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Bloomingdale Neighborhood’s Appeal Now Well Established; Well-Kept Homes, Thriving Cafés, Community Pride a Draw

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the October issue 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Sarah, one of the servers at the now decade-old Big Bear Café, located at the northwest corner of 1st and R Streets, NW, calls Bloomingdale “a neighborhood gem.” Coldwell Banker Real Estate Martin Toews agrees:

“Bloomingdale is prospering as a neighborhood and continues to attract urban dwellers who value historic architecture and proximity to so many exciting venues, restaurants and markets. Walking distance to neighboring Shaw and U Street are additional benefits of Bloomingdale. Single family town homes, multi-unit apartment buildings and converted 2 to 3-unit condos are prevalent within the neighborhood. The commercial component is also growing with very appealing restaurants and services emerging. For these reasons Bloomingdale will continue to be a great investment.”

Former Bloomingdale resident Steven Boyd recalled, “My experience in the neighborhood was great, really — lots of families young and old, and some renters and students as well. It felt very cohesive as a neighborhood, and I’m sure the fact that there weren’t many larger buildings or apartments contributed to that feeling.”

Symbolizing the neighborhood’s evolution in recent years might be the 2.9 million sale just two months ago, on August 14th, of the Medhane Alem Eritrean Church at 150 S Street. Plans are to re-develop this 7,423 square-foot site with eight town houses.

Medhane, which has relocated to suburban Maryland, purchased the 1904 vintage church building in 2004 for $865,000. Prior to Medhane, the building was home to the Greater Little Ark Baptist Church, from about 1955 to 1995 when they lost the building due to failure to keep paying its mortgage which had become financially to keep up with following a plunge in membership during the 1980s.

Before that for about 51 years, it was the. Their membership plunged in the 1980’s. They were evicted in 1995 for nonpayment of mortgage and then saved financially. (Bloomingdale is not the only neighborhood in Northwest which in recent years has seen the closing of long-time churches due to changing demographics; North  Columbia Heights is another.)

Another sign of change was the neighborhood’s first ever block party which the organizers expect to turn into an annual event. For this initial effort, by utilizing the innovative NextDoor.com neighbors connecting with neighbors platform, they attracted a enthusiastic group of about 250 neighbors.

Yet even another indication of demographic change is how gay-friendly the neighborhood feels. Many, including Seaton Place resident Mark, believes that Bloomingdale is very welcoming to the LGBTQI community. Started in 2014, the “Bloomingay” Facebook page has over 400 members. Rainbow flags fly in the wind at businesses and homes. El Camino sponsors monthly “Velvet Thursdays Happy Hour.” There is also the annual (second, so far) Pride in the Park. This event raised $5,000 this year to help with the Crispus Attucks Park maintenance.

Beginnings

The portion of the District we now know as the Bloomingdale neighborhood has a rich history. It was initially developed in the late 1800s from several large estates around the time that Howard University was founded in 1867, and was one of the first neighborhoods to be developed beyond Pierre L’Enfant’s original City of Washington boundary — in what was then the Washington County portion of the District of Columbia.

Present Day

Most consider the boundaries to be Florida Avenue, NW on the south, Michigan Avenue on the north, North Capitol on the east, and 2nd Street on the west. So, actually a small area of about 5,000 residents, possibly divided into north and south sections by Rhode Island Avenue. According to the 2010 census, 90% were African-American. However, according to recent sources such as Wikipedia and other sources, though accuracy not confirmed, it is now estimated that African-Americans comprise 59%, with whites at 30% and Hispanics, Asians and others comprising 11%.

[Editor’s note: Questions about the effects of gentrification in the neighborhood were already being addressed just a couple of years following the 2010 census, and were reflected in a December 2013 InTowner story.]

Another indication of the neighborhood’s evolving population mix is the finding reported in NeighborhoodScout.com, a real estate market data site, that 4.2% of the households are same sex couples. According to NeighborhoodScout’s analysis, this is a higher proportion of same sex households than in 99.5% of the neighborhoods in America. Clearly, this finding seems to bear out Seaton Place resident Mark’s belief –- as noted earlier in this report — that Bloomingdale is very welcoming to the LGBTQI community.

Bicycles at the ready in front of City Cleaners at 1st & T Sts. photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

Bicycles at the ready in front of City Cleaners at 1st & T Sts. photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

Other interesting findings about the neighborhood’s residents is that 21.2% commute by bicycle to and from work daily and that the  neighborhood, according to the site’s analysis,  has more bicycle commuters than 99.9% of all neighborhoods in the U.S.

