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Residents of Southeast’s Hillcrest Neighborhood Wonder Why No One Wants Their Money

Herman Mitchell leads a comfortable life in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast D.C., a grid of quiet, shady streets, neatly kept brick homes, and friendly neighbors who look out for one another. Mitchell, a Treasury Department employee, has a plush $300,000 home with a spacious back yard. The only time Mitchell wishes he lived somewhere else is when he entertains out-of-town guests.

When Mitchell hosted two of his closest buddies, Denver Mayor Wilmington Webb and Seattle Mayor Norman Rice, during the Black Caucus Convention, getting a bite to eat practically required a travel agent. “I wanted to offer them a meal. We ended up going all the way down to Houston’s, which is in Georgetown, to get a meal, and all the way out to Denny’s, which is in Clinton, Md., to get some breakfast. That’s a crying shame. That is just horrible.”

Horrible maybe, but par for the course in Hillcrest, a community that has struggled for years to lure businesses—restaurants, bookstores, and mainstream grocery marts—that cater to middle-class folks. Community leaders are disappointed that their latest project—a new shopping center around the corner on Good Hope Road SE—is attracting the same old war-zone businesses.

In most other parts of the city, down the block from a prosperous enclave like Hillcrest you’d expect to find a specialty grocery stop, some high-end fashion stores, and a nice little bistro. But in Southeast you come upon the Skyland shopping center, a depressed jumble of run-down stores, most of them discount marts hawking gimmicky deals like two-for-one toilet-paper sales. Winos and the homeless panhandle outside a grim Safeway. Other retail nodes near Hillcrest are no better, a mishmash of party stores, check-cashing joints, and more discount marts—just the sort of joints that leach money out of lower-class black communities by offering less for more.

Hillcrest resident Michael Hughes says he tries to patronize area businesses but still can’t bring himself to pull into Skyland. “Everything I can get at Skyland I can get somewhere else, and cheaper,” he says.

Hillcrest residents rejoiced in 1991 when Safeway announced it was shutting down its Skyland store and building a jumbo-size outlet across the street along with a new shopping center. According to Paul Savage, president of the Penn-Naylor Coalition of Civic Associations, the community supported Safeway’s bid to get the zoning changed because Safeway promised to bring in upscale stores.

But Safeway has failed Hillcrest, putting together a project that will just update the blight that’s already there. The new Good Hope shopping center will host a Rent-America outlet, a Payless shoe store, and a Sportzone, all stalwarts of downscale retailing. The lack of a sit-down restaurant leaves community leaders incensed that they delivered zoning variances for Safeway and got nothing in return.

“There’s great disappointment on our part because…the goods and services they’re offering are just a transfer of some of those things that are already existing,” says Savage.

To its credit, Safeway has promised to bring in a Chevy Chase bank, a Radio Shack, and a police substation, which the community requested. But that’s not good enough, says Savage. “There will have to be a reason to go there besides the Safeway food store,” he says. “And that reason to shop, for us, does not start with Payless shoes.”

Savage can’t figure out why Hillcrest and the surrounding area don’t rate a place where residents can get a meal or a decent cup of coffee. Hillcrest residents aren’t holding out for another Georgia Brown’s; a chain restaurant with table service would do the trick.

“Such places as a Shoney’s, a Sizzler, a three-meal, sit-down restaurant where you can take your family, your guest from out of town,” says Savage. “We don’t have a place in this community, not one, where we can go to breakfast or whatever. And that was one of the demands we made upon Safeway, and they failed us on that.”

Larry Johnson, Safeway’s director of public affairs, says he cannot divulge which businesses have signed leases for the new shopping center. When asked about chances for a restaurant, Johnson responded, “We have tried every possible food chain across the country, local or otherwise, and no one to this date has expressed an interest in being there.” Johnson said that one of the main reasons restaurants would not come was because of a lack of traffic.

“That’s bull,” says Mitchell. “The McDonald’ses and Domino’ses certainly believe they can push that grease and salt through a window at you and make money. There is absolutely no reason why you cannot bring an excellent family restaurant in that area and make money. We have a higher traffic pattern in that area than you have out in Forestville [where there is a Black-Eyed Pea restaurant]. We have a much heavier traffic pattern than they would ever have.”

Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous is skeptical that Safeway has made the effort it claims. “They [Safeway] have yet to provide me with [a list of] the restaurants that they say they contacted that indicated they weren’t willing to come into that shopping center. You can’t help but be suspicious about how hard they tried.”

When asked for a list of restaurants contacted, Johnson barks that such a list “has no business being aired in the newspapers. This is not a public-consumption thing.”

In all fairness, Safeway did come up with a proposal to anchor the strip with a Pizza Hut—a proposal that made left Hillcresters underwhelmed.”Walk up, get a pizza, and get the heck out of the area. Don’t sit down, don’t eat, don’t do anything,” snaps Mitchell.

“This community east of the river has a plethora of fast food,” says Savage. “We don’t want fast food anymore. There’s enough surrounding us. We have been supportive of the shopping center, although when we look at the leases there is not much there we would want.”

Although Hillcrest leaders are slinging most of their arrows at Safeway, they’ve reserved some for the District government, which Savage slams for having “no coherent strategy” for economic development. Vincent Spaulding, the area’s advisory neighborhood commissioner, says, “We have not received from [the city] proactive leadership.”

Chavous says he believes the city has “dropped the ball when it comes to economic development” but notes that there is “enough blame to go around.”

Blame notwithstanding, the Good Hope shopping center is shaping up as a nice little economic-development package…for thriving commercial districts in Maryland and elsewhere in D.C., which will continue siphoning off Hillcresters’ disposable income for years to come.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates