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Bloomingdale Neighborhood’s Gentrification Seen as Having Successfully Blended in Long-Time Residents, Though Affordability an Issue

Accompanying images can be viewed in the November 2013 issue PDF

By Mike Persley*

A few years back, Mark Mueller would often wake up in the middle of the night and look out the window of his Bloomingdale home to the vacant house across the road. He’d watch out for people stealing bikes, but sometimes he’d see more.

“I’d often see someone breaking into the house or doing drugs in the house or prostitution,” said Mueller, who now serves as an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Bloomingdale. “I really didn’t have a shortage of stimulation in the night to watch what’s going on.”

He’d call 9-1-1, and they knew him on a first-name basis.

Then one day he woke up around 4:30 a.m. and when he looked outside he saw a blond girl with a ponytail, wearing shorts and a tank top, jogging.

“I remember feeling like, ‘What was that?’ ‘Is she crazy?’” he says.

Around that same time, Mueller began to see people walking down the sidewalks with their suitcases, moving into the neighborhood. The more eyes that were on the streets, he says, the more he saw crime go down.

“The change is drastic. Unfathomable to me,” he says.

Sam Ashine, who opened his DC Mini-mart in 2007, remembers the time when people in the neighborhood began to move out.

“They always asked me for boxes,” he said. “I asked what happened and they said ‘The owner sold the building,’ so they are going to have to replace somewhere”.

In terms of business, the loss of customers didn’t have an effect because the people moving into the neighborhood could easily replaced them.

Ashine did, however, have to upgrade his products.

“I started carrying craft beer, which I never sold before,” he said. “I tried it, but I never sold it.” Then he began to sell wine and organic products in order to meet the demands of his new customers. The costs of the newer, more expensive products, has been equaled by the higher sales. As a result, his profits have remained steady.

“One goes, another one comes,” he said of the change.

The largest change, Ashine says, has been the stark drop in crime the store has seen.

“Everyday,” he said, “people were sticking a beer in their pocket, you know, they take one, then they pay for one. I always called the police and stuff. But that’s gone.”

In fact, among longtime Bloomingdale residents, the neighborhood’s abrupt drop in crime is seen as the most welcome change.

“It’s been a complete turnaround. We went from not wanting to introduce ourselves to neighbors to now we welcome people,” said Patrice Cleary, who along with her husband has lived in Bloomingdale for eight years. “We tell people to stop by on Halloween because we’ll have wine out here.”

Mark Mueller agrees. “I mean it’s not all gone,” he said. “But it’s a whole lot better.”

Mueller says that many of the neighborhood’s longtime residents resisted the argument that the crime drop is due to the neighborhood’s changes.

“The people that were here before, the old-timers,” he says, “they made it clear to me ‘don’t think it’s getting better just because you came up and spoke up.’ They made it. ‘You’re on the shoulders of a hell of a lot of fighting that they put in.’”

Bloomingdale, as a neighborhood, is unfathomable to most people who have lived in it for long. What was once one of the most poor, isolated neighborhoods in the District has grown within a few years into one of the more trendy, up-and-coming places to live in the city.

Last year, the Washington Post reported that 20001, the zip code that includes Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park, and part of Shaw, held the biggest jump in white population in the city over the last decade, rising over 27 percent.

With that change has come a series of new restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries, along with a rise in the cost of housing and a cultural transformation.

As with several DC neighborhoods in recent years, the gentrification of Bloomingdale has been swift, and not without problems, but the end result — at least from today — is a neighborhood that has managed to mix the old and new, to create a surprisingly communal chemistry, and a character that is equally as charming.

The boundaries of Bloomingdale run roughly from Michigan Avenue on the north, Florida Avenue on the south, and on the east and the west, North Capital and 2nd Streets, respectively.

The neighborhood started as a part of a large estate owned by George Beale, a decorated veteran of the War of 1812. By the turn of the 20thcentury, the land had been sold to developers who began building row houses that were being purchased by government workers and the increasing middle class being attracted to the growing city.

