How Mount Pleasant quietly became a national model for resisting gentrification
On Monday afternoon, June 1, the city of Washington was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Seven days after the killing of George Floyd, scenes of mobs, flames, cops and chaos looped endlessly on screens large and small, interrupted only by images of boarded-up windows and now the spectacle of a phalanx of uniformed soldiers routing peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square across the street from the White House.
I was sitting an 11-minute drive north of the mayhem at the carryout end of the Marx Cafe bar in the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. The regulars who lined the bar — masked and (sort of) socially distanced — stared up in appalled silence at a TV as the president hoisted a Bible. The country was disintegrating during happy hour. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 7 p.m. curfew order was fast approaching. The crowd thinned.
Across the street at the Best World supermarket, co-owner Young Pak was closing early. Pak and her husband bought the store a decade ago and have served the neighborhood ever since in economical style. The store’s large, unprotected plate-glass windows looked vulnerable to the worst of intentions floating in the Washington air that night. Pak locked herself in, and I hurried home.
I couldn’t help but think of the Mount Pleasant riot of May 1991. That was the last time Washington had seen widespread civil disorder. A police shooting of a Salvadoran immigrant had triggered several days of window smashing and car burning, a cataclysm that made the neighborhood notorious for years to come.
“I had heard about that riot a long time ago,” Pak later told me. When the Paks bought the supermarket in 2011, the front windows still had iron grates installed for self-protection by the previous owners. Over the years, as Mount Pleasant recovered and thrived, the memories of the riot faded. At the suggestion of a neighbor, Pak had taken down the grates a few years before, figuring she would never need them. On the night of June 1, she regretted her choice. “I wished I had them now,” she said, laughing.
By nightfall, the nation’s capital was engulfed in a wave of looting and vandalism, some it of targeting national chains. Across the District, more than 200 businesses were damaged. At least six CVS stores from Capitol Hill to Friendship Heights were looted or burned. The disorder, The Washington Post reported, spread to “normally tranquil residential neighborhoods.”
Not Mount Pleasant. There was no CVS to loot; thanks to neighborhood activists, the pharmacy chain’s plans to open a store on Mount Pleasant Street had recently been thwarted. Where a new CVS might well have stood, the humble Best World supermarket was unscathed. In fact, on Mount Pleasant Street, not a single store was damaged, not one pane of glass broken. On the most tumultuous day in Washington in three decades, the neighborhood that breathed tear gas in 1991 saw no violence, no disorder, no arrests. Call it luck. Call it design. Call it Mount Pleasant.
“I call it the real America,” Frank Agbro, musician and host of a biweekly porch concert, told me. “The American Dream, where people from all over the world, all religions, all different backgrounds come together to make a community that works.”
Karen “Dr. K” Wilson, center, sings with James Stafford and Freedome Nsoroma El, and Maceo Kemp on piano at one of Frank Agbro’s “Six Feet Aparty” concerts.
Agbro performs with his Frankojazz Family Band. He hosts regular concerts outside his house.
Von Griffin and Isabel Dorneles dance at a concert.
TOP: Karen “Dr. K” Wilson, center, sings with James Stafford and Freedome Nsoroma El, and Maceo Kemp on piano at one of Frank Agbro’s “Six Feet Aparty” concerts. BOTTOM LEFT: Agbro performs with his Frankojazz Family Band. He hosts regular concerts outside his house. BOTTOM RIGHT: Von Griffin and Isabel Dorneles dance at a concert.
In recent decades, a tide of gentrification has swept across America’s urban centers. In Washington, office blocks have sprung up along North and South Capitol streets, while whole new neighborhoods have been created around previously underused real estate: Union Market in a Northeast warehouse district, Nationals Park on the Anacostia River waterfront. And some communities have all but vanished: From 1980 to 2010, Shaw went from being 80 percent Black to 30 percent.
