It was yet another fancy-pants event in Washington — red carpet, velvet ropes, fur coats, earpiece guardians of the guest list.
Ho hum? Yawn? Not this time.
“We’ve waited a long time, a long time for this,” said Barbara Clark, in her full-length fur coat, just outside the party room in Southeast Washington, where guests were chanting “Barry! Barry! Barry!” nearly five years after Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry’s funeral.
What? What does Marion Barry, mayor for 16 years and city councilman for almost 16 more, have to do with this?
See, we’re not in any of the glitzy places of nouveau D.C., no million-dollar micro condos, no new, single-word precious restaurant with small plates and huge prices.
This party was happening in historic Anacostia, in Ward 8, in Barry’s old domain. It was what he wanted for decades, for Ward 8 to have a piece of what the rest of the nation’s capital had.
In this case, it’s the newest Busboys and Poets, a local restaurant chain that is known not only for its vegan tofu coconut bites, but for the coffee house music, open mike events, poetry slams, party spaces and book store.
“I know that for a lot of people that live on the other side of the river, this may happen on a regular basis,” Andy Shallal, owner of the chain, told the crowd packed into the new space Wednesday night. “A new restaurant that opens, a new place and it gets kind of, you know, like, it’s what you would expect.”
D.C. has had so much boom that yes, new restaurants, new businesses, new apartments are getting a little old.
Who can keep track of what new places are opening? Every time I drive around the city in places that aren’t on my daily path, I’m in awe of the change. I remember corners because I was there covering a midnight vice bust or trying to get cops to talk to me at a homicide scene, and now it’s serving elderberry craft cocktails for $14 a glass.
But it’s no secret that east of the Anacostia River, where so many of the city’s African American residents live, the glitz comes to an abrupt end.
Every year or so, there’s a story about changes in Wards 7 and 8. More development! More condos! More Airbnb listings!
But besides a few independent places that have opened up, where were the big businesses?
I asked Shallal five years ago when he was running for mayor himself when he was going to bring one of his restaurants east of the Anacostia. He said it wasn’t time.
That was after another west-of-the-river business, grocery store Yes! Organic, had opened in Ward 8. It was an oasis of fresh, healthy food in a part of town long known as food desert.
And it was expensive. And it closed two years after it opened.
“When you can get 10 chicken nuggets for $1.35 somewhere else, it’s hard to shop there,” said Clark, who has lived in Ward 8 for decades and is one of the ward’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. “Part of it was education, nutrition education. But mostly, it was just too expensive.”
The same thing happened when an upscale restaurant, Ray’s: The Steaks at East River, ventured into neighboring Ward 7 in 2011. After a year, it closed for renovations that never happened.
In 2016, Walmart, which had promised to open a store at the Skyland Town Center, delivered another blow. It pulled out of the deal, citing new calculations they did about the viability of a store in a mostly black, working-class part of the nation’s capital.
By then, Shallal had already signed a lease for a space along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, in the heart of the historic part of Washington that has long struggled to attract development and commerce. He endured five years of delays and issues with the building to get the restaurant ready for its debut.
On Tuesday, the place looked like a construction site. Building materials all over, workers scrambling to get tables and chairs into the door.
And on Wednesday, on what would’ve been Marion Barry’s 83rd birthday, the red carpet, the velvet ropes and the hope came. Barry may have gone to jail in disgrace after a drug arrest, but he’s still a hero here. And Shallal announced the party room would be named for Barry and 95 percent of the employees he’s hired come from Wards 7 and 8, east of the river.
Folks took selfies with the signs on the windows. “It’s a beautiful thing!” one woman said, and there were hugs and handshakes and high heels on this tiny part of the most impoverished neighborhood in the city.
In a part of town that needs child care and reasonably priced, fresh groceries and affordable housing and safe schools, why on earth should people celebrate because a place selling lamb sliders and red quinoa, a place with poetry slams and a leftie bookstore, opens up?
Shallal had a bit of swagger in him when he told the crowd the media keeps asking him why he decided to build his seventh restaurant in Ward 8.
“My first answer is, why not?” Shallal said.
But reporters weren’t the first to ask Shallal this.
Barry’s widow, Cora Masters Barry, told the crowd she remembers another time — maybe the most significant time — when Shallal faced that question.
“I was sitting at the table at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street about four or five years ago when Marion looked at Andy and said: ‘How come you can’t build one of these over in Ward 8?’ ” she told the crowd.
“I didn’t pay any attention to it because everywhere Marion went, he was always trying to direct people to Ward 8. How come you can’t do this in Ward 8? How come we can’t build that in Ward 8?”
After five years, after other businesses came and failed, after scores of similar places have opened in other parts of the city, after black residents mourned not only Barry but the death of Chocolate City, here was the answer.