Every day Thea Reachmack would leave her home and begin the tree-block walk down 12th Street NE, stopping to chat with neighbors or browse at some of the small stores that dotted her way to the grocery.
"I walked every day except when it was icy. That was my walk," recalled Reachmack, 70, an area resident since 1939. "I'd do all my shopping at the Safeway."
Last month, however, Reachmack's daily walks to the Safeway store at 12th and Quincy streets NE came to an abrupt end. The market that Reachmack and many of her neighbors depended on for life's staples boarded up its windows and closed down.
For Reachmack and many of her neighbors in this quiet, tree-shaded Northeast community called Brookland, the closing of the old brick 12th Street Safeway has forced those without adequate transportation to look for rides, juggle their schedules and wonder when and how they will get to other stores to buy groceries.
But the closing is also a concern of government officials and merchants along the 12th Street business strip. Government officials see it as the latest strike against a community that, even though targeted for District commercial revitalization, is struggling harder than ever to stay alive. The Brookland Metro station that opened in 1978, once thought to be an economic boon to the community, has done little to boost commerce, say area merchants.
The Safeway's closing "seems like a left-handed slap in the face when we're talking about economic development," said Robert I. Artisst, the Brookland Civic Association president who was among many petitioners, pickets and protesters against the store's closing.
When rumors about the closing spread throughout the neighborhood, Brookland residents and merchants rallied to file petitions, picket the store and make phone calls to Safeway headquarters in California. The civic-minded homeowners in this stable community once prevented an interstate highway from cutting through their neighborhood. But they seem to have lost the battle to keep the grocery.
Prior to the 1968 riots, there were at least six major grocery chain stores within walking distance in Ward 5, which includes Brookland. As major companies followed a national trend of moving from inner-city to suburban centers, however, the area gradually lost most of those stores. The Brookland Safeway, in a community roughly bordered by Rhode Island and Michigan avenues NE from Fourth to 18th streets, was the last small neighborhood chain store in Ward 5.
Two larger Safeway stores were built: one at Third Street and Rhode Island Avenue and another on Michigan Avenue near the Mount Rainier, Md., line. Today, the 88,000 residents in Ward 5 must shop at those two stores, at the medium-sized Brentwood Market at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, or go outside the area.
Safeway spokesman Larry Johnson said the 12th Street store closed primarily because it was losing up to $4,000 a week. The store was too small and facilities too old for the store to do enough business to support itself, Johnson said.
Many Brookland residents, who agree that some neighbors only used the store when they ran out of milk or bread, are still not convinced of Safeway's claim.
"It was packed to the point where you almost couldn't get past people," said Douglass Daiss, a Brookland ANC commissioner and area businessman. Daiss said overcrowding was one of the reasons many people who were able to shop elsewhere did.
Safeway considered relocating in the area, Johnson said, but could not find a parcel of land large enough to accommodate a 40,000-square-feet store with a large parking lot. The 12th Street store was 7,000 square feet.
Johnson also said that, with two other larger Safeways in Ward 5, the company was not sure that there are enough people in the community to support another large store.
Most residents and merchants insist Brookland must have its own major grocery store, however, citing the needs of many elderly residents and off-campus Catholic University students who don't have cars or the money to do all their food shopping at mom-and-pop groceries or convenience stores in the area.
"We need something," said Margaret Leeks, president of Brookland's Monroe-Franklin block club. Leeks now shops at a Giant Food Store in Queens Chapel, Md. "If they had a larger grocery store everybody would do their shopping there in Brookland . I know I would."
Attempts to attract other major chain stores to the area have been unsuccessful, Daiss said.
At some points the 12th Street business strip, a 14-block stretch from Rhode Island to Michigan Avenue NE, is like Main Street of a small town. Shoppers dart back and forth across busy streets, making the rounds at small, quaint shops and services crumbling from use and age. On one block there is a carryout, barber shop, hardware, drug store, shoe shop, bakery, jeweler, 5&10 department store, thrift store and dry cleaners.
"It's like having your shopping center on both sides of the street," said Daiss.
In early morning hours employes on their way to work and mail carriers from the Brookland Post Office stop for honey-dipped doughnuts at Baldwin's Bakery. On warm winter afternoons children just out of school rush to the busiest blocks buying candy from Stanley's 5&10 and ice cream from a High's Dairy Store. University students and teen-agers, taking an evening stroll, buy sandwiches from the corner grill.
Here, in the shadow of the National Shrine and the Franciscan Monastery, solidly middle-class homeowners have managed to preserve small bits of a way of life that used to be common to Washington communities. Despite the Safeway's closing, it still seems a popular place, though not as populated as it used to be.
Many small businessmen along the 12th Street strip say the Safeway's closing has hurt business already.
"Business has definitely dropped off," said William Hardy, owner of "Reflection and Acts," an antique and collectibles store next door to the old Safeway building. Hardy said much of his business depended on customers who used the Safeway store. One day last week Hardy said he had 11 customers. On a similar day last fall Hardy estimates that he would have had twice as many.
"That was a magnet business," Hardy sighed. "People would come because they needed that food. They don't necessarily need what I have."
With its tree-shaded streets and large brick and rambling frame houses, Brookland is showing some signs of progress. Owners of a Capitol Hill restaurant have opened another restaurant, Colonel Brooks Tavern, in Brookland and report that business there is booming. And residential revitalization is on the upswing: 70 town houses once slated for demolition were refurbished and sold and several new condominums and town houses have been completed.
"Residential areas are gradually improving, the area looks better and is worth more than ever," said Daiss, "and yet the business area continues to slide, to deteriorate."
For many in Brookland, preserving the area and commercial revitalization complete a classic paradox: residents want community growth but not much change.
"This community has always fought development," said Daiss. "Anything other than small neighborhood businesses and single-family dwellings is opposed."
Staffers from the city's Office of Planning and Office of Business and Economic Development credit Brookland's hard-working civic organizations with addressing many community concerns. In addition to the freeway, they successfully blocked a large Metro commuter parking lot and a group of prostitutes who started a short-lived practice at 12th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE.
Yet Brookland hasn't always been successful. A group of residents and merchants in the Brookland Community Corp. invested and lost thousands of dollars trying to turn the art deco Newton Theater building into a community center. Poster board signs are pasted all over it now advertising the services of a copying center.
The closing of the Safeway store is the latest battle lost, an issue that community protest and organization could not solve.
But Brookland merchants and residents are looking for alternatives. A committee headed by Hardy is studying the possibility of forming a food co-op.
Meanwhile, Reachmack, a widow who does not drive, depends on catching rides with her son or neighbors once every two weeks to do her shopping. She said she buys milk and bread from nearby convenience stores but the prices are often higher and she cannot get fresh vegetables or fruits there.
"They told us we could get on the bus. How can old people get off and on buses with grocery bags?" she said, indignant that some of her independence has disappeared with the store. "Anyway you look at it, it's a mess."