For a man who is about to lose his business to the unstoppable forces of neighborhood gentrification, Jose Luis Guzman is remarkably upbeat.
“I’m excited about the future — my future and the city’s future,” Guzman said. “It’s changing for the better, which is good. Change is great.”
Guzman, 41, is the owner of Louis’ Restaurant & Carry Out, which has operated since 1988 at Fenwick and Okie streets NE in now-gentrifying Ivy City. An immigrant to the United States from El Salvador, he got a job at the restaurant when he was 18, in 1993, and bought the business in 2004. For years, it was one of the only places to eat in the small, struggling neighborhood: an oasis in a food desert.
He stuck it out through tough times, such as the closing of the Hecht’s warehouse next door. His regulars — neighbors, police officers, bus drivers, Metro employees — kept coming to the lime-green corner restaurant with high booths for his egg sandwiches and friendly banter. When the neighborhood got rough, he was robbed “so many times.”
“One time, they got me when I was locking the gate, and they actually hit me in the face and knocked me out,” Guzman said. He stayed open.
When Douglas Development began turning the Hecht’s warehouse into apartments, construction workers came to the carryout for lunch, but they also closed the streets around his restaurant and took all of the parking spots, making it difficult for his other customers to come. Still, he stayed open. And he saw that better times were ahead.
But not for him.
On Wednesday, Nov. 23, Guzman will close the restaurant’s doors for the final time, but not before giving away free food to all of his neighbors, which include a homeless shelter next door. His landlords are doubling his rent, he says, after he made an offer to buy the building that was declined. (Several attempts to reach the building’s owners for comment were unsuccessful; no one at their number picked up.)
“We kept this neighborhood alive for so many years. It was one of the worst neighborhoods in the city,” Guzman said. “But now that the good times are coming, I think it’s kind of a sad note that [I’m] going to have to leave. But that’s part of the change. I don’t blame the city for that. That’s business.”
Meanwhile, newcomers keep coming to Ivy City, anchored by the Hecht Warehouse apartments. A Turkish pizza place, Pidzza, is opening its first location on the apartment building’s first floor this winter, with a second location to follow in Chinatown. Big Chief, a New Orleans-themed bar, opened this summer. Ari Gejdenson, the restaurateur behind Ghibellina, will open three restaurants: in January, La Puerta Verde, a Mexican restaurant; by the end of November, Dock FC, a soccer bar, and Ari’s Diner, which will serve some of the same homey meals, like eggs and sandwiches, that Louis’ did. It will be right across the street from Guzman’s former carryout.
Though he tried to cater to the area’s new residents by changing his menu — and had planned to renovate — they didn’t come to Louis’ very much, Guzman said. “They go out in an Uber,” he said.
Omar Hakeem, the Washington design director of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a group that seeks to promote community building through creative projects in the neighborhood, says that the closing of Louis’ is “a microcosm of what’s happening in the District as a whole.” When Louis’ closes, the neighborhood will lose its last place to get a sandwich for less than $5.
“Talking to some of the young people living in Ivy City, they say, ‘The other places in Ivy City aren’t for us,’ ” meaning the new places. “I don’t think those places have any negative intentions, but they’re more expensive,” he said.
The hardest part, Guzman says, is saying goodbye to his regulars.
One of those is Melinda Washington, an instructor for Amtrak. “He was always pleasant, the food was good, and he did a lot of community work for people,” especially the people in the shelter next door, she said. “He took care of everybody.”
But Guzman remains upbeat. “I feel like I was part of the city, I feel like I was part of the neighborhood. It’s a beautiful experience,” he said. Besides, “if I made it in Ivy City, I know I can make it anywhere else.”
So he’s going to take a little break and then make a fresh start. Maybe he’ll open another restaurant in Ivy City eventually, but for now, his plan is to learn the trade that cost him his business.
“Hopefully,” he said, “I’ll go into real estate.”