The internal machinations of gentrification can be difficult to watch. If you're not familiar with how the redevelopment sausage is made, the struggle for DC’s urban turf often begins in nondescript rooms across the city, with faces that many residents might not recognize. It's not always a matter of displacement followed by replacement.
Rather, it’s often a slow deliberate process that can equally as painful: A playground renovation here, a liquor license dispute there. By the time you look up, everything is changing hands, for better or worse. Unless one group fights back.
Such a battle unfolded last week on U Street at the Thurgood Marshall Community Center, where social justice is literally written all over the walls. Adorned with images of black and African leaders dating back centuries, it seemed the perfect place for a popular black-owned restaurant to defend itself against claims of being a disruption to community peace and order.
For years, residents of the surrounding area have levied complaints against The Islander, a Caribbean restaurant that has called U street home for since 1997- and been in DC for more than 40 years. The restaurant’s neighbors claimed that patrons have been a constant source of undue noise, be it from the patio, or from equipment on the roof, and argued at a Tuesday night hearing that the restaurant should not have its liquor license renewed.
Immediately, the meeting was contentious. In a somewhat surreal scene, the supporters of the restaurant, who were largely black, hovered over the mainly white committee who sat at a long board room table. But, the racial divide was just one part of a battle for fairness that plays out every day in Washington.
"Is everybody here for ABC Committee meeting ANC 1B?" Jeremy Leffler, who chairs the ANC 1B liquor license committee, said incredulously. "Wow."
“You didn't expect us to show up, like this, did you?" a supporter of The Islander said.
Over the next hour, The Islander and its allies argued that residents’ complaints over what constitutes a noise violation were unreasonable- especially in a neighborhood that has been packed with late night restaurants bars and clubs for years. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents said that they have tried to work with the restaurant to no avail.
“We've tried to work with the establishment for over eight years since our building was built,” said Joseph Howlett, who organized the protest from neighbors in the nearby 2020 Lofts. "We've worked with Jim Graham, we've worked with [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs], we've worked with [the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration], we've worked with the Metropolitan Police Department. This establishment has responded to nothing but fines. They won't respond to us, we try talking to them and they tell us you shouldn't have moved in next to a restaurant."
"Well, that's true," Bonita Billups, a supporter of The Islander interjected.
"Then you shouldn't be in the community," Howlett said.
E. Gail Anderson Holness, commissioner of ANC 1B11, led the charge for defenders of the bar, owned by the family of Trinidad native Addie Green.
"I'm looking at this protest recommendation on peace, order and quiet. I'm reading this caveat that these are establishments that neighbors are currently upset with, who have a long history of being a bad actor. …What is deemed a long history and what makes them a bad actor?” Holness asked. "Who determines who's a bad actor, and do we determine the number of years that a neighbor has been there, to make these kind of determinations of a long history?"
Things quickly devolved into an argument. Leffler, in a dispute with Holness over the validity of citations against The Islander, did his best to take control of the meeting. "I'm bringing this to order. You are not recognized right now, Miss Holness," Leffler said, with a gesture described plainly as 'talk to the hand.' "That's how we gonna do it, huh?" Holness replied.
The committee eventually voted in favor of the residents. But not before Ward 8 council member and former Mayor Marion S. Barry (D) showed up and gave his blessing to the restaurant that started near Howard University.
But the battle wasn’t over. The committee vote was taken to the full ANC 1B meeting on Thursday night. That’s where the protest attempt unraveled. Neighbors to the bar were drowned out by a proverbial family of people, some in hardhats and headwraps, that stated their claim for The Islander.
"We have here a family institution, that when I was at Howard University, Mrs. Green would feed us if we would do our work inside her establishment when we had no money," an Islander supporter said of the restauran’t owner. "This institution hasn't had anyone shot in front of it."
Meanwhile, a local pastor even offered his church up as a location for the two sides to mediate their dispute.
The commission finally voted against the protest, to applause from the crowd: The ANC committee voted in favor of a motion to support The Islander's liquor license renewal, on the grounds that the community support and longstanding reputation of the place outweighed what the commission said amounted to minor complaints of neighbors.
The story likely isn’t over. The resident group is almost guaranteed to continue to raise their concerns, but the regulars of the Islanders felt a sense of relief.
But last week's proceedings were a small victory for every business that made a commitment to the city before it was popular to be here. The result was a reminder that just because your new neighbors don't like you, doesn't mean they have a right to discredit you. A lesson that, these days in D.C., everyone could stand to learn from.