Mount Pleasant, meanwhile, has followed an unusual trajectory: It hasn’t changed much at all. It has long been a haven for immigrants, activists, punk rockers, entrepreneurs, revolutionaries and returning Peace Corps volunteers — and it still is. The residential streets sloping down to Rock Creek Park are thick with do-gooders: social workers, wonks, economists, immigration lawyers, musicians, ministers, artists, florists, yoga instructors, divorce lawyers and even the odd journalist. The apartment buildings along Mount Pleasant Street are more diverse: home to busboys, cooks, cashiers, waitresses, teachers, security guards and esquineros (corner guys), the older Latin men who drink coffee and play dominoes outside the paint store.
The neighborhood has 12,644 residents, according to the latest Census Bureau figures: 57 percent White, 17 percent Black, 13 percent “other race,” 6 percent multiracial and 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Twenty-seven percent of residents identify as Latino; a quarter are foreign-born. It’s less wealthy than Cleveland Park to the west, quieter than bustling Columbia Heights to the east, more staid than rambunctious Adams Morgan to the south. “It doesn’t have the White privilege vibe of Capitol Hill,” says Rob Robinson, a former aide to Marion Barry when he was mayor, who has lived in both neighborhoods.
Expensive restaurants are one of the major symptoms of gentrification, but Mount Pleasant Street has always had a healthy ratio of affordable to high-end food. The neighborhood has one trendy eatery, Elle, but I prefer the offerings of five less-expensive establishments on the same block, a veritable United Nations of carryout: SabyDee (Thai and Laotian), Taqueria Nacional (Mexican), Corado’s (Guatemalan), Don Jaime’s (Salvadoran) and Angelico (Italian).
Mount Pleasant Street has two national chain stores (a 7-Eleven and a Subway) and three places to wire money to your home country. It has a boutique grocery (Each Peach) and a market for immigrants (El Progreso). It has a gym, a dollar store, two nail salons, three hair salons and a jewelry store.
It is home to El West, a clothing store owned and run for the past 25 years by an immigrant from El Salvador, who selects and orders her eclectic apparel herself. Down the street, I get my shoes patched in the oddly shaped Leon’s Shoe Repair shop, run by Randy Leon. The son of a Guatemalan cobbler and Salvadoran mother, he grew up in the neighborhood. Sometimes I sit for a coffee on the blue velvet stools at Addis Paris, a cafe owned by Menem (Amy) Solomon. After she was born in Ethiopia, her family moved to France. She came to Mount Pleasant to pursue her dreams of building a business with Afro-Parisian style.
“I don’t want it to be U Street or Adams Morgan or 14th Street,” Haris Dallas, co-owner of Marx Cafe, says of Mount Pleasant. “It’s a beautiful place.”
Then there is the iconic Raven Grill, a cozy neighborhood bar owned by Merid Admassu, an accountant, also from Ethiopia. Admassu first came to the Raven to drink with African American buddies in the 1990s. He stuck around to buy the place. Merid’s genius was to change very little, besides expanding the choice of dollar-a-bag potato chips.
In search of wine, I go to Irving Wine & Spirits, owned by Jesse Chong. He’s a former Web designer, the son of the Korean immigrant who opened the corner store 35 years ago. Next door, at Haydee’s Restaurant, owner Haydee Vanegas of El Salvador and her staff specialize in pupusas and fajita platters while hosting performances by Rock Creek Jazz, a multinational ensemble anchored by a white-maned bass player recently retired from the Department of Energy. The music is on hold for the duration of the pandemic, but you can still eat at the curbside tables.
Before the pandemic, Marx Cafe often burst with the sound of live music and Latin DJs. Co-owner Haris Dallas is sometimes dejected by the pandemic, which has turned his once lively tavern into a streamlined carryout service, but he never wavers on Mount Pleasant. “I don’t want it to be U Street or Adams Morgan or 14th Street,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place.” Indeed, unlike so many other D.C. neighborhoods, Mount Pleasant has quietly made itself into a model for urban America: It’s a place — a collection of citizens — that has managed to maintain a degree of diversity and an attractive sense of community in a city that, swamped by gentrification, seems to be losing both.
Mount Pleasant Street has always had a healthy ratio of affordable to high-end restaurants.
Pedestrians cross Irving Street along Mount Pleasant Road NW.
