“There are a lot of people who go to eat and need community,” he said. “There’s no place to hear poetry and music, nothing that’s going to bring in a couple of hundred people under one roof. I’d love to do it.”
Fatma Nayir and her husband, Musa Ulusan, Turkish immigrants who have owned restaurants in New Orleans and Bethesda, said they chose Anacostia because it was a place they could afford to open a pizzeria. When they hung a “Help Wanted” sign, more than 100 people applied. Some customers urged Nayir not to take down the security bars, telling her that she was asking for trouble in a part of the city known for crime.
But she said she wanted to connect with her customers, many of whom can now be seen walking around the neighborhood carrying pizza boxes. Nayir is already thinking about adding pasta to her menu. Maybe even cappuccino.
Earl Rodriguez, 49, an Army reservist, has volunteered to landscape the grass outside the shop and to design and paint a sign to replace the handmade one Nayir put above the entrance. “It’s all inspired by what Mama’s stands for,” he said. When she removed the metal grating, he said, “it was ‘Wow!’ She wants to be here.”
An inevitable frontier
Developers have grown more interested in wards 7 and 8 as they have pushed eastward across the city over the past decade, injecting new life in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, in downtown, along H Street NE. As rents and prices have soared, developers have come to view east of the river as an inevitable frontier.
A litany of new residential and office projects will make the area more affluent, District officials say. The relocation of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard to St. Elizabeths will bring more than 10,000 people into the area. A recently opened District office building has brightened the corner of Minnesota Avenue NE and Benning Road.
Nearby, next to a Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, Michael Landrum, owner of Ray’s the Steaks in Clarendon, opened a Ray’s branch two years ago, the unveiling of which was deemed significant enough that then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) attended the ribbon-cutting. The Uniontown Bar & Grill in Anacostia has drawn a loyal following even as its owner faces federal drug-trafficking charges. Half a block away, an entrepreneur is turning what was a failing coffee shop into the Big Chair Bar & Grill.
But the choices remain too limited for residents, some of whom suspect that restaurateurs stay away because they don’t want to open in a black community.
“My community is stigmatized,” said Yvonne Moore, a retiree who has lived in Anacostia for 35 years. “The chain restaurants won’t come here because they think we don’t have the income. They are afraid of crime. You’d think with Obama in the White House, it would’ve gotten better.”
Albert “Butch” Hopkins, president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that has promoted investment east of the river since the 1970s, said he’s frustrated by such arguments: “It ain’t about race and class, it’s about economics. Unless we can show there’s an increase in daytime jobs with people who have disposable incomes, we will be singing the same tune for the next 40 years.”
Some long-established business owners are already envisioning a new tune.
Georgena’s in Congress Heights has been serving lunch, dinner and cocktails for more than 20 years. Before then, it was known only as the Players Lounge, a go-go bar featuring topless dancers.
Now the owner, Steve Thompson, said he’s thinking about the Homeland Security employees who will need a place to eat. Perhaps, he said, he will add picture windows. Perhaps he will put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. Perhaps he will add tablecloths.
“We already made one transformation,” he said. “When change comes, we will change again.”