Labor of love becomes gathering for community in Anacostia

February 13, 2011

Inside Uniontown Bar and Grill, three woman sip on turquoise-colored cocktails at the bar and talk about life and love. Later, a pair of elderly sisters come in for a late lunch, plunk down pictures and talk about their grandchildren.

It could be a midday scene from any of U Street's chic hipster joints or an Adams Morgan eatery. But what makes the scene unusual is where it's happening: in Anacostia, a long-neglected area of the city where, until recently, residents' entertainment and retail options were few.

Once upon a time, this historic building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE was Bury's Drug Store, back when Anacostia was a whites-only suburb. Natasha Dasher, the owner of the new establishment, is hoping that her labor of love, which opened two weeks ago, will reflect a time when the communities east of the river were rich with neighborhood eateries, hardware stores and grocers - where residents could easily walk to errands, have a good meal or chat with friends over comfort food.

Outside of the Player's Lounge restaurant in Congress Heights, about a mile away, and the recently opened IHOP and Big Chair Coffee n' Grill, the only sit-down dining options in Ward 8 have largely been fast-food restaurants.

"I guess when I think about it, I want this place to be a hub in the community," said Dasher, 35, a fifth-generation Washingtonian who returned home from Houston two years ago so her eldest daughter could finish high school here. "You can already see that people are moving here, coming here and want to be here, and what we'd like to do is be a service for them."

Indeed, east-of-the-river residents are buzzing about Uniontown. But it's not just the food, late hours or ambiance of the 1,460-square-foot restaurant that has them excited. For many old-timers and newcomers alike, it has become a symbol of their community's potential to become a neighborhood with the same services and amenities found in more affluent areas of the city. A sign, they hope, of its rebirth. "Uniontown" is what the neighborhood was called when it was first developed in the 1850s.

"Every neighborhood needs a Cheers, and maybe this can be ours," said Tonya Kelly, 37, a consultant who recently moved to Congress Heights. She was at Uniontown with a group of friends opening week and marveled at the crowd.

Dasher, who spent 15 years in marketing before returning to Washington with her family, has created something that residents living in Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park or Georgetown take for granted. The restaurant, with is high ceilings, intricate molding and flat-screen televisions, has a full bar and offers antibiotic-free meats and fresh juices.

"Uniontown has brought people out that many of us didn't even know lived in this neighborhood," said Greta Fuller, an Anacostia Advisory Neighborhood Commission member. "And those people are hungry to come out and spend their money. We have jobs. We have homes. We are positive. And when you walk into Uniontown, those are the people you see."

The feeling is spreading

Fuller and Dasher aren't alone in their optimism about Ward 8's potential for attracting more commercial and retail business. Although the area, with its 70,000 residents, has long been the city's poorest, more affluent professionals have settled into the historic neighborhoods and bought houses. And slowly, businesses are responding, according to several commercial developers.

Two months ago, a shared workspace called the Hive opened on Martin Luther King Avenue, and all five of its private offices have been leased and five of its six shared spaces are filled. The project's developer, Duane Gautier, is opening another shared office space above Uniontown.

In the fall, Yes! Organic Market, a health food chain, opened a store on Pennsylvania Avenue, about a mile from Uniontown. Other developers are looking to open a deli and sandwich shop across from the Hive and are planning another sit-down restaurant on Good Hope Road SE.

These are in addition to the three art galleries that have opened in the neighborhood over the past several years. Residents also are anticipating the conversion of a neighborhood supermarket into a Save-A-Lot, also on Good Hope Road SE, and a pedestrian walkway that will be added to a renovated 11th Street bridge that connects Anacostia to the Navy Yard.

"When I drive down MLK, I see opportunity," said Keith Sellars of the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership, which attracts retailers to the city. He called business owners such as Dasher "pioneers."

Not many expect MLK Avenue or Good Hope Road to rival H Street NE - the city's hottest corridor these days - anytime soon. The recent economic downturn also has kept expectations modest for the immediate future, and the area still has higher-than-average property crime rates.

But developers and commercial real estate experts attribute some of the ward's recent attention to newer residents actively telling their own stories through blogs and other social media. Congress Heights on the Rise and And Now, Anacostia, among others, have been boosters for the community, keeping new residents informed about local politics, development and other issues while providing a forum for residents to raise concerns about their neighborhood. There's even an online television show, "Anacostia the Webseries," getting set to start filming its third season. It features fictional characters living in the historic neighborhood, and its producer is an Anacostia native.

"I started blogging really because I was tired of people saying 'Why do you live over there?' " said Nikki Peele, 33, who started Congress Heights on the Rise, a site that is both complimentary and critical of her neighborhood. "It was a way for me to say 'This is my experience' and work through layers of misconceptions people have about the community."

Indeed, residents and other supporters of Uniontown and the businesses sprouting up said there was pent-up demand from many of the newer residents who wanted the same services well-heeled neighborhoods have.

"The thing that's important to me is seeing places that are reflective of all walks of life," said Jeremy Johnson, 29, an office manager who recently moved to Anacostia from Charles County. "There's nothing wrong with some of the options per se, but the issue for me at least is having a range."

Although catering to a broad spectrum of new residents, Dasher also wants to give back to those who have grown up there: 30 percent of Uniontown's staff of 21 is from Ward 8, and she worked with a local job employment agency to find employees.

"It's important to give people who live here, in Ward 8, opportunities," she said. "We have the highest unemployment percentage here, and being able to work and live in the same community is important. It shows a commitment to a community."

Indeed, on a recent afternoon, a woman wandered in asking for help getting to a city homeless shelter. Dasher had something more in mind than just a handout.

"Would you like a meal?" she asked.

The woman paused, appearing caught off guard. "Yes. . . . Thank you."

"Have a seat, and we'll get you something," Dasher said quickly.

As the woman waited, Dasher slipped her some money. "That should be enough, right?" The woman, who declined to give her name, nodded. "Thank you."

Grow with the community

Dasher and the community's other entrepreneurs are not without their critics. Anthony Muhammad, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who is Muslim, was concerned that Uniontown would be serving alcohol and challenged Dasher's liquor license, delaying the restaurant's opening by several months.

In an interview, Muhammad raised concerns that Dasher, who signed a 10-year lease, and some of the younger professionals who are moving into the area were not sufficiently committed to the area.

"We've seen people come and go before," Muhammad said. "I just would like to know how long she will be in this community . . . and whether this is the type of business, one that serves alcohol and is surrounded by four churches and a school, we need to embrace."

Dasher said she wants to grow with the community. She plans to expand to the second floor of the building, built in 1857, so she can double the seating capacity by the summer.

"What I'd like to see, say, five years down the line is that we're just one of several places all along here in this community," she said, motioning toward MLK Avenue. "To be a part of a community of places that are part of this community."

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