House of Laces sells colorful fabrics that reflect the history of global trade
| By Karina Stenquist |
Every square inch of wall in the store is draped in color. Six-yard rainbow swathes are folded and stacked by the door, hung from overhead rails, piled on shelves. Sequins and pearls glint on velvet and voile. Bright hues and gold highlights battle for attention. Bolts of beaded lace drip down the counter side next to cotton waterfalls. In the House of Laces, an African fabric store, culture is wearable.
Langley Park, Md., is best known for its “International Corridor,” along University Boulevard. While Central Americans are the most visible immigrant population, the area is known for significant West African, South Asian, Caribbean and Southeast Asian hubs.
These stories explore the range of businesses that cater to the unique needs of this multicultural population. From an African fabric store to Latin American apparel shops to a Dominican hair salon and an Afro-Caribbean supermarket, these businesses reflect both the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrant communities as well as the enduring power of maintaining cultural traditions in the United States.
Tradition in every stitch, Africa in every outfit
Text and photographs by by Karina Stenquist
Businesses preserve Latin American traditions and nurture immigrant dreams
Text and photographs by by Yecenia Alfaro
Red Apple Market provides a taste of home for African and Caribbean
Text and audio slideshow by Anne Stephens
Dominican beauty parlor’s role goes more than skin deep
Text and photograph by Bianca Rainwater
Blocks away, a world apart: Latino immigrants shape and meet the needs of the unique Alexandria community
| By Kate Musselwhite |
Arlandria is easy to miss. The Spanish-language signs end almost as quickly as they begin after crossing over into Alexandria from Arlington on Mount Vernon Avenue. Before you know it, you’re in the midst of typically quaint Alexandria areas like Del Ray and historic Old Town. Just blocks away, these neighborhoods seem worlds apart.
Alexandria resident Margaret Lorber, who has worked for years with the Arlandria community and the city’s schools, said many are unaware of what goes on in the neighborhood.
“You just can’t believe how many sides there are in Alexandria,” she said.
By Yecenia Alfaro
Cowboy boots, sombreros, belts and buckles line the shelves in one Langley Park store. In another nearby, hand-sewn formal dresses, floral bouquets and party favors beckon to families planning quinceañeras, baptisms and other milestone events.
These only-in-Langley-Park specialty stores illustrate, with vibrant colors and designs usually only seen in Mexico and Central America, how immigrant entrepreneurs have kept traditions alive in this Maryland city known for its Latino population. Despite the economic recession, the survival of these shops attest to their significance.
El Alazán Western Wear and Gloria’s Bridal provide more than vaquero wear and fancy gowns. They reflect the culture, traditions and dreams of both their owners and customers.
“Dressing up with boots and sombreros is part of the Hispanic tradition. It stays in your heart and in your mind at a young age,” Nora Reyes Del Portillo, owner of El Alazán Western Wear, said in Spanish. “Langley Park is filled with a lot of Hispanic people and most of them enjoy wearing boots, belts, buckles, sombreros because they were raised wearing this attire.”
El Alazán – which means “the chestnut,” as in a chestnut-colored horse – is hidden in a small corner intersecting New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane. The smell of leather, the sounds of music from the Mexican and Central American countryside, the chatter of customers trying on boots defines the environment at El Alazán. People from Mexico, Central America and Latin America are Reyes Del Portillo’s primary customers. With a shop nearly entirely filled with boots, discerning customers of El Alazán feel the material, examine the designs and often even smell the leather, Reyes Del Portillo said.
“The boots we have are made of three types of snakeskin,” Reyes Del Portillo said, “including water snake, python and cobra.” All her boots are brought from parts of El Paso, Texas and Guanajuato, México.
Nearby Gloria’s Bridal is another Langley Park business store where Latinos and African immigrants purchase dresses and items for special occasions.
“The people from other cultures are great people whom I love to help,” Gloria Calderon, owner of Gloria’s Bridal, said in Spanish. “They are educated, patient and professional – and not to mention elegant.”
Born and raised in in El Salvador, Calderon had a dream of becoming a designer when she was a child. Her dream began in 2000 when she opened her own bridal boutique. In 2008 she became a designer.
The vaqueros and their boots
At El Alazán, Reyes Del Portillo sees mostly Latino clientele, but does sell boots to African immigrants, whom she says prefer ostrich boots, and non-Latinos from the United States, who favor the narrow cobra boots.
