This is My Home
Small Business Owners in D.C. Neighborhood See Gentrification
Bobby Donaldson stood in the kitchen of B and J’s Diner dipping chicken in batter before deep frying it in a blackened skillet while recounting the changes he’s seen in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. He said the neighborhood has gone through two big changes since he first moved to his home, two blocks north from his storefront, in 1958.
“When I first moved here the neighborhood was pretty nice,” he said. “Then in the late 70’s and 80’s is when the drugs came. There was a lot of it here. What’s happening now is a whole lot of white people are moving back.”
B and J’s, on the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Third Street, has been a Bloomingdale shop since 1972. It has the feel of an Eastern Carolina barbecue joint. It’s slightly run-down but friendly conversations and good barbecue are guaranteed.
Many businesses owners in Bloomingdale like Donaldson are determined to keep their doors open despite rising rent and struggles to attract new white customers.
“I’ve made a lot of money here,” he said. “Right now it’s a little on the slow side. The neighborhood has changed and it affects my business some. It’s a damn good corner, now don’t get me wrong. It’s a good corner and I know that.”
Two blocks down Rhode Island Avenue residents wrote farewell wishes on the front windows of Jak and Company Hairdressers, a family owned business shutting it’s doors after fifty years. In a letter to the neighborhood posted on the front door, the Jackson family wrote that “gentrification” was the reason they were closing.
“I’m worried about the rent,” said Abush Berke, owner of D.C. Mini Supermarket. “[Jak and Company was] there for 50 years. Their rent went up so they closed…. I have an eight-year lease right now and the rent goes up three percent each year. It is what it is.”
D.C. Mini Supermarket, like B and J’s Diner, is an older establishment holding on in a neighborhood where new businesses, like Big Bear Cafe and The Red Hen, cater to the new white residents, but Berke still sees the neighborhood’s changing demographic as a good thing.
“There are always new people moving in here,” he said from behind the bulletproof glass surrounding his cash register. “New people come in here looking for what is good. I tell them I can get them what they need. That is good for business.”
Unlike other neighborhood establishments, like Bloomingdale Wine and Spirits and Windows Cafe and Market, Berke has chosen to keep the bulletproof glass up. He says that while the other stores close earlier, he stays open until 11:30 at night.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot,” he said. “It’s 90 percent safe. But there is still 10 percent of it that’s crime. After 10 to 11 o’clock, that is a dangerous time and if you call the police, they don’t come right away.”
He said the extra business is worth the risk of staying open an extra hour.
“People need it,” he said. “They buy their beer at nine o’clock and after 10, they need more. This is a neighborhood store. People also come here for groceries and milk.”
Berke added that he hopes the neighborhood will be safer next year so he can remove the glass barrier.
“People see the glass and think that it’s not safe,” he said.
Kyo Seok Shim, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University from Seoul, South Korea, has been living in Bloomingdale since August and says that he prefers to shop at Windows Cafe because they have a better beer selection and that without the bulletproof glass it feels more friendly. He also said that he goes to D.C. Mini Supermarket after Windows Cafe closes.
Donaldson has considered renovating B and J’s Barbecue in order to bring in more white customers.
“You see, I’m an old man,” he said. “I need to do some upgrading — some remodeling. I’ve been sitting like this for the last 40 years. I need to change, but at my age, I don’t know.”
Kenedy Clark, a senior at Howard University, has lived in the neighborhood for three years and said that he hasn’t been around long enough to see sudden or major changes. He said that he’s witnessed a slow transformation in the area.
“I haven’t seen anything crazy,” he said. “But you can definitely see which direction things are going around here.”
Donaldson said that when he first moved to Bloomingdale in 1958 only black families lived in the area. He now doubts that there are more than three black residents on his block.
“I’ve heard people saying folks are being pushed out,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t believe in that too much. I’ve seen a lot of white people come through here and they want this corner and I know that. But you can’t push me out of here if I don’t want to go.”