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Upshur Street, NW Has Become a Bustling Corridor

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

By Larry Ray*

Where do you go to rent a weed wacker, have a Starbucks latte, enjoy delicious biscuits and grits or attend a computer class. The answer these days is along the Petworth neighborhood’s Upshur Street corridor.  Exciting developments have occurred from the re-opening of Roosevelt High School to the renovated Petworth Library, to Slim’s Diner at Georgia Avenue, and finally to the new Safeway which includes a bakery and Starbucks.

Drew Schneider, founder of the Petworth News blog, describes it this way:

“I would say we live in a great neighborhood. The community relationships are strong, there are many opportunities for residents to gather (e.g., ANC meetings, various community socials,  such as Grant Circle Social, Sherman Circle Social, Southwest Petworth Social; Celebrate Petworth Festival, Petworth Jazz Project; various block parties, holiday events, etc.) as well as a strong sense of pride of place.”

Continuing,  Schneider observed that the “neighborhood has seen positive changes in the past two decades, with more amenities available and quality of life seeing significant changes via improvements in public safety, public recreation, food options, food shopping, retail, etc. The introduction of a Metro stop in the area definitely changed the neighborhood, bringing easier transportation for residents and making the neighborhood a location for new residents to emigrate and for development to occur.

Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd agrees. “The transformation of Upshur Street, NW,” he told this reporter, “has been a shining example of Ward 4’s and the District’s positive trajectory. We have focused on improved public safety; better infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks, and street lights; enhanced beautification through tree plantings, graffiti abatement, and litter cleanup; as well as support for our small business community through Great Streets Grants and other policies. Our efforts are paying off. It has been a pleasure seeing Upshur Street’s progress, and I will continue to be a champion for building vibrant and prosperous communities across Ward 4 and the District of Columbia.”

ANC 4C Vice Chair Joe Martin describes it this way: “I remember well in my early days as a commissioner [2005], I asked the longtime residents what they wanted the most. The answer inevitably was safer streets (that’s happened), sit-down restaurants (that’s happened), more shops (could be better; high rents are one obstacle).”

As Petworth and Upshur change, there are some sad events such as the closing of Philip’s Shoe Repair on Upshur after 51 years; owner, originally from Sicily, Philip Calabro is retiring and selling his building in which he and his family lived over the store – and for a good price in a hot market.

Boundaries

DC Neighborhood boundaries are often amusing and contrived. One might say the Petworth boundaries are the following: east, by Soldiers’ Home and Rock Creek Church and cemetery; west, by Arkansas Avenue; south, by Rock Creek Church Road and Spring Road; north, by Hamilton Street. The ANC’s Joe Martin is probably correct in his observation that “the neighborhood border definitions change according to when people moved here, whether or not they grew up here.”

History

The 205-acre country estate of John Tayloe, III was named “Petworth.” Tayloe’s heirs sold their parcels to developers, and in 1889 those developers registered Petworth with the District surveyor. This expanded to include the Ruppert Farm. As summarized in a Wikipedia article, “The neighborhood bloomed with the expansion of the streetcar line up to Georgia Avenue (formerly known as Brightwood Avenue) from Florida Avenue, NW to the DC line at Silver Spring, Maryland.”

Demographics

In both 1990 and 2010, the total population of the area covered by ANC 4C and Petworth may have been around 20,000. Again, according the Wikipedia article noted above, in 1990, 88% were African-American; 6% were white; and 6% were Hispanic –- compared with 2010: 57% were African-American; 15% were white; 26% were Hispanic; and 2% were Asian/Pacific Island.

Ethiopian Influence

The ANC’s Joe Martin describes an interesting new influence in the neighborhood: “There is a small Ethiopian population and two Ethiopian churches nearby. Sina, a former manager of Java House at 17th and Q Streets, now owns an Ethiopian restaurant in the 4800 block of Georgia Avenue. At Arkansas Avenue and Allison Street there is an Ethiopian Christian church that when re-built will be the largest Ethiopian Christian church in the world outside of Ethiopia.”

Schools

Theodore Roosevelt Senior High dominates the intersection of Upshur and 13th Streets. Roosevelt was founded in 1890 at another location and relocated in 1932 upon completion of the present building. Following a $125 million renovation, the school re-opened for the 2015-‘16 academic year.

