On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
After being ignored for decades, District neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have seen new waves of investments from big businesses and entrepreneurs. But progress has been halting. Wal-Mart announced plans to locate in Skylands this week. But the future of a celebrated restaurant in Anacostia is in doubt, after its owner was arrested by federal agents. We explore the history and the often bumpy evolution of this corner of Washington, D.C.
- Robert Pierre Columnist, The Washington Post; Editor, The Root D.C.
- Nikki Peele Author, "Congress Heights On The Rise"
- Charles Wilson President and Co-Founder, Historic Anacostia Block Association (HABA)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the true culinary history behind the quintessentially American holiday, Thanksgiving, but first, the bumpy road to building new Washington traditions east of the Anacostia River. This past month, federal agents arrested the owner of a prominent bar and restaurant in the Anacostia neighborhood.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA cocaine trafficking case that's threatening the reputation of a business that became a symbol for the potential for new investment in a part of Washington that has long been synonymous with violence, poverty, drug abuse. Some area residents are standing in solidarity behind Uniontown. Others are finding solace in Wal-Mart's new plans to invest big east of the Anacostia, but the future of these neighborhoods seem to be as complicated and murky as ever.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this from studios at The Washington Post is Robert Pierre. He's a columnist for The Washington Post, who edits the website The Root D.C. He's an Anacostia resident. Robert Pierre, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ROBERT PIERREThank you for having me.
NNAMDICharles Wilson joins us by telephone. He's the president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. He's a former Democratic candidate for the D.C. Council in Ward 8. He also manages the blog "The Art of Ward 8." Charles Wilson, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHARLES WILSONHey, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Nikki Peele is a blogger and community activist. She lives in the Congress Heights neighborhood. She's author of the blog "Congress Heights On The Rise." Nikki Peele, thank you for joining us.
MS. NIKKI PEELEGood morning, Kojo.
NNAMDIRobert Pierre, I'm going to start with a vent. Drug prohibition wars, why couldn't they target a restaurant owner in a more affluent section of the city where there are more restaurants? Why'd they have to go after an owner of a restaurant in Southeast Washington? Having said that, having...
NNAMDIHaving vented, the Uniontown Bar & Grill's opening was celebrated as a symbol of progress for Anacostia, the only sit-down place of its kind in the neighborhood. But that symbol is now caught up in a case involving millions of dollars worth of cocaine. Robert, you first, how did you react upon learning of the recent arrest of the owner, Natasha Dasher? Did my vent in any way reflect your own feelings?
PIERREYou know, that's not exactly what I thought. I mean, because I'm not going to sit here -- if the allegations are true, I can't condone that. No one can condone that. And this is exactly what we don't need. But my heart sank when I saw it, heard it because it went back to everything that everyone always says about Anacostia east of the river of communities. And it just was like, oh, my goodness, not that.
NNAMDIWhat was your feeling, first, Nikki Peele?
PEELEI'll be honest. I was shocked. I was physically ill, and just like Robert was saying, you know, it was a personal feeling. And I think for the same reasons that we worked so hard to educate people on the reality of the wonderful things about living in Ward 8 and in Anacostia. And we just didn't need this right now.
NNAMDICharles, it's my understanding that you celebrated your 35th birthday at Uniontown, that it's a place you followed closely from its very inception. What hopes did you have for it, and do you still have those hopes for Uniontown?
WILSONKojo, you're right. I -- you know, I run our neighborhood organization. And I invited Natasha to speak to the community, to tell our neighbors, you know, about her vision for the restaurant. I celebrated my 35th birthday party there. I was there for the grand opening. And, you know, honestly, I'm disappointed. I'm hurt. I'm confused. I have a lot more answers than I -- I mean, questions than I have answers for Natasha.
WILSONAnd, you know, I got mixed emotions. You know, on one end, you know, Uniontown has been great for Anacostia. I mean, it really has, you know, sown the reason that Anacostia is stepping in the right direction. I even have co-workers show up at the restaurant on happy hour nights. But on the flipside, if these allegations are true, I just don't know if I can separate the two.
WILSONYou know, I just got a lot of emotions in me right now, and I'm just trying to figure out where I stand on this issue.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What concerns do you have about how the drug-related arrest of Uniontown Bar & Grill owner Natasha Dasher is going to affect the willingness of business owners to invest in Anacostia and other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River? Call us at 800-433-8850, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDINikki Peele, you were among the group of people who went to Uniontown a few nights ago to show solidarity for the business. Why did you go?
