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Shaw’s rejuvenation brings mixed results for small business owners

Shaw, Washington DC neighborhood undergoing big change
Shaw, Washington DC neighborhood undergoing big change
Doug Canter

James Patterson stands on the sidewalk outside his home improvement store near Duke Ellington Plaza in Shaw. His button-down shirt hangs open over a T-shirt, and his black-rimmed glasses reveal earnest brown eyes.

Howard Theatre in Shaw
Doug Canter

Patterson, who has lived in Shaw for 47 years, and other longtime residents say the up-and-coming Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. is cleaner, people are friendlier and there is less crime. But development has brought mixed results for some small long-time local businesses.

“We’re the ones who are feeling the pain,” Mr. Patterson says.

Shaw’s recent rejuvenation can trace its roots to several causes, including opening of Metro Green Line Stations at Shaw/Howard U Street and Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center in 1991, construction of the Convention Center in 1997 and a growing influx of residents into the District. The changing demographics, particularly during the last ten years, have meant more disposable income to support new businesses.

Data on small businesses kept by the D.C. Economic Partnership, a non-profit whose mission is to promote small business in the District, shows more business openings than closures during the past three years, although the list is not complete or up-to-date, a D.C. Economic Partnership spokesperson said in an e-mail.

According to Shaw Main Streets, a non-profit, community-based group founded in 2002 and organized to promote business development along central Shaw’s 7th and 9th Street corridors, over 35 businesses have recently opened or are about to open in Shaw. That list does not include many other businesses that have taken steps to move into the neighborhood but have not publically announced their decision, Alex Padro, the Executive Director of Shaw Main Streets, said over the telephone.

But according to four long-time business owners, some small Shaw businesses are hurting.

Patterson, whose views are echoed by others, points to the vacant parking lot across from the Duke Ellington Plaza, next to the building where the Howard Salon is located and talks about a friend who used to own a used car business where the vacant parking lot stands but had to move his business, somewhere north on Georgia Avenue, Patterson thinks.

“The District should have been able to step up and help him stay in the neighborhood,” Patterson says.

Shaw Main Streets offers Shaw’s local small businesses advertising, social media and marketing training, Padro says.

“We have gone to great lengths to provide technical assistance to help [local longtime businesses] serve the changing demographics.”

But even Padro acknowledges that some small business owners have chosen not to avail themselves of technical assistance offered by Shaw Main Streets, have elected to capitalize on appreciated lot values and sell their businesses, or have been unable to adjust to the rising rental costs.

Real estate prices have risen steadily over the last three years and likely will continue to do so, local realtors say. Prices are subject to numerous variables, including square footage, but it is not uncommon for town houses and condominiums to sell for $700,000 or higher.

People who bought as recently as last year say they couldn’t afford it now. Long-time residents are leaving too. There are no more boarding houses in Shaw, Padro says, and people who rent single family houses have felt the rising cost of rents.

“People are moving out, moving south,” Patterson also says, meaning southern states such as Georgia.

Others in the neighborhood shake their head at mention of the “big dollars” being commanded for home sales.

This rise in real estate value has increased commercial rents too.

But Shaw’s rejuvenation, as elsewhere in the city, has brought benefits. The rise in property values has allowed old-time residents who owned their homes to cash out with exponential profits. Higher-income residents have rehabilitated houses and made blocks prettier and safer. They have brought more money into Shaw to spend on local business.

Just east of U and 9th Streets feels very much like the heart of Shaw, located several blocks north of the Shaw Metro Station at 8th and S Streets and west of the historic Howard Theatre on the 600 block of T Street near Gregg’s Barber Shop and the Howard Salon, two local businesses that have survived for many years. Two new residential buildings on Florida Avenue are being constructed nearby.

Further south, the renovated historic City Market at 8th and O Streets, including the Giant Food Store and Starbucks in the recently completed adjoining space, together with new apartment buildings nearby, provide another commercial anchor and communal hub for the Shaw neighborhood.

Several blocks away near Tom’s, a longtime laundromat, Convention Square marks a third growing commercial hub.

The growth of these commercial areas marks a measure of successful development for a neighborhood that languished for years after the city removed street cars on 7th and 9th Streets in 1962 and after the riots in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

Yet, within the fabric of this successful development, there exists loose threads. Among them are the long-time businesses that have not benefited from the shift in demographics, from the higher-income of residents in the area.

You can hear it in the voice of the Chinese owner of Tom’s near the Convention Center who points to the empty dark interior of her laundromat, a business she inherited from her father in 1958, where a handful of idle washing machines sit quietly.

The barber at Gregg’s and the stylist at the Howard Salon also convey the same message – their businesses are not doing well – even as they attribute the cause to external factors, such as parking and an overall economic downturn.

“A great many businesses are ready to take the place of those that decide to leave,” Padro says.

The area of the city now called Shaw was first populated by freed slaves during the Civil War. The neighborhood took its name from Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led one of the first all-black infantry units during the Civil War. Shaw was home to jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington and black historian Carter Godwin Woodson, among others.

Patterson faces the statue of Duke Ellington that decorates the new small concrete plaza with beds of wistful purple-flowered plants near the recently redone Howard Theatre, one of many reminders of Shaw’s deep African-American roots.

“It’s not so bad for me because of my age – it’s my family, the people behind me,” Patterson says about the increased economic pressure on long-time local businesses in Shaw.