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Innovators, connectors and sharers: the people making DC amazing

Aaron Silverman

Nikki Peele

Veronica Davis

Jonas Singer

D.C. wouldn't be where it is without its passionate, engaged citizens. Get to know four of them.
These stories originally appeared on Urbanful.

Aaron Silverman, redefining hospitality
It's 5:10 p.m. on a Tuesday in kid-friendly Capitol Hill, and people of all ages are lined up outside of Rose’s Luxury in advance of its 5:30 opening.

Anyone who’s anyone knows it’s better to try for a table on a weekday than on a Saturday, when wait times can be upwards of three hours, no matter how close you are to head chef Aaron Silverman.

And it’s no surprise, really; between glowing reviews from the Washington Post, earning Best New Restaurant in the U.S. from Bon Appétit and some of the best service around town, it’s no wonder that Rose’s Luxury is all the rave.

Aaron Silverman. Photo: Elizabeth Parker/Urbanful

People are willing to wait for that sort of buzz. (Case in point: A young couple at the back of the line rejoices at the discovery their wait will only be one hour, something close to a miracle for D.C.’s newly-famous, prized restaurant).
But it’s more than that. There’s something about Rose’s that makes it uniquely “D.C.”

It could be because Silverman’s a hometown gem, growing up a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill, in Rockville, Maryland. After working in kitchens from D.C. to New York to Charleston, South Carolina, Silverman wanted his own place. For him, opening in D.C. was a no-brainer.

“D.C. is my home,” Silverman explains. “My family and friends all live here. I love Capitol Hill.”
But Silverman knew that when he opened a restaurant in D.C., it would operate differently than places he’d run before.

“I think the secret to our success is doing the ‘right’ thing and not the ‘easy’ thing. It’s harder but pays off more to make the ‘right’ decisions," he says.

Indeed, it has paid off immeasurably. Despite wait times the length of three dinners, customers keep returning.

Why? It comes down to service.

“Our job is to make people happy, plain and simple,” Silverman says. “Our staff, our guests, literally everyone who walks through our doors. Simple as that.”

Simple may be an understatement, especially in an industry in which hospitality is often overlooked. From harsh kitchen environments to unpleasant staff, restaurant experiences can easily be anything but enjoyable. Not so for Rose’s staff or diners, it seems, and it stems from the attitude Silverman sets as the leader.

The happiness is reflected in the very essence of Rose’s as well – from food to décor to bathroom soap. The “right” thing for Rose’s means testing and retesting dishes, like the pork sausage, habanero, and lychee salad, to perfect a flavor or combination and offering tastes to friends who come in. It also means creating an atmosphere that is friendly, approachable, and welcoming. Interesting artwork and handmade tables, combined with a C.O. Bigelow rosemary-mint soap that beats Dial by leaps and bounds makes for an evening that is delicious, easy and fun.

Silverman has had high expectations for his restaurant from day one and has kept them ever since.

“Nothing has changed,” Silverman replies when asked how Rose’s goals have shifted over the past year. “We are still striving to be the best we can be. Not to be better than anyone else.”

And it appears that’s enough, as Rose’s “best” continues to redefine the city’s, and even the country’s, food scene.

“D.C. is on the cusp of a huge revolution,” Silverman says. “I’m very excited to see where the D.C. food scene goes.”

Nikki Peele, spreading #southeastlove
Nikki Peele. Photo: Tommie Adams/Urbanful

Nikki Peele has always been a fixer.

When she bought a condo in 2007 in Congress Heights, though, she told herself it would be different. Instead of, as she so often had in her personal and professional life, setting out to make a change, she would relax, maybe even relish the experience of reaching a goal – buying a home before the age of 30 – she’d set for herself as a young girl.

There’d be no fixing – just settling into a life for which she’d worked hard.

“I remember I had a talk with myself, saying, ‘Listen here, Nikki, you’re just going to buy your house and move and not fix anything,’” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be selfish and I’m going to buy furniture and I’m going to invest in myself.”

The mantra lasted all of six months.

Today, much of the development coming to the city’s easternmost ward can be traced back to Peele, a former operations manager turned community manager and advocate, and the network she’s slowly built between investors and businesses, council members and residents, local innovators and resources, willing to give them a home.

