On a recent Sunday, Donald Johnson leaned against the railing outside Upshur Grocery & Deli, slowly taking a puff from his cigarette. The convenience store, which sits at 233 Upshur Street, was abuzz with activity: the back of the shop erupted with the sizzle of frying fish sandwiches, and towards the front, owner Yoseph Hailu chatted with a steady stream of regulars.
But the rest of the 200 block of Upshur was largely quiet, save for a handful of women chatting in front of St. Mary Eritrean Church a few storefronts up. No farmer’s markets, no brunch spots, no bookstores, no thrift shops. Just a ten-minute walk from the bustle of Upshur’s 800 block,
the East end of Upshur is largely undeveloped, despite similarly being zoned for mixed use.
“To be honest, it’s because of the hill,” mused Johnson, who was born 34 years ago in this part of Petworth, and has never left.
“When people get up here, they love it,” he says. But you have to get here first.
Johnson says this place hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s always been close knit, with a strong sense of community. The two buildings on the far end of the block, near the entrance to the Old Soldier’s Home / Armed Forces Retirement Home, have always been the “landmarks” of the neighborhood: Hitching Post Restaurant, at 200 Upshur Street, was the meet-up spot, and Kenny’s Lounge – now Slash Run, at 201 Upshur Street – was where you’d go to party in the ‘90’s.
But other than those spots, Powell’s Barber Shop at 227 Upshur, and Upshur Grocery, there’s not much here. Gazing up the last leafy block before Upshur Street’s Western terminus, where Lincoln’s Cottage quietly looks out across Rock Creek Church Road, you would never guess that just down the hill sit two of DC’s three finalists for Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurants of 2017.”
“It’s a really odd block,” says ANC 4C Commissioner Jonah Goodman, who has lived down the street for the last five years, and has attempted on and off to encourage more businesses to open up here. “There is almost no turnover. There’s not as much foot traffic. It would be great to have more things here, it’s just… can you put something here, and have it survive?”
Petworth realtor Marc Dosik echoes Goodman’s sentiment. He estimates that commercial spaces on the 200 block of Upshur rent for $15 per square foot cheaper than they do on the 800 block. Dosik says that without the easy access of Georgia Avenue, upper Upshur just doesn’t get much foot traffic.
“Retail loves density, and other retail,” he explains. “But this is a ‘destination spot.’ You’re not going there because you’re walking by. You’re going there because you’re saying, ‘let’s go to Slash Run.’”
Even Slash Run, a bar/restaurant/concert venue which opened in 2015 to enthusiastic reviews, isn’t doing so hot by some accounts. The restaurant did not return a request for comment.
“I wouldn’t want a business there,” Dosik sums up, shrugging his shoulders.
Still, as more residents move to the immediate vicinity, and as property values continue to rise, some are hopeful that businesses will find a way to sustain themselves. As we walked the length of the block, Goodman pointed out several buildings, explaining the unique circumstances that have kept each from flourishing. One would-be business lacks alley access, making trash disposal all but impossible; another has been wanting to sell for a while, but is holding out for a higher price; a third – Gordy’s Pickle Jar – uses the space for its commercial packing operation, but has not taken up the idea of a retail store front.
Goodman pointed to a three story building on the block’s Southwest corner, adorned with a “For Sale/Lease” sign. He said the building belongs to Bill Duggan, the owner of Madam’s Organ, a longtime Adams Morgan staple. He hoped Duggan had something interesting in the works.
But Duggan, reached by phone a few days ago, didn’t seem to have grand plans for the building. He originally intended to develop and lease the ground floor – maybe for a restaurant - and to give the residential upper floors to his son. But he’s since soured on the idea, and is now looking to sell.
Why not develop it, as he had intended?
“Because I’m lazy,” Duggan laughed. “I’m done. The neighborhood is incredibly supportive. I had calls from the ANC offering to help me – but I’m getting out of the restaurant game.”
Still, Duggan says the building has outdoor seating for up to 100 people, making it a great opportunity for someone to build an outdoor café. He echoed Goodman’s sentiment that in order for things to take off on the 200 block, longtime owners would need to be motivated to open stores, lease the ground floor space, or sell.
“I think eventually it will explode,” he says. “I think it’s beautiful. But you have properties that have been owned by families [for a long time]. You just have to wait.”
Hailu, on his part, says “absolutely nothing has changed” in the two years he has owned Upshur Grocery, despite the fact that he sees new people coming to the neighborhood.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” he responds, when asked if he’d like to see more businesses on the block. “But why not?”
So what would residents like to see on the 200 block of Upshur?
Johnson says he’d like to see a supermarket -- currently he has to walk almost a mile to get to the Safeway on Georgia Avenue. Goodman says neighbors living on the side streets around Upshur are in favor of more development, and more retail.
But at least some folks living on the Upshur block itself are happy that it’s quiet. Steven Woodward, a recent transplant from Mount Pleasant, said he wasn’t bothered by the lack of activity.
“It’d be cool if there was a restaurant up here…” he offered as I pressed him about what he’d like to see here. “But honestly, it’s really nice here already. I go to Slash Run quite a bit. We like it up here a lot.”