On H Street, Some Black Businesses Strive, Others Struggle

Domencia Tyler, owner of The Chic Shack, said business for her store is up and down, but being next door to Popeye's brings customers through the doors. Photo by: Kandace Brown, Howard University News Service


WASHINGTON — Amidst the new expensive condominiums, busy upscale bars and restaurants and the city’s only streetcar, black entrepreneurs on the once riot-torn H Street in northeast Washington, are working hard to cash in on the community’s new prosperity and dramatically changing landscape.  

For some, business is booming.   Others are struggling to stay afloat.

Halftime Sports Bar, which has only been open for a year, is doing very well, said owner Kim Falwell.  The restaurant and bar stays full, she said.

“We show all sports games all year round,” she said. “Right now it is busy with March Madness. When it’s cold, we are busy with football.”

On the other hand, Carolyn Thomas, owner of The C.A.T. Walk Boutique, said business for her is rough.

“The place isn’t paying for itself, Thomas said. “I work for the federal government, and if I didn’t, this shop would not be here.”

When Thomas first decided to open a store, a good friend recommended H Street, but she was skeptical because she grew up in Washington and knew how area once was.

“There was tons of crime and drugs,” she said. “When I would ride the bus through here, I used to be scared and jump to the other side of the bus. Now, the neighborhood has changed so much.”

Carolyn Thomas, owner of The C.A.T. Walk Boutique, 
took a chance at opening her shop on H Street. Photo by:
Kandace Brown, Howard University News Service

Despite her skepticism, she opened her store on H Street, hoping it would prove to be a good location for business.

So far, she said, it has not; there just are not enough people are coming in.

“I don’t have steady customers,” she said. “I just have a few regulars that may come in every few months, and a few people that may just stop in.” 

Thomas said after talking with a white friend, who also owns a business, she came upon an idea to possibly increase sales.

“I really think a white presence in here would help too,” she said. 

Ironically, her friend, who owns a business in another part of the city, said she thought she needed a “black presence” in her store.

Thomas also said she thinks the street more retail stores along the corridor to attract a larger audience. 

“So many people are so focused on going to get those drinks and head to the bar, they aren’t coming in the stores,” she said. “We need more decent retail stores along here because then maybe more people may come in.”

Moe Abdi, owner of Eurostyles, a men’s and women’s clothing store, echoed Thomas’ thoughts.

“There are too many bars here,” said Abdi, who opened his store in 2004.  “Sure, the bars are good for people in the neighborhoods, but not for business

Moe Abdi, Eurostyles owner, thinks more retail stores
along the corridor would help increase sales in his shop.
Photo by: Kandace Brown, Howard University News Service

owners like me.

 “More retail stores would help me out because it would bring more traffic.  I think if people saw more clothing stores, they would be more inclined to come in mine.”

Abdi also opened his store because he heard H Street was up and coming.

He said he is still waiting.

“During the daytime, it is dead here, but it gets lively after 6 p.m.,” he said. “But when it does get lively, people are only coming to drink and eat, not shop.” 

Bar, restaurant owner Falwell agrees with Abdi’s and Thomas’ assessment

“H Street is just not good for shopping,” she said. “H Street is more for bar hopping.”

For Smokey’s Barbershop & Oldies, which has been on H Street since 1966, business is not like it once was, according to the owner, who asked to be referred to as Smokey.

According to Smokey, the construction of the many new restaurants and bars has made parking difficult for customers who once lived in the neighborhood, resulting in a big loss in clientele.

“With all of these places opening up here, business is getting worse,,” he said.

His clientele has gone down a lot over the last 10 years, he said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, the black population in the H Street neighborhood has dropped from 73% in 2000 to 45.2% in 2010, while the white population has grown from 22.4% in 2000 to 47.7% in 2010.

“At one time all of these chairs were filled,” Smokey said, gesturing towards the 15 or so empty chairs in the shop. “Now, they aren’t.”

Domencia Tyler, 27, is owner of The Chic Shack, a trendy consignment shop.  Tyler said she moved from 14th St and H Street to the 1200 block of H Street because in her previous location most people were there to eat or attend the Atlas Performing Arts Studio.

“I definitely make more money over here because this block is still trying to come up,” she said.

Her store is now next door to Popeye’s, which, she  said, actually brings people into her shop.

As she talked, a young woman on the way to Popeye’s for lunch made a quick stop in the Chic Shack once she noticed the $20 dresses sign outside.

Still, she said, business is not steady enough.

“I have good and bad days,” she said. “It [H Street] is still in the middle. Being in business here is just so up and down. It’s difficult.”