- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

Residents and business owners in Mount Pleasant are talking about trash these days, but their conversations actually are focused on future development in the largely Hispanic neighborhood in Northwest.

Last month, about three dozen residents and community leaders gathered in a community center to discuss garbage for the third time in as many weeks.

Specifically, the ongoing debate concerns whether a grocery store and a restaurant that cater to a mostly Hispanic clientele should be allowed to build a vault in the rear of the building — on what is nominally public property — for the purpose of storing garbage until pickup.

Trash ordinarily doesn’t draw such attention, but many in attendance say the outcome of this skirmish could define how development affects the character of this historically diverse neighborhood.

Residents say the trash debate is the latest of a coordinated effort to harass minority business owners into leaving and replace their stores with boutiques and upscale shops.

“They want a Trader Joe’s,” business owner Michael Choi says.

Mr. Choi’s family owns the building that houses the Bestway grocery store and the Don Juan’s restaurant at Mount Pleasant and Lamont streets NW — the subjects of the trash meeting.

The two businesses anchor the strip of mostly minority-owned shops, cafes and bodegas that line Mount Pleasant Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.

Much is at stake in the debate over his family’s building, Mr. Choi says. If they are forced to sell, other minority store owners will close their shops, which will be swallowed up by developers, he says.

“Every building is in contention right now,” he says.

Heated debate

Laurie Collins leads the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, which opposes building the trash vault, and says the debate has nothing to do with running off minority business owners.

It’s about rats and the odor in the rear of the building, which abuts a line of town houses, Ms. Collins says.

Mr. Choi’s Bestway, she says, is making plenty of money but is trying to escape the costs of doing business like other stores that have been forced to use valuable square footage to store trash.

As with other issues in this community of about 12,000 residents, hostility manifests itself through passive-aggressive verbal jabs during community meetings and sarcastic comments on neighborhood message boards.

In private conversation with community leaders, the animosity becomes more personal, including charges of racism or hypocrisy.

Most of the homes in Mount Pleasant were built between 1900 and 1925. Back then, the area was considered a suburb of downtown Washington, and the main street, Mount Pleasant Street, developed around a streetcar line.

The upscale community was once home to actress Helen Hayes and Washington Senators’ pitcher Walter Johnson and has a history of diversity dating back to the 1940s.

But after the 1968 riots, the neighborhood fell into decline. Many of its white families left and were replaced by immigrants of all nationalities.

In 1991, an incident between a Metropolitan Police officer and a young Hispanic resident led to three nights of riots on Mount Pleasant Street. The metal grates attached to many of the shops are a lingering reminder of the destruction and looting.

Fifteen years later, the area is poised for transformation once again, as developers who have transformed the nearby U Street Corridor and Columbia Heights take notice of Mount Pleasant.

Demographic changes

A local real estate boom is starting to push out minority residents as property values escalate and apartments are steadily transitioned into condominiums.

According to Manuel Hidalgo, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Corp., minorities accounted for half the population of Mount Pleasant in 1990.

Today, minorities make up about one-third of the neighborhood. As their numbers diminish, it becomes increasingly difficult to preserve what has long been the character of the neighborhood, they say.

“It’s been a slow, incremental process of the neighbors telling the business owners what they can do,” Mr. Hidalgo says. “I think they really want them to just leave.”

Alberto Ferrufino, who bought Don Juan’s in 1993, says he has entered into a series of voluntary agreements with the neighborhood alliance, bowing to the group by agreeing to ban single sales of beer containers and eliminating live music in his restaurant.

He says he even agreed to change the color of his building in 1997 from red and blue to gray because the alliance objected.

While the voluntary agreements are not binding, he says he fears that if he does not comply, the neighborhood alliance will protest his liquor license.

“I have to pay a lawyer. I have to go to hearings,” he says. “I don’t want to do that.”

Jack McKay, president of the advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) for Mount Pleasant, says the problem is nothing new.

“There has been warfare between the businesses and the residents for a long time,” he says.

Request denied

The majority of the ANC favors retaining what they call the “local flavor” of the community.