Today Bloomingdale remains remarkably similar, but with some peculiar new traits. The majority of the row houses dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eclectic tastes abound throughout the neighborhood. One house on Rhode Island Avenue within a block of the Shaw/Howard Metro station is painted a startling raspberry pink and royal purple and nearby is a maroon house with black window settings. The variations in housing color throughout Bloomingdale are vast, and seemingly random. A walk through the neighborhood’s inner streets will lead you to at least one home that is cherry red, burgundy, purple, pink, midnight blue, baby blue, or some mix of more than one of them.

If one walks up First Street from Florida Avenue to Bryant Street — the center stretch of Bloomingdale —  they might also mistake themselves for having walked into a botanical garden.

Nearly every home has some sort of bizarre plant life in front of it, some again, with no particular theme. One front yard holds large blooms of pink roses, which sit across from a home with what appears to be palm trees. A block down are colorful oak trees, which sit next aloe plants, lilacs, daisies, mums, and cactus.

A few of the front yards have so many plants growing out of them that they push up hard against the outer fence of the home, and it is impossible to see the ground beneath them.

Bloomingdale residents have also made an eccentric art of lawn ornamentation. In the front yard of one Bryant Street home is a giant sculpture of a Holstein cow, wearing a rainbow colored clown wig, a tie and legwarmers. Across the street is a steel-plated rooster. A medieval knight’s armor greets you at the door of a home on S Street, and another yard has a windmill shaped as a parrot riding a bicycle.

Whatever the reason for all of these oddities, Bloomingdale residents are hard-working people, many of whom cannot afford to eat at some of the new restaurants.

“I just go home, and I come back, and that’s it,” says Dwight Trice, who works as a janitor at the Mount Bethel Baptist Church on Florida Avenue.

“I don’t go to any of those places,” said William Brown, who has lived in Bloomingdale for 11 years. “It costs a lot of money, so I just eat at home.”

Colin McDonough, who along with a partner opened up Boundary Stone Public House in 2011, hasn’t seen much of a problem with longtime neighborhood residents.

“People will talk about gentrification, or I’m sure that there’s people who won’t eat here because it’s gentrifiers,” he says, “for the most part I think people who have lived here for a long time are really excited that the neighborhood is as viable as it is now.”

Boundary Stone is one of several bars and restaurants that have opened in Bloomingdale in the last few years, beginning with Big Bear Café in 2007.

“Everything started with Big Bear,” says McDonough. “It changed what was a seedier block, a seedier corner where there was drug deals. That cleaned up the entire corner. That gave everyone that was in the neighborhood a place to congregate and be out.”

[Editor’s Note: Emblematic of this change was the opening in the spring of 2007 of a weekend farmers market at the small triangular park bounded by Florida Avenue and 1st and R Streets about which we reported at the time. See, “New Farmers Market in the Bloomingdale Neighborhood Welcomed and Very Popular,” InTowner August 2007 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/pa2zx94.]

Since then, Windows Café & Market opened up in 2007; Rustik Tavern, a brick-oven pizzeria opened along with Bacio Pizzeria in 2010; Boundary Stone Public House opened as a neighborhood pub in 2011, followed by the Red Hen, a high-end Italian-influenced restaurant in 2012.

Showtime Lounge, a low-priced dive bar, opened in 2013.

Bloomingdale has, through all of its transition, remained a remarkably charming and close-knit neighborhood. Any of the early friction that comes with gentrification has given way to a surprising unity among residents.

It is not unfounded, Mark Mueller points out, to see a backyard party with people who are old, young, black, white, straight, gay, male, or female.

“I think the more interesting story is how well people did come together, and do come together,” he says. “That’s what I would write about.”

*The writer, a resident of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago where he majored in political science, and is now studying for his Masters degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.

Editor’s Note: A follow-up to this article, suggested by comments received following publication, appears in the December 2013 issue .