Pieces of chocolate cake were there for the taking outside the bakery, as was free popcorn outside Industrial Bank. As Isabel M. Smith spent her Saturday morning browsing at shops along U Street NW, she couldn't resist sampling.
She moved to the neighborhood three years ago, she said, and makes it a point to patronize local businesses.
"If we don't support them, they're not going to succeed as well, especially when they're starting out," she said. "The less empty storefronts, the better off we'll be."
More than 60 businesses along U Street brought their wares outside yesterday for the start of the 14th & U Dog Days of August Sidewalk Sale, a two-day event that attracts thousands of people to the corridor to check out the museums, boutiques, galleries, bars, clubs, theaters and eateries.
Started five years ago in the 1800 block of 14th Street, Dog Days now stretches across 25 adjacent blocks along the U Street corridor.
Scott Pomeroy, executive director of the 14th and U Main Street Initiative, said many Washingtonians have yet to discover all of the area's amenities.
"They hear about the changes," Pomeroy said. "But they don't know what all's here. There are so many new restaurants and others that have moved into the area."
While visitors were encouraged to support the area's businesses, a two-hour guided walking tour titled "Before Harlem There Was U Street" reminded them about the street's rich history as a thriving black mecca.
Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial, has watched the ebb and flow of old and new businesses and housing change the neighborhood from a predominantly black area to a more mixed one.
Last week, the owners of Sisterspace and Books, a black-owned bookstore, were evicted from the store after a long and contentious fight with property owners. On Friday, the nationally known furniture store Storehouse Inc. announced it would open a store in the neighborhood, joining other upscale chains such as Starbucks and Whole Foods.
"There's no rent control for businesses," Smith said. "It's a big deal around here."
But he also said he's happy to see the area attracting tourists and Washingtonians from other parts of the city.
Amid rubber tree plants and a bunch of curly willows outside her store, Stacie Lee Banks, 41, hoped to lure new customers to Lee's Flower & Card Shop on U Street. The shop has been in her family for four generations.
"U Street is changing, but our customer base has stayed the same," Banks said. "We just hope [new customers] will venture in and see what we have to offer."
Anteneh Mekonen has learned that lesson. He has operated a small carryout in the 1100 block of U Street for the past four years. Business was good enough, he said with a smile, that he recently was able to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring.
But with new condominiums changing the demographics of the neighborhood, Mekonen, 30, thought a new name, some fresh paint and a few changes in the menu would help sales.
So eight months ago, he changed the carryout's name to Cravings, painted the walls peach and started serving New York steak wraps, a favorite among patrons, for $5.49.
"With all the condos they're building, we had no choice," Mekonen said. "We wanted prices to stay affordable." And, "instead of fried chicken, we have rotisserie chicken. We're trying to be healthier."
Cynthia Henry, 55, of Milwaukee and her daughter stopped at an outdoor display in front of DC Footwear in the 1400 block of U.
Henry, visiting relatives with her daughter, said she was disappointed that some black-owned businesses are leaving, but will continue to visit the street because of its historical significance.
"Sisterspace used to be my favorite place to come," Henry said.
At the museum, Smith told tourists how the area was developed by African Americans after the Civil War. "The new U Street is going to be more affluent," he said. "You're going to see a new generation of businesses." But he vowed that his museum would remain.
"We'll preserve the culture. We'll always be here."