H Street Northeast is a neighborhood in major transition. It was in the 1950s and 60s an important retail and entertainment corridor for the African-American community in DC, along with the U Street corridor in Northwest. Along came the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, and then in the 1970s and 80s the rise of the drug epidemics, and H Street turned into pawn shops, liquor stores, and abandoned buildings. In the early 2000s, property developers turned their eyes toward the area for the relative abundance of cheap real estate as the next new place they could revitalize and get rich in the process.
These first four shots here represent the old side of the neighborhood – liquor stores, barred windows and businesses that clung to life through the lean years.
This set are the changing face of H Street – fresh paint, new entertainment venues, coffee shops and chic pubs.
The not-so-visible dark underside to this is that the past residents (lower and middle income African-Americans) and the businesses they used to operate are being pushed out not only by the housing redevelopment that is driving real estate prices up by several hundred percent over the span of a decade or less, but by the changing retail landscape – when enough businesses on your street have gone from selling fifty-cent cups of coffee and five dollar lunch deals to six dollar cappuccinos and thirty dollar tasting menus, your old clientele aren’t coming around anymore. If you were already operating on a shoestring, it can be cost-prohibitive to reinvent yourself.
I’m a big public transportation junkie, so when I heard they were finally launching the DC Streetcar on H Street Northeast (a public works project over a decade in the making and long overdue – the tracks have been in place for two or three years now), I was so excited I ran over after work last Friday to see it and ride it only to find out I was a day early! So I satisfied my urge and photographed the streetcar at the Union Station end of the line, catching it at sunset. The shiny new car reflected not only the setting sun but the buildings across the street, bringing the surrounding urbanscape out of frame back into the picture.
Here is a different view of the streetcar, waiting at the Union Station end of the line, looking down H Street. H Street was, fifty or so years ago, a thriving business district catering mostly to a middle-class African-American clientele. Then along came the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then with the 1980s, the cocaine and crack epidemics. H Street was devastated.
Obviously now, not so much. It has transformed starting in the early 2000s with the real estate boom. Perhaps the turning point was the creation of a large condominium complex, Senate Square, on the grounds of what was originally a Catholic school and later the Capitol Children’s Museum. Now, pawn shops and lake trout joints are being replaced by artisanal coffee roasters, fancy pubs serving British-Indian fusion cuisine, and cultural outlets like the Atlas Theater and the Rock n’ Roll Hotel (which is not a hotel, but a bar and concert venue). Instead of a Murry’s, the neighborhood is now sporting a Whole Foods.
When finally fully operational (at the moment, the streetcar only runs less than half the length of installed track), the streetcar will connect Union Station and the governmental core of the city to east of the Anacostia River, a long-suffering neighborhood where good jobs and access to quality goods and services have been sorely lacking.
I’ve been past the PanAm Market for years and wanted to photograph the outside, but never got around to it. Several times I’ve walked past and been on the verge of taking a photo but gotten the hairy eyeball from patrons or folks just hanging out on the sidewalk in front, so I’ve moved on and not taken the shot. This time there were not so many folks around and I was able to get a clean picture of it.
After scanning the negative I noticed that there’s a kid’s hand on the window that looks somewhat disembodied. All the security bars on the windows and doors make it look like a prison rather than a store, which was certainly NOT my intent. But it is what it is, and there’s no changing that. The kid was sitting by the door and holding it open for people with full carts trying to get out to their cars.
I’ve photographed Barbara’s Beauty Salon before, close up. This time I shot from across the street, to include the crosswalk stripes and more of the context of the neighborhood. I think you can really see the “Ajax Was Here” phenomenon in this shot. The Premium Title company to the right is brand new and spiffy looking, Gloria’s Pupusas to the left is cleaner, newer and bright and busy. Barbara’s, I still can’t tell if they’re even in business.
Here’s the older photo I posted of Barbara’s for comparison:
The signs of gentrification, both good and bad, abound in my area. Funky old shops in decrepit buildings are being forced out and razed to be replaced by condos and market-rate rentals at prices I don’t know how anyone can afford and being serviced by shops and restaurants worthy of being spoofed by AbFab. At the same time, the drugs, the street crime, and the random trash are all disappearing too.
I’m not sure Mitoni’s salon is still in business, or if it is, for how much longer. But I’ve not been sure if it is in business for the last decade, frankly. Regardless, it will shortly be going away to be replaced by an 8-10 story condo/retail complex.
