Housing Complex

Ask Not What Your Street Can Do for You


On a recent Sunday afternoon, hope was in the air on the 700 block of Kennedy Street NW, and it bore the unmistakable scent of spray paint. A graffiti artist was filling the wall of an alley with a composite landscape of global wonders. The Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument loomed over Egyptian and Central American pyramids. Easter Island heads sat stoically in the foreground, with one emitting a speech bubble with the name of the adjacent cafe, Culture Coffee.

The coffee shop opened fewer than five months ago, but it’s already left an impression on Kennedy Street, so much so that neighbor Myles Smith refers to it as “the new heartbeat of the neighborhood.” Community members of all stripes drop by to chat with co-owner Saundrell Stevens, to sample the offerings you’re not likely to find anywhere nearby—smoothies, locally roasted single-origin coffees, vegan pastries—and to hang out.

Stevens commissioned the mural, partly to spruce up the alley and partly to send a message. Kennedy Street, the artwork seems to say, is back on the map.

At least that’s the ambition of a group of neighbors. Smith and his wife Danielle Parsons formed the Kennedy Street Business Development Association in January—later dropping the word “Business” to shorten the name—with the aim of reviving some of the vibrant retail for which the corridor was once known.

The surrounding neighborhood has experienced an unusually rapid demographic shift in the past couple of years. As Petworth, directly to the south, has grown more expensive and priced out some middle-class families, young professionals are flocking to the area around Kennedy Street, which features attractive rowhouses. According to the annual neighborhood profiles published by the Washington DC Economic Partnership in February, no neighborhood saw a bigger increase in housing prices over the past year than the Kennedy Street area, where homes sold for an average of 25 percent more than in 2012.

But Culture Coffee is one of the few bright spots in what’s otherwise a languishing retail strip. Kennedy Street’s shortcomings were evident enough to have become ammunition for one mayoral candidate to attack his rival, Muriel Bowser, who represents the area on the D.C. Council and chairs the Council’s economic development committee.

“To the people who say Muriel Bowser should be mayor, look around,” Jack Evans said in a February campaign appearance on the street, gesturing at a shuttered liquor store and salon behind him. “Look at the Kennedy Street corridor and make your own judgment about whether she is prepared to create jobs, to be our mayor. A once-great neighborhood and dozens of struggling businesses right here are still waiting for revitalization more than six years after Ms. Bowser joined the D.C. Council.”

(The tactic didn’t work. Bowser won the primary on Tuesday, while Evans logged just 5 percent of the vote.)

Kennedy Street is one of the District’s longest retail strips that isn’t actually offering that much in the way of retail. Many of the storefronts are vacant; others have been filled by churches, which are open only one day a week. The once-glamorous Kennedy Theater is now a city-owned senior center that sits shuttered in the evening and on the weekend. The exception to the dearth of retail is the overabundance of funeral homes, giving off the impression that Kennedy Street, struggling to emerge from the shadow of its better past, serves the dead more than the living.

Smith and his collaborators are trying to bring the street back to life. With money flowing into the neighborhood and the city’s economic engine churning at full speed, there’s plenty of reason to think now is the time for Kennedy Street to begin its resurgence. But first it’ll have to overcome some of the obstacles that have held it back for decades.


A 1948 city directory shows a Kennedy Street that bears little resemblance to the street of today. This was postwar boom time, when suburbanization and white flight had yet to take their toll and the District’s population was near its peak. Many, if not most, of the occupants of Kennedy Street’s residences bore Jewish names, a sign of the thriving Jewish presence in the greater Petworth area at the time. The business listings featured the word “delicatessen” about as often as “vacant.” Eight grocery stores, Eddie’s Friendly Tavern, High’s Dairy Products, and several Italian barbers were among the more than 60 businesses on the nine blocks of Kennedy Street between North Capitol Street and Georgia Avenue NW.

