Singer Edward (Chyps) Davis danced and strutted his way across the brick plaza of the Gallery Place mall in downtown Washington to the blare of recorded music. Nearby, tourists and office workers munched on Grover Price's North Carolina-style barbecue cooked on oversized charcoal grills.
The pedestrian and vendor mall was pulsating with people once again. Activity has been at a minimum there in the past two years since the Hecht Co. store closed at the Seventh Street end of the mall.
Opened 11 years ago as a permanent home for about 20 of the city's street vendors, the mall used to be well-traveled. Many of the customers were shoppers who traipsed between downtown's two major department stores, Hecht's and the Woodward and Lothrop store at 11th Street.
With the closing of Hecht's, many of the vendors left the mall for busier parts of town. David Williams was one of them. Now he is back as a clothing vendor and the founder of the recently formed Open Air Vendors Association, which is responsible for the new activity on the mall. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday for the past month, the association members have filled the mall with entertainment, food and their various wares.
"We see this as a way to bring people back to the mall," Williams said. "It is a gamble for all of us. So far we aren't doing very well because no one knows we are here. But we are looking down the road and we expect this will be very big in a couple of years."
When the mall opened in 1976, the F Street part was designed as a two-block-long park with a fountain and a small waterfall. The adjoining 500 block of Eighth Street NW was reserved for the vendors. In only a few years, the park was marred with graffiti and the water system broke. Local business owners said they have been unable to get the city to restore the park. It is in the F Street part of the mall that the minifestival is operating.
Not everyone in the neighborhood is happy about the new life on the mall, but at noon Friday about 100 people were enjoying the food and the music.
Williams said food stands offering barbecued pork and fried fish as well as the entertainment are allowed under a special-event license, similar to ones issued for Potomac Riverfest, Adams-Morgan Day and the Hispanic Festival. It is renewed each week and for the last month has covered each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
On Friday, a modest crowd applauded Davis' original songs, and lines had formed at the three food stands. Price, who is veteran of several city festivals, was stirring a large kettle of chopped pork and offering an optimistic view of the mall's future.
"Washington is an international city and we would like to present a variety of ethnic food and art work," he said. "We want to put up a big striped tent so people can sit to eat out of the sun. Maybe we can get the tourist buses to stop here."
The owner of Champion Carry Out, who gave his name as Mr. Kim, said that initially he supported the association but had since found he had lost customers for his hot dogs and hamburgers.
Rose Ann Yonkers, owner of the Hi Boy Donut Shop, said, "It was extra quiet around here after Hecht's closed. I get a few customers who come in for sodas now."
And the acting director of the National Portrait Gallery, which borders the mall, said no one had consulted the gallery.
"It is a space which is vital to all of us," said Marc Pachter. "We have yet to determine if the smoke from the barbecue affects the appreciation of American history."