Solidarity in Anacostia after drug arrest

Mike DeBonis
District of DeBonis November 15, 2011

They crowded into Uniontown Bar & Grill on Monday night. It was a football night, sure, but more than a few showed up to make a statement by buying a drink.

“We are here for the long haul,” said Nikki Peele, who came down the hill from her home in Congress Heights to show her support for Historic Anacostia’s only watering hole.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays. View Archive

The show of solidarity was prompted by The Washington Post’s disclosure Sunday that Uniontown’s owner, Natasha Dasher, and two other people were arrested last month on drug trafficking charges after federal agents followed a tractor-trailer from Texas to the doorstep of her Fort Washington office. Inside the truck’s gas tank was 65 kilograms of cocaine, court documents say. Agents found duffel bags stuffed with $1.5 million inside the office.

In these pages and those of other publications, Dasher had been hailed as a hero for returning from Houston to invest in a community whose name had to many ears become synonymous with drug-dealing and street violence. That perception has long been an unfair rap on Anacostia, a tight-knit neighborhood of wooden houses whose name has been appropriated by unsophisticated outsiders to refer to more-depressed environs elsewhere east of its namesake river.

That Dasher, 36, now stands implicated in a major drug-distribution scheme had Peele, who writes the well-read blog Congress Heights on the Rise, feeling nauseated as she read the news this weekend — not Uniontown, not drugs. “Those of us who live here, we feel like we’ve taken one step forward in terms of improving the image of our community,” Peele said. “Now it feels like we’ve been drop-kicked four steps back.”

So Peele and a group of neighborhood residents did their best Monday to separate their reactions to the Dasher allegations from their allegiance to her business — the only bar or sit-down restaurant in the neighborhood. Peele brought a load of Anacostia buttons to hand to patrons. Another local resident hosted a birthday party. The news had forced a political candidate to postpone the scheduled kickoff of his D.C. Council campaign, but he stopped by anyway.

It’s easy to understand why Anacostians are standing by their restaurant, if not its owner. It represented the first step toward the kinds of community amenities residents of redeveloping neighborhoods west of the river take for granted.

“It’s that ‘third place’ that every neighborhood wants,” said Stan Voudrie, Uniontown’s landlord, who said that the business has thrived and that regardless how the charges are resolved, he expects that to continue. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that [Uniontown], under its current management or under different management, will be that third place for a long time to come.”

Before Uniontown, progress was hard to see in Anacostia. An art gallery and a coffeehouse opened up in recent years, but many storefronts on Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road SE remain either vacant or home to social service agencies that many believe repel private investment. Restaurant investment can represent the vanguard of neighborhood development, as it did in the H Street NE corridor, Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods, but it’s a high-risk business, and it’s easy to see why established restaurateurs and their lenders haven’t been eager to play pioneer in Anacostia.

Dasher’s restaurant has gone some way toward proving that the neighborhood can support the amenities that residents have long said they deserve.

And the fact of the matter is that one set of drug charges, no matter how hard-hitting, is not going to stop the economic forces bringing change to Anacostia. Heavy-hitting private investors are taking a new look at Anacostia — thanks in no small part to Uniontown.

“Those entities are realizing that all along there have been people here who spend money; we eat lunch or have a drink,” Peele said. But “they’ve tried to use a yardstick to measure east of the river that they use in other parts of the city . . . that doesn’t really apply over here.”

The neighborhood is on the cusp of a transformation as Voudrie’s Four Points looks to leverage the vast land holdings of the Curtis family — whose furniture company built the landmark “big chair” — into a plethora of commercial and residential development.

“People are looking for Metro-accessible, close-in opportunities. Historic Anacostia and Congress Heights both fit that bill,” Voudrie said. “I don’t think that one bad news story is going to change that.”

He added, “This neighborhood hasn’t had a lot of growth over the last 35 years, but its time is now.”

Twitter: @mikedebonis

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