You can very clearly see the layers of old and new, gentrified and recycled here. A former post office (that was once notorious for a rat infestation that destroyed tens of thousands of pieces of undelivered mail) is now a trendy taqueria. An old antiques store is now the Policy restaurant and bar with the roof deck you can see. In the upper left background is the old cold storage facility which oddly enough still rents out storage lockers. Behind the street-level buildings in the foreground is The Louis, a high-rise condo complex with swanky restaurants, coffee shops, and a Trader Joes (which is actually a welcome addition to the neighborhood). This shot was taken from the roof of Room and Board, an upscale furniture shop in what was a long-boarded-up former car dealership building.
The dining room at Doi Moi, a new Thai/Vietnamese restaurant.
Transformer Gallery is one of the pre- to mid-gentrification vestiges. They’re a small space, and perhaps their saving grace is the fact that the space is too small for most developers’ interests. I don’t know how they survive as, from my perspective, a lot of the art they show is hard to sell.
When I took the photo, it was still August, so I thought the leaves made an interesting ironic statement about the nature of the changing neighborhood.
The Fabulous Vegas Lounge is another vestige of the old neighborhood. They must own their building to have outlasted the condo buildings that went up around them. It’s been a Jazz club since the 1970s at least.
As usual, all photos taken with my Rolleiflex 2.8E, on Ilford FP4+.
It “snowed” here in DC on Tuesday, and we got the day off for what amounted to a little more than a dusting that rapidly turned into slush and never really interfered with traffic or public transportation or anything. But, since I had the day off, I took a walkabout in my neighborhood to burn some film.
I’m always looking for images of things to add to my “Portraits of Everyday Objects” series. This mailbox, outside the Industrial Bank building on U Street fits the bill, looking somewhat forlorn with all its graffiti.
Industrial Bank was started at the beginning of the 20th century by African-Americans to cater to the African-American community. Their main branch is at the corner of 11th and U Streets, and has this really cool metal and neon clock sign out front. Alas they have allowed the sign to lapse into disrepair – I THINK the clock functions but it is not accurate, and either they just never turn on the neon or it no longer works. I really wish they’d fix it up so it would work, as it would make a very nice neighborhood landmark and a visual counterpoint to the yellow saxophone sign across the street outside the Bohemian Cavern nightclub.
Up the street there is the Soul-Saving Center Church of God – a storefront community church with a primarily if not exclusively African-American congregation. It’s a sign of the gentrification and transformation of the neighborhood – across the street from them is a brand-new condo building with units selling for up to $1.2 Million.
You can see the real estate bonanza still happening in the neighborhood – small row houses are being converted and expanded into multi-story multi-unit condominium buildings. Here is one with a “Fabulous Interio”- the agent broke off the “r” to get the sign to fit inside the fence. I wonder how long it will be before the Soul-Saving Center Church decides to sell their buildings plus the adjacent lot they have – they’ve got perhaps $10 Million in land alone now.
Up the street is another landmark of the neighborhood, almost as famous as Ben’s Chili Bowl. The Florida Avenue Grill has been around since 1944, serving up good old-fashioned soul food to locals and celebrities alike. The Florida Avenue Grill once owned a large empty lot next door, which served as their parking lot. About five years ago the family that owns the grill sold the empty lot and now a five story condo building has filled it. The average unit in that building sold for north of $500,000 each.
I was out walking around in the late afternoon and found these. I like the simple graphic compositions they inspired, combined with the long shadows being cast. They’re remnants of the old industrial component of the neighborhood that is quickly being usurped by gentrification.
Just four random shots from around the neighborhood. These first three are small local businesses managing to hang on in the face of growing gentrification.
I don’t know what’s going on with EJ’s. Every time I walk past (which may be heavily influenced by when I’m going by – weekday evenings and/or weekends) it appears closed. I know the sign says “open” in the door, but you tell me what closed miniblinds means… I love the sign on the door (which is probably too small to read in the JPEG version of this shot): “We love children. However, insurance regulations do not allow children in the shop unless they are receiving services. Thank you, The Management”.
A sign of the times. General hipsterization plus the general trend of people being so absorbed by their mobile devices that they do stupid stuff like walk into traffic has inspired these signs spray-painted at the crosswalks of a number of intersections in the Upper 11th Trend Strip (don’t know what else to call it- North-East Columbia Heights Business District? NoECoHiBD? …that stretch of 11th where all the new restaurants have proliferated amidst old-time bodegas and coin laundries? How about just Hipster Velcro? (can’t call it a hipster magnet because that would imply something about hipsters that’s just not true. Velcro sounds about right because it sticks well to things like scruffy beards and ironic flannel). Of course, it NEEDS to be painted on the sidewalk, for it to stand a chance of registering with the phone-focused.
