In Petworth, change is slow, leafy and green
| By Nathan Strauss and Rhys Heyden |
As the slow tide of gentrification creeps northward along Georgia Avenue, the appearance of an organic food service, Healthy Bites, is a harbinger of the changing face of D.C.’s Petworth community.
Healthy Bites, much like its surrounding community, exists in an “in-between” state. According to ownership and employees, the service can operate only because it relies heavily on delivering to people of a higher socioeconomic status in different parts of the city and local suburbs.
At the same time, Healthy Bites has long-term, philosophical aspirations to “educate” Petworth about healthy food. Despite this, the neighborhood is not yet fully gentrified and cannot currently support businesses like Healthy Bites. However, residents acknowledge that the service is a pioneering gentrifying force, and a symbol of what is to come—and stay.
Business at Healthy Bites
Healthy Bites definitely sticks out on the deep-fried throughway that is Georgia Avenue, replete with Popeye’s, McDonald’s, and local carryouts.
Bonnie Coberly, 33, the spritely, redheaded, irrepressibly cheery owner of Healthy Bites describes her business as a combination personal chef service, food delivery outlet, and carryout specializing in healthy meals.
“You’re not going to find much that’s healthy around this neighborhood,” Coberly says. “We had to teach people what quinoa was, but that’s a main reason why we came to Petworth: to improve the health and quality of life of our neighbors.”
That message has started to permeate the neighborhood, albeit in slightly unusual ways. Blythe Leatherman, 27, a part-time employee at Healthy Bites, explains that dancers at the nearby Macombo Lounge have started to trickle in.
“They aren’t wearing too many clothes, they pay exclusively in one-dollar bills, and they usually ask for smoothies and juices that won’t make them look fat,” Leatherman says, with a laugh.
Melanie Cooper, a veteran employee at Healthy Bites, says she’s become more health-conscious since she started working there, but is still far from a “health freak.” While blending a “Glorious Greens” juice, Cooper mentions that her Southern family would relentlessly mock her for eating so healthfully.
“It’s really hard because we’re here and we have all of this competition like Popeye’s around us so we have to, like, get into people’s brains to tell what’s healthier for them,” Cooper says.
Healthy Bites has recently made small inroads into capturing Petworth foot traffic, but Coberly says 95 percent of her business is still based on food delivery—primarily to wealthier areas of D.C. and monied suburbs.
“You know, someone once told us that we were like a healthy food oasis in the junk food desert,” Coberly says. “I think that being able to give people a legitimate solution to the common problem of eating healthy is the most rewarding thing that I do,” she says.
Carryout, Community and the Caribbean
Though Healthy Bites appears to be here to stay, surrounding businesses have mixed feelings about Coberly’s business.
Jennifer Selman, the co-owner of Crown Bakery – a traditional Caribbean pastry shop and neighborhood fixture located down the street from Healthy Bites – appreciates the presence of Coberly’s business in the neighborhood.
“They are very nice people over there, especially Bonnie,” Selman says. “Bonnie comes over here all the time to buy our French Vanilla cake.”
When asked about the future of the Petworth neighborhood, and whether or not Crown Bakery would stay in Petworth if rent went up, Selman was emphatic. “We don’t want to go anywhere else,” Selman says, “Maybe open a branch somewhere else eventually, but this is home.”
Crown Bakery, which has been in Petworth for almost 13 years, serves an important role as a vector for unifying D.C.’s tight-knit Caribbean-American community. Selman, with her apron and lower arms covered in pastry flour, says that more than 90 percent of her business comes from Caribbean patrons.
Others in the neighborhood, however, are dubious about Healthy Bites and the impending change it embodies.
Sarah Hines is a veteran employee of JJ’s Carryout, a self-proclaimed fried chicken and fish restaurant that has been in the community for two decades.
“We just want to keep doing the same thing,” Hines says. “It’s not broken, so we don’t need to fix it. I live around the corner, and so did my mother. Ain’t nobody trying to sell nothing. I’ve been in that house for 53 years, and I’m not going to give that up.”
Hines admits to trying Healthy Bites’ turkey burgers from time to time, but for her, JJ’s still encapsulates the character of the neighborhood.
According to Leatherman, regardless of one’s personal opinion, the restaurant’s presence in the community is difficult to ignore.
“We decided to be here because the area just worked out and the location worked out,” Leatherman says, “ but it influences the neighborhood, no matter which way you look at it.”
Wal-Mart, Gentrification and the Future of Petworth
Cooper agrees. Healthy Bites stands among the first signs of concrete change in their portion of the Petworth neighborhood, she says.
“I feel like [Healthy Bites] is kind of the new Petworth that’s gonna come,” Cooper says. “There’ll be less McDonald’s and less carryout and more places like Healthy Bites.”
With this change comes a degree of resentment from the established community. However, for many, this resentment is unfounded. The tired lament of, “White people? There goes the neighborhood” that seems synonymous to gentrification for some does not resonate with all those who come into Petworth.
“I hate when people say that,” says Iesha Mason, who came to Healthy Bites while waiting on her sister’s haircut. “It’s stupid to me. You had all this opportunity to buy property before prices went up, and now you’re complaining that someone is being an opportunist? I find that to be really ignorant.”
Though she does not necessarily believe that gentrification is an entirely positive force, Mason, a resident of Southeast, concedes that it is the result of a logical order of events in the process of revamping D.C.’s underdeveloped neighborhoods.
Coberly is also keenly aware of the changes that are happening in Petworth.
“You’re seeing right now, gentrification is happening.” Coberly says. “The whole Georgia Avenue corridor is changing … there’s a lot of houses around here now that are being literally gutted and renovated. I’m seeing for sale signs all over the place.”
Coberly goes on to note that Healthy Bites has even seen its patrons change recently, epitomized by a noteworthy uptick in white customers.
However, the true test for Petworth will come in the form of the nation’s most recognizable corporations.
“There’s a new Wal-Mart going in, so I think a lot of the small businesses are nervous that that’s going to take away from their business,” Coberly says. “Nobody has any idea what it’s going to do to the traffic or how it’s going to affect the kind of people who decide to move into the neighborhood.”
However, these uncertainties don’t seem to faze Coberly.
“I think this neighborhood is a bit up in the air. I don’t really know what’s going to happen here but that’s kind of why it’s cool to be here,” Coberly says. “It’s sort of interesting to experience the change.”