But like many D.C. neighborhoods, the corridor took a turn for the worse over the next few decades. In the 1980s, police crackdowns on drug hotbeds like 14th and U streets NW pushed dealers to farther-flung areas such as Kennedy Street, which deteriorated as drug trafficking took hold. The so-called KDY crews spearheaded the violence, reaching its peak when Bennie Lee Lawson of the First and Kennedy Crew opened fire in the police headquarters on Judiciary Square in 1994 and killed three law-enforcement officials.

These days, the neighborhood is much safer, although fears still linger. “There’s a perception of danger here, particularly after dark,” says David Gottfried, a 16th Street Heights resident who has worked on the Kennedy Street Development Association efforts. “The statistics don’t bear that out.”

Gottfried hopes that an investor who sees the upside of the neighborhood, with its growing disposable incomes, will bring an establishment or two that will get people’s attention and help spark a retail revival. “Someone’s got to be a risk-taker and open something to attract people to the neighborhood,” he says. “And I think that risk will be rewarded.”

Several hurdles stand between Kennedy Street and a return to its former glory. First, there’s the location: Kennedy Street is just beyond walking distance from the nearest Metro stations, making it reliant on cars and buses. Nearly all of D.C.’s successful retail corridors are Metro-accessible; the biggest exceptions are places like Georgetown’s M Street, which is surrounded by wealth, and H Street NE, which is an easy walk from much of Capitol Hill and is centered on nightlife, rather than the neighborhood-serving retail to which the KSDA aspires.

“Our goal isn’t to make another H Street,” says Smith. “Our goal is to send the signal that natural growth can happen.”

The surrounding neighborhoods, with mostly rowhouses and detached houses, don’t have the density that’s generally required to support a long, active retail strip. A recent Washington City Paper study found that the Kennedy Street area has the highest concentration of corner stores per capita of any neighborhood in the city, with a store for every 170 residents. That suggests that in the absence of greater population density, there might just not be that much more room for Kennedy Street retail to grow.

The street’s layout complicates things further. Kennedy Street’s retail area is a mile long, with shops broken up by vacant storefronts and residences. Some blighted properties owe enough in taxes to make a sale and return to productive use unlikely, including one that owes $290,000 when it’s only worth $304,000. Any development would probably flow east from Georgia Avenue, particularly if the city chooses that street for a planned north-south streetcar route, and it would take quite some time to spread across the corridor. It doesn’t help that a number of defunct businesses have owners who can’t be found.

Then there’s the city’s involvement. The Office of Planning’s 2008 revitalization plan for Kennedy Street hasn’t led to much change. Nor has the D.C. Department of Transportation’s allocation of $3.75 million for streetscape improvements, which has been tied to a separate grant to overhaul the pedestrian-unfriendly intersection of Kennedy Street and Missouri and Kansas avenues. That process has gone nowhere, and the KSDA has urged the city to begin the streetscaping first.

Branding has also been tricky. Upshur Street, a mile to the south, benefits from its location in the heart of Petworth as that neighborhood’s up-and-coming retail strip. But Kennedy Street doesn’t have such a simple neighborhood identity. Some refer to it as the north end of Petworth; others call it Brightwood Park, or Manor Park, or 16th Street Heights. One city-backed venture tried to brand it Vinegar Hill South, after the pre-Civil War black settlement to the north known as Vinegar Hill. The mishmash of neighborhood monikers has led the KSDA to stick with the street name.

Finally, there’s the identity of the activists. Smith and his wife moved to Brightwood Park just a year ago. The typical volunteer in the KSDA, Smith says, has lived in the neighborhood three to five years. Stevens lives on Capitol Hill, though her lease is up in July and she’s thinking about moving closer to her coffee shop. Her average customer is also a relative newcomer. All of this raises the question of whether the neighborhood is effecting its own change, or whether a group of recent arrivals is seeking to create the type of neighborhood they envisioned when they moved there.

“In the coffee shop, every Saturday, someone says, ‘Oh, I just moved here,’” Stevens says. “Most of the people in the coffee shop have been there three years or less. It’s almost a new neighborhood.”

