far away in downtown Washington, and there could be a lot of small service businesses that can cater to them and the people of the city, so it shouldn’t be written off. But a lot of changes have to take place in the existing buildings there.”
According to Pascal, New York Avenue is a relic of the past, a dinosaur that has been left behind by an ever-changing service-goods industry. “The trouble with that corridor is it has a number of buildings that are of solid construction but of limited value in today’s facility operations. All your modern distribution buildings are one-floor operations with a lot of space for trucks getting in and out. Theoretically, this should be a good area, heading out to Route 50, but you have a lot of competition from Maryland, where the land is a lot cheaper. New, sophisticated distribution businesses can’t find enough land at the right price to do business in the city.”
As for Choi, whom Pascal has represented in the past, Pascal says that he may have simply invested a bit too much too soon, no matter what enterprise he was trying to launch out of the old IBM building. “What Steve was trying to do as a private entrepreneur, he’s come upon the hard times we’re facing in terms of the business climate in the city. With the decline in the population and customer base, I don’t know whether it would have been any different, no matter what that building was used for.”
John Uhar has been leasing warehouse space for years along the New York Avenue corridor. It’s still a lot cheaper to get a big building out this way, he saysthat is, if the mere mention of “Northeast” doesn’t scare off customers first. Uhar says that it’s still too early to know whether Choi has jumped into the fray prematurely. “Does this make him a visionary or a fool?” says Uhar, a friend and business associate of Choi’s. “That’s the problem with all this stuff. It’s just like with a house. You don’t want to over-improve in the neighborhood. I think he had an idea, and he’s trying to see it through.”
Nobody knows whence he came. He moves with the traffic flow, up and down New York Avenue, as if summoned to and fro by the lassolike pull of the stream of exhaust fumes that make the rounds. Most of the time, though, he stands at the guardrail under the 9th Street overpass. Tall and sturdy, he wears a dark green ski cap, a stained green camouflage jacket, and work boots, his scraggly, stunted dreads and matted beard tinged the color of soot from both age and traffic. They call him Branch Man.
For hours at a spell, rain or shine, darkness or daylight, he clutches a branch in his huge, bearlike hands and waves at the passing traffic. Sometimes it is a mere sprig or a twig, but it’s always green and fully foliated. His gestures vary, depending on his moods. Sometimes he confers a cheerful blessing on the vehicles that go by, even howling with laughter at something that strikes his fancy. Other times, he’s a cranky troll, clenching a dollar bill in his teeth and demanding a similar toll from all who pass. If unsatisfied, he shakes the branch in anger, as if commanding the halt in the bumper-to-bumper traffic he beholds.
Unlike windshield washers and median-strip beggars, Branch Man never forces his way onto the street. He always keeps his distance. You’ll never see him jaywalk. He prefers his leafy perch at the guardrail. Behind him, the ground slopes down in a steep incline to the railroad yard; it is a denuded hill plucked nearly bare, apparently in the cause of new branches for Branch Man. At the bottom, in the shade under the concrete overpass, sprawls an outlandish pile of empty Thunderbird wine bottlesa few hundred at leastdusty and half-returned-to-the-soil like archaeological relics from some long ago drunken spree.
Up close, Branch Man’s most striking feature is his green eyes, the shade of pure chlorophyll in a puddle of bloodshot yellow. When he addresses an interloper on his turf, those eyes shoot a fierce glance that brooks no dissension. He says his name is MosesMoses Anthony Stoneand only a brazen fool would challenge his assertion.
He has staked his claim, and, at least for now, New York Avenue is his. Other bums may use this corridor on their daily rounds, but they do not feel the same pride of ownership as Branch Man. If nothing else, his presence lends some sense of living identitysome singular spark, sane or notto a street that has long since been given up for dead: “As long as I’m here,” he says, “this street is going to be busy.”
