Back of the “We are Anacostia” postcard campaign. Image by Tommie Adams Photography used with permission.

A grassroots group in Historic Anacostia took a do-it-yourself approach to neighborhood revitalization. Hoping to lure a Busboys and Poets restaurant to open, We Are Anacostia sent custom postcards to business leaders, and successfully got their attention.

My hometown of Washington, DC is often cited as a city that recently rebounded from hard times to boast a now-booming and pricey real estate market with a high quality of life for its residents. Yet, for my neighbors and I, our story was one of disappointment and frustration. We repeatedly witnessed the hippest economic development efforts skip over our section of the city – even as the rest of DC was building its truly amazing success story narrative.

We live in Historic Anacostia, located east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8 — an area that has suffered from years of underinvestment and disinvestment. There's only one grocery store to serve its more than 70,000 residents, a reality that's all too familiar in low-income communities. In a city with an average income of close to $120,000 per year, Ward 8’s median income ranges between $25,000 and $40,000 per year. Many residents were or are unemployed or underemployed.

Historic Anacostia. Image by John Stowe used with permission.

While present-day Anacostia is largely known for taking a turn for the worse during the 1980s and 90s when drugs infiltrated the area, Historic Anacostia has retained much of its beautiful historic architecture. It continues to be anchored by the resilience of the community members who made it a richly unique home. For many African American professionals like myself, these were the charms that spurred a renewed interest in living here.

However, even with strong urban bones and a growing tax base, the area continued to hit a wall in its economic advancement efforts. Retailers refused to give Historic Anacostia a second look. In 2012, the one sit-down restaurant in Ward 8, Georgena's (also known as the “Players Lounge”), was more than a mile away.

My neighbors and I decided to “be the change we seek”

Inspired by the residents of Logan Circle who started a community campaign to get the first Whole Foods Market in DC, we embarked on our first community campaign: We Are Anacostia.

Like any good campaign, we took our inspiration from known sources. Inspired by a powerful image Beyoncé had taken with her family, I motivated my neighbors to come out for a community photo shoot.

We were resourceful! Our very own Tommie Adams of “Tommie Adams Photography” – resident of Historic Anacostia – took the photos. Neighbors pitched in a few dollars to pay for an awesome graphic designer. Our fearless elected neighborhood representative Greta Fuller (called an “Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner”) was able to cover the printing costs. With that, we were able to create postcards titled “We Are Anacostia.”

Front of the “We are Anacostia” postcard campaign. Image by Tommie Adams Photography used with permission.

We set our sights on Busboys and Poets – a regional restaurant, bar, bookstore, and community space founded by longtime activist Andy Shallal. My neighbors and I left our postcards at Busboys & Poets locations around town, creating a buzz with the restaurants’ staff and eventually getting the attention of Shallal, who gave serious consideration to Anacostia as a future location.

In the end, with the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative offering up the first-floor retail space of their future nonprofit headquarters, Busboys agreed to move to Anacostia! As a huge bonus, the space will be complimented by a bookstore and space to host events for notable writers and share community voices. Our effort also had the support of the DC government — the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development awarded a $3 million Historic Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Commercial Corridor Grant which, along-side other contributors, made the deal possible.

The community was elated: we took our fate into our own hands, spoke up, and got the retail we wanted!

 

We Are Anacostia: Busboys and Poets from Cbuell on Vimeo.

Here's what we learned from putting together this campaign

For those communities looking to start their own campaigns, here are some pointers:

  1. Start with the resources you already have. This campaign was led by five people who cobbled together their limited resources. From photography, to printing, to graphic design – the overall campaign cost less than $1,000 to pull together.
  2. Get your neighbors excited and engaged. This campaign would not have worked if our neighbors had not eagerly dropped off the postcards at various Busboys locations.
  3. Keep promoting your efforts. We started our campaign in 2012. It took years of urging skeptical advisors that moving Busboys to a low-income area was worthwhile. Don’t give up – keep believing in your community! It was our belief in our own community worthy that secured the backing of the DC government, which then pushed the deal over the finish line.

There were so many factors that came together to make the campaign work. Shallal is a business owner who is truly committed to the community. The Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, which does wonderful work for low-income families, was in the awesome position to have a prime retail space available. Most importantly, the community residents kept at it and did not give up!

Catherine Buell is a community development executive and industry veteran with over a decade of experience in large-scale urban development. She is the past president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority, served as the executive director for St. Elizabeths East in Washington, DC, and started her career at Patton Boggs LLP in the areas of real estate and private equity. Buell shares her love for community and urban development at TheVillageDecoder.com.