Still, Smith and Stevens seem to know just about everyone on the street, and their neighbors appear to share their goals. Smith conducted a survey of neighbors’ desires for the street, and 90 percent of respondents said they wanted a sit-down restaurant. Other common requests included a gym and a healthy grocery store. (The latter is made more difficult by the fact that there will soon be two Walmart stores within walking distance of Kennedy Street. “If not for the Walmarts, you might be able to convince a Yes! [Organic Market] to come in,” says Smith, who was considering opening a hardware store there before the Walmarts were a done deal.) As we’re walking past the old Kennedy Theater, one woman shouts to Smith, “When are they gonna put a movie theater in here?”

“We’re not the first group of people to try this,” says Smith. “We’re just the latest.”

Smith says it probably isn’t realistic to strive to replicate the Kennedy Street of the 1940s, when the streetcar was the main transit mode and development was less centralized. But Stevens is more optimistic: She thinks Kennedy Street could return to its peak in a matter of years.

“I believe it could get back to that,” she says. “Just give us five.”

  • Kennedy St neighbor

    Now that Muriel Bowser is basically the mayor elect, maybe her office will be able to get city agencies working together to release the streetscape funding and enact the Office of Planning revitalization plan (if they ever reached one) and get vacant and blighted property owners to develop or sell their properties.

  • John Muller

    On the back of the 70 bus we were taught KDY stood for "Kill Dem Yungins."

  • Jim Ed

    The streetscape improvements would be a nice start. However, It'd be great to see Kennedy St designated for grants to existing business owners to spruce up their storefronts. Places like Taqueria Distrito Federal, Tony's Place, and the numerous daycares are all benefits to the community already - why not help them clean up a bit and make the street more inviting?

    The city should also make sure its properly enforcing the vacant and blighted tax rates. Start cleaning up garbage and billing owners, especially that empty lot at 8th and Kennedy that looks like picked over landfill.

  • Ward4

    Kennedy St neighbor, that's a really nice idea and it would be great if that happened. But Bowser didn't do a single thing to help or improve Kennedy St while she was on the Council and representing the ward in which Kennedy St runs. I have zero faith she'll do anything once she's mayor of the entire city.

  • http://yahoo Sancho

    Unforturnately, until the old guard leaves the neighborhood, there really will not be much development on this street. The article states that only the newer residents are going to this coffee shop, which apparently is anchoring Kennedy Street. That neighborhood is mostly comprised of honest working class black folk who are now aging. They don't go to coffee shops or many other places for that matter. Many in the area were complaining about the Wal-mart coming, stating that people should frequent the local businesses in the area, but the only problem is that they don't frequent the local businesses in the area. So it will probably take new residents coming to the area for real change to happen.

  • Zed

    Longtime residents, the folks here at the height of the murderous crack-cocaine days when DC was the murder capitol of the country, tend to be afraid to walk the streets, won't go two blocks to a locally-owned retail store. When redeveloping new retail, public safety issues need to be addressed.

  • Petworth neighbor

    Kennedy Street's fabric seems to hold a lot of potential for revitalization, but the fate of the strip of stores on Georgia between Decatur and Delafield could be a cautionary warning. Ras, Moroni Brothers have both closed (very sad!), Fusion, Art Under Pressure and the yoga studio I believe are moving, leaving what appeared to be an increasingly vibrant strip fairly empty. Was it too far from a Metro? Not enough density? Too much crime? I'm not sure, but it seems like an important example to examine and understand.

  • nonimuss

    They closed because of the crime level. These shops were robbed a few times. Same thing will happen on Kennedy. Look at the area between GA AV and Illinois.Junkies just hang there all day, every day.
    Want to improve retail? Close the corner shops. Nothing good comes from them.