His turf is well-marked. If you walk New York Avenue, you begin to notice signs of him everywhere on the well-worn paths that parallel the street, those obscure trails forged by people too busted to travel any way except on foot. Tied to street posts, jammed in mailboxes and the front grills of used cars for sale, crammed into barbed wire fences and every nook imaginable are small shrines of Branch Man’s handiwork: frayed, twisted fern branches from days past, their curled leaves browning at the edges, some festooned with bits of red ribbon or fashioned into crude crosses studded with wooden clothespins.
Whatever their purpose, these primitive offerings by Branch Man are by far the most anyone’s done to beautify the so-called Capital Gateway in recent yearsexcept for the Chois, anyway.
“They should make him the official D.C. Welcome Guy,” says Steve Choi of Branch Man. “Instead of him holding a branch, they should give him a flagpole that says, ‘Welcome to Washington.’ The D.C. government should pay him. You know, a little PR work.”
Though he pitches his idea with a laugh, Choi is only half-joking. Clear-headed, practical, and focused, he’s already mulling whether a greeter would earn minimum-wage or what sort of flag would be appropriate for the welcome message. A neatnik of the first degree in pressed jeans and button-down shirt, Choi has not a hair out of place, and outwardly he couldn’t be more different from Branch Man. But clearly, he can’t help but sympathizeif not identifywith a local character whom most passersby simply dismiss as a certified nut case.
During the last five years, Choi has tasted his share of the sting of public shame, as if his entire endeavor were nothing more than a roadside production of How Not to Succeed in Business. How many times has he felt the stares of the motorists as he has tended to yet another incident of vandalism or broken-down piece of his dream? They must be sitting in their cars, he’d think to himself, sitting there and wondering, “Who the hell is this lunatic trying to start a business out here? Poor bastard, he hasn’t got a chance.”
Spend time walking through his dream/millstone, and you don’t come away feeling as if you’ve been in the presence of a lunatic. Choi comes across as a sensible young businessman from the Ben Franklin school of economics, the sort of early-to-bed, early-to-rise tightwad who saves every penny in coffee cans he’s dug out of the trash. For him, thriftiness isn’t just a virtue but a law of life. “Even when a little screw falls on the ground, you have to pick it up,” he says. “You may need it later. And when you’re the boss, you have to make sure your workers pick it up, too.”
He’s miserly far beyond his age, and proud of it, but then there’s another part of Choi that’s a reckless gambler willing to throw that entire life savings of scrimped pennies into a project that threatens to ruin him. “People said I was crazy for doing this,” he says. “But whenever people tell me I can’t do something, it just makes me more determined that I’m going to do it.”
His kinship with the Branch Man might stem from a deep understanding of what it means to be the outsider and the outcast, not only misunderstood but despised. When his family emigrated here in 1970, there were very few Koreans in the U.S., especially in the Washington area. The Choi clan, which numbered six brothers and three sisters, settled in the sticks south of Alexandria, which at the time had only a smattering of Asians of any sort. The 11-year-old Choi caught guff from the Northern Virginia kids right from the start. “In school, I was ridiculed because I was Asian,” he says. “They would call me ‘chink’ and other things.”
Like most immigrants, the Chois had to start from the bottomliterally, in the basement of an older sister who had arrived before the rest of the family and married. “Naturally, we had a lot of conflict there,” says Steve matter-of-factly, “so we moved to an apartment. Ten people in a two-bedroom apartment. Naturally, the neighbors complained, so we got kicked out. We bought a trailer with three rooms in a trailer park on Richmond Highway. At that time, a trailer cost only $5,000, so we could afford it.”
As the brothers married off and started families of their own, they each bought a trailer in the same park. The six brothers have all become success stories and are now comfortably ensconced in the Washington suburbs. Besides Steve and Phillip, there are Sang Oh of Sam Wang Produce; Sang Ok, who runs a rice-cake factory at Capital City market; Young, owner of a drving range in Waldorf; and Man, a Washington wholesaler.