LEFT: Mount Pleasant Street has always had a healthy ratio of affordable to high-end restaurants. RIGHT: Pedestrians cross Irving Street along Mount Pleasant Road NW.
The devastating death toll from the coronavirus is a reminder that Mount Pleasant was born in another national catastrophe: the Civil War. “I see a train of about thirty huge four-horse wagons, used as ambulances, filled with wounded, passing up Fourteenth street, on their way, probably to Columbian, Carver, and Mount Pleasant hospitals,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote to a friend in June 1863. The Union soldiers mangled by Confederate bullets in the siege of Richmond were brought back to Mount Pleasant’s hospital, a 1,600-bed pavilion-style building on what was then the pastoral outskirts of the nation’s capital.
The hospital stood near the estate of Samuel Brown, a paymaster in the U.S. Navy Department. Brown had just bought an adjacent property, known as Pleasant Plains, from a Confederate sympathizer who had fled town. He subdivided his property, laid out new streets and started selling lots. Houses began to sprout on the hillside sloping down to the valley of Rock Creek. Brown shrewdly gave his domain a more enticing name: Mount Pleasant.
The opening of a trolley line to downtown Washington in 1903 sparked a building boom. The streets of Samuel Brown’s subdivision were soon lined with new rowhouses. Walter Johnson, the great pitcher for the Washington Senators, lived on Irving Street in the 1910s. Robert La Follette, the progressive senator from Wisconsin, lived on 18th Street in the 1920s. Mount Pleasant was dubbed Washington’s first “streetcar suburb.”
Racism, however, ruled the streets. A map created by the D.C. Policy Center shows that by 1927 virtually all the homeowners in Mount Pleasant had signed deeds with racial covenants forbidding sale to African Americans. As the city grew with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the coming of World War II, those rowhouses were converted into boardinghouses, many occupied by single women. They were the so-called government girls who worked as secretaries and clerks in federal offices.
After the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial covenants were not legally enforceable, the all-White neighborhood began to change. In 1950, Robert Deane, a physician at Howard University’s hospital, bought a seven-bedroom Georgian Revival mansion on Park Road. The Mount Pleasant Citizens Association sued to block his purchase and lost. As residential segregation barriers fell and White residents left for the suburbs, Black families in the heart of the city moved north. By 1970, Mount Pleasant was 65 percent Black.
Today’s Mount Pleasant dates to the 1970s, when the neighborhood slowly became not just an address but a kind of collective identity. Among the newcomers were a couple of second-generation immigrants, named Jan and Phil Fenty. Jan came from an Italian American family in Buffalo. Phil was the Afro-Caribbean son of a barber from Panama by way of Barbados. Around the corner from them was the group house of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a hangout for soldiers returning from Vietnam, including the young John F. Kerry.
The neighborhood was a “real rainbow,” Phil Fenty told me over the summer on a Zoom call with his wife. “The kids learned that they could be outside all the time. … It was fantastic for them and for us.” The Fentys’ son Adrian would grow up to become mayor of D.C.
In 1973, the Community of Christ, a lay-led Lutheran group dedicated to social justice, bought the biggest building on Mount Pleasant Street and made it available rent-free to peace activists, pro-immigrant groups and musicians. In the 1980s, the group house scene flourished. The Embassy was a house associated with the punk rock band Nation of Ulysses. Hoover house hosted a band of the same name. “These places were somewhere between boardinghouses and communes,” says Ian MacKaye, leader of the band Fugazi, now a homeowner on Irving Street. “People weren’t just looking for cheap housing. They were friends. They were places full of intention.” The Lamont Street Collective, a politically inclined group house, was as popular as a private college. When a room came open, dozens of people would apply to move in.
At the same time, Mount Pleasant was attracting a very different group of newcomers, starting with a stream of people from a small city near the Pacific Ocean in El Salvador called Intipucà. Intipequeños, as the residents are known, had been coming to Washington since the late 1960s, recruited by embassies, hotels and restaurants. But the civil war that engulfed El Salvador in the 1980s fueled emigration of ever more people seeking a safer life. The Community of Christ provided sanctuary to undocumented refugees fleeing the war. The Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) helped the newcomers with asylum applications and immigration issues. By 1990, Mount Pleasant was 27 percent Hispanic, up from less than 1 percent two decades earlier.
