This is Ivy City, a small neighborhood off New York Avenue NE. Now, much of it is in the hands of one man. Who plans to make it big.
When developer Doug Jemal stands on the front steps of his new apartment development in the former Hecht Warehouse in Northeast Washington, gazing out at the panorama before him, he’s like a monarch surveying his kingdom: Almost everything, as far as the eye can see, belongs to him.
“This is mine,” he says, pointing at a collection of warehouses adjacent to a wire-fenced lot full of D.C. Department of Public Works snowplows and garbage trucks. He motions to his left: “Everything east of here is ours, all the way to 16th Street [NE]. To put this into trite perspective so you’d understand, because you’re not a developer, CityCenter is approximately 10 acres,” he says. “We’re 30 acres. This is three times the size of CityCenter.”
This is Ivy City, a small neighborhood off New York Avenue NE that is many things: A longtime dumping ground for the District. An even-longer-time home to a tight-knit African American community. A food and liquor manufacturing hot spot. An up-and-coming neighborhood, according to some. And a place that others say has been forgotten, abandoned and neglected for decades.
Now, much of it is in the hands of one man. Who plans to make it big.
The hardest thing about bringing an antique train car to his new mixed-use development, Jemal says, wasn’t finding one to purchase — “You get online and you buy them” — it was getting it here. “The train cost $10,000, and to ship it was $30,000,” he says.
At the moment, the train car is sitting alone on some abandoned tracks that run parallel to Okie Street NE. Soon it will become a transport-themed bar that will be just one of the amenities opening in the neighborhood over the next year.
There will be restaurants — three owned by Ari Gejdenson, owner of Ghibellina — and bars, one by Geoff Dawson, owner of Buffalo Billiards. Compass Coffee will roast beans across the street from the Hecht Warehouse apartments. There’s a Mom’s Organic Market, where visitors can buy freshly pressed green ginger juice and gluten-free linguine, and a soon-to-open Petco, with a doggy day care. Clothing stores — Jemal says his company, Douglas Development, is “working with Macy’s, Zara, H&M, Gap” — are on their way. There’s CrossFit and Bikram yoga.
“What I’ve built before is a building somewhere, but this is more like a city,” Jemal says. “This is more of a community.”
And at the center of it all is the Hecht Warehouse — an architectural diamond in the rough. Built in 1937 in an art deco architectural style called Streamline Moderne, the defunct department store’s warehouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Jemal bought it in 2011 for less than $20 million, getting a $50 million discount after it fell into foreclosure.
Because of the building’s historic designation, Douglas Development couldn’t significantly alter the exterior, but construction workers carved out three courtyards to bring light and common space to interior units. They sectioned the space into sleek and modern apartments with up to three bedrooms, some with unique original architectural elements. Chimney stacks feature prominently. Original brick was unearthed.
Later this month, a third of the 335 luxury units will be available for rent, ranging from studios starting at $1,400 to three-bedroom units from $3,800 (21 units will be available at reduced income-adjusted rents). Residents will enjoy such amenities as a rooftop dog park, a basement speakeasy, Capitol dome views and electronic color-changing door signs. But for now, one of the only places that’s drawing any activity is the Planet Fitness in the building, where huge lettering on the stairs tells patrons, “You belong!”
Do they? The question of belonging elicits mixed feelings from the neighborhood’s advocates and longtime residents, who are eager to take advantage of the new amenities but wary of being gentrified out of their homes. And for some of the entrepreneurs moving in, the topic of gentrification is an uneasy one.
Not for Jemal.
“I can’t understand what the word candidly means,” he says. “It’s not gentrification; it’s progress. Life moves on. The past is the past, and the future is the future.”
“Ivies don’t grow here anymore”
Ivy City got its name from Thomas Seaton Donoho, a Civil War-era poet and author who was obsessed with ivy. He called his three-story house Ivy Hall. He titled his book of poetry “Ivy Wall.” And when he dubbed his estate on this once-rural parcel outside the L’Enfant Plan “Ivy City,” the name stuck, becoming official in 1873, when Georgetown lawyer Frederick W. Jones laid out the streets and offered plots of land for $100 apiece.
From 1879 to 1893, a horse-racing track called the Ivy City Fairgrounds operated alongside the train tracks. Railroad workers, many of them African American, moved into the neighborhood, which had its own stop on a local rail line. The stop disappeared when the tracks were moved in the early 1900s — contributing to a sense of isolation that persists today. Warehouses began to move into the then-vibrant neighborhood, alongside churches, schools and families.
In the 1960s, the District attempted to change Ivy City zoning to entirely commercial, then proposed wiping the neighborhood out with plans for a six-lane highway. Residents successfully fought off these plans, but not before many moved out.
