Twelve Years Later…. at Big Bear

Big Bear Cafe April 27, 2007

Today, because it’s Friday and because we came up with lame excuses not to go to work, the Help and I are having a day date. We decided to start it off by having breakfast at Big Bear. It was great. I had french toast and a pot of English Breakfast tea as we sat inside with the Washington Post and the ambiance of the place.

I observed a family, where the father saw two separate friends/ acquaintances. He chatted with one, who came over and joked with the man’s elementary aged kids who were out of school for a thing.

Outside there were people. Some sat alone, tapping away at their laptops. Others gathered with a friend or two. And there were two workers fixing the paving thingamabobs.

About twelve years ago I stood in almost the exact space I was sitting at with my spouse. Big Bear in April 2007 was a possibility. I have a couple of pictures from an open house they held back then. The owners invited neighbors in to take a look at the place and nosh. Then, it was just going to be a coffee shop.

While I sat, I was comparing the feel of the place, then and now. Now it has a rhythm and a rep. It has a certain neighborhood vibe. I noticed parents, besides the one I mentioned earlier, with their kids on the way to school, pop in for a coffee. It just felt comfortable. It wasn’t full of promise or possible failure. It was, what it was.

The physical building and space has also changed. The patio is like part of the building, where people can sit (and battle bugs) under a canopy of grape vines behind walls of plants. The walls have art and shelves of booze (they make a good Old Fashioned) that weren’t there before. Oh, and there is a very tiny functional kitchen. The kitchen was very tiny in 2007, but not as functional.

Forget Go-Go Bring Back the Jazz to Shaw

Duke Ellington and unknown woman @ Howard Theater(?)

So there was that story about the Go-Go music being blasted at 7th and Florida. And more stories about Go-Go and the changing neighborhood, as if neighborhoods don’t change. Neighborhoods, cities, cultures change. There used to be jazz in Shaw. Good jazz, as in the kind you can dance to. But that kind of jazz is not something you’ll find listed at the Howard Theater, the only reason to go to the Dunbar Theater is to bank with Wells Fargo, and Bohemian Caverns is dark.

The jazz I like is gone and it probably won’t come back to Shaw.

I can’t blame gentrification. I can’t even blame the riots. What is to blame is what comes to all forms of popular and even niche genres, tastes and audiences change. What has befallen the jazz I like (I’m ignoring that other stuff that calls itself jazz) could easily fall upon Go-Go. The audience that grew up with it gets older, younger audiences are more into something else. The artists change, they may want to pursue or try new things. The market changes, as people stop buying CDs and CD players and Spotify/Pandora-rify their music. Also, I’ve been told Go-Go is best experienced live. For me, the artists changed and started creating undancable, unsingable jazz that decoupled itself from popular music, and younger audiences were getting into Rock-n-Roll.

So, for now, there is a phone store that sells Go-Go CDs on the side and blasts Go-Go music outside. Considering record stores do more closing than opening, I’m going to guess the money is in being a phone store. It’s unreasonable to expect the neighborhood to support one genre of music. If the neighborhood’s history of musical support is anything to go by, the best one can hope for is having a few buildings, maybe a street named after artists, and half-aszed attempts by city bureaucrats at music appreciation. Businesses are going to do what they need to do to stay in business. Customers are going to buy what they want to buy, in the format they want to purchase. And all of that will bring the end of Go-Go, not a neighbor who wants the music turned down.

Change of heart due to change of neighborhood

I have had a change of heart about Sunset Liquors. The Help still holds feelings of hostility. These feelings are based on my view of this liquor store from the early days of the neighborhood when the last thing we needed were liquor stores.

So jump into my little time machine, and head back to oh, 2005-ish. The perceived to be patrons of the local liquor stores were alcoholics who would then drink around the neighborhood, hang out in parks, relieving themselves in people’s basement wells and alleys. We’d find empty cheap vodka bottles and 40oz cans litteBodegónring tree boxes. It was such a problem there used to be a blog called TreeboxVodka around here.  People still litter Shaw treeboxes, but not as often with Velicoff as they did in the bad old days. BACA would try to close the handful of liquor stores in Truxton Circle, on 4th St, on 1st Street and the two on North Capitol. Those efforts failed.

DC has more liquor stores than all of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In the ‘aughts, that was too many, considering the state of the neighborhood.