It was a volatile mix. Longtime residents, Black and White, were bewildered by the undocumented newcomers who didn’t speak English. For the Salvadorans, holding one or two or three jobs was no guarantee of a good life. Some felt harassed by police officers who couldn’t speak their language. All of which culminated in the Mount Pleasant riot, a two-day cataclysm of property violence that traumatized the neighborhood yet also strengthened it in the long run.
It started on the early evening of May 5, 1991, when two police officers, both new to the job and neither of whom spoke Spanish, arrested an inebriated Salvadoran man, Daniel Gomez. In handcuffs, he struggled to pull a knife from his pocket. One of the officers yelled, “Freeze,” then shot him once in the chest. Gomez was taken away in critical condition. Although he survived, many onlookers assumed he was dead.
The growing crowd shouted that police had killed a man for no reason. Years of pent-up resentments exploded. Randy Leon, watching from his father’s shoe repair store, saw rocks and bottles raining down on police officers standing in the middle of Lamont Street. Jesse Chong, then 11 years old, was watching the TV news when he saw police in riot helmets lined up on Irving Street outside his father’s liquor store.
As the police retreated, crowds of young Latinos smashed windows and looted. “I have covered a lot of stories in this town,” wrote reporter Hamil Harris in the Washington Afro-American newspaper, “but I have never seen and experienced the hell which transpired in the Mount Pleasant community tonight.” (Harris later became a reporter for The Post.)
The riot galvanized residents and the D.C. government to take remedial action. “The city started paying attention to the Salvadoran community,” recalls Catalina Sol, then a staffer at CARECEN, now director of La Clínica del Pueblo, which has long had offices in Mount Pleasant. Juan Romagoza, the first director of La Clínica, did trainings for the D.C. police, which began to hire more Spanish-speaking officers. The mayor worked with a Latino Task Force on Civil Rights and bolstered the Office of Latino Affairs. Under the leadership of Maria Tukeva, a Mount Pleasant resident, the D.C. public schools expanded Bell Multicultural High School on 16th Street to educate students who didn’t speak English as a first language. La Clínica gained funding for health services. The nonprofit Latin American Youth Center catered to young people seeking after-school programs and general equivalency degrees. With a little help from the city, the newcomers gained a stake in the neighborhood.
Over the years, the city government also became an asset to the neighborhood in the area of affordable housing — thanks in no small part to David Clarke, chairman of the D.C. Council who was, not coincidentally, a resident of Mount Pleasant. Clarke, one of the flawed giants who loomed large in D.C. politics in the late 20th century, grew up in Shaw in the 1950s. He was White, but many of his friends and neighbors were Black. In church, he absorbed a biblical conviction in social justice and went on to earn a law degree from Howard University. He moved into a clapboard house on 17th Street NW, rode his bicycle to work and became known for defending poor people. After home rule came to the District in 1973, Clarke was the first elected council representative for Ward 1, which includes Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. And he believed with a passion in affordable housing.
Plenty of people can play a role in resisting gentrification — immigrant entrepreneurs, cultural creators, community activists, historical preservationists — but no single factor is more important than affordable housing. In 1980, Clarke co-sponsored a model law to help low-income D.C. tenants become homeowners. The Rental Housing Conversion and Sale Act created the legal basis for the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, known as TOPA. One of the most progressive housing measures in the country, the law gives tenants in the District the right to buy their apartment building if it is put up for sale. TOPA buildings became an anchor for Mount Pleasant, keeping working-class people in the neighborhood.
The tenants of the historic Kenesaw (now Renaissance) apartments, a magnificent seven-story limestone and buff brick apartment building on 16th Street NW, were able to get title to the building with help from Clarke. Half a block away on Mount Pleasant Street, a 34-unit building was about to be sold to developers in the mid-1990s when the tenants decided they wanted to stay. With the help of the Latino Economic Development Corp., a city-funded agency, the tenants bought the building as a co-op. The Adelante Mount Pleasant Cooperative is still going strong two decades later.
