It sounds like an urban planner’s grand experiment: Artists and young creatives are drawn to a community with cheap rents and studios. Cool restaurants and bars follow. Living in the neighborhood starts to become desirable for young professionals, who attract more basic shops and services to the area.
Similar cycles of hipsterization and gentrification have played out across the globe, from Brooklyn to Berlin. But in our own back yard, it’s official policy. The Gateway Arts District, hatched in the early 2000s to revitalize the Rhode Island Avenue NE corridor, spans the communities of Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville. It includes public-private partnerships that offer below-market rents and studio space to artists, as well as standard units at market prices.
Is it working? So far, so good.
Hyattsville is in the midst of a growth boom. In the past year, the city has welcomed the well-established Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, which moved from Silver Spring; the nonprofit Art Works Now, which relocated from nearby Mount Ranier; and the first Pizzeria Paradiso location in Maryland, all within a few blocks of one another in the century-old downtown strip. Meanwhile, more established businesses, including Vigilante Coffee and the restaurant Franklins, are seeing new faces stop in.
Mike Franklin, who opened Franklins in 1992, when many nearby storefronts were empty, calls the evolution of the town an “organic change. There’s always been a lot of artists who live around here. It’s a funky, close-in neighborhood with good housing stock.” But Franklin, who sits on the board of directors of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, also says, “I feel like the last year has been huge. There’s a critical mass [of new businesses] now, and it’s a different kind of dynamic.”
Hyattsville still has empty storefronts along the main drag, but there are more reasons than ever to linger: Take a sewing class at Three Little Birds (5132 Baltimore Ave.) or browse the artsy notecards and vintage jackets at Green Owl Boutique (5303 Baltimore Ave.) before heading for a Senegalese dinner or meeting friends for a pint at a bar.
Here are a few ways to explore what the new Hyattsville has to offer.
Busboys and Poets
If you’ve been to Busboys and Poets in Washington or Shirlington, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the local chain’s fourth location, set among townhouses and apartments in the Shoppes at Arts District at the northern end of the downtown business district. Colorful murals and paintings hang on the walls, hip-hop and soul play from the speakers, and a portion of the airy room has been turned into a bookstore full of progressive literature. (The table with an overstuffed couch near the front door seems like the perfect place to relax with a new purchase.) In the back is the Howard Zinn room, named for the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” with a stage used for music and special events. As at other Busboys locations, there’s a weekly open-mic poetry session (Thursday) that fills quickly. The monthly Live From Busboys Talent Showcase open mic welcomes musicians and comedians as well. Families come on Monday mornings for Rise and Rhyme, which has music and storytelling for children ages 5 and under.
The crowd is diverse and the vibe is lively, but this Busboys has some of the same shortcomings as other restaurants: Service drags and prices seem high ($9 for one pint of a local craft beer?). The broad menu is loaded with options for pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans, and the 100-seat patio is awfully appealing when you’re looking for a brunch spot to accommodate a variety of diets.
5331 Baltimore Ave., Suite 104. 301-779-2787. busboysandpoets.com.
Several months ago, co-owner Mamadou Fall installed a massive sign across the front of his modest storefront on Baltimore Avenue. He wanted to make sure no customer would ever again mistake the lounge next door for his exceptional Senegalese restaurant.
“Sometimes, they’d just go there, and they’d ask for thiebou dienne,” says Fall, a native of Dakar.
If you want to sample one of Senegal’s defining dishes, you must stop at Chez Dior for the thiebou dienne, a stuffed slab of fish served with rice stained with the same tamarind-tomato sauce that flavors everything else on the plate, including the soft-cooked vegetables. When dabbed with even a microscopic amount of the Jamaican-hot-pepper condiment, the fish will ignite into a full-throated bite, the heat acting as a muffler for the dish’s sweeter, more tart flavors.
You can practically plot the history of the West African nation via chef Binette Seck’s menu: The beignets are remnants of French colonialism (though they’re more savory than the pastries you’ll find in the French Quarter). The nems — spring rolls — are a faint echo of Vietnam (courtesy of the Senegalese soldiers who married Vietnamese women after the first Indochina war). Then there are the many African accents, such as rice and fish, staple ingredients in Senegalese cooking. In a nod to Islam, the dominant religion in Senegal, alcohol is not served, but diners may bring their own beer and wine.
5124 Baltimore Ave. 240-696-5907, chezdior.com.
Franklins Restaurant, Brewery and General Store
After almost 25 years in the center of Hyattsville, Franklins is such a fixture that locals use its prominent neon sign as a landmark. Mike and Debbie Franklin opened a deli and general store in 1992 and then, a decade later, opened a full-service restaurant and Prince George’s County’s first brewpub in the adjacent building. Both sides of the business are thriving. The sprawling general store is still the best place in the Washington area to shop for a birthday or housewarming gift: Where else will you find oven mitts shaped like Darth Vader’s gloves, Edgar Allan Poe bandages, miniature Stretch Armstrong figures, oversize stuffed animals, penny candy and walls of hot sauce and craft beer?