The site also reports that 18.1% of neighborhood residents use Metro to and from work each day, a higher level of rapid transit utilization than 96% of all neighborhoods in the U.S,, according to its analysis.

Cafés and Eateries a Big Draw

Some say that the Big Bear Café is the heart of Bloomingdale. Owner Stu Davenport would agree. Stu was born and reared in Glover Park, DC. He and his wife located to Bloomingdale. They bought the building and envisioned a community center coffee shop. Then they decided to do it themselves. So at first Big Bear was a cute coffee shop, but Stu expanded it to a full restaurant with full liquor license and an extensive patio shaded by grape vines. (The original grape arbor cuttings were given to Stu by his father in law who owns an orchard.)But Big Bear is hardly alone among the myriad eateries; consider, for example, the following dozen-plus (in no particular order):

El Camino-Mexican (108 Rhode Is. Ave.); Aroi Thai (1832 1st St.); Windows Market and Café (1st St. & Rhode Is. Ave.); The Red Hen (1822 1st St.); Boundary Stone (116 Rhode Is. Ave.); Sylvan Café and Bakery, formerly Grassroots Gourmet Bakery (104 Rhode Is. Ave.); Bacio Pizzeria (812 Seaton Pl.); Meats and Friends (247 Florida Ave.); Tyber Creek Wine Bar and Kitchen, formerly Rustik Tavern (84 T St.); Showtime Lounge, a no-frills bar in a row house basement that once housed a barber shop (113 Rhode Is. Ave.); Crisp Chicken + Bar (1837 1st St.); The Pub and the People (1648 N. Capitol St.); and next door, Old Engine 12, the restaurant in the historic once firehouse that will be the site of the October 28th Bloomingdale house tour art show and closing reception (1626 N. Capitol St.)

photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

Another establishment appreciated by foodies is Sylvan bakery & Café (106 Rhode Is. Ave.) It is located in the former Sylvan Theater which opened in 1913 and served the African-American community until it closed in 1965. Following that came a laundromat and now this bakery presided over by an in-house pastry chef. – owned by the same people who operate Bacio Pizzeria on Seaton Place.

Farmers Market

Back in 2007 some residents got together to organize a farmers market which they envisioned would not only be a real amenity for the neighborhood but would also be great way pull the community together. As The InTowner reported at the time, they raised $2,000 from neighborhood residents to get things started and since then these weekly, Sunday markets at 1st and R Streets during the Spring, Summer and Fall have been a hugely popular and successful undertaking.

photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

Since 2012, Jenna Huntsberger who owns Whiskeddc, operates one of the booths at the market. Why did she choose this one of the many around the city? “We loved doing Robin Shuster’s other market at 14th and U, so we were excited when she invited us to participate in Bloomingdale. It also worked nicely with our market schedule — we could do 14th and U on Saturday and Bloomingdale on Sunday. We’ve been very happy with the market and the community there. We’re also able to source produce from other farmers’ at the market, which we love.”

Asked what she thought the future of the market might be, she responded, “[it} has an excellent reputation among vendors — customers are loyal, come out in all kinds of weather, and really care about the quality and sourcing of the food. The Bloomingdale neighborhood is very family and community-oriented — we definitely see that at the market.”

In Conclusion . . .

As Bloomingdale restaurants adviser and restaurant owner Paul W. Ruppert told The InTowner, “The changes in Bloomingdale have been dramatic. The restaurants, led by Big Bear Café, provided a strong sense of community. Big Bear has been central to the development of the sense of community in Bloomingdale. Stu and his team do a great job of making everyone in the community feel welcome.”

“The farmer’s market has become a central gathering place for the neighborhood,” real estate agent Mark S. Bertini asserts, and “so although Bloomingdale is a relatively small neighborhood, interest in relocating to the thriving area with new shops and restaurants and retail remains strong.”

Scott Roberts, the long time resident and Bloomingdale advocate who manages his always up-to-date neighborhood blog and the Bloomindaledc Google e-group adds, “The Bloomingdale Civic Associationhas a new Fun and Fit Committee, which promotes fitness and fun, which has been inclusive in its activities.”

Another neighborhood resident sums things up this way: “Bloomingdale is the hottest, most sought after and diverse neighborhoods in the District — it really is a rich mosaic of people, cultures, food and religions. It’s also centrally located, a hop from downtown DC and Capitol Hill and is surrounded by myriad bus and subway lines. I am so glad I stuck it out and trusted the vision I had for this community. It truly is a gem.”

*Larry Ray is a Senior Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University School of Law, former President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association (NCHCA) and Next Door Coordinator for NE Columbia Heights.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.