We are back again for another installment of the District Spotlight. Our last spotlight featured the Brightwood Park institution, Crown Bakery. Like the last spotlight, District Ninja interviewed a business in DC that was established over ten years ago. While the data tends to support that DC is a transient city, many District businesses resist this trend and have helped contribute to providing the heart and soul of many DC’s neighborhoods, to make them the diverse communities they are today. Well before the arrival of transplants and new development.
For the second spotlight feature, we have chosen barbershop World Class Cuts located in Mount Vernon at 403 K Street NW, Washington DC 20001. Like Crown Bakery, World Class Cuts has been in the Mount Vernon neighborhood since 2000.
Commandeered by Owner Tarji, the barbershop, has been a fixture in the area where men of various backgrounds come together for one common goal, the perfect haircut. People who would usually pass each other on the street as familiar strangers have an opportunity to converge together and dialogue about the latest Redskins trade or the 2016 Presidential election. Dubbed the informal ambassador of DC, as a griot, Tarji brings together everyone from the area bartender, local politician to a pro-NBA player.
Upon entering the establishment and meeting Tarji, you know that he is a man of great style. Sporting a fresh pair of tropical inspired Air Max’s, thoughtfully paired with pressed jeans and a stark white shirt, Tarji’s ensemble was rounded out with his signature fade to match. He epitomized being the perfect business billboard.
When asked how World Class Cuts came to be, Tarji begins to reminisce of yesteryear, learning about the craft while growing up and patronizing former DC barber institution, Jakes, located on H Street Northeast. At a young age, he became mesmerized with the endless ebb and flow of customers coming in and out, sharing times of great triumph and pain alike. The thump of different conversations and as Tarji puts it, the way the barber commanded the space, resonated with him. Officially picking up the craft at the age of 13, Tarji, became the resident barber for his cousins and friends.
Weaving his way as a District youth during the tumultuous 90s crack era, Tarji would eventually find himself in barber school, after opting to hone his craft instead of becoming a permanent fixture on the ever consuming block or finishing his first college pursuits at UDC. After establishing his first barbershop in 2005 at 315 K Street NW, in February 2011, Tarji moved his barber shop to 401 K Street NW where he is currently still located, on the ground floor of the Museum Square building.
Since 2014, residents of the Museum Square building have been fighting the owner of the building over a proposed sale that would place the residents with nowhere else to live. Subsequently, there will only be one remaining building in DC’s Chinatown with a majority Chinese residents: Wah Luck House on the 800 block of 6th Street NW. Earlier last year, DC Superior Court Judge Stuart Nash, ruled for the tenants, stating that the owner failed to provide a bona fide offer of sale when he initially proposed to the residents that they meet his $250 Million dollar demand.
As echoed by many of the long-term Museum Square residents, their presence is a testament to their love for the neighborhood they have long revered as a reflection of their heritage. The threat of housing, draws one’s assumption that Asian population may be in danger, however upon review of the data, the contrary was present. As reflected below, between 2010-2014, the Asian population has increased each year steadily, increasing by 85%. Despite the positive population rise amongst the Asian population, this has not been the case for the Black or African American Population. Alternatively, between 2010-2014, the Black population has decreased by 26% between the timeframe, experiencing a huge 43% decrease between the years of 2010-2011.Since 2012, the Black population has slowly begun to increase but has not returned to the levels present a decade ago.
Asian/Black or African American Population from 2010-14
When asked about the shift in the neighborhood demographics, Tarji, shares that he feels like an alien in the area at times. He notes that some new residents seem to be oblivious to the rich culture that is present in the neighborhood. However, in the same breath, Traji states that other new residents are intrigued by the history of the community and embrace business owners like himself, who help bring the “soul of the neighborhood” as Tarji would categorize it. Living up to his moniker as “the ambassador,” Tarji commented that he tries to build relationships with the new people coming into the neighborhood.
