A midday stroll down H Street NE between North Capitol and 15th Street NE in Washington, DC, offers none of the grand vistas, marble monuments, nor reminders of a bubbling bureaucracy busily tending to the nation. If anything, it’s a 15-block essay on how the District of Columbia has failed so many of its citizens, but it also offers up a challenge to see how the near Northeast quadrant of the city could be as vital as the tonier environs in Northwest.
As you get to H and 11th NE, amid run-down dollar stores, abandoned real estate, and storefronts offering payday loans, you start to see a handful of new, hipper businesses, a theater, the odd gallery. They’re still dots, not yet a web, but one senses—and knows for sure on bustling Saturday nights—that something is slowly changing. H Street NE used to be a thriving commercial district, but the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 ravaged the neighborhood, plunging it into 40 years of neglect. Daytime street life is still dominated by people turned out of local halfway homes for the day, but by lunchtime more and more folks who live outside the neighborhood, and the growing crop of scruffy twentysomethings who do, arrive for a meal at the new Belgian restaurant, coffee at the funky cafe, or hoagies at Taylor Gourmet.
David Mazza, 30, and Casey Patten, 28, best friends since middle school, opened Taylor Gourmet, a Philadelphia-style deli and gourmet Italian market, at the end of 2008, in the ground floor of a three-story brick building at 1116 H Street NE. In the salad days before the ’68 riots, 1116 had housed a bakery, but since then it has played home to a hair salon, a crack house, and, for a time, just the rats and pigeons.
Mazza and Patten, who both moved to DC after graduating from Penn State, bounced around the city for a couple years, working in real estate and construction, before they bought the building in late 2007. They already co-owned another property and knew they were good business partners, but for what was next they’d be more than just officemates; they’d have to be good neighbors.
"We really had no architectural background whatsoever," Mazza says, "but design is really important to us." With this not-insignificant obstacle and a perilously limited budget, Mazza and Patten set about making the second and third floors of their new purchase into a pair of 850-square-foot, three-room bachelor pads. Though Mazza had been on the real estate end of Washington’s recent condo boom and had a couple small renovations and a condo conversion under his belt, he still describes the pair’s renovation skills as being more oriented toward taking things apart than putting them back together. "I could demo all day. I really came to love it," Patten says, as Mazza chimes in with the good-natured assessment: "Yeah, man. You’re really good at it."
Faced with a pair of residential units that made no sense—doors from the corridor led immediately onto other doors and hallways to nowhere—Mazza and Patten made quick use of their demolition prowess. Peeling back plaster and drywall they unearthed beautiful brick walls. They opted to leave them exposed, letting light from the street and a wall of rough-hewn red brick warm up the large living rooms and kitchens. "We wanted a kind of rustic, industrial feel up here," Mazza says. "Then we repeated the same palette of materials down in the deli," chimes in Patten. "It’s just our taste, really. It’s what we live with, it’s what we work in."
The apartments are mostly identical, with a small bathroom in the back and reasonably sized bedroom in between that and the living space and kitchen. Perhaps the most striking features upon walking into one of the apartments, after registering the modest size and that telltale mark of bachelordom, the large flat-screen TV, are the clean green drawers beneath the sink. Mazza, when questioned about their provenance, sheepishly replies, "Can I say Ikea?" Naturally, he can.
What’s even more impressive is how the pair essentially took an off-the-shelf Ikea system and customized it. "We liked the green facing on the drawers, but thought the whole system wasn’t very cool," Mazza says. "But we saw these stainless steel tables and thought maybe they could fit over the tops," Patten pipes up. "So we got out the tape measures," Mazza finishes. The result is a sleek bank of green cabinets with the stainless steel counters running over the top. They cut a space for a drop-in sink, and voilà, that great architectural oxymoron: an off-the-rack custom kitchen. The pair is thrilled with the results. Even the architects they hired to work at the deli from Grupo 7 were impressed: "They said, ‘These cabinets are insane. How do we get them?’" Mazza recalls.
There does appear to be one surprising omission in Mazza’s and Patten’s otherwise homey apartments, particularly considering their professed love of cooking and the fact that they work in the restaurant business: Neither have dining tables. Each make a half nod to the coffee table to describe their dining styles, or suggest that they’ve got plenty of tables down in the deli. Does that mean after whipping up a chicken cacciatore they each descend the stairs to eat in a vacant delicatessen? "Well, no, I guess not," they stammer, then more forcefully point to the coffee table, and then to the television. Bachelors indeed.
The same aesthetics and cost consciousness that color the apartments above is in evidence down below. "We said to Grupo 7, ‘We need you to use the cheapest materials possible, but in a really cool way,’" Mazza recounts. Chain-link fence poles hold up the racks of food in the market and support the grid of lights on the ceiling, and a fixture handmade by Patten that looks like a bouquet of incandescent bulbs hangs over a back table. The parade of humble materials continues as deconstructed shipping pallets (the pair traipsed around town looking for discards) treated with soy sealant line the walls and counter, giving texture and depth to the surfaces, a subtle and reverent nod to the materials that help get the food to the shop.
Patten and Mazza, fresh from renovating their apartments, knew that a sustainable future for Taylor Gourmet, and H Street itself, would need sustainable design. They called in Adrienne Spahr of Green Living Consulting during the construction process to help assess how they can keep their carbon footprint small. "We didn’t really know much about going green," Mazza says, "Adrienne really helped us out." Recycled wood, steel, and insulation; natural sealants; low-VOC paints; and the renovation of an existing building were all critical elements of keeping Taylor Gourmet as sustainable as possible. Elbow grease, a strong knowledge of area subcontractors, and Mazza’s keen head for business kept them under budget. Though one of the greatest financial boons and strongest incentives to keep plugging away came from an unexpected place: the city.
Washington was handing out chunks of cash to local businesses to jumpstart private investment on H Street NE as part of its $95 million Great Streets Initiative. Mazza and Patten applied for a grant to fund the roll-up garage door that opens onto the street, allowing patrons to dine en plein air despite zoning restrictions on sidewalk tables. They received $20,000, and though it didn’t cover the full cost of the door, it went miles in differentiating the deli’s facade from the surrounding block.
Having the deli up and running, hustling catering orders out each morning before doors open at noon, Mazza and Patten are happy at their work. Their affection for their neighborhood, their homes, their nascent business, and each other is patently clear. "To be able to take a building and just turn it around, man, that feels so good," Mazza says. And though the space upstairs is limited, he doesn’t seem to mind. "I’m going to be here for a while," he says. "I love it."
Businesses and homeowners like Mazza and Patten are starting to wake up to the possibilities the neighborhood holds, but a true renaissance has yet to take root. Early indicators are promising, though a further economic downturn or loss of mettle in City Hall could keep the neighborhood from tipping into prosperity. Mazza remains hopeful, pointing out yet another sign that things are turning around: "Zipcars. When you see Zipcars you know the ’hood is changing." It’s a canny assessment from precisely what the neighborhood needs, a scrappy pair of residents and businessmen deeply committed to the next phase of life on H Street NE.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.