PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE IS ONE OF AMERICA'S most iconic streets. But if you follow it a few miles east of the White House and across the Anacostia River, you will find yourself in a very different world. The avenue is lined with gas stations, cheek-cashing shops, and takeout restaurants that serve the area's predominantly African-American population. Many of the storefronts are faded and worn, and it's often difficult to tell whether a functioning business operates inside. Few people stroll the sidewalks.
You wouldn't know it from looking at this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, but the District of Columbia was recently ranked among the top cities in the United States for retail development by Marcus and Millichap, a national real estate advisory firm. The Distriet's downtown has boomed recently, with 54 restaurants and many stores opening since 2007, along with new office and apartment buildings. But the 130,000 Washingtonians who live east of the Anacostia are served by only four sit-down restaurants. The unemployment rates in the area's two wards are roughly 19 and 30 percent, compared with a District average of 10 percent. A third of the residents live below the poverty level.
So it was a big event last August when a new supermarket opened at 2323 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E., in the relatively prosperous Fairlawn neighborhood. Then-mayor Adrian Fenty and Councilmember Marion Barry, a former mayor, came to give speeches and mingle with the crowd. More than 300 people turned out to taste the free samples of sushi rolls and organic hot dogs and explore something Washington had never seen before: an organic grocery store east of the Anacostia.
Because I work for the city government trying to bring new businesses to the District's underserved communities, I was on hand to savor the moment. One of the people I met was an unemployed chef named Dominic who kept himself working with occasional catering jobs. A tall, muscular man with long dreadlocks, Dominic told me how happy he was that he wouldn't have to travel over the Anacostia anymore to get the quality ingredients he needed. Indeed, the owner of the new store had decided to open this location partly because he noticed that many of the customers at his store in the Capitol Hill neighborhood were coming from east of the Anacostia to shop. The nearest conventional grocery store is more than a mile from Fairlawn. The grand opening was just the latest piece of good news for neighborhoods east of the Anacostia, where some of the benefits of Washington's economic stability are finally beginning to arrive. Close to downtown and blessed with falling crime rates, the area has seen its population grow in recent years.
The new supermarket is the latest addition to Yes! Organic Market, a small Washington-based chain whose owner, Gary Cha, a cheerful middle-aged Korean immigrant, has found success with stores that are essentially smaller, more affordably priced versions of a Whole Foods supermarket. The new store on Pennsylvania Avenue sells both organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, and shoppers can find a ready supply of products ranging from freshly packed meats to bulk rice and boxes of macaroni and cheese (10 different kinds, no less). When it opened, Yes! Organic became only the fourth supermarket east of the Anacostia, where there is now one grocery store for every 33,000 residents. Elsewhere in the District, the average is close to one store per 10,000 residents.
It's a big victory when a grocery store opens in a neighborhood like Fairlawn. Health and anti-obesity advocates such as Michelle Obama point out that many poor people have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They say it's imperative to have more grocery stores in inner cities. Urban development boosters such as the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (my former employer) suggest that enlightened businesses can solve urban problems, and are quick to applaud the savvy retail executive who follows the invisible hand to a neighborhood with unmet demand. …