At first, Steve’s father worked as a janitor for Fairfax County, diligently saving his money. In a few years, he opened an Asian grocery store on Richmond Highway. The first grocery store in the area catering exclusively to Asians, Seoul Market offered spices, seasonings, and other specialty itemssuch as short-grain ricethat weren’t available in supermarkets of the day. Besides helping out at the family business, the brothers worked a slew of jobs, including stints at the Krispy Kreme doughnut factory and the Potomac railroad yard. But Seoul Market was where they received their educations in American business, learning the fine points of supply and demandand, most of all, thrift.
Slowly, Choi’s older brothers pooled their resources and opened their own Asian stores, before entering the wholesale produce business and building their mini-empire at the Capital City Market, which resembles a small city. They were the first to tap into the ready-made customer base created by the burgeoning Asian immigrant community. By the ’80s, Koreans owned most of the corner stores in the District, and eventually Sam Wang Produce replaced Sol Salins as the biggest wholesaler around. “My brothers made the right decision at the right time,” says Choi. If only he could say the same for himself.
HELLO LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! SOLID GOLD SEAFOOD COMING TO YOU LIVE FROM 1316 5TH STREET NE!
The loudspeaker hanging from the wall of the seafood joint at the Capital City Market blares this recorded message continuously all day long.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, ONCE AGAIN WE OFFER YOU TODAY FRESH FISH, WAITING FOR YOU IN LARGE AND SMALL PORTIONS! WE HAVE …
Standing outside the D.C. Farmers Market building, Phillip Choi’s face twists into a scowl. He is not amused by this soul-man pitch on a nonstop tape loop. With his jeans and oxblood wingtips, the 53-year-old has the look of a Korean cowboy; in fact, in his office, he keeps a photo of himself in a ten-gallon hat.
WE HAVE LIVE CRABS! THAT’S RIGHT, LIVE CRABS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WAITING TO SNAP AT YOU!
Choi shakes his head in disgust. “The government should do something,” he says. “This is illegal, right?” Surveying the scene, mostly a nonstop ballet of forklifts, delivery trucks, and pedestrians that somehow avoid collisions, Choi acts as pivot point and policeman. He points across the way at some ragged men loitering outside the North-East Liquor store, underneath a broken clock stopped on a perpetual quarter-to-2 last call. “See those bums over there?” he says. “They used to hang out over here, but I kicked them out.”
Phillip Choi has taken on the vagrants and vandals, but unlike kid brother Steve, he’s winning the battle. Ever since taking over the Farmers Market in ’95, he has been on a one-man crusade to clean the place up. First he fired the manager, now deceased, who used to run poker games in the corner of the building while his cats lounged in the office. Choi says cleaning up stale cat urine was one of his first duties after becoming owner. He established a no-smoking policy, updated the electrical wiring and roofing, ordered vendors’ stands to be repaired or replaced, paved the parking lot and expanded customer parking spaces, and, perhaps most important, exterminated the rats that had overrun the place. He is especially proud of the renovated restrooms directly beneath his office; he replaced the old tank toilets and now saves a bundle of money with every flush.
Choi raised the rent for tenants, most of whom stand by his new regime. “He’s done a good job straightening this place up,” says Harvey Chidel, who has run a meat stand here for nearly three decades. “It had gotten kind of sloppy, but hey, the food business is dirty work.”
“This place used to be a rot pit,” says Mary Metcalf, a longtime regular from Northeast. Like many of the customers, she has been shopping here for years, taking advantage of one of the best (and least expensive) varieties of meat and produce in the D.C. area. She comes here every few weeks to stock up on meat, mostly pigs’ feet and hog maws.
“They come from everywhere to buy here,” says Phillip Choi. “They are loyal.” Not long ago, there was a shooting right outside the market; back then, local drunks often raided stands and bummed off of customers. Now the major disturbances tend to be fender benders between Lincoln Town Cars and Cadillacs driven by senior citizens vying for the same parking spot. It’s a new D.C. Farmers Market, and the taciturn Choi takes most of the credit.
Like all the brothers except for Steve, Phillip speaks little English and has little to say to outsiders anyway, opting instead to work, work, work. Over at the Sam Wang Produce warehouse, where crates of mangoes on forklifts swerve around baby carriages pushed by turbanned women, the other brothers continue their relentless schedules. Though now pushing 60, they arrive in darkness at 2 a.m. for the early-morning deliveries and usually keep working long into the afternoon.
