On a recent Sunday afternoon, hope was in the air on the 700 block of Kennedy Street NW, and it bore the unmistakable scent of spray paint. A graffiti artist was filling the wall of an alley with a composite landscape of global wonders. The Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument loomed over Egyptian and Central American pyramids. Easter Island heads sat stoically in the foreground, with one emitting a speech bubble with the name of the adjacent cafe, Culture Coffee.
The coffee shop opened fewer than five months ago, but it’s already left an impression on Kennedy Street, so much so that neighbor Myles Smith refers to it as “the new heartbeat of the neighborhood.” Community members of all stripes drop by to chat with co-owner Saundrell Stevens, to sample the offerings you’re not likely to find anywhere nearby—smoothies, locally roasted single-origin coffees, vegan pastries—and to hang out.
Stevens commissioned the mural, partly to spruce up the alley and partly to send a message. Kennedy Street, the artwork seems to say, is back on the map.
At least that’s the ambition of a group of neighbors. Smith and his wife Danielle Parsons formed the Kennedy Street Business Development Association in January—later dropping the word “Business” to shorten the name—with the aim of reviving some of the vibrant retail for which the corridor was once known.
The surrounding neighborhood has experienced an unusually rapid demographic shift in the past couple of years. As Petworth, directly to the south, has grown more expensive and priced out some middle-class families, young professionals are flocking to the area around Kennedy Street, which features attractive rowhouses. According to the annual neighborhood profiles published by the Washington DC Economic Partnership in February, no neighborhood saw a bigger increase in housing prices over the past year than the Kennedy Street area, where homes sold for an average of 25 percent more than in 2012.
But Culture Coffee is one of the few bright spots in what’s otherwise a languishing retail strip. Kennedy Street’s shortcomings were evident enough to have become ammunition for one mayoral candidate to attack his rival, Muriel Bowser, who represents the area on the D.C. Council and chairs the Council’s economic development committee.
“To the people who say Muriel Bowser should be mayor, look around,” Jack Evans said in a February campaign appearance on the street, gesturing at a shuttered liquor store and salon behind him. “Look at the Kennedy Street corridor and make your own judgment about whether she is prepared to create jobs, to be our mayor. A once-great neighborhood and dozens of struggling businesses right here are still waiting for revitalization more than six years after Ms. Bowser joined the D.C. Council.”
(The tactic didn’t work. Bowser won the primary on Tuesday, while Evans logged just 5 percent of the vote.)
Kennedy Street is one of the District’s longest retail strips that isn’t actually offering that much in the way of retail. Many of the storefronts are vacant; others have been filled by churches, which are open only one day a week. The once-glamorous Kennedy Theater is now a city-owned senior center that sits shuttered in the evening and on the weekend. The exception to the dearth of retail is the overabundance of funeral homes, giving off the impression that Kennedy Street, struggling to emerge from the shadow of its better past, serves the dead more than the living.
Smith and his collaborators are trying to bring the street back to life. With money flowing into the neighborhood and the city’s economic engine churning at full speed, there’s plenty of reason to think now is the time for Kennedy Street to begin its resurgence. But first it’ll have to overcome some of the obstacles that have held it back for decades.
A 1948 city directory shows a Kennedy Street that bears little resemblance to the street of today. This was postwar boom time, when suburbanization and white flight had yet to take their toll and the District’s population was near its peak. Many, if not most, of the occupants of Kennedy Street’s residences bore Jewish names, a sign of the thriving Jewish presence in the greater Petworth area at the time. The business listings featured the word “delicatessen” about as often as “vacant.” Eight grocery stores, Eddie’s Friendly Tavern, High’s Dairy Products, and several Italian barbers were among the more than 60 businesses on the nine blocks of Kennedy Street between North Capitol Street and Georgia Avenue NW.
But like many D.C. neighborhoods, the corridor took a turn for the worse over the next few decades. In the 1980s, police crackdowns on drug hotbeds like 14th and U streets NW pushed dealers to farther-flung areas such as Kennedy Street, which deteriorated as drug trafficking took hold. The so-called KDY crews spearheaded the violence, reaching its peak when Bennie Lee Lawson of the First and Kennedy Crew opened fire in the police headquarters on Judiciary Square in 1994 and killed three law-enforcement officials.
These days, the neighborhood is much safer, although fears still linger. “There’s a perception of danger here, particularly after dark,” says David Gottfried, a 16th Street Heights resident who has worked on the Kennedy Street Development Association efforts. “The statistics don’t bear that out.”
