We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Despite having run smack into a big gentrification-laced clusterfuck, Big Bear Cafe may be on the verge of getting its long-sought liquor license—and its supporters are pulling out all the stops to help.
During a hearing at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board last week, in fact, Bloomingdale residents who want Big Bear to serve booze asserted the restaurant was more than a good neighborhood food and coffee joint. It was a great neighbor. For one thing, it’d managed to keep things quiet: witnesses said that though the place sometimes has live music in the evening, you usually can’t hear it—even if you happen to live right above the business or right next to it.
Big Bear’s patrons are helping to solve global warming, swapping bikes for gas-guzzling, parking-space-bogarting cars. (The ABC Board’s concern for how bars affect parking is probably getting to be a bit of an anachronism, especially with places like Big Bear that mostly cater to people who live nearby.)
But by far, the most amazing thing about Big Bear, and one of the reasons it should, apparently, be granted a restaurant-class liquor license, is that it’s helped fight crime in the gentrifying neighborhood it resides in.
Years ago, when the retail space the cafe sits in was occupied by Big Bear Market, things were terrible, a neighbor explained to the ABC Board: “There was definitely crimes based on the loiterers from the store.” The neighbor shared an alley with the market. He describes the spot as having bulletproof glass and as being more of a liquor store than a grocery. The market/liquor store didn’t just attract local drunks. Drug dealers and drug addicts camped there too. The neighbor sometimes discovered “people smoking crack in my back alley.”
But when Big Bear Cafe moved in, all that changed. “That activity has disappeared,” said the witness. “The alley itself has become less of a toilet and more of an alley.” And if Big Bear is given a liquor license, things will get even better. Another neighbor and witness says that if they serve alcohol, they’ll have a reason to extend their hours—which will help fight crime even more: “Feeling threatened by people on the street is not something that happens in the vicinity of the cafe.”
Contributing to the argument that it’s an ideal neighbor, a local Realtor sent a letter to the ABC Board, in which she pointed to Big Bear as being a catalyst for rising property values. And one witness twice mentioned how Big Bear makes its restrooms available to the homeless.
If that doesn’t sound community-oriented enough, it’s not like Big Bear is going to use its license to become a tavern or something, its owner, Stu Davenport told from the stand. Instead, it’ll be more like a “European cafe.” He plans to serve tapas and restrict all live entertainment at the establishment to jazz or acoustic music.
The new, improved Big Bear Cafe will also likely be a lot more sensitive to the the fact that its alienated some of its non-white neighbors. The hurdles it’s had to face have cropped up largely because of relations with longer-term area residents. “I was not aware of the issues growing in the neighborhood that I am now,” Davenport testified.
The arguments made in support of the application—especially the crime-fighting ones—are exactly the type of arguments often made against expanding liquor sales in District neighborhoods, proving that as the city continues to change, things are bound to get more and more complicated. The outpouring of support for the cafe underscores this; years back, such an establishment would have never opened in Bloomingdale, much less drawn an aggressive campaign on its behalf.
The board has 90 days to issue a written decision on Big Bear’s license.
*Photo by Darrow Montgomery