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A dedicated group of businesses turn the tide on a once-struggling block

Local businesses formed a collective to rebrand their block, and it looks like it's working.
15th and U is a three-minute walk away from the gentrified bustle of 14th St NW, but it couldn't look more different. The block from 15th to 16th is home to 30 small businesses, most of them mom-and-pop operations. And for a while, 15th and U was struggling.

Construction plus favorable publicity for all the new restaurants and shops along 14th Street equaled disaster for the small businesses a block away, but a new branding initiative is aiming to change that.

The problem
"Initially, everybody was very excited about all the action on 14th Street," says Shannan Fales, owner of Junction, a vintage boutique on the block celebrating its 12th year in business this year. "We thought it would bring more people to the neighborhood and more customers." But that's not what happened. 

"We noticed shops on 14th were closing such as Pulp and Rue 14, mom-and-pop retail similar to what we had, and what was coming in was Trader Joe's and expensive condos." 

Sidewalks were closed, scaffolding was everywhere, and 15th and U was...kind of being ignored.

"If you're a tourist [getting off the metro], you don't even know what's three blocks away," she says. "It just wasn't very inviting to wander our way. That was kind of our theory." Fales talked to a number of businesses that had been open for decades who all said that 2012 was the worst year they'd ever seen. "I was getting to the point, 'Do I get another job? Do I close down?' And that was kind of when I said, 'I really need to do anything that I possibly can to make this work.'"

Fales convinced a number of businesses on the block to put up white string lights to unify the streetscape and held a raffle where the prize was something from each participating business. And then she held a mixer. And then she met Patrick Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh works for BRINK, a marketing agency three doors down from Junction. He and vice president Josh Belhumeur mentioned they had also been thinking about branding the block to improve business. "I think it's an awareness problem," Cavanaugh says. "Once people get here, they're impressed."

Together, they applied for--and received--a grant from the D.C. Department of Small and Local Businesses, and 15 And U was born.

The idea
It may be the smallest, most hyperlocal marketing initiative in D.C., but sometimes smaller is better. BRINK built a website and arranged to have a video filmed (viewable above) promoting the businesses on the block. They've organized flash mob sales and put together a map that shows all the stores on the block. That last part "is great," Fales says. "When people come into my store, they don't realize what else is on the block, and I can say, 'You need to go here, here, and here.' It's really been a helpful tool."

Change is coming, albeit slowly. A new sign here, a window decal there. Art gallery/gift shop Zawadi's new sign has brought in more customers, for example, and on Small Business Saturday last holiday season, other businesses said they were seeing more traffic as well.

"It's a new energy," Fales says, even if progress is a bit slow. And convincing 30 businesses to move in one united direction isn't always easy, "but slowly but surely, they're coming around." Developer JBG (whose Louis 14 building was responsible for some of that unwelcome construction chaos) has given the fledgling organization two grants to pay for marketing and signage, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton even stopped by one of the block's events.

The impact
When Fales started Junction in 2003, the neighborhood was a lot different than it is today. "It was an up and coming neighborhood. If it weren't for businesses like myself or like Millennium, 14th Street wouldn't be as attractive to these developers as it is now. People need to realize that we paved the way and really struggled through the hard times...people need to support people like us, because if 15th and U were to go away, there's really [only] a few mom and pops left."

But those mom and pops, at least on the 1500 block of U Street NW, aren't yet giving up. They're continuing to bring a little of this and a little of that to their little part of the city. "You could come to our block and have lunch, get an outfit to wear that night, get your hair done, grab a bottle of wine," says Fales. "There's so many different things to do just on our block."

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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