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Roving Merchants, Crackheads and Drunks…and Hope?

By Mel Dyer

If you’ve noticed a sea change at the Good Hope Marketplace Safeway, where our Sears & Roebuck used to be, you aren’t the only one.

For nearly a year and a half, I’ve proudly referred neighbors to this supermarket and bragged how much better managed it was, than the Capitol Hill store. The service has been impecable and attentive. The heavily policed parking lot has given our families a feeling of security, however relative. The clean, orderly atmosphere — lively and busy, but, DRAMA-free — has always been welcoming. Sure, it’s occasionally cluttered with long lines that stretched back into the aisles and belligerent customers flipping out in the check-out lane, ..but, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Just two days ago, on Friday evening and during rush hour, I saw two fat women standing right at the door of the Safeway, selling perfume out of a crate. While sitting in the parking lot, waiting for my mother and sister to finish their errand, I was accosted by four pedestrian merchants roaming the parking lot, peddling everything from bootleg movies to designer watches. Had I experienced this at the Benning-Minnesota or Capitol Hill Safeway, I would have laughed it off as local flavor, but, at the typically heavily-policed Hillcrest-Good Hope store...

This just doesn’t happen.

Then, it suddenly occurred to me how uncharacteristically clean and pedestrian-free the other side of Alabama Avenue — the stretch of sidewalk between the Discount Mart and the liquor store — had looked, as I drove into the Safeway parking lot. Considering how colorfully urban and busy it typically looked, this stuck out like a sore thumb. Somehow, the legions of walking merchants (the guys you see milling around, selling things out of their coats), drunks, crack-heads and panhandlers had drifted across Alabama Avenue and were now freely roaming the parking lot of the Good Hope shopping center!

River East should be big enough for these cultures to comfortably co-exist. At its best, the colorful, bustling, funky AND friendly chaos of present-day Benni’Sota has a kind of reassuring familiarity to many River Easters of long-standing, and has earned its place in the rich tapestry of D.C.’s cultural experiences. The rambling, wholesome, country suburban charm (sometimes more town, than country) of Hillcrest-Good Hope is the mixed realization of the ambitions of working middle and upper middle-class River Easters, with (according to Councilwoman Yvette Alexander’s office) the lowest crime rate in all of Washington ..and neighbors, who still wave at each other and bake each other pies.

I’m tired of hearing River Easters lament, “I guess we just can’t have anything nice over here!” It’s in the air, east of the Anacostia. You feel it pulling you down, as you cross the John Philip Sousa Bridge, and I’m tired of ingesting it — of half-believing it, even.

We know very well how this is going to end, if the situation at Good Hope worsens.

Muggings, public urination (and the subsequent STENCH, thereof), open-air drug trade, gang violence and prostitution will be commonplace. At some point, good people will just stop patronizing this shopping center and head somewhere we think higher standards are more culturally acceptable. Considering that we have seen what the Good Hope Marketplace can be, when it is properly managed, this retreat would be a terrible waste and economically devastating to the area. Methinketh a Hair Grease & Baby Clothes Depot replacing our nice Safeway couldn’t be far behind.

River East can have it all. Let’s celebrate the variety of our cultural mosaic. Let’s respect it ..and leave it alone.

[Honestly, I didn’t set out to write another rambling, tribalist blog entry on River East retail woes. Guess it’s a sore spot with me, ..but, it seems so shallow, considering everything else that’s going on in the world and, right here, in this part of town. Substance is good. I can do substance. Stay tuned.]

Originally published, August 15th, 2009

Edgar Miraculous (Mel) Dyer, without his fine, coyote-hatin' Goldiweiller, Kirby (now moved on to that big, coyote-hatin' hate group in the Sky) continues a somewhat bleaker, dogless existence in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC. He has been an active member of the Latino Culture Council of the Capitol Area (El Consejo de Cultura Latina – La Zona del Capitolio) and the Kiwanis Club of Capitol Hill.


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