“If you’ve been here a long time, you can see the layers,” says Catalina Sol, director of La Clínica del Pueblo. “It still feels like a place where the history of our community is not just visible, but real.”
In the early 2000s, the Martinez family, living in the St. Dennis Apartments on Kenyon Street NW, confronted an owner who they believed was trying to empty the 32-unit building with buyouts and poor management. Eva Martinez, along with her two adult daughters — Anabel and Eva Aurora — filed suit, eventually reaching a settlement that allowed them to buy the property in 2008. The National Housing Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving affordable housing, helped the tenants acquire and renovate the building. The St. Dennis reopened in 2011 with all apartments reserved for households earning no more than 60 percent of the D.C. median income. Eight units are set aside for families who pay no more than 30 percent of their income as rent.
The biggest achievement was one of the neighborhood’s largest apartment buildings, the Deauville. The 85-unit building went up in flames in 2008, the city’s first five-alarm fire in nearly 30 years. After the flames were doused, the tenants sought to take control of the building, which allegedly had been mismanaged for years. Under Mayor Fenty, the city bought the building and turned it over to the residents. Again, the National Housing Trust supplied financing and legal help.
“The residents were so eager to come back to the neighborhood that they stuck together for six years,” says Priya Jayachandran, CEO of the National Housing Trust. “For 36 families to move back into the building six years later is impressive.” In 2014, the building was reopened under a new name, Monsenor Romero Apartments, in honor of Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero, a tribune of the poor whose assassination in 1980 marked the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war. All 63 apartments in the Romero are rented at below-market prices.
In a community of under 13,000 people, all of these buildings have made a real difference in fostering a livable and diverse neighborhood. Meanwhile, Mount Pleasant’s tradition of activism conserves as it renews. In 2016, the aging membership of the Community of Christ decided to dissolve its congregation — and voted to turn the building over to La Clínica del Pueblo. A grand building that in another neighborhood might have become a high-end restaurant or retail outlet wound up as home to Empodérate (Empower Yourself), an HIV-prevention program aimed at transgender Latino youth.
“In Mount Pleasant you feel like you’re standing with ghosts, layered on top of each other,” La Clínica’s Sol told me. “If you’ve been here a long time, you can see the layers. It still feels like a place where the history of our community is not just visible, but real.”
Anil Kadari, owner of Mount Pleasant Pharmacy. He bought the business last year. “The neighborhood feeling is there,” Kadari says of Mount Pleasant. “Normally in big cities you don’t see a loyal customer base. Here we recognize people on the street.”
The Heller’s Bakery mural. Currently the old bakery houses Elle, the neighborhood’s one trendy restaurant. The laundromat is scheduled for demolition to make room for a condo building.
LEFT: Anil Kadari, owner of Mount Pleasant Pharmacy. He bought the business last year. “The neighborhood feeling is there,” Kadari says of Mount Pleasant. “Normally in big cities you don’t see a loyal customer base. Here we recognize people on the street.” RIGHT: The Heller’s Bakery mural. Currently the old bakery houses Elle, the neighborhood’s one trendy restaurant. The laundromat is scheduled for demolition to make room for a condo building.
The peace that reigned in Mount Pleasant on the troubled night of June 1, 2020, could be traced back to a single moment in 2018 — when a gimlet-eyed neighborhood activist (who asked that I not use his name) noticed what looked like a camera mounted over the plexiglass doors of the Best World supermarket at 3178 Mount Pleasant St. NW. The device, he discovered, was something called a people counter. “Who wanted to know about how many people were coming and going from the Best World?” he told me he wondered. He checked in with his friends, Young and In Pak, who own the store but not the building. They said they didn’t know anything about it.
The activist started to ask questions and learned that CVS was interested in the location. The prospect of a chain store in the middle of Mount Pleasant was anathema to him and just about everybody he talked to. Before long, there was a petition on the counter at the Mount Pleasant Care Pharmacy across the street declaring that a CVS store would be an “eyesore and completely out of scale.” The signatories affirmed their intention “to boycott any CVS that would be built at this location, and to encourage our family friends to do the same.” More than a thousand people signed, 9 percent of the neighborhood.
