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Gentrification 2.0: The Busboys and Poets Effect


by Omar Rahman

Gentrification 2.0: The Busboys and Poets Effect
Busboys and Poets by Daquella Manera

In Washington DC, where the tides of gentrification often achieve positive results by revitalizing once blighted neighborhoods, it is easy to lose sight of the past. One establishment, however, has sought to pay homage to the past while moving these neighborhoods forward. 

Busboys and Poets, the brainchild of owner Andy Shallal, has become an institution in the zip codes where it has opened, and its arrival has been credited with invigorating neighborhoods that were once down on their luck.

It is hard to classify Busboys and Poets, as calling it merely “restaurant” would be an oversimplification. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner but also acts as a coffee house in the late morning and afternoons, then a bar before and after the dinner hour. There is a small bookstore with a decidedly left-leaning selection, and a venue for music shows and poetry slams. During the election season, local artists’ renderings of Barack Obama’s visage decorated the walls. The overall vibe is progressive, artistic, young, and urban.

Shallal, a DC resident for over 40 years, opened his first outpost of Busboys and Poets on 14th and V Streets in 2005. The restaurant and event space, whose name is an homage to poet Langston Hughes who was a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the thirties, brought new life to this corner of the U Street Corridor.

“After we opened, I saw a marked increase in foot traffic,” Shallal said, “Many people selling condos in the area started including Busboys and Poets in their sales pitches, and our name is regularly mentioned on Craigslist ads and other promotions around town.”

Although he decries many of the negative aspects of gentrification, particularly the higher prices and property taxes that come with it, Shallal sees himself as part of the process. Where he makes his distinction is in a deliberate effort to mitigate the negative impact of development and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Being active in the communities where Busboys has opened and reaching out to neighborhood leaders and city officials have been key parts of this effort.

“In the past few years, you have seen this sort of logarithmic change that has taken place, and I think much of it has been over zealous,” Shallal told UrbanTurf. “I think the idea of growing the city in a way that doesn’t have any connection with its roots or past is sort of short-sighted.”

That said, landlords of developments near Busboys have told Shallal that they use Busboys and Poets to promote their projects. A prime example of this is the Shirlington location that opened in 2007. Shallal chose this primarily residential Virginia neighborhood because of its proximity to DC, but more importantly because of the enthusiasm that the developers of new construction in the area expressed for the Busboys franchise.

“The Shirlington location was familiar to me,” Shallal said, “But the landlord offered to help greatly with the cost of the build out, an offer I could not refuse.”

Just a couple of months ago, Shallal’s third installment of Busboys and Poets opened in the CityVista complex at 5th and K Streets just north of Chinatown. The Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood is in its nascent development stages which suited Shallal just fine as he wanted the “opportunity to create something from nothing.” He noticed early on that condo sales at CityVista “increased greatly” when Busboys signed its lease, a trend which continued after it opened in September 2008. The success of its arrival has been echoed by developers and residents alike. 

“Busboys has been an incredible addition to CityVista,” Amy Adams, vice president of sales at Lowe Enterprises said recently. “They are busy seven days a week, and most days that I walk by, I see CityVista residents in there eating. Having forty people eating lunch on the sidewalk during the day just gives the area a great feel.”

CityVista resident Sean McCue, who guesses that he eats at Busboys once every two weeks, agrees.

“The lines are out the door on Sundays and there are a lot more people walking around down here since it opened,” he told UrbanTurf. “I am sure it is factoring into people’s decision about living at CityVista.”

Next up for Shallal is Eatonville, a Southern-inspired restaurant that is set to open early next year in the U Street Corridor across from the original Busboys and Poets. After Eatonville, there are plans to expand Busboys into Hyattsville, Maryland in 2009 and potentially other emerging DC neighborhoods after that.

While it is hard to quantify the direct impact that the opening of a Busboys and Poets location has on a neighborhood, it is clear that its arrival is an attractive amenity for any zip code. However, the allure differs from that of a Whole Foods Market or Target as Shallal is very focused on preserving the character of the area.

“Gentrification can create a homogenized neighborhood; this obviously is not good for artistic and cultural growth,” he told UrbanTurf. “Culture and art exist in situations that have a healthy tension of diversity. Without this tension a neighborhood becomes bland and loses the personality that attracted people to it in the first place.”

8 Comments

  1. J. Broinerd said at 11:07 pm on Monday December 8, 2008:
    Tom, some very good points. Although I definitely feel B&P has more personality, and does more to preserve character, than the Starbucks/Chipotle/generic_franchise that likely would have taken its place.
  1. Eric said at 1:25 am on Tuesday December 9, 2008:
    B & P's prices are incongruous with the leftist philosophy of its book section. This establishment, a pleasant and usual business (for Washington, at least), is driving gentrification and the displacement of people with whom it supposedly sympathizes. I congratulate the owner for his successful business, but don't believe a word of his political pretenses.
  1. Dooley P. said at 3:38 am on Wednesday December 10, 2008:
    I agree with Tom A. and Eric in all senses.Also good for the owner and his sucessful business. I went to B & P's when they just opened at U St.Nothing original or creative about it.I was highly dissapointed with the book section..JUST ONE SIDE MINDED..,crowd looked already very homogenized and food was average. Unleast Starbucks is what it is, not a bragging "wannabe preserving character " coffee shop in an already non genuine character neighborhood. Please, This is DC not NYC..
  1. Tim said at 4:19 pm on Thursday December 11, 2008:
    This is a guy who took real risks with his own money to open, at least, 3 successful indie venues in and around DC. I really applaud him. The U Street location is often too busy, but I eat there when I can. Great book selection. A nice break from stiff and stuffy regular DC.
  1. Sean Robertson said at 6:26 pm on Monday December 8, 2008:
    I decided to take a walk over there to check out the building on my lunch hour last week and was quite pleased to see the new Busboys there (and the food was just as good as the original, but they did't have many books). I hope they do well. I am fairly concerned about the big dead spaces around that building right now, though, especially given the economic downturn.
  1. Tom A. said at 9:27 pm on Monday December 8, 2008:
    Meh. So far, B and P are only in the bottom of giant condo developments. U street 2005? Mt Vernon 2008? hardly "transitional" areas at the time. I'll be impressed when they open in an actual storefront in another quadrant, (H street?) NOT below new residential space. Being a coffee shop in the same building where hundreds of people already live isn't really an "effect" It's more of a response to a need for coffee and food for hundreds of new residents. I hardly feel that B and P is "preserving the character" of the area by existing in brand new high rises. I'm not against them by any means, but I disagree with their bragging about "preserving character" anywhere in DC.
  1. andrew said at 8:27 pm on Thursday December 11, 2008:
    I like Busboys and Poets, but these neighborhoods were already gentrifying (or whatever you want to call it) before B&P came in. I'm not sure the owner is really the best source to give the B&P credit for "invigorating neighborhoods that were once down on their luck".
  1. David said at 12:45 am on Thursday April 23, 2009:
    We could really use a branch of Busboys and Poets in Silver Spring -- NOT in the "new" (and much welcomed) "Downtown Silver Spring," but in the Flower-Avenue-at-Piney-Branch-Road neigborhood. Although this area is a crossroads of economic classes, and very mixed ethnically, our neighborhood movie theatre has been dark for decades, we recently lost our wonderful independent "Piney Branch Hardware" and my wife tells me today that -- at least temporarily -- a tatoo parlor is using the space. Gentrification in a context of ethnic vitality is alive and well in Silver Spring, and it is very welcome here.

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