Her reach is both broad and eclectic. She’s on the executive board of the Anacostia Business Improvement District and is the director of marketing and business development for Arch Development Corporation, a nonprofit whose projects include small business incubator Hive 2.0 and contemporary art space Honfleur Gallery. She founded reSpin Public Relations, her own boutique PR company focused on promoting projects east of the river, and a campaign called Eat Shop Live Anacostia. With former blogger David Garber, she’s helped the hashtag #SoutheastLove earn thousands of tweets.

While some neighborhood blogs pop up only to disappear, Peele has stayed more or less consistent, putting up hundreds of posts over the course of six years. She’s also developed a blog network of more than 20 community sites east of the river. 

“There’s been no [social media] voice for East of the River in the past 5 to 10 years,” she says, “There’s a voice now.”
It’s at the least much more than what Peele found seven years ago, when she began looking for a neighborhood to call home. A Howard University graduate, Peele wanted to move into the District, but found she was priced out of the city’s wealthier areas; even U Street and Shaw, at the time a far cry from the hotspots they are today, cost too much.

Someone suggested Congress Heights. The only problem: she couldn’t find any information about the neighborhood online.

What little she did find about Wards 7 and 8 was about Anacostia. And even then, the picture wasn’t great: the only results were on poverty, crime or violence.

Though it’s separated from “mainland” D.C. by less than a mile in bridges, East of the River, for many, might as well be another city entirely. Even today, there’s a feeling there are two Districts of Columbia: West of the River and East. Some people struggle to point out the area on a map, let alone take a trip to see it for themselves.

“When I told people I moved to Congress Heights, I’d get what I call the 10 faces of fear. You’d think I’d just said I’m going off to war,” she says. 

Not only was the only news to hit the papers bad news, politicians didn’t give the neighborhood the attention it deserved either, Peele thought.

Case in point: When Peele moved in, she got tired of seeing so much trash on the ground. The issue: there were no trash cans. She asked the city for help. The answer was no. So, with her operations background, she created an organization, the Concerned Citizens of Oakwood Street. The members: Peele and her dog. She resent the request, and three days later, the street had trash cans.
Peele found similar complaints, about trash cans and other issues, on the area’s listserv. While she first was banned from the listerv for overwhelming the moderator—at one count posting 30 messages in a day—her fellow residents soon came to look to the “Advocate,” the username she used in forums, for leadership and answers.

She’d often go to community meetings and report back what she’d heard. A bad interaction with an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, who suggested her input didn’t matter, while initially discouraging, inspired Congress Heights on the Rise, a blog to inform, educate and inspire action among her neighbors.

She continued to attend meetings, but also kept tabs on trends, posted information about city services and coordinated efforts among residents. Media outlets, many of which had abandoned putting reporters on the ground in the neighborhood, looked to the blog for story ideas, and in some cases, information and interviews.
"There are real people and real families in these communities who have a story and we should look at them as individuals and not statistics."

“It came about organically, really educating people on what life was like east of the river by starting to figure it out myself,” says Peele, who, newly laid off from her corporate job, decided she didn’t want to return to the industry, and instead, threw herself into the neighborhood.

“I was really trying to show people … that there are real people and real families in these communities who have a story and we should look at them as individuals and not statistics,” she says.

Today, the neighborhood is one far different than the one Peele knew nearly a decade ago. Her work with ARCH has helped bring the Anacostia Arts Center, two galleries and a coworking space to the area. Retail has increased 500 percent in Anacostia over the past 18 months. When she first moved to Ward 8 in 2007, there was only one sit-down restaurant. Now, there are five, she says, including NURISH Food And Drink.

When she looks on Twitter, she sees her neighbors spreading “the good word” about Anacostia.

“[When I see] what mean or uninformed things people are saying about neighborhoods east of the river, chances are good someone has already reached out to that person to educate them about our communities and that “Southeast is scary” jokes are not only not funny, but really aren’t very accurate,” she says.

“I have never met as many people who were so passionate and excited and dedicated—there’s a lot of people who are working hard and doing things. Hopefully, [everything I do is] a vehicle to highlight those things and educate people, give them a tool kit.”

Still, there are challenges. There’s still something to be said for bringing “politicians as well as these companies to task about … this feeling that’s what’s good for West of the River is not good for out East. It would be nice to see the flip side of that general feeling – that something East of the River would be good for all of D.C.”
"I see these neighborhoods being vibrant places families can walk to, with restaurants and schools and entertainment options."