A design firm for CVS made inquiries at the Historic Preservation Office in the city’s Office of Planning, according to a spokesman for the office. The company was told that demolition, signage and other plans would have to be reviewed in more detail to ensure compliance with the character of the historic district. CVS never submitted a formal application.
The tradition of neighborhood activism may have made a difference. For more than a decade, Historic Mount Pleasant, a group led by a formidable retired lawyer named Fay Armstrong, has watched over the neighborhood’s historical architecture with a vigilance that the planning office and developers have learned to respect. Historic Mount Pleasant wasn’t directly involved in the CVS issue, Armstrong told me. But the group’s activism may well have figured into the company’s calculations.
Historic Mount Pleasant, sometimes derided as “design Nazis” by more freewheeling neighbors, had previously struck not one but two blows against gentrification. In 2003, developers proposed building condominiums to replace the former gas station occupied by Wilson Amaya’s Mount Pleasant Auto Repair at the south end of Mount Pleasant Street. Historic Mount Pleasant pointed out the building was the last of the three gas stations that had dotted the street in the 1940s. The city rejected the plans in 2003 and a similar plan in 2015. Instead of $300,000 condos, Amaya’s auto repair shop stayed. Amaya, who emigrated from El Salvador in the 1970s, has now worked on the street 34 years, enabling him to put his three kids through college.
District Bridges, a nonprofit organization funded by city agencies and private donors that is active in Mount Pleasant and five other Northwest Washington neighborhoods, played a role in the CVS controversy, too. The organization provides support and advice to small-business owners as a way of fostering healthy communities. Brianne Dornbush, its executive director, recalls that the group made its views known to CVS. “A CVS might be a great fit in another neighborhood,” she told me, “but not in Mount Pleasant where it would displace a neighborhood supermarket and threaten other locally owned businesses.”
In the face of an organized community, CVS decided at some point in 2019 not to pursue a Mount Pleasant location. (A spokesman said CVS had no comment.) Best World stayed in business — and the ripples spread. When the threat of a CVS went away, the Paks’ next-door neighbor, Alberto Ferrufino, also averted likely extinction. He owns and runs Don Juan Restaurant, a big, airy place that occupies one corner of the building that houses Best World. Mount Pleasant Pharmacy across the street also benefited. The pharmacy opened in 1983, run by Tony Majeed, an immigrant from Suriname, and his wife, Joan. Last year, the Majeeds retired and sold the business to Anil Kadari, a pharmacist originally from Hyderabad, India.
“The neighborhood feeling is there,” Kadari says of Mount Pleasant. “Normally in big cities you don’t see a loyal customer base. Here we recognize people on the street. We can make exceptions. We can waive co-payments. We can make decisions for our customers at the store itself. Those are things that don’t happen at CVS.” Thanks to one observant neighbor, three locally owned businesses stayed put and an out-of-state corporation took a hike.
Wilson Amaya at his repair shop in Mount Pleasant. Amaya, who emigrated from El Salvador in the 1970s, has now worked in the neighborhood 34 years, enabling him to put his three kids through college.
Merid Admassu, originally from Ethiopia, came to the Raven to drink with African American buddies in the late 1990s. He eventually bought the bar.
Juan Antonio Hernandez looks out the window of his restaurant, La Bahia, the newest one on Mount Pleasant Street. Hernandez is a native of El Salvador who came to the United States in 1987.
TOP: Wilson Amaya at his repair shop in Mount Pleasant. Amaya, who emigrated from El Salvador in the 1970s, has now worked in the neighborhood 34 years, enabling him to put his three kids through college. BOTTOM LEFT: Merid Admassu, originally from Ethiopia, came to the Raven to drink with African American buddies in the late 1990s. He eventually bought the bar. BOTTOM RIGHT: Juan Antonio Hernandez looks out the window of his restaurant, La Bahia, the newest one on Mount Pleasant Street. Hernandez is a native of El Salvador who came to the United States in 1987.
