City Paper is not for tourists
When he opened Windows Cafe & Market in Bloomingdale in 2001, Hunegnaw Abeje peddled mostly beer and chips from behind a Plexiglass window. Now, he stocks $10 organic maple syrup, and the Plexiglass is long gone.
Windows is typical of the D.C. corner stores that have upscaled in an attempt to grab hold of the new money and customers streaming into D.C.’s gentrifying corridors. Compared to how it looked 13 years ago, Windows is now much bigger and fancier, though Abeje says he started upgrading long before Bloomingdale’s first sit-down restaurant opened in 2010. In 2003, he began converting his storage space into shopping aisles, giving him space for what would become two main rooms in his 1,900 square-foot shop: one for selling coffee and sandwiches, and another that stocks fresh produce, bread—including challah—and frozen foods like an organic pesto pizza for $10.49. The café serves $8 sandwiches named after D.C. streets.
“This is my ambition,” says Abeje, an Ethiopian immigrant. His upgraded store and café now employs seven part- and full-time workers.
For those who have witnessed the transformation of Bloomingdale over the past decade, the changes at Windows are anything but surprising. It’s a familiar story: Money began to dribble into the neighborhood several years ago, giving way to a flood of new investment and wealthier residents in what had been a crime-pocked and impoverished area for decades. Windows was part of the trend, evolving into a pricier, brighter corner market that fit right in with the nearby yoga studio, upscale restaurants, and booming weekend farmers’ market.
Ward 5, an area that includes Bloomingdale, Brookland, Eckington, and Trinidad, was more than 90 percent black in 2000. By 2010, the ward’s black population had dropped to 59 percent, and the percentage of white people living there jumped to 30 percent. The average household income last year in Bloomingdale and the surrounding neighborhoods of Truxton Circle, LeDroit Park, and Eckington was $88,650, according to the Washington DC Economic Partnership’s annual neighborhood profiles report. (The average household income in D.C. was $101,486.) Windows largely caters to Bloomingdale’s new wave of young residents—people whose disposable incomes allow for, say, $10 maple syrup.
“We took a risk,” Abeje says. “Three years ago, it was a scary neighborhood.”
When Bloomingdale’s gentrification was in its nascent stages, Abeje says real estate agents took potential clients to his corner store to show them how the area was changing. Now, Abeje says he sees about 800 customers on any given weekend.
“I come here for everything,” says Zach Sherif, a lighting and interior designer and the chair of the Bloomingdale Civic Association’s Beautification Committee, who had popped into Windows on a Thursday afternoon to pick up a bottle of wine. “It’s a basic all-stop venue.”
The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue assessed Windows’ building to be worth $473,610 in 2013. Yet the structure was sold in August 2013 for $695,000—a sum that speaks to the rising real estate prices sweeping Bloomingdale. Renting commercial space in the area before it was cool, so to speak, has come at a high price for Abeje. He says when he took over the location in 2001, his rent was about $1,100, and it’s increased modestly over the years. When his new lease starts in April, he says his rent will more than triple.
Still, Bloomingdale is the only location Windows knows, and Abeje opted to re-sign the more expensive lease. “I am worried, but what can you do?” he says. “I wasn’t ready to leave my store.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery