Change Is Clear
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
It wasn't that long ago that Windows Cafe & Market was a corner store like so many corner stores in this city, with that ugly, milky, scratched plexiglass that divides you from the person selling. Ominous glass that says you are in one of those neighborhoods that may look benign in the sunshine, but the people behind the plexiglass know better. The bulletproof glass separated you from the tuna cans, the pork rinds, the rolling papers. The glass said you can't be trusted; put your money in the little slot, take your items and go.
Hunegnaw Abeje bought the store on Rhode Island Avenue when it was like that. Worked six years behind a glass that split him from his customers. "Now there is no barrier between me and my customers," Abeje says as he puts away wine bottles. "If there is a barrier, there is no trust."
His store is just one of the corner stores in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. Visit them, the ones now closed, the others hanging on and those like Windows, that are in the process of becoming something new. They hold on their shelves the story of a neighborhood. And, ultimately, of a city. The first stop is Windows Cafe.
Abeje left his country, Ethiopia, when it was under military rule. He was 24. He sought political asylum in Canada, where he went to school and worked. He met his soon-to-be wife and came to the United States and bought this store where he worked behind the glass until a neighborhood renewal grant project inspired him to remodel and expand. Turn the store into a cafe and the storage room into a finer grocery market with goods to match the growing spending power of the neighborhood.
He wanted people to feel at home here, so he asked his neighbors in Bloomingdale for decorating help. The cafe would become the first sit-down eatery in the neighborhood in years. The neighbors were thrilled and they obliged. "They planted plants," Abeje said. "They brought in frames. They suggested what kind of color the walls should be. I asked what they like and they suggested. . . . When we first opened, they brought 70 people. We had a party."
And the store became home.
"My store is not high-end," Abeje said. "It is not low-end. People who want to grab small things come here."
The glass had come down.
Then came the robberies, six in the last year. The first robbery occurred in November 2006. Two months passed, then another robbery. After that, another. "The last one was very scary," Abeje said. "He was fully covered. Hood and all that stuff. I saw the video of him pulling a gun at my wife. That was devastating. Cruel. She gave him what she had.
"I felt bad when I saw the video. What they did to my wife."
The mayor came to visit the store. "He promised to keep an eye on the store," Abeje said. Since then a police car and a police officer sit at the store in a community policing program aimed at reducing crime.
Then the neighbors came. "They encouraged me to stay," Abeje says. His wife quit, but he has not.