Here are some color shots I took on my neighborhood walk around, last weekend. I noticed a theme of small businesses in the shots I was taking, so I decided to make a grouping out of them for this post. The areas I was photographing are actually very bustling and vibrant, but A: this was on a Sunday afternoon, and B: it was about 93 degrees Farenheit outside, so it looks far more desolate than it actually is, but that allowed me to focus on the appearances of the businesses themselves. My interest in photographing them without people is not to portray an economic state that may or may not be true, but rather the overall feel of small businesses that are in a neighborhood in transition – these are businesses, mostly minority-owned, that have not yet been gentrified in an area experiencing rapid gentrification.
To me, the loss of these businesses to gentrification is the biggest downside to the process. They are what makes up the character of the neighborhood, and why all those gentrifiers moved there in the first place. I will be very sad when Tex-Mex Burritos is displaced for yet another Chipotle.
Sun’s Discount is obviously shuttered. I don’t know how big a space it is on the inside, or what kind of (probably insane) rent the landlord is asking for, but I love the murals on the wall and the protest/message posters plastered on the whitewashed windows. It reflects the character of the neighborhood, and particularly its past – the small ethnic “discount” store that would have carried a hodge-podge of inexpensive products, primarily catering to the Latino community, which has adopted the small business strip along Mount Pleasant Street. Historically a mixed race, upper-middle class neighborhood, after the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, the neighborhood experienced a significant turnover and transformed into a poor Latino barrio in the 1970s. It is in the process of changing back into a largely white, upper-middle class neighborhood, as the housing stock off the business district consists of large, elegant rowhomes and single familys that are being snatched up, fixed up and turned into two and three unit condos.
There is still an African-American presence in the neighborhood – a touch of soul remains amidst the sazón. The neighborhood was always multi-ethnic, but the blend has changed over the years.
Another one of those small businesses that when a real estate developer sets their sights on the block will be one of the first to go. Leon’s operates out of a space not much bigger than a coat closet. In the land of big-box stores and franchises, there’s no room for a 200-sq ft retail operation. And signage like that would never fly in a homogenized shopping mall.
Here’s one that has been around for decades – witness the missing letters and the layers of paint applied to the original Alfa Omega Tax Service on the wall. Having them there in the 1970s and 80s when this was one of the police patrol beats officers dreaded to be assigned would have been a huge deal to the residents, as there would have been few legitimate businesses willing to provide quality services of any kind in the area.
The bohemian precursor to gentrification – Marx Cafe (“Revolutionary Cuisine”) brought a little touch of culture and chic.
A typical neighborhood mom-and-pop eatery. This one is newer, keeping within the theme of the neighborhood but brightened up and appealing to the incoming Anglos as well as the long-time residents.
Heller’s Bakery has been here forever, witness the neon sign, from back when the neighborhood was originally an upper-middle-class, white/jewish/African-American neighborhood. It stuck around through the hard times. If you saw the movie, State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, you’ll recognize this as being from outside his apartment.
I’m not sure Barbara’s is still in business – granted I usually never walk by it during the work day mid-week, so it might in fact operate then, but whenever I see it, it’s shuttered, blinds pulled, and half-dead plants in the window. I don’t know if they were a victim of shifting demographics, or just sloppy management – I don’t know that I’d want to trust what little hair I have left to someone whose plants look like that!
Another small business that will probably be driven out by gentrification in the next ten years. Massive re-development of the neighborhood has happened a few short blocks down the street, with upscale restaurants and pubs, a shopping center with Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, Radio Shack, GNC, a Washington Sports Club gym, and across the street is Chipotle, a wine store (not a liquor store, but a WINE store), and a FedEx outlet. Like I said earlier, no room in that for a riot of pink selling Central American baked goods. And the neighborhood will be poorer for it.
In contrast to the wine store down the street, this is a good old-fashioned ghetto liquor store. This one, I could let go, but the Colony Liquor up the street I’d like to see stay around if for no other reason than the fantastic Deco facade and neon sign (see previous posts of mine for pictures).
Part of the gentrification wave in my own segment of the neighborhood- its ethnic cuisine by hipsters. Don’t get me wrong, they have very delicious and authentic tacos (and insanely cheap happy hour prices – you can get three tacos and a beer for $10-11!!!), but the truly authentic taquerias don’t have roof decks, bar seating reclaimed from former diners, and waiters wearing plaid flannel, sporting a well-maintained three-days stubble.
Alongside the hipster taqueria you have the basement beauty parlor, which you’d never know was a beauty parlor if not for the booth for rent sign in the window.
The Pinch is a neighborhood dive bar featuring live music on the lower level. The graphics outside scream 1970s blaxploitation movie, the patrons now scream suburban white kids who moved to the city to have an “authentic” experience. But it’s good to have a venue that provides space for local live music, where up-and-coming bands needing a break can perform, as there are definitely not enough performance spaces in this town to adequately support the creative talent here.