Ward 7 resident Patrice Irby enjoyed a meal at the Big Chair Bar & Grill on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Southeast one recent Wednesday afternoon. During her meal, she marveled at the many changes taking place in the neighborhood.
“This is my first time here,” said Irby, 57, a federal government contract specialist and native Washingtonian who grew up in Southeast. “It’s fun to see how D.C. has [been] revitalized. It’s not the same.”
Irby voiced what longtime residents have witnessed of late in Ward 8’s Anacostia community: a flurry of economic activity, a budding arts district and an influx of new residents.
“We’re seeing an unprecedented renaissance, which collectively plugs into [Mayor Vincent Gray’s] vision,” said Stanley Jackson, 60, newly appointed president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), a nonprofit that’s promotes Anacostia real estate and business expansion. “We have the opportunity to look at this vision and optimize assets to help the government, the community and the bottom line. We must have a community that’s proactive in engaging developers.”
Jackson, who served as the deputy mayor for planning and economic development under former Mayor Anthony Williams, said his mission with AEDC is a culmination of his efforts under Williams between 2005 and 2007.
“We want to maximize this neighborhood to create a walkable community to live, work, eat; and where we can attract any of the 17 million people visiting Washington, D.C. Few come east of the river,” said Jackson, a longtime resident of the Bellevue neighborhood in Ward 8.
In early January, Jackson introduced himself at a meeting of the civic organization, the Historic Anacostia Block Association (HABA), in front 75 people, said Charles Wilson, the association’s president.
“He’s excited and he wanted people to prepare themselves for the changes,” said Wilson, 36, about Jackson’s presentation, “and to ensure [that] we work together.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Anacostia Historic District is a small geographical location built between 1854 and 1930. Wilson said, it’s bounded west by Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, north by Good Hope Road, east by Fendall Street and the rear of the Frederick Douglass home, and south by Bangor Street and Morris Road. It also includes a District landmark, The Big Chair, the Anacostia Metro and the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.
Anacostia residents are abuzz, said Nikki Peele, director of business development and marketing at the ARCH Development Corporation (ADC), a nonprofit focused on Anacostia’s revitalization through arts culture and small business development.
“We’re seeing the fruits of our labor, as of late,” said Peele, 36, who added that although ADC used arts as a revitalization tool, it wasn’t the only catalyst. “We match arts efforts that go well with something else.” For instance, she said that the arts could be paired with a business improvement district. To date, residents who live in Historic Anacostia have witnessed the opening of two gallery spaces, and small business incubators – all ADC projects.
Peele has a theory about the sudden popularity of Anacostia.
“The true story of the neighborhood was told for the past five years,” said Peele, who writes a blog, Congress Heights on the Rise. “People are blogging, tweeting and [using Facebook to talk about real life experiences], educating the mainstream, and balancing the negative [stereotypes] about the community.”
A combination of changing attitudes and moderate housing prices, afforded Anacostia an opportunity to entice arts-related development from a burgeoning community in Northeast.
This spring, a performing arts venue, H Street Playhouse, will reopen as the Anacostia Playhouse.
Managing director, Julia Robey Christian, said moving from H Street to Anacostia took a minute.
“It already has an arts presence, and people who trust us will come with us,” said Christian, 36, who added that rising costs partly led to the move. She said a new mission will develop as the playhouse begins to produce more socially conscious productions with more community involvement.
Anacostia’s growth, however, has been slower than H Street’s due to the negative reputation that’s still attached to the area, said Kenneth Brewer, executive director of the H Street Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit established to reinvigorate the corridor.
“You would think because Anacostia has the Metro, it would do better,” said Brewer, 52, a longtime resident of the Hillcrest neighborhood in Ward 7. “But population must grow to support retail.” It took 25 years to get “this much movement” on H that relied on “market forces and conditions.”
The H Street corridor in Northeast, which spans from North Capitol Street to 17th Street, has become a destination spot – with a cornucopia of restaurants, theater venues and retailers. Voted as the sixth most “hipster” place in America by Forbes magazine in September 2012, the H Street corridor – counted among one of the District’s earliest and busiest commercial districts; it was the location of one of the first stores Sears, Roebuck and Co., opened in 1929. The H Street corridor waned after World War II and businesses suffered after the 1968 riots. However, the once bustling corridor has experienced a resurgence within recent years.
“To see the change is good,” said Carolyn Thomas, the owner of C.A.T. Walk boutique in Northeast. “I used to be afraid of this area when I was growing up. Now, I’m looking forward to Ben’s Chili Bowl coming across the street.” Thomas has been on 10th Street in Northeast since May 2012.
“I disagree it’s just the arts driving the changes,” said Brewer about Anacostia. “It’s more. I think Stan Jackson understands economic development and the framework that [the late] Albert ‘Butch’ Hopkins left behind.” Hopkins led AEDC for more than 30 years.
The two communities share bragging rights.
Both neighborhoods boast about their local festivals. The H Street Festival, sponsored by H Street Main Street, attracts thousands. Last year, ADC hosted Lumen8Anacostia, a festival of lights, arts and music, which Peele said will take place again this year. The event attracted a large and diverse crowd.
Regardless of what’s driving the Anacostia engine, Michael Sterling, The Big Chair Bar & Grill’s new owner said, he sees progress. Sterling, who relocated from Detroit in 2011, has noticed an influx of new faces.
“I see lots of Caucasians trying to field out the area, and they will ask about the neighborhood,” said Sterling, 40, who has managed the café for a year.
Sterling said that he’s a silent partner in the reopening of the Uniontown Bar & Grill, across the street from his café. Uniontown, a sit-down restaurant, closed in 2012, after the owner was charged in a federal drug-trafficking case. Sterling said that his two partners have restaurant experience; and one has managed a nightclub.
“This is still a transitional community, and we need to learn from the history of those who were there before,” said Jackson.
There’s a sense of excitement throughout the halls of the John A. Wilson Building about the renaissance taking place in the Historic Anacostia district. Mayor Vincent Gray, 70, said he’s excited about the initiatives that are creating jobs and tax revenue in Washington, D.C.
“The mayor is committed to seizing opportunities to revitalize neighborhoods across the city with a mix of office, retail and residential development,” said Doxie McCoy, the senior communications manager for the mayor.