The store’s shelves are filled with colorful and creative boot designs, in shades of red, pink, white, gray, orange and more. The boots range from $40 at the lowest up to $2,000, Reyes Del Portillo said. She’s seen a major decline in business due to the recession. Reyes Del Portillo said she used to sell $500 boots on a regular basis, but now she rarely sells ones more than $40 and her customers mainly come on weekends. During the week, she only sees one or two customers, she said.
Much as Gloria Calderon does, Reyes Del Portillo sells boots to people who wear them for special family events such as quinceañeras, baptisms and first communions. However, some of her customers wish the boots were more acceptable everyday wear in the streets of Langley Park, as they would be in Latin America.
“I do not wear my cowboy boots on a regular day,” customer Henry Ruiz said, “because one time I went to the grocery store and the American people were looking at me different, like they’ve never seen someone wear boots.”
“Being stared at makes you think twice of what you wear,” the Langley Park resident added, laughing.
Ruiz, who is from El Progreso, Guatemala, bought a pair of boots from El Alazán Western Wear and he enjoys wearing them to family events. He notes that Guatemalans have a different preference in boots than Mexicans.
“People in Guatemala wear boots that are more Americanized, meaning less narrow and more round,” Ruiz said. “The Mexican people I go out with wear the colorful, narrower with designs.”
Reyes Del Portillo said many of her boots are also worn in Manassas, Va., another hub of Latino-immigrant population. In Manassas, the community holds dances and parties on weekends and more Latinos are seen wearing boots than in Langley Park or other communities in Maryland.
Ruiz said that sometimes he holds back on his traditions because he wants to avoid feeling isolated from the public. But inside his heart he will always be a cowboy from Guatemala, he said.
Reyes Del Portillo said she always wants to maintain her traditions, serve her community and make them happy.
“My customers leave the store happy because I treat them as my family. Their race doesn’t matter. We are all equal,” Reyes Del Portillo said.
Designing with creativity
While Reyes Del Portillo maintains her traditions, Calderon uses Latin American traditions as a springboard to exercise her own creativity as a designer and to pursue a dream.
“In my mind, I always want to create something beautiful,” Calderon said.
Her small boutique on University Boulevard is hard to miss. So is her passion for designing when she speaks of her business.
“I love to work with dresses. I love to feel the material. I love to envision myself creating dresses for beautiful people and I love the color, which inspires me to create more and more,” Calderon said.
Calderon spends days, hours and months designing and making dresses. Everything inside her store is made by hand, such as decorative champagne glasses, floral bouquets and dresses. Calderon uses bright colors to design because she said the color creates a vibrant and sparkling look.
She prepares by attending fashion shows in Las Vegas and in New York to get ideas. When Calderon receives an order, she does everything by hand.
Vickie Martinez, a resident of Langley Park, had her wedding dress made by Calderon.
“When I looked at my dress and saw all the diamonds, the art and the train I was impressed,” Martinez said. “I told her how I wanted my dress and it was perfectly made the way I wanted.”
Like El Alazán, Gloria’s Bridal has also been affected by the economic crisis. Calderon used to travel internationally to host fashion shows. She said that people use to call her more often to design, but business has died down.
“I use to get about 50 orders a month and now I only get about 10 a month,” Calderon said. She also had to cut back on her employees. Calderon started with eight people and now she only has two. Her business went down 60 percent and people are cancelling or postponing events, which affects the business, she said.
Yet Calderon continues dreaming and says nothing will stop her creative aspirations. She hopes to extend her business to other states once the economic situation gets better, she said. She believes in her work.
“I’ve came this far to be a designer, Calderon said. “I will continue to grow because I believe in creation.”
By Anne Stephens
The four corners of where New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard intersect in Langley Park, Md., are awash with red light from the many storefronts. Look closely at the neighborhood, and it is soon apparent that it is more than a collection of stores and concrete – it is an intersection of various ethnicities and ways of life.
Red Apple Farmers Market, a neighborhood presence since 1985, is an ethnic grocery store, catering mainly to Caribbean and African immigrants. Inside the walls, foods range from the average bag of black-eyed peas, to the exotic tub of pickled chicken feet.
The store, says owner John Kim, is a place for people to re-gain a taste of home.
Julie’s Hair Salon provides a gathering place for community
By Bianca Rainwater
Hair dryers roaring, heat waves circulating, water swishing, bright lights all around and the buzzing of world languages – this is a typical day in Julie’s Hair Salon. Nestled in a plaza filled with stores selling clothing, shoes, electronics, groceries, Julie’s Hair Salon sits at 1171 University Boulevard.
