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Mount Pleasant's Energy Shifts As New Residents Move In

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There are many flowers and fruit vendors in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Kate Sheehy
There are many flowers and fruit vendors in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

For decades, Mount Pleasant has been an enclave for Latino residents and businesses. But in recent years, it's been changing. Latino residents have gradually begun moving out to the suburbs because of rising housing costs. And white residents are moving in. Census data for Ward 1, which includes Mount Pleasant, show that the Latino population in this part of D.C. has gone down about 4 percent, while the white population has increased by more than 10 percent.

These changing demographics also mean the business culture of Mount Pleasant is changing.

Miram Ochoa and Rafael Rodriguez barely have time for a break during their 12-hour workday. They're the owners of D&S Accounting and Tax Services on the corner of Irving and Mount Pleasant Streets in northwest D.C. The business has been in Mount Pleasant since 1994, and they have a lot of loyal customers.

"Most of my clients are Hispanic, I have a few non-speaking Hispanic clients, about 20 percent," says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is from the Dominican Republic and has lived in this community for 31 years. He says there used to be only African-Americans, Latinos and a few Asian people here, but now there's a little bit of everything, as he puts it. Rodriguez likes that Mount Pleasant is becoming more diverse, but he also worries that Latinos and whites are living side by side without really understanding one another's cultures.

"They will come in and they will not care," he says. "When they put their business, they just want to make money, they don't care whether you move out or move in — they don't care about the other people, which is something that bothers me. I would like all of us to enjoy the growth of the Mount Pleasant community."

Feeling the divide

His partner Miram Ochoa came to D.C. from El Salvador in 1980, when she was 15. Like many Central Americans in Mount Pleasant, she feels at home here. But she knows that demographic changes have made some feel unwelcome.

"I hear comments here in my office that they are increasing the rent so high, because they want to kick us out of here," says Ochoa.

Ochoa says she likes trying new things and appreciates much of the progress made in her community. However, she fights back tears as she admits she has never felt accepted by her white neighbors.

"A lot of times like when there's a snow storm, I clean the entire parking lot to see if they will come out and try to join me, and they don't talk to me," she says. "So I do feel uncomfortable. I do feel they don't want me here, and I have been here since '94," she says.

Further up the street, next to the Latin Grocery store Progresso, is one example of how Mount Pleasant is changing. A new restaurant, Beau Thai, opened here just a few weeks ago, and it has been busy. Co-owner Ralph Brabham says the neighborhood just felt right for his business.

"We loved walking down the street and seeing people selling flowers or selling bananas," he says. "It just has a unique feel to it that is incomparable throughout the rest of D.C."

Brabham says he hasn't seen many Latinos come to the restaurant so far. He plans to post a menu in Spanish in hopes of bringing in more Latino customers. Whether that will be enough to lure them in, is still an open question.

Dealing with changes

A few buildings down from Beau Thai, people get off the 42 bus in front of a 7-Eleven. It's a hang out spot for many Latino men when they get off work. They drink coffee and talk.

Ricardo is from Nicaragua and has lived in Mount Pleasant for 16 years. He says he won't eat at the Thai restaurant.

"It's too expensive," he says. "My wife sent me to buy some food there, but it was too expensive. It's not for us, it's for people who have money."

But his friend José from El Salvador says he's curious and wants to try the food.

Both men agree that the neighborhood has become safer as it's become more affluent. But life in Mount Pleasant is more difficult for them than it used to be. Not only the cost of living, but also they say the police harass them for congregating outside the 7-Eleven.

"This is how we are," says Ricardo. "Here nobody is selling drugs or drinking, after work we meet here."

Another neighborhood meeting spot is Haydee's Salvadoran Restaurant. It's across the street from Miram Ochoa and Rafael Rodriguez's accounting firm. Haydee's has long been popular with Latinos, but many white residents also come here.

Judy Byron is one of them. She's lived here since the early 1970s, and witnessed the wave of Central Americans who arrived in the 1980s. Byron says one of the things she loves most about living in Mount Pleasant is the Latin flavor, but she's not sure Latinos feel the same way about the growing white influence.

"I don't think the Latin American population puts their feet in the waters of basically white middle class places in the same way the white middle class that's moved in, enjoys the texture of places like Progresso or Haydees," says Byron.

Haydee Vanegas opened this restaurant in 1990, and at the time, she says, most of her customers were Latino. Now her clientele is 80 percent white. But that doesn't bother her.

"I want to have customers, it don't matter what, Latinos, Whites, African, Asians, I love everyone — my Latinos, they remember me and they come back on special days, and I appreciate that. But I have to live with whatever I have available," says Vanegas.

Perhaps Vanegas has had an easier time adapting to losing her Latino customers because, well, she's still busy. But that is exactly what her neighbors, Miriam Ochoa and Rafael Rodriguez , worry about. Change will come and the community will move on — with or without Latinos.

Photos: Mount Pleasant


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