The wait had spanned decades. For those who live here, in one of the poorest wards in the nation’s capital, its end marked a time to reflect: with pride, with validation, with frustration — and fear. What might big business’ interest in their home portend for gentrification?
There was also an unmistakable hint of bitterness.
People from here remember when politicians declared war on the tired and unattractive collection of mom-and-pop shops with promises of a gleaming, new shopping center. The beauty salons, a liquor store, the Discount Mart, cleaners and a carryout were “a blighting factor,” officials said.
“It wasn’t attractive at all,” conceded Elaine Mittleman, one of the attorneys who represented a good chunk of the small businesses razed in the name of progress.
It began when the residents of Hillcrest, a well-organized and vocal part of the ward, started agitating for the development boom that launched the flocks of cranes reshaping the wealthier parts of D.C. across the Anacostia.
It was a righteous request.
While one out of four residents in Ward 7 live in poverty, the ward is also home to a robust middle class — federal workers, bus drivers, schoolteachers. And they drive into Maryland or Virginia for big box stores, sit-down restaurants, for better shopping beyond the Discount Mart that took over the old Naylor Theater.
The council members running for reelection wanted to give this powerful voting block something — anything. So the city council passed the 2004 Skyland Act, giving the city eminent domain powers to reshape that part of D.C., despite the fact that they had no real plans and no written promises from big retailers.
So the city kicked Marion Fletcher out of the beauty salon she spent three decades building up; it shoved Duk Hae Oh’s beauty supply shop out of the neighborhood it had served; and shut down the liquor store that Joseph and Rose Rumber saved up to buy.
The shabby, Skyland shopping center faces an uphill battle against redevelopment
Lawrence Ray, a regular at the Rumbers’ place, told The Washington Post’s Lynne Duke in 2006 that he didn’t think a revitalization of the area was about the people who live there.
“I hate that word ‘revitalize.’ Revitalizing what? Whose idea? That wasn’t our idea … What about the people that’s in the community who may not even afford to be here once it’s revitalized?” he told Duke.
He saw it as a part to push out poor residents, “because eventually that’s what’s going to happen.”
Mittleman worked with these business owners, trying to get them the best possible compensation to start their lives over. None of them, to her knowledge, was able to relocate their businesses. The beloved Fletcher died before the Lidl announcement was made.
“This was never about a food desert,” Mittleman said, noting there’s a Safeway nearby.
Well, the Safeway sucked, a lot of residents complained. And D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) agreed. It’s where he shopped and he made noise about the gray meat, moldy produce, long lines and reduced hours.
Advocates like D.C. Hunger Solutions called the scarcity a gaping “grocery gap.”
So politicians kept making promises for Skyland: Target! Shoppers Food Warehouse!
But nope, those places never signed on.
Developments created through eminent domain weren’t attractive, it became a nationwide ick to change a city’s landscape that way and big box retailers were spooked. Plus, Safeway, it turned out, had a covenant with the city insuring they wouldn’t get any competition. (It eventually cost taxpayers millions to break that).
This was something the politicians remembered when Wal-Mart came around with promises in 2011 to build stores throughout the ward of D.C.
The folks who drove into Maryland or Virginia for that kind of shopping cheered. The city council divided, though, half of the members sparring with America’s largest retailer, trying to force a higher minimum wage.
Again, another righteous request, but a battle that wasn’t waged when the much sexier and hipper Target — whose salaries and practices were no better than its blue-and-yellow country cousin — built a store in Columbia Heights. Wal-Mart promised five stores if the legislators backed down, including the a big one at Skyland. But the corporation bugged out after building just three — none of them east of the river.
D.C. needs Wal-Mart more than Wal-Mart needs us
“It was just dead there, all those years,” said Roxann Seals, 61, as she waited in line to check out the new Lidl. She, like many others in the ward, was furious that a huge swathe of her neighborhood lay fallow through five mayoral administrations.
Nearly everyone I talked to outside the Lidl mentioned the Wal-Mart betrayal. “We weren’t good enough for a Wal-Mart?” one woman said, happily swinging the free canvas tote bag that Lidl employees gave her.
“This is a blessing that they’re coming here, after Wal-Mart pulled out,” said Priscilla Moore, 60.
“I don’t know why Wal-Mart did that, if they thought because it was here people would be stealing in the stores,” she said. “But that’s not who we are.”
The people who live here — so frequently described by outsiders through the lens of a problem — know they are worthy of a Wal-Mart. And a sushi bar. And promises kept. But they worry about what comes next.
Besides Lidl, the new Skyland Town Center has the city’s only drive-through Starbucks, plus hipster pizza and sushi. A smoothie place and a Mediterrean grill are opening soon. There’s an apartment building with a dog park and dog wash, a courtyard pool, bike storage and a fitness center. One-bedroom apartments start at $1,750.
The Crest’s nod to affordable housing is the small print on their website: The housing provider will not refuse to rent a rental unit to a person because the person will provide the rental payment, in whole or in part, through a voucher for rental housing assistance provided by the District or federal government.”
“We’re up-and-coming!” said Seals, who is a big fan of Lidl and said she is thrilled to be able to shop at her favorite store in her own neighborhood, east of the river.
D.C. residents celebrate new supermarket east of the Anacostia River
James, who is 73 and a retired federal worker, is less optimistic about the new places.
“East of the river? Who knows what they’re going to be calling it soon,” he said. “They’ll come up with some new name.”
After the line died down, later in the morning, the “they” James was talking about began trickling in. A blonde in vinyl pants and a fuzzy, cropped sweater marveling at the Halloween decorations, a bike commuter with a helmet dangling from his backpack buying kombucha.
“Wal-Mart would’ve been better,” James said.