It was this sort of life that Steve Choi tried and rejected, when he worked at the warehouses after high school. “My brothers work 16-hour days, six days a week,” he says. “I try to have some more time for my kids. My brothers haven’t had much time to do that.” While he admires their work ethic, he has found limits to it for himself. “For lunch, I’ll go to McDonald’s to get a hamburger or something,” he says. “But my brothers still bring the rice to work and cook it, to save that couple of bucks. They’re very penny-pinching.”
The degree of thriftiness isn’t all that separates Choi from his brothers; he had a golden opportunity that was denied them. Instead of keeping him locked behind the cash register, his father pushed Steve to further his education. He went to American University and majored in international business administration. The workaday world kept tugging at him, however. He wanted to make it the way his brothers had, and yet succeed on his own terms. For a while, he tried his hand at various businesses in Northern Virginia: a cleaners, a convenience store. Then he got the notion to open a jewelry shop, so he went to buy some inventory cases at a retail equipment store in Northeast. The owner mentioned that he was looking to sell his business and he made Choi a rock-bottom offer of $50,000. It seemed too good to be true, and as it turned out, it was: After the deal was made, Choi discovered that all the equipment was on consignment, and he had to start from scratch.
Despite the setback, Choi forged on, realizing he could make more money dealing in high-end goods. He launched a restaurant-equipment firmwhich turned out to be a good move, considering that he is now the only such dealer left in the District. He started as a one-man operation, his wife answering the phone. From suppliers as far away as New York and New Jersey, he delivered the equipment into restaurants in the District, often making installations aided only by temporary day laborers working for cash. In the process, he wrecked his back.
Steadily, he built up his customer base, gradually hiring employees to help. Some of his early clients were the owners of the Pho 75 chain; Choi equipped the Vietnamese restaurants with 40-gallon stock pots and other kitchen gear. Like his brothers, Choi has thrived on a loyal customer base of mostly Asian businesses. Eventually, he moved his growing company into a warehouse over at the Capital City Market. That’s where he was, smack dab in the family fold, when he decided to gather his savings, borrow from his brothers, and take a gamble on the abandoned IBM building.
In ’85, a New York investment group had plunked down $4.8 million for the former IBM building, which had prospered for decades as a facility that made punch cards for the federal government. The New Yorkers tried and failed to attract tenants, and the building went into further deterioration before Choi got it for $1.7 million in ’93. Unlike his brothers and their earlier venture, Steve received no help from the city and no loans from banks. “All my supporters are family members,” he says. “I don’t have any big-shot politician friends or bankers. My bankers are my brothers.” He signed an owner-financed deal and put down $100,000.
Then the real work began. Choi knew he had bought a shell, but he didn’t know it was still inhabited. In the first weeks of occupancy, he repeatedly encountered the pair of resident thieves who were finishing their project of stripping the place of copper. They were doing a thorough job, and they didn’t care squat that there was a new owner wandering around the place. They ridiculed him, laughing in his face. He tried to chase them out, but they always returned. One day, he caught them in a stairwell and snapped their photo, warning that he was taking it to the police. As usual, they mocked him (he still keeps the photo of their grinning, ski-hatted mugs as a sort of inspirational icon to remind him of what he’s overcome), but the threat was enough to send them packing, at least as live-ins. Still, they weren’t ready to completely surrender the place.
Soon afterward, Choi and his three-man crew were busy gutting the building, but their equipment was stolen regularly. Choi decided he had no choice except to live there himself. He got a pit bull, Brandy, and slept in the building at night. For the next several months, into the summer, he lived on instant noodles and, alone with Brandy and a portable TV, became his own watchman. For that time, he seldom saw his wife and three children, except to give them progress reports.