Though the location has only been open two years, the community embraces the business as much more than a beauty parlor, and the women who frequent Julie’s love it. Customers, new and old, stream in throughout the day to buy handbags, jewelry, hats, scarves and, of course, receive new hairstyles.
Julie’s is a Dominican hair salon part-owned by Julie Lopez, who has been a hair stylist for 32 years. The salon advertises itself as a Dominican hair salon but its clients include women and men of all backgrounds and hair types. The women of the salon say they pride themselves on making clients look and feel good.
In the most traditional sense, hair salons are meant to satisfy the haircare needs of its clients. Julie’s takes that a step further by offering a friendly atmosphere where clients and stylists take care of more than just hair.
The waiting area is filled with handbag and jewelry displays just past the coat rack inside the door. Bright colors, shining stones, crisp leather and bags of varying sizes are abundant. Clients have the chance to complete their new hairstyles with accessories, or just drop by for a new hat or scarf.
An artificial Christmas tree remains in the box while conversation about Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, takes place between customers and stylists. They discuss family and gifts, practically shivering at the mention of the coming cold weather as the holidays approach.
“I don’t know what to get my granddaughter, since her birthday gift was pretty big,” one customer says. Her stylist replies “Don’t worry, she’s a sweet girl and will appreciate whatever you give her.”
The conversation sounds simple on the surface, but it shows the connection stylists form with their clients at this salon. In the midst of small conversations, hair-rollers are placed, helmet dryers are turned on and physical transformations take place.
“I love everything about doing hair,’ Lopez says as she talks about doing hair since the age of 12 and practicing on her six siblings. “I practiced on the neighborhood, but I always charged, even if it was just 25 cents.”
As she blended her passion for hair with her desire to be an entrepreneur, Lopez opened three hair salons in the state of Maryland. The University Boulevard location is the third. She brought over clients from the Silver Spring and Hagerstown locations.
Having a strong client base is important to the stylists but they also accept walk-ins. On occasion, regular clients arrive without appointments but most of the walk-ins are new. Since the salon is open seven days a week and at least seven hours a day there is plenty of space for convenience in the scheduling of clients.
“I don’t regularly get my hair done, but it’s good to have a place where I can go on short notice and still come out looking nice,” says Lillian James, a neighborhood resident.
Women who shop in the salon’s plaza give kudos to Julie’s Hair Salon.
“Even the bathroom is nice. The atmosphere is really warm and makes getting your hair done feel more like a treat than a task,” says Veronica Sanchez, a customer of the salon.
Parties, weddings and other special events bring clients to Julie’s, but Lopez believes it’s the experience that brings them back. The friendly, inviting atmosphere clients describe refers to more than the physical appearance of the salon.
The stylists are personable and open up to clients just as clients open up to them. Hair care is top priority, the health needs of each client’s hair are treated accordingly. The clients make friends with each other and help create a family-like feeling. For them, the salon is more than a place to take care of their appearance. It’s a safe harbor where they build community.
Revitalization is the latest change sweeping through the H Street Corridor—a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that never fully recovered from the 1968 riots. Located in the northeast section of the district, H Street’s close proximity to the capital makes it an increasingly valuable area for newcomers in retail and residential space.
Day on night on H Street Northeast: Between bars and transportation woes, revitalizing neighborhood a ‘tale of two cities’
Text and audio slideshow by Liz White
H Street arts organizations spark economic growth: Arts and Entertainment District build vibrant community, but racial divides persist
Text and photographs by Samantha Miller
As H Street revitalizes, education and youth remain a challenge
Text by Caroline Pacl
Day and night on H Street Northeast: Between bars and transportation woes, revitalizing neighborhood a ‘tale of two cities’
By Liz White
The streets come alive with chattering youngsters walking between bars, restaurants and music venues when nighttime hits Small storefronts are crowded with patrons waiting to get inside.
This is H Street N.E. at night, hopping with District residents looking for a place to mingle.
During the daytime hours, the same few blocks look completely different. There’s the constant bang of construction and the buzz of passing cars. The sidewalks are empty until children head home from school and a steady flow of returning residents exit X2 buses from other parts of the city.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” said Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street, a nonprofit involved with revitalizing the Northeast corridor.
