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Signs of Change Line the Shelves

Loretta Smith, left, and Sandee Wallett stock medicine at the new Giant, Ward 8's first supermarket since 1998.
Loretta Smith, left, and Sandee Wallett stock medicine at the new Giant, Ward 8's first supermarket since 1998. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

For nearly a decade, residents of Washington's poorest ward have yearned for that most basic of community institutions, a place to buy vegetables and milk and bread and gossip with friends and neighbors over shopping carts.

Their wait is over.

When a Giant opens on Alabama Avenue in Congress Heights on Friday, it will be the only full-service supermarket in Ward 8 in Southeast and the first since a Safeway closed in 1998.

The absence of a full-service supermarket in the ward, which encompasses the sloping neighborhoods east of the Anacostia river, has forced residents such as Carol Johnson, a retiree who walks with a cane and does not own a car, to lug groceries on the bus to replenish her fridge.

Depending on the weather and the vagaries of public transportation, the trip can consume several hours. Even for those who drive, the travel crystallizes a sense of deprivation and alienation.

But with thousands of housing units built in recent years, Ward 8 is no longer a place developers avoid.

Although most neighborhoods still have far more shopping options, Ward 8's new Giant is the chain's largest in the city. Spanning the length of a football field, the Giant offers the usual supermarket fare and then some, including 200 types of cheese, more than two dozen brands of ice cream, 14 kinds of honey, fresh sushi, books, toys and DVDs.

"We've been waiting for this for a long time," said Johnson, 57, holding three bags of groceries and her metal cane as she limped to a bus stop across from a Safeway where she shops in Ward 7. Her friend carried another of her purchases, a 10-pound bag of potatoes.

Atop a 25-acre parcel that once housed a National Guard base and across from where two housing projects once stood, the Giant is further evidence of the investment pouring into a ward long suffering from poverty and crime.

Yet even as they pine for the supermarket's opening, residents worry that the Giant and the townhouses and suburban-style homes sprouting up in the area will make their neighborhood too pricey.

Sandra Seegars, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said she cannot think about the Giant without reflecting on the families who once lived in the public housing complexes, Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings, that were razed across the street.

The supermarket, she said, "represents service to people, and it represents removal of people. If the public housing were still there, we wouldn't be getting the Giant."

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