“Historic Vibe, Modern Edge,” reads the sidewalk placard around the corner for “The Batley,” a brick apartment complex designed to evoke the neighborhood’s old warehouses. Like other new high-rises in the neighborhood, the building is flush with amenities, including a saltwater pool, Peloton bikes and a pet spa.
“Am I supposed to cry?” Kim, 64, asked as he wrote a few last checks in his cubbyhole of an office at the Trio Supply Co., a market staple since the 1950s that closed this month. “An old man goes. A new man comes.”
The thicket of new towers, restaurants and shops at Union Market — 45 acres sandwiched between Florida and New York avenues NE — is what D.C. officials envisioned more than a decade ago when they reimagined a neighborhood they thought had deteriorated and was ripe for redevelopment.
Now a new way of life, and sense of place, is overtaking a setting that for nearly a century was a singular part of the city’s culture: a rugged, working-class pocket where generations of immigrants and their descendants arose before dawn to sell what householders, restaurateurs and retailers needed to buy.
Visitors can still find bargains on clothing, beauty supplies and meat. But those are overshadowed by other options, including a Michelin-starred restaurant, coffee bars, distilleries and two-bedrooms that rent for as much as $4,200 a month. There are outdoor spin classes, ping-pong tables and boutiques selling $3,900 Turkish rugs, $638 Panama hats, and $60 sweatshirts bearing the words, “Power to the People’s Pockets.”
That tomato wholesaler once on Fifth Street NE? The spot is now occupied by the Emerson Collective, a philanthropic and advocacy group led by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Her real estate company bought the two-story building in 2016 for $5.9 million.
“We never had anything like this in this part of the city. People wouldn’t recognize it,” said Steven Scales, 46, who grew up in Northeast and is unemployed, as he walked with a friend on Morse Street NE. “I love all the new buildings. I love the architecture. It’s a good place to sit and watch people.”
But others are repelled. Tom Mitchell, a trade association spokesman who lives nearby, fears the neighborhood is a replica of other gleaming enclaves that have recast the city over the past 20 years.
“It’s all glass and concrete,” said Mitchell, 36, after shopping at A. Litteri, an Italian grocery that has operated at the market since 1926. “This neighborhood was a big melting pot, and now it’s turning into the Navy Yard — as sterile as a doctor’s office.”
Longtime wholesalers, many hammered by a decline in business during the pandemic, join their patrons in wondering what will remain.
“Just by looking at the buildings, you know it’s expensive. Where are they going to go?” asked Isatu Camara, 45, a nurse who lives in Petworth. She cooks her native African dishes after spending $800 a month on goat meat and other provisions at a Fourth Street wholesaler.
Across the street are the shops Camara says she never frequents.
“What is Lululemon?” she asked of the athletic apparel chain store, which opened last fall near La Cosecha, a high-end Latin-themed market. Outside, people sipped drinks and ate at tables spread out on a strip of artificial grass.
Uncertainty vs. community
Han Zhuang stood behind the counter of his wholesale emporium, every square inch occupied by something for sale: $2 belts here, $4 Baltimore Oriole mugs over there, and $10 “Black Queen” T-shirts piled atop a table.
Anthony Patrick, 47, a street vendor, paid $20 for a bedazzled purse he would price at $60 or $80. “Need some bling to attract people to my table,” he said.
Zhuang took over ANA Wholesale in 2008, but he has worked at the store since immigrating from China in 1990, when the neighborhood was known as the “Florida Avenue Market.” His future grew more tenuous last fall when Edens, a development company that has bought more than a dozen parcels in the neighborhood, paid $10 million for several adjoining properties — including two that Zhuang leases.
In the past, Zhuang said, he signed a 10-year lease. His most recent renewal, signed before Edens took over, was for 18 months. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
A few doors away is another Edens-owned storefront, where Jack Zheng has operated Guang Da Group for 27 years. His inventory includes African-style fabrics, scarves, sunglasses, and pink caps celebrating Kamala Harris as the first Black U.S. vice president.
“They’re not saying how long,” Zheng, 60, said of what Edens has told him about his future at the address. His business relies on proximity to fellow wholesalers, he explained, an arrangement difficult to maintain if he follows others to the suburbs. “I have to find a job,” he said of his future. “It feels bad. Very bad. No job, no money.”
Edens, which started in South Carolina and now bases its regional headquarters at Union Market, has developed 125 shopping centers nationwide, including in Boston, Dallas and Miami. Its projects in the Washington region include City Vista, in D.C.’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, and the Mosaic District in Merrifield, Va.
The company touts itself as a creator of community, declaring on its website, “Our work is bigger than real estate; we are in the business of humanity.” Jodie W. McLean, the company’s chief executive, began investing in the Union Market area in 2007. “We loved what was happening over here, the texture of this district, the authenticity of it, the history of it,” she said as she walked the neighborhood.
Edens controls 42 percent of Union Market’s land, according to the company, though McLean declined to put a dollar value on the investment. According to land records, the company has spent at least $130 million buying neighborhood properties, including $25 million on the Union Market building, which was erected in 1967. Once known as the D.C. Farmer’s Market, a low-cost grocery that drew shoppers reliant on public assistance, it is now a food hall where choices include $14 hamburgers, $15 cocktails, and a dozen oysters for $33.
Steve Boyle, Edens’s chief development officer, said that the company wants the remade neighborhood to be welcoming and that food has played a key role in inviting people “around the table.” Of 111 tenant businesses in the Union Market district, 64 are “minority or women-owned,” said Kelley McCormick, a company spokesperson.
McLean highlighted the “Gift Shop,” a store leasing in an Edens property that is operated by a Black-owned marketing firm and sells wares made by Black designers, including the “Power to the People’s Pockets” sweatshirts. “We’re trying to do this in a way that’s really inclusive, that brings the community with us,” McLean said.