At an ANC meeting last month to discuss the trash situation at the Bestway, commissioners voted overwhelmingly to endorse a plan that would allow the store to place trash receptacles on public land.

The endorsement meant nothing when the issue reached the District’s Public Space Committee, which is part of the Department of Transportation. The committee unanimously denied the request.

That prompted charges that the neighborhood alliance, which is perceived as being mostly white and wealthy, influenced the process through members whose influence in city politics is disproportionately larger than their membership.

Mr. McKay says part of the problem is that newer residents come to Mount Pleasant and “expect to find downtown Chevy Chase.”

Ms. Collins, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, bristles at that characterization.

“I was here when it wasn’t fun to be here,” she says, referring to years when the neighborhood was a hot spot for crime and drug sales. “Most of us embrace diversity.”

She points to the recent opening of a coin-operated laundromat — the third one within a few blocks on the strip.

“The business owners, the land owners decide what kind of fair-market value they can get,” she says. “We can’t run anybody out. We don’t make those decisions.”

She says her organization is dedicated to addressing quality-of-life issues and that a key component is cleaning up the main street to attract more business.

She is not alone in that sentiment.

A November 2005 report funded by the District for the Mount Pleasant Main Street Program that focused on public space cited some of the same concerns.

“Many Mount Pleasant Street businesses keep their window and door gates down and shades drawn during business hours, which makes them look like they are either closed or are afraid of being robbed, even during the day,” the report said.

Ms. Collins says some businesses have taken advantage of grants the city government has made to store owners through the Latino Economic Development Corp. and beautified their stores to make them more accessible.

“There are Latino and Asian businesses on Mount Pleasant Street that have encouraged residents to come shop in their shops,” she says. “There is a lot of money in the neighborhood now, that is true. I think, being a well-balanced commercial corridor, there are things you can do to keep that money in the neighborhood.”

One voice?

Oddly enough, on a street where business is transacted in Spanish, Hispanic residents are rarely heard on issues that affect them directly.

Arturo Griffiths, a community activist and Panamanian immigrant who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, says that in many ways the Hispanic community is on the sidelines in the fight over their own neighborhood.

“We built this community in many ways. We are the flavor of this community, and now we are getting kicked out,” he says. “We are a community here, but we don’t really participate [in the political process], and that’s the problem.”

He says internal differences among immigrant groups from different countries also prevent the community from unifying as a bloc.

Mr. Hidalgo says he hopes his organization, which aims to economically empower the Hispanic community through business development, can provide some kind of structure for local businesses, perhaps in the form of a consortium, increasing interdependency within the business community.

“I think the neighborhood alliance is going to have a much harder time against 20 or 30 businesses saying, ‘A slight against one is a slight against all,’ ” he says. “I think they have awoken a sleeping giant.”

But he also agrees that local businesses have to do a better job of marketing themselves to new residents while welcoming new businesses to the strip that are neighbor-friendly even if not Hispanic-owned.

“We cannot just think that a lot of small bodegas serving a largely Hispanic population is Mount Pleasant,” he says.

Dominic Sale heads the Mount Pleasant Main Street Program, which he describes as the only group taking account of the wishes of residents and the business owners.

He says he hopes his group can serve as the “antidote for some of the venom that is going around.”

“I’m not interested in trying to cast in stone what we’ve got,” Mr. Sale says.

He says he believes the neighborhood will continue to attract a culturally diverse group of new residents, even if those new residents are more affluent.

“I think our diversity is our major selling point,” Mr. Sale says. “I think there are going to be major changes under way, but I’m not sold on the idea of the neighborhood being whitewashed.”

Mr. Sale also said he does not count out the merchants who make up Mount Pleasant’s “human-sized commercial district,” noting that they are there because they are making money.

“The market is there,” he says. “It will continue to be there.”

At Don Juan’s, Mr. Ferrufino says he is not as optimistic.

“We have lost customers, but we have had enough to support us,” he says. “One day, we won’t have enough customers, and we will have to close. That’s what they want.”

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