The federal Department of Homeland Security typically conjures up images of airport screening, border guards, hurricane damage, or terrorist attacks. A group of business owners and local activists in Congress Heights, though, are hoping the arrival of the department’s offices will help the neighborhood become the District’s next Barracks Row or Adams Morgan.
Through the Congress Heights Main Streets project, founded two years ago, they’re trying to bring new investment to the community, in Ward 8. DHS will move its headquarters there from Tenleytown within a few years, and the neighborhood is trying to capitalize on the construction and the estimated 14,000 jobs that will arrive with the department. The area needs it badly; the average unemployment rate in Ward 8, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, was 26.5 percent.
The Congress Heights Main Streets project, which extends from Fourth St. Southeast to Milwaukee Pl. Southeast, wants to create a cleaner and safer environments around the 58 businesses in that community.
“As you know when you ride around the city there are different neighborhoods that looked bad and now they look good,” says James Bunn, chairman of the Congress Heights Main Streets project. “Our intention is to have a corridor that looks like Barracks Row.”
Bunn, who is a Ward 8 resident and chairman of the ward’s business council, has owned the Bunn Building at 3127 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave SE since 1970. He and other Congress Heights Main Streets organizers say they want to create a cleaner, and safer, neighborhood for the 58 businesses in the area now. They hope that, in turn, will mean in more restauranteurs and other businesses move in.
So far, Bunn says three or four businesses in the neighborhood have already been renovated by business owners. The D.C. Council’s Committee on Economic Development, which is chaired by At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown (the all-but-certain next council chairman), allocated $150,000 to the Congress Heights Main Streets project in May of this year, to try to help those efforts. Brown says it’s a “shame” revitalization efforts were not organized earlier in Congress Heights: “It’s time to get the improvements in town that we get downtown.”
During a press conference on Friday, in front of a Chinese food carry-out called Hong Kong, Bunn advised business owners in the neighborhood not to sell their property “for a few bucks.” Within 12 to 18 months, he says, the construction of the Department of Homeland Security building will raise property values for business owners and residents. “We want them to be a part of the new money that is coming,” Bunn says.
The take-out place’s entrance was recently renovated by Chosen Contractors, a company owned by Tinamarie Spencer, who grew up in Congress Heights and graduated from Ballou Senior High School. Spencer says she went for an “Adams Morgan feel” for the re-design of the storefront to bring sophistication to Congress Heights. She says she’s excited by the opportunity to “give something back to her community.”
“[Residents are] so used to having everything run down or having second hand work,” she says. “So I wanted to give them something that they deserve.”