Retained inside the main entrance is the historic 1934, New Deal Works Progress (WPA)-funded fresco, The American Panorama, by Baltimore artist Nelson Rosenberg. Another look back to the building’s origin was to reclaim the courtyard as “the heart” of the school and community.

 The school boasts of accomplished alumni including Washington Nationals Ted Lerner, Isabel Wilerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns Diane Rehm, Colby King, Eleanor Holmes Norton, among many others. Presently, attendance at the dual language school, which can serve 1,200 students, is 684 with 71% being African-American and 29% Hispanic.

 Other schools in the area include those in Petworth, Brightwood Park, and Crestwood.

 Beloved NPR personality Diane Rehm recently toured her alma mater and shared with The InTowner her admiration for the school:  “Roosevelt was an absolutely superb school, whether the subject was geometry, Latin, English, or government. We learned how government operated, what the three branches of government did, and how it all worked, something every young person in this country needs to learn. We probably had the equivalent of today’s freshman year of college in our senior year. We had terrific teachers and a fabulous principal, Elva C. Wells.”

 Vibrant Businesses

 Upshur Street Books opened in November of 2014, next door to the Petworth Citizen and Reading Room restaurants which owner Paul Ruppert had opened a year earlier. Featuring books by local authors, “Indie and local” is this literary hub’s message and focus.

Another highlight — located adjacent to the workout gym facility and the Washington DC Vet Center — is the large Annie’s Ace Hardware store in the 1200 block, which was one of several in Northwest featured in our February 2017 issue.

Particularly noteworthy are the wide variety of restaurants that now can be found along the street and in the immediate vicinity. Among these is Slim’s Diner at the northeast corner of Upshur and Georgia Avenue known for its red diner booths and its hearty breakfasts.

And in its October 8th posting, the Petworth News blog noted that “[w]hile you can get a bacon and egg or pancake breakfast at Slim’s Diner, or a delicious weekend morning egg and sausage empanada at Timber Pizza, now Petworth Citizen’s chef Jamie Rutherford has put together a new pretty fancy-looking (and tasty sounding) brunch menu for Upshur Street.”

And, Himitsu at 828 Upshur must be very pleased that it was included among the Washington Post’s restaurant reviewer Tom Sietsema’s top 10 Fall 2017, Dining Guide. This Japanese oriented restaurant does not take reservations and only has two-dozen seats. Kevin Tien and Carlie Steiner are first-time owners.

At the former Chez Billy location, directly south of Upshur at 3813 Georgia Avenue is Ten Tigers Parlour. Also to be enjoyed there is Short Eats, serving its Sri Lankan rotis and curry bowls. Short Eats was featured at the re-opening of the Smithsonian’s Sackler and Freer AisianArts Museums during its IlluminAsia Festival.

Thrillist recently listed Timber Pizza Company at 809 Upshur as one of the 15 best places for pizza in DC. Opened in 2016, it features communal tables and growlers of local beer. Executive Chef Daniela Moreira is a graduate of the Carlos Rosario Charter School in Columbia Heights. Moreira dreams of opening a Timber Pizza in her native country of Argentina.

The farmers market’s coordinator Caitlin Roberts declares that the sales at this market have almost doubled since it was started  three years ago. Timber Pizza got its start as a vendor at the marketl.

Conclusion

Business owner and initiator Paul W. Ruppert of Warehouse Industries, who owns Petworth Citizen, Slim’s Diner and Upshur Street Books, sums it up well: “I’ve always loved the neighborhood vibe of Upshur Street. Our businesses thrive because we have a ‘Neighbors First’ policy. Petworth has a wonderful mix of residents who have been in the neighborhood for decades, combined with lots of newcomers who bring a new vitality. This combination of history and energy is hard to beat. I’ve been friends with Petworth residents ever since I went to a nearby high school. It has always had a dynamic feel. The future of Upshur Street is promising. In the next year we are expecting a new restaurant and a new shop, plus the addition of several condo buildings. So far, Upshur Street seems to be growing organically.” Ruppert owns.

*Larry Ray is a former president of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association (NCHCA), previously served two terms as a commssioner on the Columbia Heights ANC just south of Petworth, andserves as Next Door Coordinator for NE Columbia Heights.

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