Mt Vernon Square Median Age from 2010-14
When I asked what crime was like during the early years of his business off K Street, Tarji chuckled and shared, that it has shifted to some degree for the better due to increased police presence, which he attributes to the new area development and amenities. Tarji, notes remembering a time when business owners and community residents were the only reflections of law & order, many times having to reclaim their storefronts from unwanted criminal activity such as area prostitution and drug dealing. Upon looking at the numbers, crime in a variety of areas has decreased. After reviewing crime stats between the years of 2012-2015, one can see a steady decline in crimes of robbery and burglary. However, as reflected below, other categories of crime such as theft from auto have significantly risen, experiencing a nearly 34% jump between the years of 2013-2014.
Crime from 2012-15
The neighborhood is changing, it already has. A magnet for local government wonks seeking to simplify their work commute further with the benefits of city amenities, the educational attainment of those in the area substantially reflects this shift. When reviewing the data, the percentage of residents with a graduate or other professional degree grew astronomically between the years of 2010-2014, thwarting the number of residents with a bachelor’s degree by 12% for the year 2014. While discussing the change in the neighborhood landscape, Tarji indicates that he notes a decline in families, and most significant is a reduction in green space, to house things such as playgrounds. He notes that the lack of even one playground present within the neighborhood directly reflects the shift of the area for single professionals.
Home Sales from 2012-15
Upon review of data for home sales within the neighborhood between years 2012-2015, a significant decline in home sales was evident last year, resulting in nearly a 27% drop compared to the number of home sales the previous year, 2014. As Tarji noted earlier, the presence of families has declined within the area, which may directly correlate with the drop in area home sales. With the constant rise and fall of cranes in the sky, the Mount Vernon area has become a beacon of reflecting the constant change of the place many of us call home. At times, the entire DC landscape personified like a masterpiece straight from Gepetto’s carpenter tool shed.
Throughout the time interviewing Tarji, I couldn’t help but think about how he exemplified the American Dream. From humble beginnings growing up in NE Washington, DC near Hechinger Mall with vivid memories of the Rayful Edmond’s sliding through the barbershops with the finest threads, dipped in gold, receiving the freshest Hi-Top Fade. Admittedly being initially attracted to the lure of the “game,” he soon realized that he could no longer ignore his gnawing desire and talent for cutting hair. Tarji eloquently noted that becoming a barber has allowed him the ability to let his creativity out and be the master of his fate.
As Tarji noted, “DC is the land of GoGo and Mambo sauce.” He continues to state, “Washington, DC has always had its flavor by staying true to itself and not trying to be places like New York.” Tarji reflects that independent spirit of ingenuity that makes DC the beautiful place that it is.
In the background, reflections of the hustle and bustle of patrons getting their morning latte fix, at new flagship coffeehouse, A Baked Joint is ever present. Prophetically enough, an American Flag drapes in the background. As we effortlessly exchange discussions on what the future holds for him and the Mount Vernon neighborhood as a whole, the value of sharing stories like these deeply resonated with me. The style and spirit of the city will only continue to thrive if it continues to reflect the collective voice of all. Tarji is one of those voices. Simply put, business owners like him who have long weathered the good and not so good times in DC history, must always have a seat at the table. As Tarji passionately shared while discussing his business philosophy, he conveys that always staying faithful to the community and consistently giving back, has enabled him to thrive well beyond his pockets. As he indicated, a business owner has a responsibility to the community and must realize that they cannot come in and take from the community without giving back. Part of his drive, come from his reflection on times where he also needed a hand. Tarji proclaims “when you help people; good energy comes your way.”
Upon concluding the interview, Tarji quickly shifted back to his first love, his shop. Reflecting the level of hustle that makes cities like DC thrive. In closing, Tarji noted that he enjoys having newcomers to the shop because they have an opportunity to have a new barber experience. In the age of the microwave society, Tarji is an homage to tradition. As he puts it, he places soul back into the barber experience, so relax and enjoy. Like the old mementos present in his shop, from the hand drawn a portrait of Muhammad Ali to the old hardback edition of Esquire magazine’s The Meaning of Life, World Class Cuts represents the wit, wisdom, and wonder that is DC.