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When Duane Gautier first came to Anacostia from his native New York City, to intern for a congressman in 1961, the neighborhood was thriving: Most every shopfront filled, and owner-occupied.
When he returned in the early 1980s to work for Pepco, that healthy bloom had wilted. The riots had driven out much of the neighborhood’s economic base, and jobs were as scarce as the small businesses that once supplied them.
Since then, Gautier has been working to build back Anacostia’s economic infrastructure, starting ARCH Development Corporation in 1983 with startup funds from Pepco to train area residents in energy efficiency work (green jobs before they were fashionable). Over three decades now, the small nonprofit has devoted itself to housing, job training, and small-scale business development. Gautier’s latest project: Revamping storefronts on Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road, with grants from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which sits smack at the intersection of those two faded commercial avenues.
“If you can improve the physical appearance of a community, that in itself says, you’re on the rise,” he says, as we start a tour of the neighborhood last Saturday morning. Right next to the Anacostia Business Center on Good Hope Road is a the Honfleur Gallery, the epicenter of a colony of new galleries in the area, all started as part of a cultural development strategy to draw investment—as models, Gautier points to Soho and Chelsea in New York, which built their reputations as destinations for the arts. After a stint helping to start artists coops in Siberia in 1991, Gautier has handled harder conditions than Anacostia.
We turn east along Good Hope, to the corner of 13th Street, where a handsome yellow building sits empty. Designs call for the façade to be painted green, in preparation for a new sit-down café started by a guy named Lavel Sanks, who made dinners at an ARCH evening program for pre-adjudication youth before deciding to start his own place. The café will serve breakfast and lunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to start, solving the problem of families who have nowhere to go eat after church—Big Chair Coffee and Grill is all very well and good, but post-worship dining calls for something a notch more formal.
We turn back west, Gautier moving quickly despite his 68 years—his whiteness notwithstanding, he belongs there as much as anyone else going about their business this cool morning. Rounding the corner onto MLK Avenue, we paused to admire the blue-paint-and-wood installation that covers up empty storefronts. DHCD recently bought the property, and a few more along MLK, which Gautier thinks may have had something to do with the agency’s relocation to the neighborhood a few years ago. Recently, he spotted DHCD director Leila Edmonds and D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities director Gloria Nauden chatting on the corner.
“It wasn’t that they totally ignored Anacostia,” he says. “But now that they’re here, they understand the benefits.” DHCD also bought the Big K properties further up the street, but the historically protected houses are going to take a lot of money to put back into productive use.
Next stop: ARCH’s new baby, the Hive. They came up with the idea for a business incubator six months ago, worked with Curtis Properties to get low rent, and are now in the middle of building out the two-story building. The private offices are already taken, but you can still get a membership for the shared workspace. All the advertising is being handled by Nikki Peele of Eat Shop Live Anacostia, the $15,000 branding effort that’s also promoting existing businesses on the strip (Gautier’s take on the much better funded MidCity effort: “$200,000 to do a marketing campaign? It’s not Coca Cola. It’s a neighborhood.”)
Moving on, we passed Big Chair coffee, which will be getting new sculptures of chairs stuck on poles projecting up from the roof. Gautier is particularly excited about the Jasmine’s Hair Gallery building, which will be restored in accordance with an 1892 photograph. The DHCD grant covers 80 percent of the design and construction costs, with either a landlord or a business expected to make up the difference.
Our last stop is something of a departure from Gautier’s upscale ambitions for Anacostia: Distad’s Tire, which has operated there for 35 years, and isn’t particularly inviting. But they wanted a makeover too, so they got it.
“People say this shouldn’t be here. Well, it is,” Gautier says. “Obviously you don’t want to kick them out, but you want to make them look nice.”
ARCH’s success comes not from attracting multimillion dollar development deals or massive city projects. Instead, it’s making connections with people like Lavel Sanks, to start bringing back the small-scale vibrance that characterized the neighborhood decades ago.
“What we’re trying to do is bring it back to what it was,” Gautier says.