La Plaza: Adjusting To Changes On 14th St. NW

Welcome to Alejandro Lazo's occasional blog-within-a-blog on the region's Latino business community; we're calling it "La Plaza."

By Alejandro Lazo

One of the Washington area's oldest Central American commercial strips consists of about a dozen blocks of storefront pupusarías, beauty salons, check cashing depots and Latin variety stores along 14th Street NW, north of Park Road. Many of these mom-and-pop businesses cater to the neighborhood's immigrants, but now that formula may have to change as the area rapidly gentrifies, business owners in the area say.

A Target-anchored shopping center opened in March just south of the strip, part of the District's plan to shore up the city's retail base. Fancy condominiums, new restaurants, new shops, a refurbished Tivoli Theater and a Giant grocery store have also opened in Columbia Heights in recent years, attracting professionals.

The fresh brick-and-mortar of these developments contrasts sharply to the simpler, immigrant-owned storefronts and churches that occupy 14th Street. But new facades and new plans are on the way.

Jorge Granados, a real estate broker and president of the Mid-14th Street Business Association, which counts 113 of the shops in the area as members, said in an interview that many of these businesses will have to begin focusing on the neighborhood's new clientele if they want to survive.

"It is a changing demographic," he said.

His association, in conjunction with a District-based nonprofit organization, the Latino Economic Development Corporation, has begun an effort to add fresh layers of paint and new signs to many of the businesses. The business association also plans to launch seminars catered to the shop owners starting in September. Rosemarie Salguero, executive director of the association, said one of the goals was to "brand" the area as a hub of Central American culture.

Yet both Granados and Salguero admit the transition will not be easy. Unemployment and vagrancy in the area has picked up with the down economy, they said, and many businesses are getting struck by the combination of high costs and fewer customers. Who will be able to adapt remains to be seen.

Marleny Flores (left), owner of Multi Servicios Latinos, shows Rosemarie Salguero some of the products she plans to offer in her new "Sweetime Bakery." Photo by Alejandro Lazo.

Marleny Flores, a Salvadoran immigrant who owns the building where the association has its offices, is one owner who sees opportunity in the new Columbia Heights. Customers have dwindled at her Multi Servicios Latinos, a notary public and translation services business, as more and more Latinos have left for cheaper housing in the suburbs, she said. Now she plans to open a new cafe called "Sweetime Bakery" on the bottom floor of her building in the fall. She plans to offer freshly-baked Central American goods, Bolivian tea, health shakes and more. By next summer she hopes to have a full patio up and running, she said.

"For a long time, I have wanted to do this," Flores said. "But I was waiting for the mall, because it will bring new clients."

The brothers Gilberto and Ivan Maya are managers of the new La Cabaña restaurant. Photo by Alejandro Lazo.

Isidoro Amaya, the owner of Las Placitas in Capitol Hill and La Villa Restaurante in Logan's Circle, opened La Cabaña on the corner of Perry Place NW and 14th Street in May. Ivan and Gilberto, Amaya's younger brothers, are the new managers of the Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant, one of the first sit-down establishment along the strip.

"This area has changed much in the last two to three years," Ivan Amaya said. "We want to be part of this renovation by creating something new."

By Dan Beyers  |  August 21, 2008; 2:30 PM ET  | Category:  La Plaza
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

There's this guy with a black cowboy hat who's always hanging out by the stoop of the bodega along that strip. The Target is fine, especially if it creates jobs for the community, but let's hope this guy doesn't lose his spot.

Btw, Obama works out nearby.

Posted by: wpa | August 21, 2008 4:21 PM

man i could go for some pupusas!

Posted by: hola neighbor | August 21, 2008 7:58 PM

This is a great initiative and really taps into the economic power of the Latino community. These businesses are part of the base of a thriving community and should be supported.

Posted by: Jonathan | August 22, 2008 1:35 PM

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