So what changed? Several things, not just one thing. The major thing was the demographic change. The population of Truxton Circle was trending down before the gentrification got going. What gentrification brought was an influx of young professionals who did not publicly self-destruct with alcohol. These young professionals would buy 6 packs or cases of beer to take home, or to someone else’s home to enjoy. They were not known to buy 40oz cans of Steel Reserve. Related to this change was a change in what some local liquor stores stocked, less MD 20/20 more merlot. My favorite change was the disappearance of Plexiglas. For my own self-esteem, I avoided shopping in stores where there was bulletproof glass between me and the cashier. I found it insulting, but I understood the reason why. Some stores, not necessarily liquor stores, removed the glass, and then later the store became a victim of armed robbery. The neighborhood wasn’t ‘there’ yet and people were hurt. There are some Shaw and Truxton stores with the glass, but plenty of places where isn’t used. For myself, it is now a tolerable level. In the case of Sunset Liquors, across the street, the Florida Avenue Park was renovated. Prior to the major renovation, the junkies and the alcoholics would hang out in the park, wander over to Sunset, then wander back to the park. Sometimes they would pass out on the play equipment. It was not a park kids could use because of the needles, the glass, and the human waste. Sunset was part of the problem. Then the gates came up and you can only exit on the 1st Street side. Add this with the demographic changes, parents, grandparents, and kids own most of the park, not junkies and bums. Another change, also Sunset specific, was a change in relationship with the neighborhood. Before you walk into Sunset, you are greeted by a blackboard with an affirmation. You can also see inside the store from the outside. In the old days we complained that the windows were covered with beer and cigarette ads. There is still some clutter, but you can see inside. The store is a UPS drop off, and that was the reason I walked in. I found a super helpful employee, my package, and a red zinfandel.

I have yet to make it to the new wine shop at Florida and North Capitol. I blame the weather and my own laziness. I hope it is as nice as the Grand Cata wine shop on 7th Street.

The neighborhood has changed. It is now strong enough to have a few decent liquor stores and maintain its upward trajectory. Of course if you want to go old school, there is always Big Ben.

Circle of Life for Local Businesses

Well if all goes as planned my hairdresser will retire and sell her building at the end of this month. She’d been in Shaw since the 1970s, which is around about the time my aunt started working in DC. My aunt recommended the S&M Salon to me back in the 1990s when I moved here for work. I do not look forward to finding another hairdresser.

Wonderbread DouglasBut that’s the circle of life. Local businesses start, fail, succeed, merge, get way too big, move, and eventually close. Sometimes it’s a couple of months, years, or decades.

The Eckington business Workafrolic, which was an awesome idea of workspace, workout space for parents, is closed. I saw on the Bloomingdale parent’s list that this Saturday, (12/15/18) between 11am – 2pm they are selling off their inventory of yoga mats, toddler stuff, bouncers, etc. Cash or Venmo only. Maybe it was the location. North Capitol Street is a tough road.

Richard Layman had a post about the revitalization of 9th Street, that reminded me of businesses gone or moved that helped make that foodie part of Shaw (I’m ignoring 14th St) what it is. Anyone remember Vegetate? They had to battle the churches (Shiloh) for their place on 9th over liquor licenses. That battle needed to happen. Queen of Sheba was part of it, and it remains. In 2010/2011 there was Rogue 24 hidden in Blagden Alley. Now that was some fancy expensive eatin’, and it still is with the Dabney. But I guess I should credit one of the earlier 9th Street restaurants, Corduroy, who is still there and managed to open Baby Wale nearby. Now there are wonderful restaurant options in walking distance should I chose to spend $30-$80 on babysitters.

I’m just thankful entrepreneurs are taking a chance over and over in the eastern parts of Shaw (east of 9th & Truxton Circle), Bloomingdale, LeDroit and Eckington. Some will do okay, some will fail, and others will become so much a part of the neighborhood it will seem that they’ve always been there.

Commerce was part of our history

In the past couple of weeks I have been in contact with people in the commercial sphere about history, and this had me thinking. If you were raised in a place, maybe a suburb, where commercial buildings and activities are segregated from residences, you might be under the impression that this is the way things are supposed to be. It might even cloud your view of history.

The wonderful things about cities, older East Coast cities, is that there was mixed use before things like zoning. People lived in close proximity to their jobs and the businesses they used. A building could house a family and a store, or a one time be a store and then maybe later a residence.

The map above is just of stores. It does not point out the warehouses around Hanover Street and the working dairy where Mt. Sinai and the Northwest Co-op sit, but you can see their outlines. The other thing to take into account is this is 2 years after the 1968 riots, many businesses did not rebuild or return, depressing the neighborhood even further.

When I moved into the neighborhood in the early aughts, there was annoyance at the types of businesses that were filling the commercial corridors of Florida Avenue and North Capitol and spaces in between. Those businesses were liquor stores (brown on the map) and beauty parlors (red on the map). Those were pretty much the only things taking up spaces left empty 30 years prior.

Reading post-riot reports where business owners had an opportunity to say something, the area had problems before the riots. The riots just made a bad situation worse, and businesses, along with residents began to leave. Now contrast that with today, where businesses want to come to Shaw. The number of  sponsors for the Shaw Main Street’s Art All Night was an embarrassment of riches, a testimony of how far the 7th, 9th and U Sts commercial corridors have come.

Shaw’s rising from the ashes of the riots was not just from people moving in and fixing up houses, it was also businesses coming in and taking a chance on the neighborhood.