ABOVE: Men hang out near an auto body shop and a homeless shelter. Now that the neighborhood is changing rapidly, the gulf between the “new” and the “old” Ivy City is growing wider.
The dwindling neighborhood acquired a reputation as the District’s dumping ground.Drug dealers moved in. A trash transfer station brought rats and foul odors. The Hecht Warehouse soon shared the street with mega-nightclubs, attracting violence that continues today — just last month, a community activist, Percy Williams, was shot and killed near Mount Olivet Cemetery.
In a 2002 essay for The Washington Post, resident Chanelle Bracey wrote: “In the last decade, I have watched Ivy City dwindle from a working-class area filled with promise to a poverty-stricken community plagued by drugs and prostitution. Ivy used to cover many houses and the former Alexander Crummell School. But visitors to this impoverished section of the city will soon find that lovely cascading ivies don’t grow here anymore.”
Douglas Development has planted ivy along the railings at the Hecht building entrance. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, you can hardly spot a blade of grass. As the apartments’ opening date approaches, the contrast between the “new” and the “old” Ivy City grows starker.
A homeless shelter operates next door to the newly opened second location of food-business incubator Union Kitchen. Vacant townhouses and crumbling buildings stand just blocks from apartments designed with a vintage industrial aesthetic. There’s seemingly as much razor wire as there is deco-style glass brick.
ABOVE: Jose Luis Guzman, the longtime owner of Louis’ restaurant, welcomes the changes with a cautious optimism.
It’s a disparity that Parisa Norouzi, the executive director of the community-organizing group Empower DC, has noticed in her years assisting the neighborhood. Her organization helped neighbors sue the District in 2012 to block a proposed bus depot. In August, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told residents that the Crummell School lot would not be used for buses.
“Here’s a neighborhood that within the span of a couple of years is still undesirable enough to put a bus depot, but is also this next place where the city would never dare to put a bus depot,” says Norouzi. “It’s been teetering on the edge of blight and gentrification, and neither one of those are fair to these multigenerational families who have sustained Ivy City.”
What Norouzi sees happening in Ivy City is the familiar gentrification story: The lucky few who own their homes may be able to stay — if they can deal with the inevitable tax increases. The renters, she fears, are likely to be displaced.
Residents have greeted the developer with caution.
“I don’t think anybody wants to stop the development,” two-year resident Belinda Taylor says. She and her family are hoping for “responsible development, development that takes into account that they are coming into an established community.”
If you ask the newcomers, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re not pushing people out, because the buildings they’re taking over have been vacant for years.
“This building has been here forever. There’s nothing wrong with it being renovated, restored and becoming vibrant,” says Julian Looney, an architect with Antunovich Associates, which is handling the Hecht Warehouse renovation.
“It’s not gentrification, but rather the activation of an area that hasn’t been used,” says Jonas Singer, a co-founder of Union Kitchen.
Not true, says Norouzi.
“It’s funny how people can be so aware of what they’re doing and act so innocent. Like, ‘Oh, it was a vacant building. That’s not gentrification,’ ” she says. “Ultimately, that’s the whole point of gentrification. By virtue of their money and status, they have the ability to come into a place and shape it in their own image.”
Newcomers talk about their desire to hire from the neighborhood and work with neighborhood groups, but so far, Norouzi says, it’s mostly talk. A couple of businesses “have done the easy things,” she says, like giving “a little money or some hot dogs for a community event.” (A spokeswoman for Union Kitchen says the company recently convened a group of government agencies and neighboring businesses to talk about neighborhood improvements.)
Not everyone in the “old” neighborhood feels the way Norouzi does. Luis Vasquez, department director for homeless and housing services for Catholic Charities, oversees the New York Avenue men’s shelter, which serves 360 men each night. “So far, it’s been a positive experience to us in terms of organizations reaching out to do some volunteer work in our shelter and provide assistance,” he says.
For their part, Singer and co-founder Cullen Gilchrist of Union Kitchen say they’ve done a lot of thinking about how to be a positive force in the area. Though Gilchrist admits that he didn’t know where Ivy City was until they began looking for a second building, he has come to see Union Kitchen as a “thought leader” in driving the Ivy City culture to be inclusive.
“Can you revitalize a neighborhood, can you grow a neighborhood, without gentrifying it?” he says. “I think you can. I think it comes from what your use is, and I think our use is really important to that, and that our use speaks to the neighborhood.”
He hopes that in five years, the neighborhood will be “cool in a way we don’t feel bad about.”
ABOVE: The neighborhood is attractive to food and alcohol producers like ProFish and New Columbia Distillers. Other distilleries are moving in.