But in Peele’s mind, the future is bright. In 10 to 20 years time, “I see these neighborhoods being vibrant places families can walk to, with restaurants and schools and entertainment options. A place where people can grow old in their neighborhood,” Peele says. “My hope is that our section of D.C. is valued and seen as worthwhile as any section of the city.”

A challenge? To be sure. But impossible? Not if Peele has her say.

“I worked in the legal industry and now I find myself doing advocacy,” Peele says. “You can always change what you want to do; you can always set a new direction. Particularly in the District of Columbia, particularly East of the River, you really do have an opportunity to make a change and make a difference.”

If you can make it East of the River, she says, you damn sure can make it anywhere.

Veronica Davis's pedal power
Veronica Davis. Photo: Courtesy Urbanful

If you follow Veronica O. Davis on Twitter, you’ll notice a few things. Smiling women on bikes. Community meetings of all sizes and stripes. Adoration for her Terps, the Nats and D.C. United. And, as she’s fond of tagging her posts, #everydayisahustle.

That last sentiment is more than a hashtag, though. It’s a way of life.

Following Davis on and offline, you’ll learn she’s not only always literally on the go, as a car-free resident biking near constantly to west of the river from her Capitol View home: She’s also after starting something new, most often in the world of bicycling.

She’s probably best known for the kind of energy that sparked Black Women Bike, a group she organized to encourage fellow female African-American bikers in the District to travel on sets of two wheels (a feat that earned her recognition as a White House Champion of Change).

But she’s also an active player on the The Rent is Too Darn High slate for the D.C. Democratic State Committee. which actively encourages residents to vote and to be informed, and still finds time for outreach and education, the most famous of which was a ride with known rabble-rouser Courtland Milloy, who once likened bicyclists to terrorists.

“I’ve always been amazed at not just the command of the topics that Veronica instills in her staff, but their consistent enthusiasm and ability to patiently walk people through the process of understanding and making decisions,” says Payton Chung, a D.C. bike advocate and writer for Streetsblog USA. “As a bike advocate, Veronica’s been both tireless and strategic in her efforts to make sure that people see the diverse faces of bicyclists. At a time when thousands of us were left sputtering by a particularly offensive Post column about bicycling, Veronica took the bold step of inviting the columnist out for a ride.”

To say she’s seemingly everywhere—packing a lot of passion and patience— is an understatement.
But it comes naturally to the civil engineer, bike advocate and small business owner, who was born just across the Potomac in Alexandria.

She spent most of her childhood in suburban New Jersey, but “was always fascinated by the city,” Davis says, cherishing her early memories of the monuments and returning to the area to visit her great-uncle.

She was back again to attend the University of Maryland at College Park for civil engineering, following in the footsteps of her father, a former president of ASCE, the international association for civil engineers.

Another thing she shares with her father: activism.

“My parents met at a college protest,” she says, “they were both active in the community and social justice in and around my sister and I, and they would take us to various events.”

After stints working elsewhere she started her own engineering and planning firm, called Nspiregreen, with partner Chancee Lundy in 2009.

She settled into the Ward 7 neighborhood of Fairfax Village. One day in 2010,  as she was cycling through the neighborhood, she noticed a young African-American girl who pointed to her. “Mommy, mommy, there’s a black girl on a bike,” she said.

It was enough for her to reach out to her fellow black cyclists to form a support group that could encourage women, many of whom hadn’t been on a bike since childhood, to give it another try.
"We are giving women tools to do more."

Today, a movement that started as three women with a dream is now 1,500 members strong on Facebook.

“We are giving women tools to do more. If they were biking on the weekends, they are now biking to work. If they weren’t biking at all, they are biking on the weekends,” she says.

The group is more than a cycling club, though. It’s an advocacy group.

“We now have two black women on the D.C. Bike Advisory Council. Without Black Women Bike, I don’t know if we’d see black women in leadership in the D.C. bike advocacy movement,” Davis says.
Part of advocacy is education. We are all now familiar with Milloy’s written charge for people to physically harm bicyclists who refuse to obey normal traffic laws.

The news rippled through both the D.C. and the national bike community and Davis spoke up the following day on D.C.’s WTOP to extend an invitation, as she does for so many who don’t bike: Ride with us.

The ride was well documented by those same outlets and produced lots of commentary, humor and concern.