PEELEWell, first, I went because I was hungry, and I needed a place to eat. So it was easy to go down the street and, you know, to -- as I normally do and have a meal there, but as well as to show support for, you know -- even if like everyone else said, I don't support the allegations against Natasha. If they turn out to be true, I think the justice system will make sure that that is remedied.
PEELEHowever, I do support the individual people who work in Uniontown, who've become my friends over the past year, as well as, you know -- I'm there because Uniontown is a great part of Anacostia. I also run the Eat Shop Live Anacostia program with local nonprofit ARCH Development Corporation, and that has been a jewel and what we talk about the development and the progress happening in Anacostia.
PEELEBut, you know, Anacostia is bigger than Uniontown. It's a part of Uniontown. So I went there to show my support on an individual level, on a personal level, as well as to show other people that we will get pass this. We will be okay.
NNAMDIRobert Pierre, what would you say to the person who looks at Uniontown and the allegations following Dasher and comes away feeling the bar is nice, the place is nice, but this person may have been bringing drugs into an African-American community that's been ripped apart by drugs for decades?
PIERREYeah. You can't -- I mean, there's no justification for that. If it's true, you can't -- there's justification for that. But I do -- I think I will separate this. There are business people who've already reached out who we're talking about. I've heard people who are talking about if there's not -- if there's going to be -- I think that it's their -- what its existence shows is that there is a market for service to people of a different kind and currently is there.
PIERREAnd I don't think that's going to go away. So the initial gut check that you feel, I don't think that that portends anything, except it's a setback that you wish you didn't have to have. But I think long term, it's viable to do business in Anacostia because people are moving there.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, you wrote earlier this week that in the five years that you've been living in Anacostia, the place has seemed to move forward inch by inch. So you don't think that what happened at Uniontown is necessarily going to cause that process to be reversed?
PEELEI'm sorry, Kojo. I didn't mean to interrupt you, but I just have to reiterate that, you know, the allegations that were in The Washington Post were regards to Natasha Dasher, the owner. There was no mention of any drugs or anything being at Uniontown.
NNAMDIThis is true.
PEELEAnd I think that's important that we, you know, reiterate that (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWhich is different from Studio 54, but that's another story.
NNAMDIBut, yes, there were no allegations of drugs being at Uniontown at all. But, Robert, you were saying that you don't think the progress is, at this point, reversible.
PIERREI don't think it's reversible because there are, you know -- there are people who are still investing in properties. There are, you know -- there are people who are putting money into places. There are other businesses along that road that are opening up. And so I think it's not reversible. I think it's going to happen because it's too close to the city. The commutes are too long. And it's still a place that people can buy and afford.
PIERREAnd I'm five -- we're five minutes from downtown. From my -- the second floor of my home, I can see the Washington Monument. You can't get that everywhere in a city.
NNAMDICharles Wilson, what is your hope?
WILSONWell, you know, I agree with Robert and Nikki. You know, Anacostia is so much bigger than one person, one organization, one restaurant. And, you know, like Robert, I've been in the neighborhood for five years, and I've seen tremendous growth, tremendous change. And I can tell you, you know, factually, that there a lot of people, seen and unseen, who are invested in this neighborhood to make sure that we are taking a giant -- going to take a giant step forward in the future. So that I don't have any concern. And, you know, Ward 8 has overcome a lot, and it will all -- we'll get past this eventually.
NNAMDIWell, from -- since we're talking east of the Anacostia River, let's talk Congress Heights, too, Charles. Wal-Mart is announcing this week that it's coming to that area of Washington, D.C. What solace do you take out of knowing that a big business like Wal-Mart -- the biggest business, really -- sees enough potential in this part of the city to invest there after apparently some pressure from the mayor?
WILSONWell, I mean, it's exciting because, finally, east of the river, it's starting to get the attention that it deserves. And after Wal-Mart, there will be somebody else. And after that somebody else, it will just keep going uphill. So there's -- we're definitely taking strides in the right direction. And I believe east of the river has a bright future ahead of it.
NNAMDINikki Peele, you live in the Congress Heights neighborhood. What is your thinking about the likely coming of Wal-Mart?
