For motorists barreling down Interstate 295, the brick and glass building on Kenilworth Avenue NE with a big "grand opening" sign looks like just another convenience store.
But for the 3,000 people who live in this neighborhood squeezed between the highway and the Anacostia River, the store is a link to the outside world. It means that residents of this once drug-torn area newly rescued by Nation of Islam patrols won't have to traverse the highway by way of a lonely footbridge just to buy milk, a loaf of bread or a newspaper. It means they won't have to walk more than a mile to the Giant Food on Minnesota Avenue NE to buy a pack of gum.
"This store is a blessing for a lot of people," said Gloria Carmeron, who lives in the nearby Mayfair Mansions apartments. "It's a safe place to send kids if they want a snack. Before, if you needed a loaf of bread, you had to walk all the way over the bridge. Now you just walk up the street."
"The store is an oasis in the middle of a desert," said Tom Harman, a business consultant who is helping the new store's owner get started.
It has been two years since the neighborhood has had a convenience anything like this. That's when Southland Corp. officials closed and boarded up the 7-Eleven that had been on this site because, they said then, "resources could be effectively utilized elsewhere."
"I missed the store, yes I did," said Annie Jones, a senior citizen carrying home a loaf of bread, soda and a can of oven cleaner she had just purchased at the new store, now called "Circle Seven Express Market."
Emmanuel Tesfay, 31, an entrepreneur from Clinton, who was an employee at the old 7-Eleven, is opening the new store. He says he "wants to make money" and thinks he can turn a profit -- if the city lets him sell wine and beer along with canned goods, snack foods and lottery tickets.
A church is planned for the empty lot next door, and Tesfay said he hopes the city hurries and approves his liquor license before the church is built. District regulations bar businesses next to churches from obtaining new liquor licenses.
The old 7-Eleven had security cameras and overhead mirrors. But Tesfay said he didn't want such surveillance equipment because he didn't want his customers to feel spied upon. "I wanted them to have freedom," he said.
Already, he said, residents view the store as "their store" and want to protect it, not steal from it: The first weekend's inventory check showed no significant loses to theft. Of course, Nation of Islam patrol members regularly patronize the store, and to encourage them Tesfay gives them as much free soda and coffee as they want, he said.
Admittedly, someone did crack one of the store's big windows -- a teenager who failed to win a prize at a dance contest he held at the grand opening party Saturday. But Tesfay said neighborhood boys have helped him track down the the culprit, and he's going to talk with the youth's parents.
"The kids don't see it as my store -- they see it as their store," he said.
Tesfay said he has hired local teenagers to work in his store, and he also has promised the neighborhood young people they can set up a car wash in his parking lot. He said he's going to donate $100 a week to a local youth empowerment group called "Young People on the Rise."
"I like this neighborhood," he said as he rang sales on the cash register. "It's the best neighborhood you could find."