The restaurant side of the operation, meanwhile, has a more airy, warehouse feel, with the brewpub and bar upstairs, the pizza oven and dining room on the ground floor and works by local artists hanging throughout. There are 20 house-made beers on tap, and brewer Mike Roy’s specialties are completely on trend: hoppy IPAs and tart, fruited sour ales, such as the blackberry-based Bramble Blast. The menu has evolved from pizzas and pub basics — the standout from recent visits was sliders made from merguez sausages and topped with tzatziki — but Franklin says the biggest change over time has been “a kid population boom in Hyattsville.” They’ve upgraded the kids menu to make it healthier — grilled chicken and a salmon filet have joined the expected fried chicken tenders and burgers — and “there’s a contingent of kids who love the mussels. I love that.”
5123 Baltimore Ave. 301-927-2740. franklinsbrewery.com.
More than the Whole Foods that opened just outside the city’s boundaries and the Busboys and Poets outlet that added a little boho cred to the Arts District, Pizzeria Paradiso’s debut underscores Hyattsville’s untapped potential as a culinary market. Paradiso founder Ruth Gresser is the first high-profile chef to drop anchor in the ’burb, opening the fourth location of her pizza-and-craft-beer concept. The locals are behaving as if Mario Batali were manning the wood-burning oven nightly.
Speaking of which, the Marra Forni oven — the one with the tricked-out mosaic flame designed by local artist Valerie Theberge — is the centerpiece of that 2,000-square-foot restaurant. The oven turns out beautiful, leopard-spotted rounds, the kind Gresser introduced to Washingtonians way back in 1991. They’re not exactly traditional Neapolitan pies, but they nod in the general direction of Naples, their crusts crispier than those found in Italy.
Whatever pie you order, you can wash it down with a beer from executive beverage director Drew McCormick, who has assembled a draft list that moves from a Belgian fruit beer to a triple IPA from California. There’s even a sour ale from Franklins, which serves as sort of an homage and an apology to the Hyattsville institution just up the road. After all, Paradiso now has the largest rotating draft selection in town.
4800 Rhode Island Ave. 240-467-3210. eatyourpizza.com.
If the local Ethiopian community has an epicenter, it’s in Silver Spring, five miles or so from this colorful East African outpost located in a former Donut Connection. As such, Shagga caters to mostly non-Ethiopian diners, a potential warning flag for authenticity hounds. But chef and co-owner Kelem Lemu makes few concessions to customers: Should you order her kitfo raw, the spiced and buttery ground beef will look as though the meat came straight from the slaughterhouse, not the back of the house.
Opened in 2008, Shagga (Amharic for “good” or “better”) began life as a coffeehouse, but a few months into its existence, Lemu added a concise menu of Ethiopian dishes, drawing heavily on her mother’s cooking back in Tulu Bolo in central Ethiopia. Shagga offers beef, lamb, chicken and fish dishes, but its bestsellers are the vegan and vegetarian preparations, like the tekil gomen, a softened mass of cooked cabbage and carrots, sweet and earthy. In this way, Lemu shares a bond with her customers. Back in Ethiopia, she mostly ate vegetables; meats were reserved for special occasions.
“All meat dishes,” she says, offering a mantra that Americans should repeat, “are a treat.”
6040 Baltimore Ave. 240-296-3030. shaggarestaurant.com.
Vigilante Coffee Company
Located in a former Model T Ford showroom and garage, Vigilante is a specialty-coffee roaster that has established relationships with the vast majority of farmers who sell beans to the company. Founder Chris Vigilante and his team know how almost every bean in their shop is grown, processed, packaged and roasted. They also work with farmers to improve the quality of their crops, which in turn improves the quality of every cup sold at Vigilante.
If the company invests money in its suppliers, it also invests time in its customers. Vigilante is a rare beast: a full-service shop with employees who will take your order and deliver your drink straight to the table, so you can focus on that Excel spreadsheet (or Facebook, whatever).
Pour-overs are Vigilante’s specialty: You can choose from three single-origin beans for your superbly handmade coffee, with a fourth option available from the drip brewer. Should you want an espresso-based drink, Vigilante will rely on its custom blend, built from three beans, two of which are naturally processed to bring out a candied sweetness. The name of the espresso blend? Tin Lizzie, the nickname once bestowed upon the Model T.
4327 Gallatin St. 301-200-3110. vigilantecoffee.com.
Art Works Now
Arts education is integrated with social justice at Art Works Now. Students ages 5 through 12 are introduced to the visual arts through after-school programs and summer camps. Younger children are welcome at some events, including a monthly “Parents Night Out,” where kids make art and watch a movie while Mom and Dad head to a nearby restaurant. Teens and adults are invited to open studio time and pottery classes, and the “Hyattsville is Home” program offers lessons for seniors. The nonprofit foundation has a “commitment to reducing economic barriers to art education,” offering scholarships to students who can’t afford classes.