The H Street neighborhood was a major shopping hub of the capital city in the 1950s before being torn apart by riots in 1968 following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The deserted streets and vacant storefronts have been recovering ever since.
In 2004, the City Council approved a strategic development plan to rebuild 13 blocks in the area, extending across 1.5 miles of mostly empty and decaying buildings.
Six years later, the corridor attracts mostly bar-hoppers and restaurant-goers, Saleem said.
“Right now, the nightlife is outgrowing the day life,” he said.
A few years ago, there were 150 vacancies along the corridor but tax incentives and added attention attracted over 148 new businesses, with 28 new ones this year, according to Saleem, who works to bring new businesses to the street. The neighborhood is one of fastest growing areas in the city, he said.
Across this 13-block span, 17 bars and restaurants have opened their doors, according to District liquor license records.
The Biergarten Haus, a German beer bar on the 1300 block, typically has lines out the door all day on the weekends, bartender Sigi Smailys, 28, said.
“The whole street is packed on weekends,” he said.
At the Star and Shamrock, an Irish pub and Jewish deli that opened in April on the 1300 block, families stop by for sandwiches during the day, but business picks up on Thursday nights through the weekends, bartender Martina Pelot, 34, said.
“The more we build up here, the busier we get,” she said.
Despite the thriving nightlife, the area still has other obstacles to overcome, Saleem said.
Getting to H Street requires hopping on the X2 bus. Or walking more than a mile from Union Station or the Minnesota Avenue Station.
People like to stay close to home or work for happy hour or nights out, and H Street is “a hike,” Pelot said.
As a part of the city’s development plan, the corridor began construction on a streetcar system in 2009 that will make getting to the growing H Street easier. The streetcar, which is set to begin running in 2012, could help market the area, Saleem said.
“Everything’s all about transportation,” he said. “If you want to grow a corridor, if you want to grow any area, you have to have good transportation.”
Elliot Williams, a lawyer who recently bought a house in the H Street area, said not having a Metro stop nearby has hurt the commercial district and the streetcars could bring more foot traffic.
“The more people come, the more people see what a lovely neighborhood it is,” Williams, 34, said.
Once the construction is finished, more businesses will move to the corridor, but for now, life on H Street is mostly nightlife, he said.
“The day life is not the same activity you see after 8 p.m.,” he said.
While H Street businesses look forward to the streetcars bringing in new patrons, construction on the project has torn apart the busy thoroughfare and hurt some stores that have seen their customer numbers drop, according to Saleem. He interviews every business owner before shop doors close for good. Stores — like the flower shop, beauty salon and barbershop — have lost 25 to 75 percent of their customers, he said.
The nightlife hasn’t suffered because people will navigate the construction to get to social locales, he said.
“They will walk around God to drink,” he said.
Bringing in retail
When the city began its strategic plan, opening more retail shops was a key issue. The corridor now has fewer vacant storefronts, but not many businesses to attract District residents for shopping.
Pelot, who spends much of her time working on H Street, said she wants to see more boutiques, like a pet store or a bookstore, in the area. But no one is going to open a bookstore where no one goes to shop.
Unlike other areas of the city, there are very few franchises, and more homegrown businesses on the corridor, Saleem said. The closest Starbucks is at Union Station.
H Street has seen a rise in tax rates for small businesses, which could hurt the Mom and Pop places dotting storefronts across the street. The city has to be careful about chasing off these businesses that make H Street unique, Saleem said.
Soon, only larger commercial operations will be able to afford to stay open. “Next thing you know, it’s going to be like any other neighborhood around the world,” he said.
The city also has to worry about offering too many incentives for bars and restaurants in the area, Saleem said, comparing H Street to Adams Morgan, where food and drink stops outnumber retail options.
“You have to have more retail to keep people here during the day,” he said. “You don’t want it to look like a ghost town during the daytime and a live spot where all the vampires hang out at night.”
In November, Giant Food announced it would open a grocery store at the corner of 3rd and H streets. With more attention from developers and commercial retail pouring into the corridor, it has become an example for how to rebuild a neighborhood in the city, Saleem said.
“H Street is a gem for the city to follow,” he said.
The recovering corridor will have to balance its popular nightlife with its struggling retail while attracting business and keeping smaller stores, Saleem said. The lifelong resident of H Street and business owner said he hopes to see an upscale corridor that competes with Georgetown.
“We’ve only seen a piece of the revitalization of H St.”