PEELEWell, I think economic development has been responsible to any community is a good. I think, for me personally, I still probably need to read more about this in terms of Wal-Mart's impact on my immediate neighborhood. But I will say that any opportunity to bring jobs to any community is a good one. And just like Charles said, I think that, for the larger community at large, to see a business like Wal-Mart come into our community would be kind of an indicator that, you know, there are customers there.
PEELEThere are people who need services there. And so I think it's a good thing. But at the same time, I would like us to be respectful and considerate of our local small business owners.
NNAMDIIndeed, Robert Pierre, as a journalist, you're likely to be one of those covering the anticipated predictable opposition to Wal-Mart's coming to that part of the city.
PIERREYes. Well, you know, it's interesting 'cause I grew up in a small town Louisiana, and Wal-Mart is the mall in my little community. And so there's a different discussion that happens in some cities about this, but I can guarantee that there are some residents who want it. There's a good -- there's some residents who don't want it. But -- and it's going to -- there are going to be impacts on small businesses.
PIERREAnd let me just say one other thing, is I have been reached out -- some small business owners have reached out to me about some of my comments about not just what happened at the -- at Uniontown but the other small businesses that still have the Plexiglas because there still is a real concern. So I don't want to downplay the concerns that some people have. I do believe that there are some -- you know, some things happening east of the river and development -- private development that we need, private investment that we need. But there are going to be -- there still are concerns to get over.
NNAMDIFor those people who did not read Robert's column, he expressed his lack of interest, if you will, in patronizing business in which everything is behind Plexiglas. And I'm sure there was some pushback from owners who says, look, we have to be interested in our security in this situation. But from what I read in your column, you said, yes, you did understand that. It's just that you don't feel comfortable in that situation.
PIERREThat's absolutely correct, and I told -- and I had an email discussion with a couple of gentlemen this morning that -- look, it's like I'm not -- I understand you have to do what you -- ever you need to do for your family, but I can't support it.
NNAMDIHere is Jalil in Baltimore, Md. Jalil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JALILYeah. Listen, I just want to encourage people that, you know, I have been a false victim of a crime. And Baltimore City police, you know, profiled me driving while black, and it got very escalated. They came to my house, knocked my doors down. And I was -- it was a huge embarrassment. This was in August the 24th in my community. I'm a government employee. I have clearances.
JALILAnd it was an overzealous, over-the-top driving while black profiling, and they had the wrong person. But my reputation -- everything has been tarnished, and -- but people in my community, people jumped, you know -- and co-workers -- people jumped to the conclusion. You got to remember that these people are, in fact, innocent until proven guilty. And I got to tell you, sometimes, when the police go in, they make law enforcement -- makes these decisions, they go in, they may or may not have all the facts. Now, especially if they got a search warrant, even if it was a surveillance.
JALILSo they are not perfect. So I think people who are listening, people will be afraid, their business associates. You got to remember, you got to reserve -- or you paint your full opinion until the facts are in it. But pre-judging and being emotional somehow, they don't know the situation. Listen, you need to beat -- you need to have all the facts involved.
NNAMDIWell, Jalil, you may have noticed that -- Jalil, you may have noticed that none of our panelists offered an opinion one way or the other on the guilt or innocence.
JALILI know, I know they didn't do that. But I got to tell you, the tone, the tone on the manner is that people are so emotionally distraught that they don't know. Well, you know what? Wait until you get the facts because people can still create a climate that make people guilty.
NNAMDIWe'll see. I think…
JALILAnd that is not the fact. (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIBut I think what's most -- Jalil, I think our panelists will tell you that what's most important for them is whether or not Uniontown stays open or not at this point. Am I correct, Charlie -- Charles Wilson?
WILSONYeah, I mean, you know, like I said before, Ward 8, Anacostia is bigger than one restaurant. What we're most concerned is about the perception of the area 'cause, you know, a lot went -- you know, for the -- the fact is, is that this -- whatever drug bust or whatever happened in Fort Washington, but everybody is equating it to Anacostia. It didn't happen my neighborhood. It happened in Fort Washington.
WILSONBut when you read the newspapers or you hear, you know, whoever talking about it, it's always Anacostia. So my personal concern is about the reputation of my neighborhood. And like I said, my neighborhood is bigger than one person, one restaurant. And we'll get past this.
NNAMDIHere is -- go ahead, please, Nikki Peele.
