Washington's new Convention Center brought with it promises of prosperous hotel and retail development in the District's old downtown.
But for many of the small businesses now clinging to the rubble of that decayed neighborhood, those promises mean little more than eviction notices and the end of an era of uncertainty.
Dozens of small shops in the old downtown area managed to eke out a living during the 1960s and '70s while the once-thriving area awaited a revival. Now that some developers are only months away from breaking ground for the ambitious projects envisioned 10 years ago during the planning of the convention center, area merchants are being told to make way for the wrecker's ball.
On 11th Street between G and H streets NW--the block that separates the convention center and Woodward & Lothrop department store--developers are planning to begin construction of a hotel-retail-office complex later this year. Several stores along that block already have closed.
For others, like the Medco drug store just north of Woodies at 717 11th St. NW, the handwriting is on the wall, but business continues on a day-to-day basis.
"We can be out of here in a day," said Nicola Fera, 59, who has managed the store for the past 26 years. Fera is used to working under the threat of eviction. In fact, Fera's Medco was displaced from its site across the street 11 years ago to make room for a project that was never started.
In his 35 years in the area, Fera has seen the face of the neighborhood change dramatically from the days when workers from several large office buildings in the area filled the streets and stores. In the years since the early 1960s, Fera said, "Our white trade has disappeared completely." Now, he says, most of his customers are older, black and poor.
Fera, like most of the shopkeepers in the area, said the opening of the convention center has scarcely affected his business.
"Sometimes they convention center patrons will come in to buy a toothbrush or some razor blades, but that's not very often," Fera said as he unpacked a carton of shampoo.
Up 11th Street NW from Medco, Chong Kim, owner of KJ Men's Wear, says his business is living on borrowed time. Chong's lease has expired, but he keeps his shop open in hopes of selling off as much stock as he can before the inevitable move.
A sign proclaiming "Smoking Sale" stretches across Chong's shop and the odor of smoke permeates the air. Chong said the fire was started last December by indigents who sometimes sleep in his basement at night.
Chong said his store, like the Medco, has not profited by the convention center's opening. "All of the convention people just pass by, they don't come in," Chong said, adding that if he can't find another downtown location for his store, he'll simply consolidate his merchandise with that of his Georgia Avenue location.
Several doors up, in the basement of 731 11th St. NW, Willie Washington, owner of a shoe repair shop, is facing his second eviction in four years because of the convention center.
"I don't know where I'm going to go," said Washington, whose shop was originally situated on the site now occupied by the convention center. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
Washington said he hoped to remain at his 11th Street NW shop for at least five years. "I think it's unfair," said Washington, who is looking for another downtown location for his business.
"I don't know where I'm going to find a place for the kind of rent I'm paying now," he said.
Above Washington's shop, Rosario Boyd, 53, an immigrant from the Philippines, also is planning to close her store, which sells silk flowers and bridal corsages and bonnets.
"I don't make money," said Boyd, "I just try my best not to be on welfare."
Boyd said she worked three waitress jobs seven days a week in order to save the money to go into business for herself in 1972. She said she was able to make ends meet by catering to students and older people until last fall, when she had a heart attack after a large chunk of the shop's ceiling suddenly fell near where she was standing. She blames the property's owners, whom she says have not properly maintained the building, for the accident.
Boyd's lease also expires in July, and she says she is not optimistic about finding another location for $100 a month, her current rent. "I guess I'll just retire," she said.
Across the street from the bonnet shop is Bargain Book Store, one of a handful of businesses operating on the burned-out block bounded by 11th and 12th streets and G and H streets NW. Fires lit by street people have claimed a number of the block's buildings, prompting city officials to erect an 8-foot fence covering the entrances of long-abandoned shops and running the length of the block.
Bargain Book Shop was moved from its Ninth Street NW location to make room for the convention center. Owner John Rappaport says he doesn't know how long he'll be able to stay on the block, which is also slated for a new hotel and office complex.
"I got a notice to move 15 months ago, but I haven't heard from them since," said Rappaport, who worked at the store's Ninth Street NW location for 45 years. Rappaport said he has been looking around for rental space for the book store, but has had no luck finding a place suited to his budget.
"The prices they want for rent are ridiculous," said Rappaport, who currently pays $450 a month. "If I can't find anything else in this area, I'm going to go out of business," he said. "Fifty years in this business is long enough."
Most of the buildings directly adjacent to the convention center on H Street NW remain boarded up and vacant while their owners play a waiting game, trying to anticipate the ideal time to begin redevelopment. A block beyond the convention center on H Street NW, one of the more unusual stores in the area, a shop selling foam rubber as well as a line of small computers, is presided over by John Gillilland, a long-time area businessman who describes himself as "going on 80."
