It Takes a Neighborhood

Baltimore Avenue business owners are doing it for themselves.

By Rachel Estrada
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 29, 2003

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Despite recent complaints that the University City District is trying to gentrify the neighborhood, the UCD is trudging ahead with the Baltimore Avenue Corridor project it took on as part of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. In response, many neighborhood residents are eager to point out that the push for improvements to Baltimore Avenue is nothing new--and that the catalysts for these changes have always been the University City residents themselves.

Maureen Tate, president of the Cedar Park Neighbors community association, emphatically agrees. "Our concern for Baltimore Avenue goes back long before the University City District ever came into existence. Here we had a major business corridor in a serious state of deterioration--open drinking and drug use, abandoned properties--with strong residential communities on either side."

The Cedar Park Neighbors were instrumental in bringing the Firehouse Farmers Market to the corner of 50th and Baltimore in the mid-'80s, hoping it would attract customers further west and stimulate economic growth along the corridor. "The funny thing," says Tate, "is that the arguments and accusations we're hearing now--about UCD spurring gentrification and trying to usher in the more upscale businesses at the expense of existing ones--were the same ones we heard back then. And that's not at all what happened."

What has happened is an increase in community collaboration and an influx of funding resources that have brought ongoing improvements to the neighborhood. The latest example of this includes a planning group of area businesses, community associations and concerned citizens who commissioned the University City District to translate incoming resources into technical and financial assistance for improvements to new and existing businesses on Baltimore Avenue.

These improvements are sorely needed, says Habtamu Shitaye, who owns Gojjo Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar. "There are some status quo businesses on Baltimore Avenue that are just interested in maintaining. Some of the owners, they don't live here, so it doesn't mean as much to them to contribute to the neighborhood."

The same could not be said for Shitaye. When Gojjo moved to Baltimore Avenue in 1996, Shitaye moved his family right along with it. "I look at this two ways--from a business perspective and from a family perspective. Either way, I will always be in favor of anything for the improvement of the community. I always tell people, 'You're not going to take this money with you when you die. But if you can take it and make a difference in the community you live in, anything is possible.'"

It's a sentiment shared by Kameelah Mu'Min, owner of the new Sugar Hill Bakery and Caf´┐Ż, which is slated to open on Baltimore Avenue late next month. "People ask me all the time why I would want to open a business on 49th and Baltimore," says Mu'Min. "But I love this neighborhood. This is where I live. I don't think there's a better location for what I want to do, and I trust my University City neighbors will prove that with their continued support. Here, I don't feel so much as if I'm going into business on my own."

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