But whether the relatively small number of remaining wholesalers will be able to stay is an open question. The uncertainty is most pointed for those who rent, though wholesalers who own their properties also worry about adjusting to the neighborhood’s changing ecosystem.
“Everybody’s uncomfortable,” said Jen Cha, 55, whose family has owned JC Enterprises, a produce wholesaler on Fifth Street, for 30 years. “It’s all about the parking — what’s the plan for the future? Who do you call to find out?”
Edens has no immediate plans for the properties Zhuang and Zheng occupy on Fourth Street, next to a vacant parcel the company bought in 2017 and across from another warehouse it owns. The tenant, another wholesaler, has a month-to-month lease.
“We’re in a ‘Let’s see where this evolves in the next phase,’ ” Boyle said. “You have a lot of new buildings that are showing up. We’re in the real estate business. I just can’t tell you what it’s going to be one day.”
Yet, it’s the wholesalers and the diverse range of shoppers they draw, combined with the new attractions, that create a unique atmosphere. Korey Ferguson was drawn by that mix when he moved to Fourth Street NE from Ohio in 2019.
“It just felt like there was more life here than other neighborhoods, and not just nightlife,” said Ferguson, 35, a product design consultant.
He enjoys the newer businesses. But he also picks up vegetables from the grocer across the street and kitchen supplies from a wholesaler around the corner. “I’m sure some of those older places won’t be here. I can see the handwriting on the wall,” he said. “I wish there was a way for all of it to coexist.”
'Connection to the past'
Before Union Market, the city’s wholesalers assembled at the Center Market, downtown, which was razed in 1931 to make way for the National Archives. When Union Terminal Market opened that year, it was dominated by Jewish, Italian and Greek wholesalers, groups eventually succeeded by African, Chinese and Korean immigrants.
By the early 2000s, as a Metro station opened on New York Avenue NE, city officials and developers began to push for a makeover, following a trend set in New York and later imitated in Chicago, where wholesale districts were overhauled as demand for land soared and food distribution was modernized.
David K. O’Neil, a public market consultant, said the redevelopment of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and other locales provides new housing, jobs and tax revenue. The cost, he said, is “you lose continuity and connection to the past.”
“This is a struggle cities are having around the world,” he said. “Many markets are at risk. But as cities lose their markets, they lose their character. What are cities without their character?”
A 2009 study by the D.C. Office of Planning set the stage for a mix of new retail and plans for more than 4,000 mostly market-rate apartments. Many would be developed by the market’s neighbor, Gallaudet University, which owns several large parcels.
Eight years later, the D.C. Council approved $82 million for infrastructure improvements, including parking. Preservationists persuaded the city to designate a large swath of Fourth and Fifth streets as historic to protect the old warehouses, although the regulations do not dictate use.
Another obstacle to a complete overhaul are the remaining wholesalers who own their buildings.
“As long as people want to eat, I’m going to stay,” said Houshang Momenian, 75, whose Fourth Street butcher shop is often crowded with Africans buying goat meat. “Even if they give me $5 million for my property, where are we going? There’s not much you can buy with $5 million.”
Jennifer and Sung Hoon Cho, Korean immigrants, have owned a restaurant supply business in the market for nearly three decades, earning enough to send two children to James Madison University. Their landlord on Fourth Street NE offered them a month-to-month lease before selling to Edens in 2012, said their son, Alex Cho, who helps manage their business. Two years after taking over, Edens “kicked us out,” the younger Cho said. “We had a month warning. It was very scary.”
The space is now rented by Blue Bottle Coffee, a Nestle-owned chain store.
The Chos paid $1.6 million for another property a block over and reopened. Not long after, Alex Cho said, an Edens representative asked his parents whether they wanted to sell their new place. Their answer was no, Cho said.
Boyle, the Edens executive, said the company gave the Chos “the appropriate notification” when their lease expired. He also said he was unaware of his company’s inquiry about the Cho’s new property.
Cho’s parents are unsure about the future but don’t want to retire, no matter the long workdays and the neighborhood’s changes. Alex Cho can’t even persuade them to vacation. “It’s like talking to a brick wall,” he said. “This is what they created. All they know is work.”
Heading to the suburbs
Around the corner, the Hartman Meat Co. sign still hangs on the warehouse where Bill Hartman ran the business his grandfather started downtown before moving to Union Market in the early 1930s.
Several years ago, after Edens bought the building, Hartman moved to a warehouse in Hyattsville, Md., a short drive from other market expats. Edens leased his former home to St. Anselm, the restaurant opened by dining impresario Stephen Starr.
As much as he appreciates his new location, Hartman misses the market, where “you just walked out your door and talked to your neighbors.” Yet whatever resentment he harbors, he said, is aimed at the city, not at Edens or other developers.
“It was the city that got rid of us. They didn’t want us,” he said, adding that he takes no solace in the market’s designation as historic. “Buildings aren’t history,” he said. “We’re the history. You’re killing the people who are the history.”
Hartman still visits old friends at Union Market. His weekly rounds sometimes included the Trio Supply Co., until Raymond Kim shut it down. Kim also headed to the suburbs, taking a job as a salesman at Spectrum Foods, another wholesaler that left Union Market and operates in Landover, Md.
Before closing Trio, Kim sold his delivery van and forklift and gave away four compressors. In his office, he packed his composition books, in which he had recorded each sale in a minuscule scrawl discernible only to him.
He emptied his slab of a desk and threw out a half-dozen “Seasons Greetings” cards taped to the inside of his window. “Thirteen years of dust,” he said, before yanking down the front gate for a last time and driving away.