Gillilland said the main effect of the convention center has had on his block, the proposed site of a hotel, is to push property values and taxes up astronomically. Recently, a rundown building next to Gillilland's shop sold for $260,000, he said, about five times what it would have brought before speculation fever hit the area.
Gillilland, who has been selling foam rubber at his present location for 25 years, said he regrets not buying his own building for $50,000 when he had the opportunity several years ago. But Gillilland, unlike his fellow merchants, said development plans won't force him out of his shop because he has a special arrangement with the owners of the property. "I can stay here as long as I want," he said.
Across the street from the convention center at Ninth and H streets NW is the Chesapeake House, a topless bar catering to businessmen by day and homosexuals by night. Owner Sean Taylor says business has benefited from some of the events held at the center.
"It all depends on what type of show they've got there," Taylor said. "I mean you're not going to get some of those ladies to come over from some flower show."
Taylor hopes to capture more of the mainstream convention center trade by advertising his lunch menu. "I want to clean up my act a little and get some of those old ladies to come over," he said.
Half a block east of the Chesapeake House on H Street, Dave Richardson, owner of Mike's Delicatessen and Carry Out, has no doubts about the convention center's impact as he surveys the few customers in his tiny restaurant. "The convention center has killed my business."
Richardson, who has been selling sandwiches at 806 H St. NW for 18 years, said his revenues are off $200 a day since the completion of the convention center. He explained that previously most of his customers worked in the shops that had to be torn down to make way for the convention center. "It used to be packed in here from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.," he recalled.
Now, Richardson says, many of his old customers are gone, and the convention center hasn't provided any new ones. "Once they get in there," Richardson said of the convention center's visitors, "they don't come out." Besides, Richardson said, "What are you going to wander in this neighborhood for, all the shops are closed."
Richardson said his rent has increased sharply, and he says he may not be able to survive at his present location much longer. "We'll wait for a while," he said, "But in the meantime we'll be looking for another place."
One business that seems to be weathering the transition of the convention center area is the Reliable Home Appliance store at 919 11th St. NW. The cluttered basement store has had no trouble attracting customers for its discount stereo and electronics goods.
"We get government people, embassy people, anybody looking to pay cost plus 10 percent," said assistant manager Bob Phelps, who has been behind Reliable's counter for 28 of the store's 30 years on 11th Street NW.
Phelps said a hi-fi show earlier this year generated "a lot of traffic" at his shop, and he credits the center with sparking a neighborhood revival that will boost his business even further.
"I think eventually you're going to see more high-rise hotels and apartment buildings, which will mean more customers for us," Phelps said.
On the other side of 11th Street NW, Eugene Jordan, owner of Los Planes De Renderos, a Mexican restaurant, is poised to cash in on the crowds that eventually are expected to fill the convention center.
"We're hoping that once the convention center starts to really roll, people will discover there are places outside the building to eat," said Jordan, who has run the restaurant for seven years.
Much of Jordan's lunch-time business comes from area office workers, and he says many of his dinner patrons drive in from the suburbs. Jordan says that, so far, the convention center, with the exception of two or three well-attended trade shows, hasn't helped fill his tables.
Jordan says the convention center has helped improve the neighborhood considerably. "The community is undergoing a big change, and now people are more willing to walk around here at night."
Like many of the merchants in the area, Jordan says his rent has "gone up and out of sight," and, for the time being, he is most concerned with meeting his growing expenses while awaiting the convention center boom.
"One day this is going to be a hot area," he said. "But we're trying to make it today."
If any small business is in a position to benefit from the convention center, it is Sam Hadad's convenience store, across H Street NW from the center. Hadad's store is just about the only place near the center where a conventioneer can buy a package of cigarettes or some chewing gum, and he credits the convention center with improving his fortunes.
"We've built up quite a good business with the convention center crowd," he said.
But Hadad's success may be short-lived. His mini-market is located in what used to be the Annapolis Hotel, a building now owned by the Maharishi International University, which has no plans to renew Hadad's lease when it expires in December.
"If they could put me out sooner, they would," he said. A formal-wear store that occupied another retail space in the building was forced to move in March after the Maharishi University, whose curriculum centers around the practice of transcendental meditation, refused to renew the lease.
Hadad, whose clientele has changed in the past seven years from "the poor and middle class to the middle class and better," said he wants to stay in the convention center area if he can find affordable space. "The business is there," said Hadad, motioning through his store window at the convention center's gray walls.