Life has come to a new, small commercial building on University Avenue in Wheaton after months of construction. First, local favorite poultry eatery El Pollo Rico has finally re-opened at its new location after a fire destroyed its old place of business. Second, there is now a brand new coffee shop, Dejabel Cafe. I could not resist trying a mocha latte. It was tasty. I made sure to return to get an Americano in preparation for a two hour drive to my parents’ house on Friday night.
While this is all well and good for my local coffee drinking needs, it is also an important (though small) step in the social and economic fabric of downtown Wheaton. This is walkable downtown Wheaton’s first (at least in this decade) non-mall based third place. A few small restaurants and the 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts had partly filled the role of third places. However, no one would choose to go study, read a book, or sit for some relaxing conversation in a take-out or a chain doughnut stand.
Although there are two Starbucks locations in Wheaton, both are in Westfield Wheaton, one in the mall proper and the other in the parking lot adjacent to the Giant supermarket. Neither is as convenient for pedestrians as it is for motorists. The Westfield is also on the wrong side of the pedestrian-unfriendly intersection of University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road. That intersection is a suburban-style, six-lane monster that a pedestrian never has enough time to cross before another queue of cars comes from another direction. Consequently, that Starbucks functions less like a third place and more like a drive-through window.
Dejabel Cafe has free Wi-Fi, and an ambiance that immediately reminded me of other nice third places, like those in vibrant Adams Morgan. Though not on the same scale, it is a good addition to Wheaton nonetheless. I also like that it is an independent startup with its own unique details. Most importantly, it will be performing a function that is currently underrepresented in downtown Wheaton. It adds diversity of uses to its environment, making the area more attractive to a wider range of people, creating demand for an even greater diversity of uses and businesses. It’s a beautiful cycle that any walkable urban place strives for. In her monumental classic book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described how a successful walkable place needs such a diversity of uses. We have seen this cycle play out in other parts of our region, such as Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, U Street, and Clarendon.
I told the proprietor of Dejabel Cafe how I’d been hoping for such a place to open up, because so many other potential third places in Wheaton did not directly appeal to me. He said that he’d heard the same thing from other customers. He’s betting that there are many people with my consumer tastes and preferences within walking distance. Wheaton’s earlier walkable place was abandoned in the 1980s for the then-new subdivisions farther up Georgia Avenue. It’s a slow process, but very enjoyable to watch a new vibrant, walkable place unfold right at my feet.