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New 9th Street Retailers Seen as the Vanguard of a Resurgence for Shaw East

By Audrey Hoffer

[Note: Photographs accompanying this new story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

“I want good shopping where I live so I don’t always have to go to Wisconsin or Connecticut Avenue,” said Tonya Butler-Truesdale, as she flicked through dresses at Lettie Gooch, the fashion boutique on 9th Street. “I always stop here first before venturing out.”

What was once a drab, unremarkable street shows promising signs of an urban renaissance as entrepreneurial buds sprout from the Convention Center to U Street adding splashes of merchant activity and creative wares.

“For a long time no one wanted to own property in the neighborhood because they were afraid of investing,” said Alexander M. Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets (SMS), a neighborhood organization that works to revitalize the community by promoting economic development while preserving the area’s historic character. Neighborhood riots in the 1960s left a sketchy legacy of abandoned buildings and vacant lots but “now we have a lot of new businesses,” Padro said.

“Four, five years ago no one could walk on these streets,” said Chez Hareg, a pastry chef. “Ethiopians came and cleaned up.”

Hareg’s aunt was one of those pioneers. She bought a two-story building, leased the space to Hareg, who gutted, renovated and opened Chez Hareg Fine Cakes & Pastries, a street-level bakery and second floor café.

“I always wanted a pastry shop and soon I will bake and sell bread too,” Hareg said. “This is my dream come true.” But most customers are Ethiopian and she yearns for a more diverse clientele.

Azeb Desta, was in the vanguard when she opened Azi’s Café three years ago against the advice of professional business consultants. “There was nothing here,” she said. “It was kind of scary at first.”

But the street corner and space for outdoor seating, the site typically grabbed by Starbucks, was perfect for a coffee shop.

“Business is getting better but is not okay. It will take some time and we’re trying to hang in,” she said.

Desta recognizes 90 percent of the people who come in and that’s been disappointing. She had banked on walk-ins from the Convention Center but “maybe twice did anyone come from there and only because they were Europeans who walk.”

Chatman’s D’Vine Bakery & Café owner and baker Debra Chatman, mimics the sentiment though her shop is a step from the Convention Center.

“I am pleased with the business,” she said, with a determined smile. “I don’t think God let me get this far, but it is really hard getting people to come in.”

Padro said that people want small businesses and “that’s why you see very few chains. We’re discerning when looking for businesses to attract.”

Convention Floral is an oasis with the aroma of a botanical garden. Nubia Fasil picked 9th Street to launch her business last year because she saw a good future.

“It’s profitable,” she said, “way more this year than last, but we need more walk-ins.” Like other merchants, she diversified to enhance viability. She added an ATM, computers, fax and copier and draws people who do not have a home office.

Long View Gallery, Maruka School for Yoga, Healing Arts and Retail Boutique, and Abou Master Goldsmith convey bohemian pizzazz to the street.

“The biggest change we’ve seen in the two years since opening,” said Drew Porterfield, manager of the art gallery and local resident, is development.

The “big kick for 9th Street and Shaw,” he said, will be refurbishing the historic O Street Market into housing, stores, hotel and a Giant supermarket.

In the meantime, Porterfield and Debra Agostini, Maruka’s owner in the adjacent storefront, await occupation of The Exchange, the upscale property across the street developed by Douglas Development Corporation.

Padro surmised that Douglas is sitting on the property until the right tenants come along, ones that can pay lease rates of $55 per square foot.

“We’re very optimistic and have been since the beginning,” said Porterfield, “but the streets are quiet especially during the week.”

The gallery’s frontispiece is a sleek window display of pottery, gently swaying mobiles and a vase of long-stemmed lilies.

The Maruka boutique sells jewelry decorated with semi-precious stones, leather bags and a line of wellness products. Upstairs, Agostini offers yoga, meditation and Reiki classes.

“The neighborhood is artsy, creative and spiritual,” Agostini said. “It’s got a certain energy that’s inviting and alluring.”

And, the success of her year-old business? “I am very hopeful. I didn’t expect to open to a lots of foot traffic and turn a profit right away,” she said.

Abou Master Goldsmith’s clientele followed him to 9th Street from Adams Morgan.

Glass walls face the sidewalk and the interior is decorated with framed batiks from Guinea, Brazilian woodcarvings and display cases of jewelry he designed.

“I’m doing better now that people from the neighborhood know I’m here,” said Abubackarr Yanssaneh, but he hoped for more foot traffic.

“Business success is location, location, location and what you have to offer,” he said.

Three Metro stations feed 9th Street and parking is plentiful. Traffic is light and jaywalking while chattering on a mobile is easy. Low-scale leafy streets branch off to form a neighborhood that works on a human scale.

Barry Lumsden moved to the city from Pittsburgh in 2004 and chose 9th Street over Georgia Avenue to set up Lumsden Insurance Agency. Last year he wanted to buy the two-story building but the owner wanted a million dollars.

Lumsden is a teacher, community activist and sits on Padro’s SMS board. He hosts merchant gatherings and helps them develop multi-store marketing plans. For example,

the D’Vine baker commissioned Abou jeweler’s son, a graphic art student, to paint the mural on her yellow wall. And, Modern Liquors buys pastry from D’Vine for wine tastings.

Modern Liquors is in the second generation of ownership. “We’re here 40 years and have gone from ‘buy a bottle and drink it out back in the alley to weekly wine tastings,” said Jeff Harrison son-in-law of the original owner.

Amidst this simmering stew of merchants, bars are the most effervescent.

A Salvation Army outpost was transformed into Be Bar, a genre lounge for a gay-friendly crowd. It sits inconspicuously behind a green door and cobalt blue brick exterior. Inside, a mirror-walled bar lit with blue light and an elongated white couch, offer a splash of Miami.

An old carriage house that was a car repair shop is now The Space, an industrial-style loft bar. Co-Owner Mitchell Cox, an Australian, lives nearby and said things are “definitely improving all the time.” He hosted a McCain fundraiser last month and is talking to Obama’s people about an event.

Nellie’s Sports Bar is in the old Scurlock Photo Studio at the corner of 9th and U Streets. Douglas Schantz, co-owner, said weekends were busy from the outset but “we were having pitiable weeknights.” So he came up with theme nights. “Now we are a destination and business is meeting my expectations.”

Wag Time owners Lisa Schreiber and Ofer Khal plunged into 9th Street permanency when they bought the four-level building housing their dog shop. A million dollar renovation will conclude in November with “a big dog palace,” including roof deck, grooming salon and state-of-the-art canine equipment.

Businesses are jumping over 14th Street and coming to 9th when get priced out of their quarters, said Padro.

Corduroy, the restaurant from 12th and K Streets, is a recent arrival. And, Roberto Gomez is trying to breach the Ethiopian restaurant monopoly with El Sol de America. “When I saw space I thought ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to make it happen here.’ But the street has to be showcased more,” he said. “I hope we can hang on till bigger crowds come.”

Effervescence on 9th Street is palpable. “Half the people I talk to are excited about the pace of revitalization, the other half want to know why it’s taking so long,” Padro said.

Meanwhile, Butler-Truesdale, the fashionista at Lettie Gooch swiped her credit card in exchange for a couple of chic dresses and matching jewelry as owner Theresa Watts said, “I consider myself a successful business.”