Georgia Ave. Awakening

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Promises have been made before on Georgia Avenue.

Plans to revitalize Washington's longest commercial corridor -- tattered by time, drugs and neglect -- have been thrown away like the unlucky lottery tickets that litter the street each day. Back in 1992, President Bill Clinton moseyed along the avenue, sampling fried scallops and greeting beauticians, and residents and business owners saw even that as the beginning of a renaissance.

It never came.

Much of Georgia looks like it has for decades. "The Avenue," as people like to call it, has 70 beauty salons, 40 barbershops, 13 liquor stores -- a beer and a haircut seem as perfectly matched as vanilla ice cream and warm apple pie. The street has too-many-to-count corner dives that sell single beers in brown paper bags just big enough to hide the vice. Residents have learned to live with the redundancy of retail, to navigate the crime.

But now it looks like the renaissance is about to be real: Over the next decade, the District and private developers will spend millions to pump new life into the historic section between downtown Silver Spring and downtown Washington. For its part, the city is contributing funds from the $100 million Great Streets Initiative and other programs to redevelop neglected corridors, a legacy of former mayor Anthony A. Williams.

One of the biggest projects, the one District officials hope will be the catalyst, has been started: Park Place, a $60 million development of 156 condominiums and townhouses at the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro stop, near the midpoint of the four-mile road. A Mocha Hut and a sit-down restaurant will top the station, catty-corner from a check-cashing store. One Metro entrance closed Dec. 11 for the construction, which should be completed in two years.

As the shovels go into the ground, residents and merchants have a range of emotions. Excitement and anxiety pierce the blended scent of Jamaican beef patties, Chinese takeout and fried fish. Careful what you wish for.

"There's an ambiance that inspires people," said Henri Edmonds, a Howard University theater professor who recently published "The Georgia Avenue Bus," a book of short fiction about people on The Avenue. "There's a quality about black life that's on Georgia Avenue. The cooking odors. The way people greet you. I don't care what problems you have, there's always laughter.

"Pennsylvania Avenue is the intellect. K Street, that's the business of Washington. But Georgia Avenue, that's the heart and soul of the city."

The lottery ticket is about to be cashed. Who will pay? Who will win?

A city planning map that shows the future of Georgia looks like a Monopoly game board. In sketches, condominiums, upscale shops and grocery stores replace neglected rowhouses, abandoned storefronts and empty lots. The envisioned blocks are filled with outdoor plazas, Victorian street lamps and sidewalk cafes.

Nothing in the plans shows how the mom-and-pop and family-owned businesses fit in -- the ones that stayed through the 1968 riots, the '70s heroin scourge and the '80s crack epidemic.

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