Video and text by Kirana Bammarito
The bar, built in 1935, hides itself between the Pan American Laundry and Atonatl Condominiums. A simple dark-green rounded awning declares “3125” (Mount Pleasant Street) and a diner-esque window announces “Raven Grill” in bold, white cursive. Faint light peeks through the brown aluminum blinds, and a neon sign glows with “Cocktails” over a big wine glass. Off to the side, a chipped planter stands tribute to many past, present and future cigarette breaks, while a black and orange sticker on the side window declares that it’s N.F.T. – Not for Tourists.
Jon Roos, 27, grew up in the neighborhood, attended Wilson High School in Tenleytown, and went away to west Pennsylvania and New York City for various college and work gigs. But something always called him back to the District, and specifically back to Mount Pleasant. He worked at various neighborhood businesses before settling down as one of The Raven’s bartenders three years ago.
For many, The Raven, one of Mount Pleasant’s oldest establishments, is a mainstay of the neighborhood as they’ve known it – friendly and haphazard, eclectic and low-key. It won Washington City Paper’s “Readers’ Choice Best Dive Bar” award last year.
“I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple or Martian,” says Roos; as long as you’re friendly and have a few bucks for a beer, you’re golden.
Places like this define Mount Pleasant, which is a celebrated Washington neighborhood of racial and cultural diversity. Many people say they live in Mount Pleasant because of the diversity, which was borne of immigrants, economies and cultural demographic shifts.
From the outside, many people generally see Mount Pleasant as one of the most inclusive neighborhoods in Washington, welcoming and encouraging all racial and cultural diversity. Banners around the neighborhood read “Mount Pleasant – en la ciudad un pueblo” (a village in the city). Latino markets line the strip, Adam Express won Washington City Paper’s “Best Korean [Food] in the District” award in 2008 and the newest restaurant, Marx Café, sometimes offers live jazz music.
Even though many of these businesses have been fixtures in the neighborhood for years, within Mount Pleasant’s diversity also lie isolated groups that don’t often interact – a tossed salad rather than a melting pot.
The Raven’s clientele is mostly white and black, with the number of Latinos far smaller than their neighborhood percentage. On the flip side, Latinos mostly comprise the clientele at Don Juan’s, a restaurant owned by Salvadoran immigrant Alberto Ferrufino.
Mount Pleasant’s racial demographics have ebbed and flowed over the years. Since its founding in the 1700s, it was mostly white until the mid-1950s when it became a mix of whites and blacks. After the 1968 riots, the neighborhood was mostly black. Then in the 1980s, an influx of Latino immigrants, particularly from Central America, slowly came to the area.
In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, the neighborhood was 27 percent black, 35 percent white and 31 percent Latino. The rest of the population was mostly Asian. Foreign-born residents comprised 38 percent of the population. Today, those demographics are similar, but recent conditions have begun to change things.
Shifing politics, economies, and sociocultural trends are what have bred Mount Pleasant’s diversity, and vice versa. Each side says it is trying to preserve this richness, to let the change come naturally and help all Mount Pleasant residents interact together in a peaceful manner. However, even in a place that prides itself as so diverse, interactions between different groups seem to have bred contention.
It’s hard for business owners and residents of all races in Mount Pleasant to say exactly whether tensions in this diverse neighborhood arise from racial issues, or cultural shifts in a broader sense. The new Mount Pleasant has emerged from a jumble of class and race differences, old versus new residents, as well as gentrification.
Residents do know that the only constant in Mount Pleasant is change, and it’s not always easy as some places struggle to cope with the newest cultural, racial and economic realities.
Oliver Tunda, a commissioner on one of Mount Pleasant’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, has lived in the neighborhood since immigrating from Sudan in 1995. While grabbing a beer at Haydee’s restaurant, he says issues of gentrification from within nearby Columbia Heights and loss of Latino populations in the neighborhood have hurt local Latino businesses.
Owner Haydee Venegas says it’s been especially tough since a five-alarm fire destroyed a local apartment building and put out many Latinos last March. Switching fluently between Spanish and English, “We hope that they return,” she says, but in the meantime she’ll have to “learn to compete with [neighboring Columbia Heights].”
At the same time, change has proved fortunate for some of the newer businesses, such as Marx Café, whose clientele frequently consists of the newer, white population that is moving back into the neighborhood. Some see animosity between this newest demographic and Latino restaurants and markets, while Latino business owners say they feel a class and race bias that will eventually drive them out in favor of the white and the rich.
Jon Roos, The Raven bartender, has a laid-back manner to go with his dark brown beard and the intricate tattoo creeping out from underneath the left sleeve of his black Frank Zappa t-shirt. He smokes his cigarette outside on a temperate night, and muses over the sometimes racialized disputes that characterize the local dialogue about these changes.
For example, many in the neighborhood know of a legal conflict about a live-music ban involving three Latino businesses and the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, which some outsiders perceive as a mostly white neighborhood group.
“[There were] racial undertones – it’s undeniable,” he says, but also acknowledges that the whole issue is extremely complicated.
Laurie Collins, President of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance says, “Laws don’t know race or gentrification,” and, referring to the businesses resisting the live-music ban, “nobody in that community owes them a thing.” She cites Radius Pizzeria and Tonic Restaurant and Bar as examples of two “very good businesses in our community.” She says they’re doing fine without live entertainment, which is not the Band-Aid to economic troubles.
Collins and the Neighborhood Alliance envisioned a “different type of neighborhood,” says Claudia Schlosberg of Hear Mount Pleasant, and wanted to “shut everything down.” She says Mount Pleasant has always been a working-class neighborhood of immigrants, and if some people do not want to embrace the kind of diversity such neighborhoods bring, they shouldn’t live there.
Coupled with the collapsing economy, the conflicts harm more than they help the struggling businesses of Mount Pleasant, according to Damien Ober, Marx Café general manager..
He says he’s sick of seeing Mount Pleasant business owners “caught in between this political turf war.” It’s “self-reinforcing,” and “doesn’t have to do with race at all.”
Mount Pleasant has always been a complex neighborhood, filled with diversity and at times, strife. Its future as a place with a proud multicultural identity – en la cuidad un pueblo – will depend on increasing cooperation and support from everyone, regardless of past wrongdoings, Ober says.
Roos listens to the back-and-forth with amusement. In 20 years, The Raven will still be the same, he says.
It has no live entertainment, but it’s a “place for everybody,” according to patron Keith Walker, who first went to The Raven in 1972. For some places, changing with the times is the wrong thing to do. Walker says he starting going to The Raven because it was a “comfortable bar. It still is.”