On a lovely, tree-lined street in a fast-changing part of Washington, the empty storefront at 225 hardly stands out. On Upshur Street NW, vacant shops are as common as Starbucks on K Street. But as he has nearly every day for three years, Ken Rubotzky rides his bike to the bakery at 225, unlocks the door and doesn't bake cakes.
Instead of making mouthwatering desserts, Ken hunches over his computer, generating an endless stream of e-mails to get District agencies to let him open his business.
But this is not one more tale of a Dickensian journey through the cobwebbed warrens of the District bureaucracy. No, this is a story about a neighborhood that figured out how to hack its way through The Government That Says No. The Torta Bakery, which may yet open someday in Petworth, is evidence that in Washington, it just might take a village to bake a cake.
Back up to 2002, when Ken, a computer programmer, and his girlfriend, Joanne Thelmo, a lawyer, decided that Washington is dessert-deprived, a city of good restaurants with cakes that don't measure up. Ken would open a bakery, "a local place without a bulletproof barrier separating us from the customers."
Ken, 43, traveled to California to study with master bakers. He took a gelato-making course with Italian experts in North Carolina. And because he had more passion than money, he picked up a vacant storefront from the city for a song -- $120,000. The previous owner, a restaurateur, fell behind on his taxes, and the city stepped in.
"When we came here, we had the boys on the step selling drugs, gang graffiti on the walls in the alley, dealers, shootings, feuds," Ken recalls.
The city promised to pull the shop from its troubled properties list and get him going. Instead, the authorities threw up one hurdle after another.
Ken had to pay thousands in utility debts racked up by the previous owner. Then the city declared his property vacant, subjecting him to the higher tax rate used to discourage abandonment.
Weeks turned into months, and polite phone calls turned into frustrated visits to city offices. At one point, the mayor's command center took Ken's request for help and classified his case as "abandoned automobile."
After a year of being told he didn't have the right papers, Ken found himself downtown, chasing a bureaucrat to the ladies' room door.
Ken distributed a log of hundreds of contacts with the city. D.C. Council members took up his cause. The Office of Tax and Revenue sent him to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which -- you guessed it -- sent him back to the tax office.
The tax people said his utility bills were too low, so his property must be vacant. Ken explained that his utilities were low because the city wouldn't list the property as commercial, so he couldn't open. Ken gave up and paid the higher tax bill. Still, no progress. Finally, last month, he vented on the neighborhood Web site, petworthnews.blogs.com.
Within two hours, his neighbors leapt into action.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Joseph Martin led the charge: "I'm tired of empty streets, closed storefronts, people telling me they're afraid to walk outside at night. If we're not willing to go to bat for ourselves, then enjoy the status quo."
In 24 hours, dozens of residents of the upper Georgia Avenue area contacted city officials. One day later, the mayor's office and other city agencies called Ken. An inspector went to see the property. "We heard them," says Ben Lorigo, D.C.'s deputy chief financial officer.
Now Ken stands one bathroom fan away from his occupancy permit. And the tax office says it will try to get his higher tax payment refunded: "We like money, so we want Mr. Rubotzky up and running and generating sales tax," says Maryann Young, spokesman for the chief financial officer.
"It's been one little baker against this army of civil servants," Ken says.
People stood up for the baker because they know small businesses can help take a neighborhood back from drug dealers and bureaucrats.
"Petworth News has become a great vehicle for rallying support," Martin says. "It shouldn't take so much effort to break through the agencies' appalling indifference, but if this is what we have to do, we'll do it."