Nowhere is the old vs. new metaphor more obvious than at the corner of Fenwick and Okie streets. On the west side of Fenwick is Louis’ Restaurant, a diner-style carryout that has been the only restaurant in Ivy City for decades. On the other side, in the ground level of the Hecht building, restaurateur Gejdenson will be opening another diner.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘upscale,’ ” Gejdenson said. “It’s your typical diner stuff, but we’re going to try to source as many restaurants do these days — locally, organically.”
Gejdenson’s diner will be part restaurant, part trade school. He wants to give veterans and underprivileged people in the neighborhood culinary and front-of-the-house jobs that will train them for future restaurant work. He aims to create between 60 and 80 jobs.
Across the street, Jose Luis Guzman and his seven employees open the doors to his diner every day at 5:30 a.m. — 6 a.m. on Sundays — with cautious optimism.
“I’m excited for the change no matter what happens,” Guzman says. “It’s always good for the city; it’s always good for the neighborhood.”
But it may not be good for him. Guzman has worked at Louis’ since 1993 and purchased the business in 2004. But he doesn’t own the building, and he’s currently negotiating with his landlord to renew the lease.
“With all the changes coming in the neighborhood, it will be very sad” if he were forced to close, Guzman says. “It would be good for the city to notice places like this and preserve places like this in the neighborhood. We’ve been keeping the neighborhood alive.”
On one ordinary day, the diner is half-full, with construction workers building the mixed-use development that may put Guzman out of business and neighborhood Little Leaguers drinking fruit punch and eating watermelon. The menu features the catch-all fare you find in many carryouts: egg and sausage sandwiches and hotcakes for breakfast, fried chicken, deli sandwiches, and fried fish platters for lunch and dinner. It’s food “based on everyday people, working people,” Guzman says.
But he has decided to make some changes to accommodate the neighborhood’s new clientele. He plans to add seafood, steaks and healthier fare while still serving breakfast all day to court the roll-out-of-bed-with-a-hangover crowd. In other words, he’ll be doing exactly what Gejdenson’s restaurant will do — but without the organic, local farm pedigree, and in a building that looks old, but not in the nostalgic, retro way that Gejdenson’s architects will painstakingly re-create.
“I’m going to give it my best shot, to stick around to do business in Ivy City,” Guzman says. “Hopefully everything will come out okay.”
“Forgotten about forever”
One way to make everything turn out okay, current residents say, would be for the new businesses to support the neighborhood petition to make the former Crummell School a neighborhood center. This month, the city will issue a request for proposals for the site. The neglected school stands on one of the few parcels of land in Ivy City that has open space for trees and parkland.
Businesses can also be thoughtful about the way they use the name Ivy City in their branding and marketing. Residents have noticed how quick the new businesses have been to adapt the Ivy City name — some using the hashtag #thisisivycity or, in Nike’s case, putting up “We are Ivy City” posters.
“We were forgotten about forever,” lifelong resident Tyrone Stuckey says. “I don’t think you heard of Ivy City unless somebody got hurt over here.”
As for the newfound recognition, “I don’t want to say we’re offended,” he says, but “it’s like, who are these people?” He called it a “blessing and a curse” — a blessing because he likes the new amenities, especially the Nike store, and a curse because the feeling of being snubbed for decades lingers.
Norouzi objects outright to the businesses, few of which are minority-owned, using the name of a historically African American neighborhood in their branding — a move she equates to swaggerjacking. Taylor says she’d be less bothered by it if the newcomers just got to know her and her neighbors.
“If they want to call themselves ‘We are Ivy City,’ they need to get their hands dirty and not remain on the outskirts,” she says.
But the Hecht building is on the outskirts, Looney says. “This building, it struggles to be a part of Ivy City. It’s its own entity,” he says.
Gejdenson aptly describes it as “kind of in the middle of nowhere next to everything.” Residents don’t have a pedestrian-friendly walk or easy bike ride to the Metro or other neighborhoods. It’s served by only two bus lines.
Jemal is providing parking to all residents in a garage above Mom’s Organic Market, and he’ll be running a shuttle to the Metro.
He knows that the neighborhood has challenges.
“What I do for a living,” he says, is “going to areas that people haven’t gone. I like to go where devils dare to pray. I’ve had no problem overcoming any challenges in any neighborhood. I forward march.”
And besides, he knows the neighborhood better than naysayers may think.
He points to a warehouse toward 16th and Okie. “Right up here, I have an apartment, while I’ve been on the job,” he says. “I know the neighborhood. I’m not a newcomer. I’ve been in Washington for 50 years.”
Previously. Jemal has compared the neighborhood to New York’s Meatpacking District, but now, he’s using an analogy closer to home.
“This is the new 14th Street,” he says. “The affordable 14th Street.”
Finished surveying his kingdom, he stoops to pick up a crushed plastic bottle lying on the curb.
“I’m also a street cleaner on the side,” he quips.
It’s his neighborhood, after all.