“I can actually see where Milloy is coming from in many ways. He made excellent points about how we have lots of Black and Latino riders, lots of poor and homeless riders, but we cater too much to white, wealthier riders. A biker is not necessarily a bike advocate and that has to change,” Davis says.

While she herself is not on any formal bike committee besides the ones she’s created, she’s had a role in many of the bike improvements throughout the District. In Fairfax Village, she worked with the community to get a bikeshare station and sharrows on one of the streets. Throughout Ward 7, she had bike racks installed at major at commercial areas including grocery stores.

Through Black Women Bike, she has conducted seminars such as “How to Ride on the Streets of DC Safely” to provide women the tools to have the courage to bike as a form of transportation.

Through her professional work as the co-owner of Nspiregreen, she was part of the consultant team that worked on moveDC, the District’s long range transportation plan. MoveDC envisions over 200 new miles of bike infrastructure, along with other public transit goals.

So what’s next for this self-described “jill-of-all-trades”? Who knows. But she does have a few wishes for cycling and her neighborhood.

“As a resident who lives east of the Anacostia River, my biggest wishes are for safer pedestrian and bike access to the bridges and additional pedestrian and bike access to Anacostia Park,” she says.

And whether it’s are acting on wishes or continuing activist action, one thing is certain: hustle will be involved.

Jonas Singer's blind dogs and kitchen incubators
Jonas Singer: Photo courtesy Singer/Urbanful

It has been said that there is no such thing as a truly original idea — merely, representations of previous ones.

True invention may be impossible, but that fact doesn’t denigrate the concept of innovation; it just complicates it. By all accounts, Jonas Singer is an innovator and one of Washington D.C.’s foremost hospitality industry representatives. But, even more than that, he’s breaking the mold of what those terms mean and how one might go about achieving innovator status.

The story behind Singer’s primary businesses goes a long way illuminate his inclination to choose his own path. The concept of a creative incubator was not new to Washington, D.C. Neither was the idea of commercial kitchen space. But when Singer and co-founder Cullen Gilchrist blended the two things, they created a new model that has since attracted unprecedented demand.

Union Kitchen wasn’t planned. We didn’t have a business plan for two years. We just got lucky.”

The brainchild behind D.C.’s most successful shared kitchen space got his start in the food business when he opened Blind Dog Café, a pop-up eatery in the Shaw neighborhood, in February 2012. Singer first identified a need for a community gathering place; he then approached Darnell’s, a bar only open after 5pm, about an idea for using the space during the day.

“The goal with opening Blind Dog was not to capitalize on food trends. We were doing something for ourselves and wanted to feel in control of our business.”
“Until [Blind Dog Cafe], I was pretty good at getting fired from jobs, not hired,” Singer adds.

Union Kitchen began in a similar way. Singer and Gilchrist understood that people wanted something affordable; the space did not have to be perfect, just enough to get the job done. The warehouse location between NoMA and Union Station became the obvious choice.

“We were initially just trying to find our own kitchen for Blind Dog, but it was proving to be really expensive and difficult to manage. As a short term solution, we found this building with cheap rent and immediately liked it. We also immediately knew it was too big and we would have to share.”

The solution began to come together. Why could they not share this space? With people now sharing cars, bikes, and even homes, what was so radical about sharing kitchen space?

“We were solving problems for ourselves, and then thought, why not make these solutions accessible to everyone?”

The economics of sharing make concepts like Union Kitchen appealing to many new entrepreneurs. It drives down costs and allows risks to be shared, permitting more aspiring concepts to get in the game. And in a city like D.C., where cost can be the singular prohibitive factor to new business models, reducing this barrier to entry can kickstart innovation in the culinary space.
“We were solving problems for ourselves, and then thought, why not make these solutions accessible to everyone?”

Ultimately, that openness to other’s success may be what makes Singer one of D.C.’s brightest and most savvy business innovators. It’s not really about him; it’s about all of the individual businesses housed at Union Kitchen. It’s not just about Blind Dog Cafe; it’s about the greater Shaw community.

The results of such a “shared” business mindset are hard to ignore — and perhaps that’s the greatest lesson to learn from Singer’s success.

“We just looked at what was available and the existing problems and then tried to figure out how to solve those problems in a way that wasn’t too costly.”

Last week our friends at Urbanful chose to spotlight some of the people making D.C. amazing. Since Elevation DC is all about people making D.C. amazing, we reprinted the best. To read all 20 profiles, click here.
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