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Ji Wook Yoo has had terrible luck finding a tenant for his storefront at 1017 M St. NW in the Shaw neighborhood. Bosco’s Carry-Out, which had peddled greasy fare from the joint for 20 years, bolted last June amid complaints about looming bankruptcy and the paltry pedestrian traffic on M Street. Yoo went all out to advertise the low-budget commercial spacewhich he bought in 1988, at the peak of the local real estate boomand to hype the improving neighborhood around it.
After weeks of silence, Yoo inked a deal with entrepreneur Nick Crewse to turn the place into a pool hall, complete with new decor and a bar. It seemed like a perfect fit for Shaw. Every night it filled up with Hispanic residents from the neighborhood, many of whom live in small apartments with no air conditioning. Before the pool hall opened, its clientele used to linger on street corners, sipping hooch and hounding passersby. “It reduced the problem of drinking on the street,” says Shaw activist Beth Solomon.
Until closing time, that is. Most of the pool hall’s immediate neighbors didn’t share Solomon’s view of the establishment’s social contribution. Shortly after it opened last August, Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Leslie Miles circulated a petition protesting the business’s billiard hall license, which was to expire Sept. 1. (Crewse had obtained only a short-term permit.) Miles said the place promoted just the sort of activity that has stigmatized Shaw for about three decades: public drinking, loitering, crime, and so on. “Everyone in the neighborhood with the exception of one Vietnamese family signed the petition,” Miles says. “It was open ’til 2 in the morning. People were up in arms.”
“People were hanging around there all night,” chimes in Shawn Kim, the owner of District Liquors, which is adjacent to the hall. Kim recalls two fights that broke out during the joint’s first week of operation. With the support of people like Kim, Miles took advantage of an obscure D.C. law that allows a community to shutter a business, provided that a majority of its neighbors oppose it. The pool hall closed its doors in late August.
“There’s a definite sort of streak of intolerance for people who don’t fit the single-family, upper-middle-class profile,” says Solomon, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner.
“The great irony is that if you want to put in something that’s two blocks long and three blocks wide and gets as much traffic as National Airport in a day, that’s acceptable, but if you want to put in a small pool hall, that is considered a threat to the community,” she adds, referring to the overlap between supporters of the convention center and opponents of the pool hall.
Miles denies that the opposition had anything to do with class or race. “The first person who brought it to my attention was black,” Miles says.
Whatever Miles’ motives, Yoo has failed to lease the space since the pool hall closed. McDonald’s said it was no place for golden arches. Starbucks didn’t even return his calls. Yoo is learning the quandary that bedevils legions of inner-city landlords: While the neighborhood economy supports watering holes, liquor stores, and corner martsand not much elseneighborhood busybodies support none of them.
The result is a huge vacuum. Between Shaw’s bulletproof glass-enclosed liquor stores and Dupont Circle’s Sutton Place Gourmet, there’s no space for middle-class amenities.
After exhausting his leasing options, Yoo opted for a staple of hollowed-out neighborhoods everywhere: a coin-operated laundromat. The laundry idea pleases everyone, including Miles. If it doesn’t clean up the neighborhood, it’ll do less damage than a pool hall.
“I don’t object to a laundry here, but I don’t think he’ll make a living,” Miles says. Most of the area’s houses and apartments, she sniffs, have their own washers and dryers.
Yoo still plans to open by early March. But he admits, “A flower shop might be better.”CP