Trapped by Change, Economy

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

The palm reader left months ago, as did the laundromat, computer center and two food markets. Across the way, the charred vestiges of a four-story apartment building remain six months after a fire forced 200 low-income residents to move away.

Up and down the commercial heart of Mount Pleasant, the emptiness is a pointed reflection of a broader economic turbulence.

Like many Washington neighborhoods, Mount Pleasant has grown more affluent in recent years, as waves of professionals scooped up rowhouses and condominiums, some paying upward of $1 million to live just off the 16th Street corridor north of Adams Morgan.

Their arrival has largely meant less business for merchants who have catered to working-class Latino residents who have left the neighborhood, because of the fire or because they sold their houses or were priced out. As storefronts have gone dark, the tightening credit market and floundering economy have made it ever more difficult to start businesses.

"We're in a downward spiral," said Terry Lynch, a Mount Pleasant resident for more than 25 years. He motioned toward a ravaged apartment building and a vacant storefront. "This says, 'Don't bring your business to Mount Pleasant. Go to another neighborhood.' "

Across the city, from Anacostia to upper Georgia Avenue, civic leaders clamor for finer retail establishments and restaurants, a din loud enough that District officials initiated a study this year to figure out ways to lure businesses.

Harriet Tregoning, director of the District's Office of Planning, said merchants in working-class neighborhoods rife with new investment, such as Petworth and Brookland, have struggled to adjust to rising rents and a changing clientele.

"There's a mismatch of what residents want to buy and what is available, and, in some cases, that's because the demographics changed," Tregoning said. "People's demands are higher. They want a better retail experience. They want the windows to be clean. They want to see what's inside the store."

Once a prosperous streetcar suburb whose residents included Sen. Robert LaFollette and legendary Senators fireballer Walter Johnson, Mount Pleasant fell into a steep decline after the 1968 riots, when white homeowners across the city left for the suburbs.

A generation later, homebuyers began returning Mount Pleasant, a migration that gained momentum through the recent housing boom, further diversifying a neighborhood with substantial Latino and black populations.

Mount Pleasant leaders hoped that their commercial strip -- a hodgepodge of beauty salons, fast-food, hardware and liquor stores, and a car repair garage -- would benefit from geography. The strip is three blocks west of 14th Street in Columbia Heights, where DC USA, a Target-anchored mall, opened this year on a stretch that had been a wasteland since the riots.

Yet, as fortunes have soared in Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant's have sagged. Along the neighborhood's four-block commercial spine, seven of 40 storefronts have sat empty for four or five months and even longer, including several spacious sites in prominent locations.

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