Looks like Andy Shallal has struck gold. The owner of Busboys and Poets, the highly successful chain of Washington area
restaurant/bookstores, announced last week that he plans to open another branch on Carroll Street NW designed to serve the District community of Takoma and the neighboring city of Takoma Park in Maryland.
Effectively separated by Metrorail tracks, the two neighborhoods have never been unfriendly. Just different.
As a kid, I regularly took the Metro home from school with a white friend, and the racial line of demarcation was obvious every time we parted ways. Coming out of the station, I’d turn right to head to my cozy proud black middle-class neighborhood, where my social life revolved around the basketball court and the corner store. She’d turn left into the politically progressive community with its colorful Queen Anne-style houses and farmers markets. No discord, just separation.
Over the years, commercial development has brought consumers together regardless of their backgrounds. For example, the 2010 arrival of Old Takoma Ace Hardware on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park meant easier access to home-improvement products for everyone on both sides of the border, and SiTea on Fourth Street NW in D.C. has been a draw for tea enthusiasts of all sorts.
But Busboys and Poets, which has been tagged as a symbol of gentrification (or growth, depending on your point of view) at its other D.C. locations, will likely be the first neighborhood place that draws an audience from both sides en masse. Bringing people of different ethnic and racial stripes together is exactly what the chain is about, Shallal said. The restaurant “gives people possibilities and opportunities to intersect. I think people love to connect with one another; it’s just we don’t know how to do it. We aren’t just that comfortable doing it,” said Shallal, 57. “When the possibilities are laid before us, right in front of our eyes, we tend to jump on the opportunity.”
And that has business owners in the area wide-eyed about the possibilities to come.
David Boyd, whose family has owned Takoma Station Tavern on Fourth Street since the 1980s, hopes Shallal’s presence will lead to more neighborhood services.
“It brings more attention to the parks, attention to parking, attention to police enforcement. We just get so many more advantages by having a place like Busboys and Poets,” Boyd said.
At Capital City Cheesecake, a cafe and bakery in Takoma Park, co-owner Meaghan Murphy is looking forward to Busboys’ arrival for two reasons. Primarily, the location will bring an interconnectivity between Fourth Street in the District and Carroll Avenue in Maryland that will be unprecedented.
Second, “The concept is so solid. It’s such a community place, and that’s what Takoma Park is about,” said Murphy, who owns the shop with her older sister Caitlin. She added: “People are going to continue to think, ‘Where am I going to go tonight?’ And they’ll start saying Georgetown, Bethesda, Takoma Park, and we have to get on that map.”
But that’s the one downside that worries me. Growing up, Takoma always felt like the final frontier. Its real-estate market was stable compared with other areas and never fully succumbed to the pressures of gentrification.
One business owner who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity put it bluntly. “This place is going to end up like Cleveland Park,” he said, referring to the Northwest neighborhood that’s become a landing spot for young, transient professionals. “I’m playing the cards. I want to make my money and get out of here before all hell breaks loose.”
While that stance is a bit harsh to lay on one new franchise, others share the feeling of losing the quaint charm. At Cedar Crossing Tavern this week, Christina Mosser, a Brightwood resident, had mixed feelings about it.
“I’ll go there. But do I come to Takoma Park for that kind of experience? No, I don’t. I actually see this as more of a haven from that type of experience,” Mosser, 41, explained. “There’s a part of me that gets very nervous with big development like that.”
I admit, it will be odd to think of my old neighborhood as a night-life destination. But then again, many Washingtonians feel the same way about theirs.
For Donnell Davis, owner of Hang-Time Barbershop on Fourth Street, business is business. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I think they have a good following. . . . But by my understanding, it brings a different type of crowd of people. I don’t know if it’ll be a good thing or bad thing,” Davis said. “I think it’ll bring more business to me.”
This week, as I sat at Horace& Dickie’s, the classic Washington soul food restaurant, any doubts I had about the future of the neighborhood melted away. If Busboys and Poets furthers the tradition of the neighborhood’s diverse range of social-justice temperament in the place my family still calls home, I’m all for it.
“I think [the neighborhood is] going to be a vibrant place. I think it’s going to be the jewel of the city,” Boyd said.
But keep it down, folks. My mom’s trying to sleep.
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC