- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What’s a murder or four?

Apparently not enough to scare business owners on the up-and-coming H Street Northeast retail and arts-and-entertainment corridor.

“It’s just life in the big city,” said Joe Englert, owner of five bars and restaurants, including the recently opened Belgian eatery Granville Moore’s.

A homicide was reported just four blocks from his establishments on July 19. Three others a month ago were equally close, and violent crimes peppered the neighborhood in April. Altogether, seven homicides have been reported this year in Trinidad bordering the H Street corridor.

But to Mr. Englert, Trinidad may as well be in a different universe.

“What does Trinidad have to do with H Street?” Mr. Englert said. “These people aren’t eating the bison steak or wild mushroom pappardelle at our restaurants.”

Still, the crimes occurred just a few blocks away. Wouldn’t that scare away potential customers?

“It’s a whole different world. … It’s a different demographic,” said Anwar Saleem, founder of the H Street Main Street group, a nonprofit aimed at improving the business and community climate on H Street.

“I don’t think the impact is that great for H Street, but, of course, there’s always the risk of a spillover effect,” he said. “You have to take care of it.”

The revitalization of H Street includes various public and private projects, such as trolley service along the corridor, million-dollar condos and dozens of new businesses.

Aside from an increased police presence, Mr. Saleem said, the troubled neighborhood needs to get youths off the streets and involved in volunteering or work programs, particularly during the summer.

“We have to start relating better to our kids. We need to help them and teach them to respect life,” said Mr. Saleem, who grew up on H Street in the 1960s and saw firsthand the 1968 riots that left the corridor blighted.

Mr. Saleem’s group is employing 28 teens this summer.

What concerns merchants, he said, is not the violence but the limited parking, the construction that has torn up part of the street and sidewalks, and general traffic problems.

Elizabeth Glover, owner of Bikram Yoga on H Street, agrees that traffic and high property taxes are greater concerns than the violence. Her two-year-old business, she said, is thriving after a relatively slow first year.

“I get about 30 new students each week,” Ms. Glover said. “And that’s in the summer, which is usually a slow time.”

Mr. Englert said his establishments also have seen increased business in recent months.

“People come from all over,” he said. “On weekdays, about 80 percent of our customers are local. On the weekends, about 50 percent travel 15 miles or more [to get here].”

He compares the H Street of today to the now-vibrant U Street of a decade ago.

“People are just scared of what they don’t know; they’re scared of what’s different,” he said. “People were scared of U Street 10 years ago. Now look at that area.”

The H Street corridor, despite the Trinidad crime wave, is changing quickly, too.

“In the past 3 1/2 to four years, 87 new businesses have opened on H Street. That’s unheard of,” said Mr. Saleem, who added that his group is making a concerted effort to attract businesses that are not part of a chain.

“We want to be unique because that’s what will make us a destination,” he said.

At least a dozen of those 87 businesses - including Verizon and T-Mobile stores and a florist - opened in the past four months, during the worst of the violence and a chilling economic climate, Mr. Saleem said.

“We’re not doing too bad,” he said, “even in a bad economy.”

Mr. Englert plans to open a restaurant with an indoor miniature golf course in the fall.

In the meantime, he offers advice to stay safe on H Street: “Don’t buy crack or weed on the street, don’t shoot craps with strangers, and don’t get upset when someone takes a parking place that you thought you saw first. You will live longer and be a lot healthier.”

Adds Ms. Glover in a gentler vein: “Yoga is healing. Maybe yoga can help heal the street.”

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