To some Mount Pleasant residents, the message is clear: A chain, particularly the world’s largest restaurant chain, doesn’t belong. The person behind these artistic light projections on Subway’s building, however, has posed more of a mystery.
“Mount Pleasant is a really unique neighborhood filled with many characters,” said Robin Bell, an artist and filmmaker who’s been quietly, and somewhat secretly, projecting animated anti-Subway images onto the establishment’s side wall from the second floor of a building across the street. “Subway is by far one of the worst neighbors we can get in the neighborhood.”
As Bell has orchestrated the displays, a debate has played out on neighborhood message boards and community blogs: Isn’t having a Subway better than having a blighted building? And is this sentiment pervasive, or is it just a few wealthier residents upset that they’re not going to get another upscale, small-plate dining option? The property in the 3100 block of Mount Pleasant Street NW has, after all, been vacant since the Suns Discount Store shuttered more than two years ago.
“#OnlyInMtP would people protest this,” a commenter named Gary posted on Popville, a neighborhood blog that’s been tracking the progress of the new Subway and Bell’s subsequent light projections. “I suppose they’d rather have an empty storefront.”
“Yet another example of elitists thumbing their nose at a national chain for no reason,” commenter Stephen Upton wrote.
Obey Hoque, the owner of the Mount Pleasant Subway franchise, agrees.
“I don’t see any problem,” he said. “The corner was empty forever, and that place was closed and dark and dirty. We have spent a great amount of money and time here, we cleaned up, and we are close to open.”
At least two local businesses have vied for that space in the past — Sun Cinema, a new independent cinema now opening a few doors down, and a restaurant — but both of those deals fell through. Mount Pleasant is known for its mix of Hispanic immigrants, longtime D.C. families and young group house-type, transient professionals. The offerings on Mount Pleasant street reflect that.
“I think it’s a real disservice to Mount Pleasant,” said Justin Abad, who tried to secure that space for his restaurant, Pop’s Sea Bar, which he later opened in Adams Morgan. “Mount Pleasant is built on camaraderie and commercial support for small businesses, and it’s a shame it couldn’t have been a mom-and-pop business in that space.”
Stuart Tipograh, a broker at the Vanguard Realty Group who worked on the unfinished leases for the space, said he had no comment on the incomplete transactions.
Subway, according to building permit records, has been working to obtain permits for the space for nearly a year. Before the trademark Subway sign went up, Bell used his projector to inform residents that Subway was coming soon. Another Subway detractor went one step further and marked the wall with graffiti that read “Keep D.C. Weird” — a not-so-fitting play on “Keep Austin Weird” — and “SubwayEatSh–,” which was an ode to the franchise’s tagline of “Subway Eat Fresh.” (The person has since anonymously apologized, saying his message was vandalism and not clever.)
Bell said he knows he’s not going to stop the restaurant from opening and is hoping to spark a conversation about the ubiquitous franchise’s practices. While he’d prefer an independent shop there, his main issue with Subway is its food sourcing and low wages. The franchise bills itself as a healthy alternative to traditional fast-food options, but has come under fire for its ingredients in the past and has struggled in recent years as people’s ideas of what is healthy have evolved, and options, such as Chipotle, have grown in popularity.
The new shop is slated to open in a few weeks, said Hoque, who also owns another Subway location at 14th and Park streets NW. He said he plans to hire from within the community, and the starting wage will be D.C.’s minimum wage, which beginning July 1 will jump to $10.50 per hour from $9.50. For more experienced employees, he said, wages would start up to $1.50 higher.
Bell said he’s not vandalizing property and doesn’t plan to stop his light messages on the building, which only appear after dark, after Subway opens for business in a few weeks. He said he doesn’t bombard the neighborhood with his anti-Subway messages, intermittently posting them in between other art projections. On Monday night, he projected an animated cat. On New Year’s Eve, he projected an enlarged version of his Boston Terrier dressed in a Liberace robe counting down to the new year.
He also uses his messages for activism, projecting an “#ICantBreathe” sign that attracted attention in the neighborhood in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after a New York Police Department officer placed him in an apparent chokehold. And sometimes, he projects clips from documentaries and films he’s made.
“The main thing I wanted to do is spark conversation,” Bell said. “Instead of getting upset that [Subway] is here, I can try to change their business practices.”
No one has formally complained to Mount Pleasant’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission about the Subway, according to Frank Agbro, the chair of ANC1D, which oversees Mount Pleasant. He said he’s not a fan of Subway either, but knows it’s coming.
“Personally, I’m not in favor of chains, especially in a small neighborhood like ours that is very unique,” he said. “It is what it is — sometimes change takes place, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”