Between them, the liquor store owner, the trophy engraver and the short-order cook have survived seven burglaries, a robbery and occasional harassment by street people over the last three years. Now they face winter's fury: many of their longtime customers are unemployed and the "regulars" have few post-Christmas dollars to spend.
Still, the three small-business owners, who share a common roof on Georgia Avenue near the busy intersection with New Hampshire Avenue in Northwest, said they have no intention of closing shop.
"The community is my base," said Jerome Gwynn, the young owner of New Hampshire Liquors. "Business is a slow-grind thing, but you've got to bear it out."
Georgia Avenue, like other blighted strips in the District, is barely holding its own against the drift of neighborhood spenders to suburban shopping malls and downtown department stores, city planners and shopkeepers said. But the street has a potential for growth that is unmatched by other parts of the city. The corridor boasts an unusually high number of small and black-owned businesses--nearly 300 of them.
"It could be one hell of a thoroughfare, business-wise," said Zanzillus W. McBride, who owns a small trophy shop next to Gwynn's store. "But when are things going to get better?"
A new report prepared for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development concluded that the start of a commercial renaissance on Georgia Avenue could be only one year away, if the necessary funding--tens of thousands of dollars--were available.
The report is the first detailed study of the avenue's main commercial area, a four-mile strip from New Hampshire Avenue to the city's northern boundary at Eastern Avenue. It caps an 11-month survey by a Washington consulting firm, Hammer, Siler, George Associates.
The report said that up to 60 percent of all commercial space on upper Georgia Avenue is "obsolete, not reflective of retailing in 1982," but it also concluded that local shoppers could be lured back to the avenue by a well-financed program of new storefronts, parks, better lighting, new sidewalks and a major shopping plaza midway between the Maryland line and the New Hampshire Avenue intersection.
The study, which was approved by the City Council, was initiated by council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who last week called the survey "the first step in the rather lengthy process of getting Georgia Avenue back on its feet.
"The problem there is not so much deterioration, although that is bad," she said. "It's the lost potential. The secret is to get the right kinds of stores and the right look to stores."
Although some cosmetic changes, such as refurbishing storefronts or installing more appealing signs, could be made immediately, the avenue's long-term health may take years to restore, said Clifton Henry, an urban planner who helped write the report.
"If Georgia Avenue is going to be revitalized," Henry said, "it's going to happen on a project-by-project basis. We may not see the final results for five or six years--or even 10."
Already there are some promising signs, however: Last October, Morton's Inc., a Washington-based chain, opened a department store on Georgia Avenue at Longfellow Street, in the two-story building vacated by Ida's, a department store that closed at that location last June after 63 years.
In addition, Safeway officials said the acquisition of a small piece of land is the only thing standing in the way of expanding the Safeway store at Piney Branch Road. On the northern part of the avenue, fresh paint has brightened a few dingy storefronts. To the south, a coalition of business groups, designers and educators is charting the revival of the street near Howard University in a plan called the "Howard Gateway Project."
But Georgia Avenue suffers from an image problem, one that Henry and others said must be overcome before any new development plan bears fruit.
Once, streetcars traversed a cobblestoned Georgia Avenue between sturdy, prosperous-looking houses and inviting parks. But little remains of the avenue's grander days, the exceptions including Walter Reed Hospital and the old Freedmen's Hospital and some of the historic Howard University structures.
Now the historic corridor has turned gritty and unsightly with low, cramped stores, fast-food stands and gasoline stations. Nearly one-third of the Georgia Avenue-area residents polled as part of the consultant's market survey said they never shop on the street, many because they "dislike the area's physical appearance," the report said. And although the street teems with cars, the area's parking shortage and atmosphere lead many consumers to go elsewhere, the study concluded.
"We are trying to change investors' perceptions of this area," said Henry. "If Georgia Avenue got something really new--and big--it would have a tremendous psychological effect. If businesses take the risk, they can capture the foot traffic and the commuters." Once large developments moved in, the spinoff effects could invigorate the avenue's small-business community for years, he added.
The formula has worked in other parts of the city. In 1981, the Hechinger Co. turned a decaying section of Northeast at 17th Street and Benning Road into a $12 million complex of 40 stores "that are now very successful," said John W. Hechinger Jr., the hardware firm's real estate manager.
"With Hechinger Mall, no conventional developer and no lender would contemplate doing anything in that area" before his company came in, he said. "The same could be said of Georgia Avenue. We think a lot of that area . . . . but at present we have no plans to expand our store there."
In his study, however, Henry targeted the Missouri Avenue intersection, where Hechinger owns one store and another nearby building, as the prime site for a new commercial center.
McBride, 53, who has owned his trophy store for six years, is pinning his future on the arrival of new and larger firms along Georgia Avenue. Budget cuts have eroded spending by local schools, which he once supplied with hundreds of trophies a year. Now, he said, he has virtually no trade.
"Some days, when I get one customer in here, I wonder whether it's worth it to open my door," he said, citing the $460 theft insurance he pays each month. "When big business comes, small business'll bounce back," McBride added optimistically. "It's got to be us both. We can't win without the big fellows."
Mary E. Foster, owner of a carryout food shop on McBride's block, keeps her store open 13 hours a day to attract customers. "I hope the street does a turnaround," she said. "We're hoping that it will." With a steady stream of Metrobus drivers through the door, "the winter hasn't been too bad," she said. "Business could be better, though."
Ten yards up the avenue, Jerome Gwynn worried about the effects of the recession on his liquor business. "I owe a lot of my success to my location," said Gwynn, who grew up on nearby Fifth Street NW. "But with the economy the way it is, I feel like my base could fall out from under me. People have bills to pay now. That comes first."
Indeed, the local economy and the availability of city and federal construction loans may well decide Georgia Avenue's fate, officials said.
"The kinds of projects the avenue needs require subsidies of one kind or another," Clifton Henry said, "whether . . . reduced land values so a firm can build, or government grants.
"But it won't happen with just public expenditure. Unless the private sector really wants to do something about it, the avenue won't change," he said.