Founder and executive director Barbara Johnson, who grew up in Hyattsville, launched Art Works Now in nearby Mount Rainier in 2011. Needing a larger space, the nonprofit purchased the current property, the former Marche flower shop, in 2013. After years of wrangling with the county about zoning, and the unfortunate destruction of the building’s greenhouse by a stolen tow truck in 2015, the new, expanded location opened in June.
4800 Rhode Island Ave. 301-454-0808. artworksnow.org.
Pyramid Atlantic Art Center
Pyramid Atlantic is celebrating its first year as an “anchor” of Hyattsville’s Arts District, but it’s hard not to play “What if?” The arts center, founded in 1981, called Silver Spring home from 2002 until early 2016, and if a plan to take over a large space in the renovated Silver Spring Library hadn’t gone awry, it might still be in Montgomery County. But when Pyramid Atlantic, known for its expertise in printing and bookbinding arts, became a free agent, “we were courted by Hyattsville,” says executive director Kate Taylor Davis, and the feeling is mutual: She says she enjoys that Hyattsville is “edgier and funkier than Silver Spring.”
To get to the gallery in Pyramid Atlantic’s 19th-century building — formerly home to a church, bowling alley and movie theater — you walk through a working art factory, past letterpress machines, screen-printing screens, bookbinding presses and darkrooms. The gallery, on the second level, is a beautiful space, with soaring ceilings, picturesque brick arches and sections of crumbling plaster. Exhibitions change every six weeks; the current installation, with 52 pieces celebrating Pyramid’s first year, closes Saturday; an exhibition by post-minimalist artist Joseph Shetler opens Aug. 11.
Pyramid is home to its own artistic community, offering 150 public classes each year and with 24 artists in residence, ranging from bookbinders to “woman who makes custom cowboy boots,” Davis says. However, much of the focus is still on paper-related arts, and in the next few years, “one of the things we want to do is get louder,” Davis says. “We want to be a hub for experiencing art in all its forms,” whether that’s painting, printing or live music.
4318 Gallatin St. 301-608-9101. pyramidatlanticartcenter.org.
The Gateway Arts District is, not surprisingly, loaded with public art. “In the last 13 or 14 years, we’ve added 37 or 38 murals,” says Stuart Eisenberg, the executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation. The 2013 Street Art Initiative added 20 alone. “Some are whole buildings, and some are just 8-by-8,” he says. Other ventures have included members of the community painting murals at the West Hyattsville Metro station and a project that allowed graffiti artists to cover the walls of the abandoned Ginn’s warehouse, which is scheduled to be torn down later this month.
The Hyattsville CDC has an interactive map on its website (hydcd.org) showing dozens of pieces of art: the interactive musical horn sculptures outside the Hyattsville Justice Center; the War of 1812-inspired “Rockets Red Glare” mural on an overpass crossing the railroad tracks; 1930s paintings depicting county history inside the town’s landmark post office. Among the most interesting: Hyattsville is home to “eight or nine” bird sculptures that Prince George’s County adopted as a public art program in the early 2000s, and “people do treasure hunts trying to find them all,” Eisenberg says. The most prominent is Vainglorious Bluebird, a striking bird covered with hundreds of pieces of sharp sheet metal and mounted atop a brick pedestal in Centennial Park (Baltimore Avenue and Hamilton Street).
And although it’s not in downtown proper, Muppets fans will want to make a pilgrimage to Magruder Park, where a large eight-sided planter is decorated with sculptural reliefs showing characters from “Sam and Friends,” the Washington, D.C., television series that introduced Kermit to the world. Jim Henson graduated from Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School in 1954, and his original puppets made their debut on “Sam and Friends” one year later. (The memorial is next to the Magruder Park Recreation Center, 3911 Hamilton St., about a half-mile west of Franklins.)
Sue Mondeel bills herself as the “senior dumpster diva” at Tanglewood Works, and her Baltimore Avenue shop is full of vintage furniture that she has “upcycled,” from antique dressers painted in a riot of colors to retro-cool midcentury modern tables. But Tanglewood Works, which launched as a pop-up in October before becoming permanent this year, is also full of great home wares and gifts: coasters printed with vintage wallpaper patterns; place mats with “chalk fabric” to let kids draw on them; coffee mugs printed with images of cassette tapes; and colorful, funky earrings and necklaces. The shop also offers classes in painting furniture using natural chalk and clay paint, upholstering cushions and other DIY know-how, plus meet-the-artist nights.
5132 Baltimore Ave. 415-595-9839. tanglewoodworks.com. Closed Monday and Tuesday.