And then along came the coronavirus pandemic to rearrange everything. The convenience stores are busy, and, according to Jesse Chong, business at the liquor store is just fine — but everywhere else, fortitude is mandatory. Merid Admassu, owner of the Raven, told me in the summer, “It’s a very scary time for an older guy like me.” When I contacted him again recently, he admitted to being bored and depressed. “Business is really, really, really bad,” he said. He sounded miserable until I asked him about the future. He perked up. “I think we’re going to be around for many years, once this thing is over. The Raven has been there for over 80 years. I’m not going to give up now.”
In the Best World supermarket, Young Pak told me that the grocery business in the time of covid is “just okay, not great.” On the corner of Mount Pleasant and Lamont streets, Randy Leon still runs the family shoe repair shop, but he admits to feeling bleak about the future. “I just remind myself this isn’t crushing just me,” he says. “It’s crushing everybody.”
All the while, the demand for urban residential real estate continues to increase, which drives ever-rising property values, a boon to longtime Mount Pleasant homeowners and a bane to anybody paying rent. As an attractive place to live, Mount Pleasant inevitably draws people with money. The kind of rowhouses that the likes of Jan and Phil Fenty paid $30,000 for back in the 1970s now sell for $900,000.
Can the Mount Pleasant miracle last? There are certainly some ominous indications. A public notice taped to the window of one of Mount Pleasant’s two laundromats currently says that the building is scheduled for demolition. A wash-and-dry emporium used by immigrant families will be replaced by a four-story, 15-unit condominium building, with just two apartments set aside for lower-income families.
Indeed, while affordable housing has been a bulwark of the neighborhood, its future is far from assured. The federal government has sponsored very little construction of affordable housing since the 1980s when the Reagan administration cut most funding, and there simply are not a lot of apartment buildings that renters could take over. Plus, TOPA only gives tenants the right to match the market price set by developers, a bar to tenant ownership that rises ever higher. Priya Jayachandran says affordable-housing advocates need to look at the smaller apartment buildings that dot the neighborhood. “The next frontier for tenant ownership is ‘small TOPA,’ meaning the conversion of buildings with eight to 12 units,” she says. “It’s harder to do, but that’s where the people are.”
It would be naive to expect Mount Pleasant, alone among neighborhoods, to create protections against the pressures of the real estate market and the realities of unequal America. And yet, it has done far better than most. At least for now, it remains a model for city dwellers who want to live in a real community, not a collection of marketing niches. “Mount Pleasant is a resilient place,” says Mark Aguirre, owner of two apartment buildings and the head of the neighborhood business association. He should know. He and his partner, Wayne, closed on the purchase of the two buildings on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Two decades later, he and Wayne are still in Mount Pleasant. In fact, they just moved into one of their buildings. “We always wanted to live here,” Aguirre told me. “That was always the plan.”
I recently stopped in La Bahia, the newest restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street, wondering what kind of brave soul would open a business in the middle of a deadly pandemic and economic depression. The answer: Juan Antonio Hernandez, a native of El Salvador who came to the United States in 1987. Hernandez, 45 years old, told me in Spanish that he worked as a cook for 23 years at a Salvadoran restaurant on the south side of Capitol Hill. No, he didn’t get fired. He always wanted to run his own place, and the time had come. “I want to give it a try,” he said.
Hernandez named his establishment after Bahía de Jiquilisco, a beautiful bay in El Salvador, near where he grew up. Why come to Mount Pleasant? “I always liked the neighborhood and I saw that it was getting better.” Why start a business when so many are closing? “I want to give it try,” he repeated behind his mask. “We have to be optimistic.” That’s not crazy, I thought. That’s Mount Pleasant.
Corrections: Leon’s Shoe Repair is at the corner of Mount Pleasant and Lamont streets, not Mount Pleasant and Irving as this article originally stated. In addition, the D.C. mayor worked with, but did not create, the Latino Task Force on Civil Rights.
Jefferson Morley is a Washington writer and author of “Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.”
Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.