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  • Kennedy St neighbor

    Jim Ed, I agree about existing businesses sprucing up storefronts to become more inviting. Apparently the Kennedy St Association is already encouraging businesses to do that. And since Kennedy St is one of the city's "Great Streets," shouldn't the Great Streets Initiative provide funding for businesses to do that? Is anyone who works for the city reading and know the answer?

    Also, I've gone to Culture Coffee a few times. While there are certainly a fair number of newer neighborhood residents there I've also met a number of longtime DC residents there. I think the stark new residents want this/older residents don't want anything implication here and in Sancho's comments is inaccurate. That doesn't sound like what I've heard from neighbors both new and old.

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  • Other end of Kennedy

    Meanwhile, the low-density commercial zone at the intersection of Kennedy, 14th, and Colorado NW has two convenience stores, a barber shop, a yoga/zumba studio, a laundromat, a grocery/butcher, a daycare, a crossfit gym, a restaurant supply showroom, a theater, a dry cleaner, a life coach, a business center, a health clinic, a restaurant (soon to break ground), a lot of diversity (age, language, ethnicity, income), and even more community pride. You all may have more infrastructure and overall potential on the east side of Georgia, but please don't leave us out of the conversation. We're an easy walk from the bus on the E, S, 5x, or 7x routes; easy bus from Ft Totten, Petworth, Columbia Heights, Friendship Heights, Takoma, or Silver Spring! And there's hundreds of free walk-off parking spots under the Wal-Mart just up Colorado (where there's been even more recent retail development to list out). It's not a matter of whether diverse commercial development will come back to the hood but instead how quickly it will arrive -- the question of what it will be is up to you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kennedystreetnw KSDA

    Folks, join us!
    If you would like to get involved in improving the neighborhood, write us at Contact[at]kennedystreetnw[dot]org, or check out our Facebook page by searching for Kennedy Street NW.

    We are indeed working on getting the city to issue grants to owners who want to spruce up like Tonys and Taqueria DF, and we are also pushing for the full implementation of the small area plan, which was indeed adopted in 2008 with wide consensus from the community.

  • so technically..

    The argument that the area is low density because it has a high ratio of corner stores to residents doesn't make sense. There is a high ratio because there are a ton of corner stores, not because there are few people. The corner stores are a substitute for the grocery and other stores residents might prefer--there are corner stores instead of all the other types of retail and stores that exist elsewhere.

  • so technically..

    On another note, the article's point that the branding/identity of the neighborhood is difficult is on point. I think geography has been a challenge since Kennedy St sits on the border or periphery of so many different neighborhoods. If it were in the middle of just one neighborhood you'd have one dedicated group of people to work together on all the issues that need to be addressed.

  • NEDC

    I basically grew up at Georgia Ave NE and Madison Street NW. Relatives lived at Kansas and Kenneday ST,among other areas up that way. I attended Brightwood Elementary, Paul Jr. Hs, then Coolidge, even though... shhhh! I lived in NE, Eckington. :) But, even now, there still is a lot of hanging about with young black men especially at 9th and Kennedy, and If anyone knows the history, Kennedy st in the 90's were, well, kinda rough --remember the video news casts play of gang taking video of shooting an innocent guy and harrassing another?

    When I see these guys hanging on the corner(s), makes me wonder.. safe or not safe. This has to be addressed.

    The Hispanic population increased dramatically in the 90's, but I don't know if there are issues with black Americas and the Hispanic community. There's a lot of "small food shops, corner stores on Kennedy St. Where I am, between N. Capitol & RI ave NE where the Home Depot, etc and RI metro, things are turning for the good. Whites are moving back in a big way also since the rehabed houses are going now, if not 500K, 600K+ and of course many, people of color, are priced out. And to be fair compairing Kennedy st area to where I live, I'm darn near walking distance to Logan/Dupont, U St, H st, Union Station, etc so of course, Bloomingdale, block to the west is commecercially exploding and Eckington is very HOT right now, which it has been for few years now.