PEELEAnd I -- I'm sorry. Yeah, and I think also with that, I think we need to be honest. There's somewhat of an unfair challenge for Anacostia and communities in Ward 8. It's almost as if one bad thing happens or one individual person does it or happens in a place, we all have to take to blame for it, where other parts of the city don't have that burden.
PEELEFor example, the same week that, you know, the news came out about Natasha Dasher being arrested in Fort Washington for drug trafficking, you know, we hear that, you know, Bryan Talbott, a property manager in an affluent neighborhood in Northwest was arrested for, you know, defrauding homeowners to the tune of $1 million. No one is equating that to upper Northwest, or they should all be ashamed, and as this, you know, happens out of there. No one is saying...
NNAMDIWhich is why I vented at the top of the program that that's probably where the bust should've taken place, but I digress. Please go ahead, Nikki.
PEELEYou know, but -- you know, but we're meant to feel like, oh, that's just, you know, further -- for Anacostia, that's just another black eye for us. And, you know, here we go again, and we have to carry this around with us when other neighborhoods don't get that, where -- you know, the reality of the situation is that, you know, yes, Natasha owns Uniontown in Anacostia. But she's a D.C. business owner as well, so that is of concern to everyone in the District.
PEELEBut I do feel that we put this extra burden as somewhat unfair on the people who live or work in these communities, that they're to be held responsible for anything that happens within a four-mile radius of where they live or even farther.
NNAMDII think Blane (sic) in Anacostia would like to echo your comments. Blane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DWAYNEAre you saying Dwayne?
NNAMDIBlane. Dwayne, yes, go ahead, Dwayne.
DWAYNEOkay, right. I run a local community development corporation in Anacostia. And just to reiterate what Charles and Nikki said, and that is that, in the past year, we've had over 17 businesses or entrepreneurs move in to Anacostia, Uniontown being one of them. If we could get as much publicity for some of those that have been very successful, including those that have hired Anacostia residents, by the press, it would counterbalance what happened at Uniontown. And it didn't happen at Uniontown, as Charles said. It happened in another state.
DWAYNEAnd I really believe that, you know, starting way back in the '80s when everything bad that happened east of the Anacostia River -- or was it in Ward 7, in Congress Heights or down by the Maryland border? -- happened in Anacostia, and this just the reiteration of what's been going on with the press over the last 15 years. You're one of…
NNAMDIWell, in all honesty, Dwayne, I have to say, however, that even though the bust occurred in another state, it leaves the impression, if, indeed, the individual Natasha Dasher is guilty, that Uniontown was being funded by drug money. And that's what stains the reputation of Anacostia.
PEELEBut why is that? Why don't we not give people the credit?
DWAYNEExcept it's never been proven. Kojo, that's not been proven. We do not know how she funded it, okay?
NNAMDIYes. Like I said, leaves the impression, but, Nikki Peele, go ahead. Nikki Peele, you were saying?
PEELEAnd I think (unintelligible). Oh, yes. I think that what's frustrates me as somebody who lives in Ward 8 and who -- you know, I support the business there in Anacostia, and I work with them on individual level -- is that we are taking away credit from the people who -- from a successful business. It's always -- must be now or they must have been successful, 'cause their running drugs out the back.
PEELEHow about they were successful 'cause they had good business model, they provided good service and people responded to that? I almost feel like we are marginalizing the accomplishments of this particular business and the people that supported it. And, like Dwayne said, we have so many new businesses here that are coming to Anacostia. And to be quite honest, I'm turning people away in terms of space because we don't have space for them.
PEELEI work in a place called The Hive, which is a project of the Arts Development Corporation that Dwayne has. And, you know, we don't even have enough space for all these people who want to come and have open businesses there. And I think it's unfair to say that, you know, Uniontown was successful 'cause, possibly, it was fronted by drug money. What about it just was a good business model and Anacostia is a great place to open a business? (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Nikki Peele, thank you so much for joining us. Of course, the plans to open the Wal-Mart is in Skyland, Hillcrest. Nikki Peele, thank you joining us.
PEELEThank you so much.
NNAMDICharles Wilson, thank you for joining us.
WILSONAs always, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd, Robert Pierre, thank you for joining us.
PIERREAnd thank you again, sir.
NNAMDIRobert Pierre is a columnist for The Washington Post. Charles Wilson is the president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. Nikki Peele is a blogger and a community activist. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the true culinary history behind that quintessentially American holiday, Thanksgiving. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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