Though it was grueling labor, Choi made progress, and he decided to render the expansiveness of his dream visible with an elaborate entrance atrium. He got some cut-rate marble from a demolished building downtown to line his own entrance stairs, and he designed a glass-and-mirror sky dome, eight-sided in tribute to the good-luck address number. Putting up a 100-pound pane one afternoon, he got tangled and dropped the glass, nearly severing his wrist. The emergency workers at Howard University Hospital thought he had tried to commit suicide, but he told them he was just doing some office improvement. The nasty scar is yet another souvenir from his mission.
By ’95, the International Business Mall was ready for tenants. What Choi had in mind was a mecca for import-export companies from all over the globe, like the sort of office-and-retail outlets that have done big business at tourist destinations like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. He bought the neighboring lot, a 2-acre parcel where the notorious Capital City Inn used to be; he wanted eventually to develop the property into a sort of unofficial welcome center, where tour buses could make their first stop in the District. That way, visitors could use the restrooms and buy souvenirs and sundries at Choi’s mall.
Choi waited, but prospective tenants were few and far between. Those that did come on board were soon struggling, and they soon began to desert the place, starting with an artists’ gallery that couldn’t sell a painting. A neon sign for the International Gallery of Art still hangs on the street façade of the building, even though the business has been gone for years. For a while, it was down to Choi’s Best Equipment Co. and a barbershop.
Around this time, Choi got desperate enough to hire a feng shui (the Chinese art of object placement) expert, who solemnly informed him that there were bad vibes coming off New York Avenue, literally. According to the expert, the tilt and directional angle of the street made it appear that cars were headed right for the building, exposing it to evil spirits that needed to be diverted. She advised erecting a barrier of some sort; the consultation cost him $400. Plus, visitors had been parking right in front, blocking the entrance, so Choi decided to kill two birds with one big stone formation.
As usual, Choi went all out, building a stone-and-mortar fountain in the shape of a small castle. Once completed, the twin-towered creation was something to behold, but just days after it first gurgled, somebody stole the water pump and destroyed the electrical outlet. Choi got a replacement, and the same thing happened again. Since then, he has left the fountain dry, another monument to the bad juju that no amount of well-meaning feng shui can shake.
There have been other setbacks and debacles, too many for Choi even to remember. Most of his efforts now go to keeping the International Business Mall from going under.
The baby of the Choi bunch, Steve staked out his own path. He could have just stayed at the Capital City Market, another Choi brother safely ensconced in the family circle. Instead, he took a chance by breaking away, and he has found that it is dangerous to strike out on your own. And yet he hasn’t given uphe can’t really, because it’s all he’s got now. Others might have abandoned his enterprise, but Choi’s dream for the place remains its one durable tenant.
On a clear winter afternoon, something is amiss at the International Business Mall. Here, where inertia is usually the order of the day, this is big news. An apparent interloper has been spotted making a surreptitious delivery at the dumpster at the side of the building. Illegal dumping is a frequent occurrence, especially at the empty lot next door, where piles of tires and other debris often appear overnight.
But this daylight violation is something brazen, even for New York Avenue, where execution-style shootings at gas stations are not uncommon. Choi’s handyman, a stumpy, bearded man with a baseball cap, rushes up to his boss, who stands at the entrance of the building. “Steve, did you see that guy dumping trash over there? He’s got a truck from Virginia, and he pulls up there and just unloads the stuff on the ground.” The handyman confronted him, but the stranger remained nonplused, saying an employee would take care of it. “I said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’”
“Was he an old man?” says Choi. “That’s my father-in-law.”
Shortly after, a gray-haired Korean man comes in the building, and as he strides purposefully by, Steve Choi greets him with a low, formal bow. “That was my father-in-law,” he explains, “so I had to bow. He’s retired, but he still helps out, delivers trash and things for me.”
Choi may be a proud owner of a Dodge Ram pickup and rarely out of jeans, but he admits to being quite traditional, at least when it comes to family. “I’m Americanized, but I still practice my Korean culture,” he says. “In Asian culture, there’s a history of 5,000 years. Young people respect their elders. When you bow to somebody, if they’re older, you bow lower. Even in the language, when you’re talking, you have to use a tone of respect. In America, it’s all level.”
