Signs of Life in Downtown DC

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Parts of downtown Washington, DC, are a time capsule, perfectly frozen in time from the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of these places is Sweet Leaf on 15th St. It’s your typical high-end salad place – DC loves its expensive salads.

Like much of the city, it closed in March, 2020, and never reopened. They just locked up and left. The signs announcing new salad combinations, the chairs and tables, the register – everything is still inside.

Large swathes of downtown DC look similar. The white collar workers that once poured out of the Metro are working from home. Still. Most of the coffee shops, sandwich places, cleaners and bars that supported them are gone.

So few people that the Starbucks have closed! DC used to have Starbucks across the street from Starbucks but even they can’t survive.

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The city has taken to plastering empty storefronts with murals. They’re quite good but do not disguise the fact that you can be the only person walking down L St on a Tuesday morning – a very unusual occurrence for a place that once used to be the busiest in the city.

Yet, it was worse last year. Walking around Farragut North then was an apocalyptic experience, with streets so dark and empty that it was worrisome. It seemed like the world had ended but no one had told me.

I work from home but cannot sit at home all day. I like to get coffee in the morning so grab a Capital Bikeshare bike and roll down the 15th St bike lane (passing the empty Sweet Leaf).

It’s good to see humanity. There’s a guy at 15th and K who yells hello at everyone. You can hear him from blocks away. He recognizes me. Thinks my name is David. “Good morning Daaavviidd!” he shouts as I wave to him from across K Street.

I like the Peet’s Coffee near the White House. It’s sunny, on a corner and has a view of Old Executive Office Building, a flamboyant and anachronistic construct of marble columns, flags and ironwork, all done in French Empire style.

Pre-pandemic, the line at Peet’s would stretch to the door. I haven’t had to wait in line there since 2019. I bring my laptop to work from home from a coffee shop. There are few customers – maybe a uniformed Secret Service agent with his bike parked out front, a TV correspondent getting a latte before going to a press briefing or a tourist wandering in after a White House selfie.

Lately, I’ve seen signs of life downtown. At Midtown Centre, where the Sweet Leaf time capsule is, Dauphine’s, a Cajun joint, opened last year – and is still open. Construction workers are busy building out a Japanese restaurant, too.

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And biking by Sweet Leaf this morning, I noticed something different. A sign.

NOW HIRING
ALL POSITIONS
PART TIME AND FULL TIME

A simple piece of paper. A sign of life after two years of emptiness. The time capsule reopening.

The days of having a coffee shop to myself are coming to an end. The days of being the only person walking down the block. The days of artwork covering empty windows.

I’ve been wrong before. I thought downtown would spring back to life last year. Maybe it will never come back. Maybe it will come back differently. But it’s definitely coming back.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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