    Good luck Kennedy street residents? Just have to keep at it. :)

  • NEDC

    As an side note to my essay, me mentioning that whites are moving back in my area, was not to mean whites are better than or for some reason is more benefical than other races of people. Just pointing out the demograhic changes taking place right now, which, with out getting too into it, these new residences obviously have the moeny and the means to afford these houses. When I was younger (I'm 47 now), always heard that "whites" where going to return to the city have they left in droves at the article has stated. And it's happending.

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  • Longfellow Resident

    I've owned my home on Longfellow for over 7 years and I've seen many things. To start, I saw a drive by shooting take place just a few houses down from me and a kid was killed; I look out my back window and see drug transactions taking place all day long; I smell "weed" being smoked all day and night; people yelling and drinking all night to the point that my son can't even sleep at night; my dog was attacked by another dog and hospitalized for several days; I pick up atleast 30 cigarette butts that have been thrown into my yard from the night before; I see kids drop out of high school and spend their days standing on the corner; and I've seen new babies being born to kids that are still babies themselves.

    But I am an optomisitic resident of Brightwood, 16th Street Heights, Petworth or whatever you wish to call it. Before houses were being sold in Shaw and Columbia Heights for well over $500K and before Starbucks and other national retailers opened franchises, those two neighborhoods looked the exact same. Drugs deals in plain sight, shootings, prostitution, trash, parking issues, etc.

    I'm not optimisitic because we may have a new Mayor that started her political career in Ward 4, look what we got when Fenty was in office. Sorry, I had to remind you. I don't put my hopes in a grand development plan that tells the story of great residential and retail development opportunties for these plans just line the pockets of those that are hired to create them. They eventually find their way onto a shelf and fade into distant memory, along with the spirit of hope that it created.

    I'm optimistic because I see responsible people moving into the neighborhood; people that water their grass and create flower boxes; people that don't stand on the corner, drink in public, sell drugs and yell obscenities all night long. I see the existing residents taking more responsibility for improving thier homes, and I see young educated peole walking around the neighborhood.

    Brightwood has a great park (Emery Park) and I mean GREAT. My dog loves to chase after squirrels, never cathes them, but great excercise (THE CITY NEEDS TO KEEP THIS PARK CLEANER). You can walk to Carter Baron, it's a short drive to downtown Silver Spring, and you can easily get to the Rock Creek Parkway and go to the National Zoo, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, or wherever your heart desires.

    If Kennedy Street changes it will either be because genetrication has forced it to change, or the residents finally realized that it's in thier best economic interest to make it change. No study, no street signs, no clean up efforts, no renewed police presence, and no grants for facade improvements will be make the difference. In the case of Shaw and Columbia Heights, developers began to develop, people started to move into those neighborhoods, and retailers followed.

  • Jonny Truth

    I'll tell you what the problem is... the black community. That's the problem. Truth hurts. You tell me one predominantly black city in the country that is affluent, prosperous and clean and I'll give you a million dollars. For instance, name me a Beverly Hills, Potomac, Bethesda, Laguna Beach, Nantucket, wherever. I mean let's be realistic here, I could name 100 white cities but I can't name one black city or community that is affluent. Don't go getting all mad at me and call me racist. It's a simple question and nobody can answer it. Stats don't lie. Black communities are dangerous, riddled with drug deals, violence and litter everywhere... oh yeah, and pit bulls too. If you ever are looking to buy a home do not purchase one in a neighborhood if you see a lot of pit bulls. Those of you who understand know exactly what I'm talking about. How about this... why don't all the blacks in these communities go out and GET JOBS AND START CONTRIBUTING TO THE COMMUNITY! Change never starts to happen until white people move in... and you ALL know this is true.

  • Jonny Truth

    And another thing... Culture Coffee Shop is gonna fail sooner or later. You can't even get a coffee there at 9am on a Saturday or Sunday. What kind of coffee shop is that?! And I think they close at 4pm? I mean, it's basically only open when all the customers are at work! Great business model. Great "heartbeat" of Kennedy Street.

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