His wife helps out at the Capital City Market, and she maintains a traditional, decidedly nonfeminist, role in their marriage. Choi quotes a Korean saying: “You must always maintain the house and the woman, or they’ll go to shambles,” to show that the “old ways” still have a pull on him. “She works as hard as I do,” he adds. “If not harder.”
Later, Choi sits in the conference room of the Best Equipment firm. Outside, his staff of nearly 20mostly Koreans but also Hispanics, a black, and a Lebanese, he points outrush about answering phones, looking up items in product catalogs as thick as phone books. The conference room is lavish and spacious enough to befit a CEO, and Choi is proud to point out that he obtained nearly all the items at absurd discounts, from the massive table to the chairs to the wall cabinets. Even the paintings, nicely done landscapes, were bargains, acquired for a few thousand apiece from an artist friend.
His core business remains strongpots and pans are always needed somewhere, after all. And the news isn’t all bad. Choi has some recent developments to spark some hope for the future. He has several new tenants in the buildinga construction firm from Florida, a computer firm from Silver Spring. Not exactly international, but so far they’ve managed to pay their rent on time. These newcomers share the second floor with a Korean-American subculture of shops: a restaurant that is a favorite of Korean truckers, a health club (featuring acupuncture and sauna baths), and a Korean nightclub called Juliana, a teen dance place that’s open only on Friday and Saturday nights.
There’s also the mall’s longest-lasting tenant: the Korean barbershop. It is usually the busiest operation here, probably because it’s the only Asian barbershop in the District. A steady stream of customers comes here, from workers at the farmers market to local Asian bigwigs like Tony Cheng, longtime crony of Mayor Marion Barry and owner of Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant in Chinatown. They come here for the whole shebang, not just a haircutmost of all for the authentic Korean straight-razor shave and shampoo courtesy of a female assistant. Not bad for $20 plus tip.
Choi has given his share of makeovers to the International Business Mall in search of the winning formula, which always seems just out of reach. He recently opened a crab and barbecue restaurant, another attempt to pull in motorists from the gauntlet of New York Avenue, to get them inside to see what he’s done. Problem is, the crab house is on the wrong side of the building, and it’s the wrong time of year to open a seafood place. Choi knows all this, but he’s got to do something.
So far, business at the crab house has been predictably dismal; despite the neon window signs boasting BBQ and shrimp, people don’t seem to know the place is open. Instead, the only cars that turn off the avenue park in an abandoned gas station lot that is selling “Truckloads of Cheap Gifts From Mexico,” as the hand-painted sign reads: tin-plated knights-in-armor and plaster Elvis busts.
Across the street, another business is packing them in. The parking lot of the Skylark Sports Bar is usually full by happy hour. From the outside, the former Roy Rogers could be any other shabby, boarded-up building on the strip, but inside, business is booming.
The Skylark is a strip joint where the pork-chop sandwiches are $3 and other small pleasures can be had for cheap; where nude dancers named Exdeci, Amazon, and Honeybun lie on their rumps and point their high heels heavenward to the boomerang thump of gangsta rap, go-go, and old-school R&B. It is a neighborhood place where small-time players nursing Chivas Regals and packing pagers on their sports-team sweats mingle with their working-class brethrenmostly local auto-shop mechanics who come here to see the real-life cousins of those garage-wall calendar girls.
The dimmed-light, underground, cash-only demimonde of the Skylark is the New York Avenue that is here to stay, Choi or no Choi.
“The Skylark is making more money than anyone else around here,” sighs Choi. At the end of another disappointing day, he often watches the crowds there; he’s even been in once, as much as a business courtesy as out of curiosity, he says: After all, the Skylark owner has bought restaurant supplies at his place. Choi was intrigued by the fact that, despite signs that warned, “Do Not Touch the Dancers,” many customers did just that. “It was wild,” he says, laughing. “They were touching the girls’ butts and everything.” Choi has yet to learn that if you’re going to make it on New York Avenue, sometimes you have to make your own rules. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.