Irvin Parker likes to sit in a chair by the window of his corner store on Sherriff Road and 46th Street NE, a particularly good vantage point to scan both the inside of his modest market and the neighborhood that has changed outside.
Parker, 69, is the second generation of his family to run Deanwood’s Suburban Market. His father Henry opened the business in the 1940s and later relocated it to its current corner in the early 1960s. In the years since, the market has remained a steadfast, if stubborn, sign of what Parker remembers the neighborhood to have been but may no longer be.
Suburban Market sells the basic staples, with few frills. There’s not much beer in the refrigerator cases, and no single cigars used to roll blunts. Parker has opted out of selling tobacco products altogether. “My race has enough problems as it is,” he says. There’s no inch-thick bulletproof glass but rather a sign on the front door that says, “No hood, no mask.” A self-proclaimed “beast,” Parker has fought to keep his corner clear of loiterers.
“Right on this corner where I pay taxes, you’re not hanging here. Done deal. Let’s get this straightened out right now. When you walk in to that door, you ain’t gotta walk by any people,” he says.
A portrait of Henry Parker watches over the store, and next to it Irvin Parker keeps a pair of boots that his father, who owned horses, wore while riding. The boots themselves are a sign of how much Deanwood has changed in a half-century: Parker remembers riding the horses along what would become Metro’s Orange Line tracks, and he fondly recalls the apple and plum trees that dotted the neighborhood during its heyday as a self-reliant African-American suburb of a segregated city.
Parker’s steadfast if stubborn appeal to Deanwood’s past is what attracted hip-hop artist Carl Walker, better known by his stage name Kokayi, to the market when he and his family bought a house in the neighborhood two years ago.
“I look at this like an old-school general store,” Walker says. “I don’t live really close, but I make the extra walk. I could easily go up the street to three or four of the liquor stores-slash-corner stores, or I can make the walk over here. We’re coming to a place where we know there’s no issues, no drama.”
Even while he chooses to weather change by hearkening back to a long-gone time, Parker sees how the changes in Deanwood—brought on by the suburbanization of the black middle class and to some extent the opening of the Deanwood Metro station in 1978—have affected both his clientele and the neighborhood’s character. “It’s all good, but people change, neighbors change. New people move in, they’ve got different values, what can I say?” he says. “There’s still good people here, but it’s different, much different. Me, I don’t know nobody here in this neighborhood. I’ve been here all my life, and I bet you that I don’t know but about five families.”
The existence of an institution wedded to a history whose community may be forgetting it isn’t a story new to D.C., nor any city rocked by major demographic shifts. But it presents a practical challenge to Parker if he wants to pass on the shop to his family’s next generation, including his son and nephew, both of whom work at the store.
“The store used to do a different volume. Now it’s just declining, declining, declining. We can hold, but it’s a big change,” he says. “Well, I’m gonna survive in it. I have no other choice. I got to.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery