On the western end of the eastern half of Rhode Island Avenue NE, gentrification has done its work, lining the broad road with proudly restored rowhouses flowing out of Bloomingdale. After heading up over a crest, the avenue descends past a rough patch of car ramps up to a strip mall vacated last year by Safeway, through a cluster of cinderblock buildings owned by Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, and under the Red Line. Signs of investment appear again with a modern apartment complex just finishing construction near the Metro station, surrounded in the hustle and bustle of another strip mall and the District’s only Home Depot.
And then it continues uphill northeast, fading into suburbia, with only the occasional fried chicken place or large church to draw you further; most drivers are heading out to homes in Maryland anyway. Few people walk, and even fewer ride bikes; six lanes for cars still leave no room.
But the avenue plateaus again at 20th Street, and the texture changes. Here, the sidewalks are wide, and the shopfronts close together with large front windows that once may have displayed food or dry goods. It has the architecture of community. Now, though, most are either shuttered or faced in metal grills. There are no sidewalk cafes, no benches or buskers, only the occasional pedestrian walking to catch a bus.
That two-block stretch is Rhode Island’s only real main street—or potential main street. It’s also the one that a new citizens group wants to focus on revitalizing. The Friends of Rhode Island Avenue (FoRIA), only a few months old now, figures that the area by the Metro station will take care of itself, as the new denizens of Rhode Island Row attract restaurants and retail. But their faraway retail strip is still surrounded by people who want a place to shop for groceries, do their drycleaning, go get a latte on a Tuesday morning and a drink on Friday night. Right now, other than the ladies-oriented nightclub Lace, they’ve got pretty much no options.
“If you want fresh food around here, you cannot get it. You can go to a 7-11, you can go to a Family Dollar,” says Stephanie Liotta Atkinson, an attorney who’s lived in the neighborhood for a year and a half. “You can get your taxes done, you can buy auto parts, and you can go to church.”
Daniel Brewer, who works at a salon downtown and in 2008 bought into the neighborhood with his partner Greg Roberts—-author of Rhode Island Avenue Insider—-shares Atkinson’s impatience with the taxicabs lot that takes up a prime corner. “I could see that being a really cool restaurant, with an outdoor patio,” he said. “Like Red Rocks.”
FoRIA’s board is mostly new residents, but it’s led by James Holloway, a security analyst who’s lived in Woodridge for more than two decades and insists the longtime Northeasterners want change too. “Don’t believe that the older residents don’t want development,” he says. “That is the biggest crock.”
Woodridge isn’t without its assets. During the day, Art Enables offers studio space to disabled people. There are a handful of healthy service businesses, like the well-regarded Woodridge Upholsterers, and Carl’s Subs has some of the best sandwiches in town. But like most businesses, Carl’s closes before 5:00 p.m. and doesn’t open on Sundays, leaving residents with no food options to speak of—even a Dunkin Donuts went out of business at 18th Street. According to my own (very rough) count, out of 57 addresses between 20th and 24th streets, there are five storefront churches, six barbershops and nail salons, and 21 buildings that are either vacant or shuttered in the middle of a weekday. There are no banks, no large office buildings, and though single-family homes on the side streets have been handsomely renovated, residential density isn’t high enough to drive foot traffic.
Vacancies in other areas of the city, like H Street, Georgia Avenue, upper 14th Street, and even nearby 12th Street NE in Brookland, are seen as opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to bet on the next hot neighborhood. But Woodridge, which most people only see on their way to Maryland, isn’t on anybody’s radar screen (it didn’t even attract the interest of marijuana dispensaries).
The problem hasn’t lacked for examination. An Urban Land Institute technical assistance report from 2008 lays out the district’s challenges and potential solutions, recommending that it be marketed as an arts and culture cluster. But the Premier Community Development Corporation, for whom the report was written, was never able to raise the matching funds to establish a Main Streets Program that would help with the branding, retail attraction, façade improvements, and streetscape overhaul that the report prescribed. Meanwhile, private investment has gone elsewhere—-neighborhood developer EYA* has already done its big placemaking project on the Maryland side of Rhode Island Avenue, with the Metro-proximate Hyattsville Arts District.
Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. also likes to talk about how Rhode Island Avenue is now a Great Street, making it eligible for city funding. So far, that’s only resulted in another study, which identifies market potential for financing tools like TIFs, tax abatements, and federal grants. But even for that limited pool of money, Woodridge doesn’t stack up well against a bunch of other commercial nodes around the city—-Anacostia and Minnesota-Benning come to mind—-where investment might go further, faster. (And a councilmember who’s under federal investigation is not the best equipped to fight for Woodridge’s piece of the pie).
Bo Menkiti, of the Brookland-based Menkiti Group, recently bought a couple of commercial buildings from a lady named Janice Booker, who had tried to make something happen in the neighborhood for years before losing her properties in a tax sale. He’s had a lot of inquiries about the spaces, but nothing yet from a proven operator. The best thing the city could do, Menkiti says, is set up some kind of incubator (join the club!) that could support entrepreneurs that wanted to locate there in a cluster—despite the affordable rents, moving to Woodridge is a big leap for a business, and there’s more safety in numbers.
Meanwhile, though, Menkiti wants to see residents create a business-friendly environment for everybody, not just the wine bars and yoga studios they’re hoping will get there eventually.
“Neighborhoods are made by the people who take the risk. People who go up there and sit there every day and worry about getting robbed. It’s not the people who go get a cup of coffee once a week,” he says. “We have set up this dynamic where everyone in the neighborhood complains about what’s there and says they want something else that’s not interested in being there, while not investing in the businesses that are there.”
* Edited to reflect the fact that Jair Lynch is not a part of the Hyattsville Arts District development.
Photos by Lydia DePillis