Gottfried hopes that an investor who sees the upside of the neighborhood, with its growing disposable incomes, will bring an establishment or two that will get people’s attention and help spark a retail revival. “Someone’s got to be a risk-taker and open something to attract people to the neighborhood,” he says. “And I think that risk will be rewarded.”
Several hurdles stand between Kennedy Street and a return to its former glory. First, there’s the location: Kennedy Street is just beyond walking distance from the nearest Metro stations, making it reliant on cars and buses. Nearly all of D.C.’s successful retail corridors are Metro-accessible; the biggest exceptions are places like Georgetown’s M Street, which is surrounded by wealth, and H Street NE, which is an easy walk from much of Capitol Hill and is centered on nightlife, rather than the neighborhood-serving retail to which the KSDA aspires.
“Our goal isn’t to make another H Street,” says Smith. “Our goal is to send the signal that natural growth can happen.”
The surrounding neighborhoods, with mostly rowhouses and detached houses, don’t have the density that’s generally required to support a long, active retail strip. A recent Washington City Paper study found that the Kennedy Street area has the highest concentration of corner stores per capita of any neighborhood in the city, with a store for every 170 residents. That suggests that in the absence of greater population density, there might just not be that much more room for Kennedy Street retail to grow.
The street’s layout complicates things further. Kennedy Street’s retail area is a mile long, with shops broken up by vacant storefronts and residences. Some blighted properties owe enough in taxes to make a sale and return to productive use unlikely, including one that owes $290,000 when it’s only worth $304,000. Any development would probably flow east from Georgia Avenue, particularly if the city chooses that street for a planned north-south streetcar route, and it would take quite some time to spread across the corridor. It doesn’t help that a number of defunct businesses have owners who can’t be found.
Then there’s the city’s involvement. The Office of Planning’s 2008 revitalization plan for Kennedy Street hasn’t led to much change. Nor has the D.C. Department of Transportation’s allocation of $3.75 million for streetscape improvements, which has been tied to a separate grant to overhaul the pedestrian-unfriendly intersection of Kennedy Street and Missouri and Kansas avenues. That process has gone nowhere, and the KSDA has urged the city to begin the streetscaping first.
Branding has also been tricky. Upshur Street, a mile to the south, benefits from its location in the heart of Petworth as that neighborhood’s up-and-coming retail strip. But Kennedy Street doesn’t have such a simple neighborhood identity. Some refer to it as the north end of Petworth; others call it Brightwood Park, or Manor Park, or 16th Street Heights. One city-backed venture tried to brand it Vinegar Hill South, after the pre-Civil War black settlement to the north known as Vinegar Hill. The mishmash of neighborhood monikers has led the KSDA to stick with the street name.
Finally, there’s the identity of the activists. Smith and his wife moved to Brightwood Park just a year ago. The typical volunteer in the KSDA, Smith says, has lived in the neighborhood three to five years. Stevens lives on Capitol Hill, though her lease is up in July and she’s thinking about moving closer to her coffee shop. Her average customer is also a relative newcomer. All of this raises the question of whether the neighborhood is effecting its own change, or whether a group of recent arrivals is seeking to create the type of neighborhood they envisioned when they moved there.
“In the coffee shop, every Saturday, someone says, ‘Oh, I just moved here,’” Stevens says. “Most of the people in the coffee shop have been there three years or less. It’s almost a new neighborhood.”
Still, Smith and Stevens seem to know just about everyone on the street, and their neighbors appear to share their goals. Smith conducted a survey of neighbors’ desires for the street, and 90 percent of respondents said they wanted a sit-down restaurant. Other common requests included a gym and a healthy grocery store. (The latter is made more difficult by the fact that there will soon be two Walmart stores within walking distance of Kennedy Street. “If not for the Walmarts, you might be able to convince a Yes! [Organic Market] to come in,” says Smith, who was considering opening a hardware store there before the Walmarts were a done deal.) As we’re walking past the old Kennedy Theater, one woman shouts to Smith, “When are they gonna put a movie theater in here?”
“We’re not the first group of people to try this,” says Smith. “We’re just the latest.”
Smith says it probably isn’t realistic to strive to replicate the Kennedy Street of the 1940s, when the streetcar was the main transit mode and development was less centralized. But Stevens is more optimistic: She thinks Kennedy Street could return to its peak in a matter of years.
“I believe it could get back to that,” she says. “Just give us five.”