Building a Village Through a Cafe
If you don’t know about what’s happening on Fifth Street NE, behind Union Market, you are missing out on the best new restaurants and shops in the District. Nestled behind the construction and historic industrial storefronts close to Penn Street is a new world of commerce of all kinds, including the caffeine one needs to get through all the goodies the Union Market neighborhood has to offer.
The Village Cafe is the new guy on the coffee scene, but it is making a big impact. Located adjacent to the new Politics and Prose bookstore, the Village Cafe is the brainchild of three DC natives and friends: Ryan Williams, Mahammad Mangum and Kevon King. King and Williams have known each other since school days and they met Mangum at Wilson High School.
“In its simplest form,” explained King, “this idea was born from our desire to place a Union Market-type center in southeast Ward 8. Ryan and I grew up in Southeast DC, so we were very familiar with some of the social and economic disparities that exist there. It was important for us to contribute to that community.”
Added King, “We saw being a cafe in the Union Market District as a perfect starting point. Being next to the East Coast’s foremost food market in Union Market gives us connection to a variety of food and creative makers and opportunities.”
King and Mangum have always had a focus on bettering their community. They both had dreams to start programs and networks that uplift black youth. Williams’ dream was always to open a restaurant.
The Village Cafe is their answer to all of the above. King said, “From there we were able to take something good and materialize it into this cafe concept, which represents everything we want to do – connecting communities through food, entrepreneurship, creativity.”
What brings people together in more different ways than a cafe? “Here we will host and showcase products from underserved entrepreneurs while highlighting makers from underserved neighborhoods of DC,” explained King. “We will host creative events from pop-up shops, performances and workshops that highlight local talents.”
The ultimate goal of the cafe is to create an atmosphere with entrepreneurship, access to quality and nutritious foods and creative innovations. “We believe these are key ingredients of a healthy, prosperous place,” added King. “This is only the first step in our minds. We want to be able to take the opportunity we have here and pay it forward to communities that need it.”
Community leaders in NoMa have long wondered what to do about uniting a neighborhood that is split down the middle by a railroad track. NoMa’s east side and west side are connected only by ugly, dark underpasses that are uninviting to pedestrians, to say the least. To change that, NoMa is turning to its tried and true method of revitalization – turn it into art.
The first of four underpass art installations has opened at the M Street underpass between First and Second streets NE. “Rain” is a dynamic light installation consisting of 4,000 LED-powered polycarbonate rods and that send wave-like pulses through the underpass. The work will be active 24 hours a day.
The artwork is the product of an international competition that was hosted by the NoMa Parks Foundation to transform the spaces that separate the two sides of the neighborhood. The competition was won by Thurlow Small Architecture of Oakland, California, working in conjunction with Dutch firm NIO architecten. The team had collaborated on a number of infrastructure projects over the last few years.
“Our tunnel proposal for NoMa does what all good urban parks do,” wrote the design team when “Rain” was announced by the NoMa Parks Foundation. “It offers a moment of openness, a space to breathe and a place where thoughts can drift away.”
“The railway tracks and underpasses in NoMa have been perceived as ‘dividers’ between the east and west sides of the neighborhood. However, with the explosive growth of the NoMa neighborhood, the underpasses have become critical connections for tens of thousands of neighborhood residents, employees and visitors,” said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Parks Foundation.
The underpasses in NoMa have long been a refuge for homeless residents, who created encampments complete with tents and other accoutrements. There have been multiple efforts by the city, the most recent last August, to clear the encampments, but people continue to come back to the covered area. “When we started these projects there were a couple of chronically homeless individuals who were living in the underpasses and were not willing to accept services or housing vouchers,” said Jasper.
At the time of the ribbon-cutting, one resident remained in the M Street underpass and an entire encampment exists in the L Street underpass. However, there is currently major construction on M that could be the reason for fewer tents on that street.
It is not only the encampments that have impeded the progress of these installations. Amtrak had to get on board, so modifications had to be made, which slowed the design process, and the weather was not particularly helpful as fall came earlier than most residents expected.
Be on the lookout for future installations coming soon, hopefully to the underpasses at Florida Avenue and K and L streets NE.
Taylor Barden Golden is a real estate agent with The Stokes Group at McEnearney Associates Inc. A former Hill staffer, Taylor lives in Brentwood with her husband, two dogs and a cat. She’s always on the lookout for new places to explore and ways to spend time outside. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org; @rtaylorb.