Mount Pleasant's Growing Pain

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008

In another time or place, the dispute over where Mount Pleasant's Don Juan restaurant should stow its trash might have played out as a squabble between a struggling business and a group of residents trying to improve the look of their streets. Instead, it's being cast as a battle for the very soul of one of the District's most celebrated Latino immigrant neighborhoods.

This is largely because those targeting the working-class, Latino hangout are the mostly Anglo, white-collar leaders of a residents association called the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance. For almost two decades, the Alliance has lodged complaints against many of the Latino restaurants, bars and grocery shops that have defined the neighborhood.

The quarrel also comes as Mount Pleasant's pupusa carryouts, money-wiring outfits and laundromats are being steadily eclipsed by gourmet pizza joints and bistros selling sauvignon blanc by the glass to the neighborhood's growing population of professionals. And this changing landscape has prompted a second group of residents, calling itself Hear Mount Pleasant, to mobilize in Don Juan's defense.

Also led mostly by Anglos, members of Hear Mount Pleasant, which formed a year ago and boasts about 100 foot soldiers, say their mission is to preserve the neighborhood's immigrant character in the face of a concerted campaign by the Alliance to hound the neighborhood's working-class establishments out of business so more chic shops and restaurants can move in.

The group's original goal was to bring back the mariachi bands and other live music groups that were prohibited under voluntary agreements that local Latino restaurant owners negotiated with the Alliance years ago in exchange for their support on liquor licenses. But their aims, and passions, have grown. In November, when the city moved to demolish a closet-size trash enclosure behind the restaurant at Mount Pleasant and Lamont streets, dozens of activists streamed out of their homes to form a human shield.

"This is about what the future fabric of this neighborhood should be," said Claudia Schlosberg, 52, a lawyer and one of the group's founders. "Some people don't like the way it is now, and others of us celebrate the diversity."

Members of the Alliance, which collects dues from more than 800 households, say they are confounded by such statements. "Everyone embraces the diversity of this neighborhood; that's why we're all here," said Laurie Collins, the Alliance's president. But, she said, that doesn't mean residents shouldn't hold Don Juan's Salvadoran-born owner, Alberto Ferrufino, to the same standard as other restaurants, which keep their trash indoors or on outdoor property that they own. Don Juan puts its trash bin behind the building on a paved patch of publicly owned land that faces a row of houses.

"No other restaurant keeps their trash in public space, so why should he?" Collins asked.

That position has the backing of Monica Rubio, 41, a Peruvian-born economist who bought a rowhouse in Mount Pleasant in 2001 so her children could grow up hearing Spanish. Rubio said Ferrufino has often turned a blind eye as his customers stumbled out and urinated on her front lawn or woke up her children with loud arguments.

"For God's sake," Rubio said, "[that] is not what I associate with being Latino."

The Central American immigrants who make up most of Don Juan's customers have remained largely on the sidelines. "Of course we feel bad about this, because people are blaming us when the ones causing problems are in the [next door] park," said Joaquin Marquez, 60, a Salvadoran-born janitor. "The problem is that we in the Latino community have been lacking the knowledge of how to fight this."

Peter J. Nickles, the city's acting attorney general, is attempting to broker a compromise. Whatever the outcome, it seems likely to leave scars on a neighborhood struggling to redefine itself in the face of dramatic demographic change.

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