In a vacant building at the corner of Davenport’s 16th and Washington streets, Khalid Mahmood, an immigrant from Pakistan, pursues the American Dream.
Behind the plywood covering the front, construction workers are remaking the interior into a grocery store. Mahmood has operated the nearby Washington Street Mini-Mart for five years, and now he sees an opportunity to expand.
He carries a picture in his smartphone of what the building looked like years ago when it was a pharmacy, and he wants to be part of a new use.
Mahmood’s work is among several positive signs of new life along Washington Street between Locust and 12th streets, an area rich in history that has been down at the heels in recent years.
An active neighborhood watch group keeps tabs on nuisances. Park benches, flower pots and trash receptacles are about to be installed, thanks to a $20,000 Community Partnership Program grant from the city. A bakery is expanding. Old Jackson School, just a block off Washington, is being renovated for senior living.
“Good things are happening on Washington Street,” said Alderman Ray Ambrose, 4th Ward, who has represented the area since 1997. “I grew up in that neighborhood, and it means a lot to me. To see things coming back is exciting.”
About a year ago, business owners formed the Historic Washington Street District Association to give change an organized push.
“We’re trying to diversify so people won’t have to go out of the area to shop,” said Rick Piatt, the sparkplug president of the association and owner of Rick’s Wreck Repair, an auto body shop. “We’re trying to keep the money in the neighborhood. For the short time we’ve been officially organized, we’ve come a very long way.”
The organization is called the “Historic” Washington Street District because it is, indeed, historic. The street developed primarily in the 1870s and 1880s when the city’s working-class German community expanded their homes and businesses from earlier enclaves.
In fact, the street and the surrounding area were so predominantly German-American that it was dubbed Sauerkraut Hill. Dominating the street was the Northwest Turner Hall, built in 1882, a social center for the Turner Society, a German organization that promoted physical fitness.
During succeeding years, there were plumbing and hardware stores, a gas station, movie theater, medical doctor’s office, dairy and bank, all of which are gone now.
Piatt hopes for new businesses and a more stable residential population. At present, about 60 percent of the corridor is commercial and 40 percent is residential, with a majority of the latter renter-occupied.
A closer look at what’s happening
Both private and public investment/involvement are pushing the change.
In addition to his own financing, Mahmood is receiving a $20,000 small business loan from the city of Davenport, said Bruce Berger, the senior manager of the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department.
-- The Bakery opened in March 2001 in the back of a grocery called Johnnie’s Historic Washington Street General Store.
Rhonda Groh, a former Detroit-area pastry chef who moved to the Quad-Cities with her architect husband seven years ago, began baking in her home, selling her products at the Freight House Farmers Market.
As her business grew, she applied for and received a small business loan from the city and decided to locate along Washington Street because she likes the area’s neighborhood feel.
While she continues to sell at the Freight House, she also supplies the General Store with baked goods, and about two months ago, she began selling soup and sandwiches, offering a small dine-in option.
Now she plans to greatly expand her Washington Street bakery with a full-service line on Saturdays, including a range of pastries and high-end cake tortes.
“There definitely is interest in reinvesting and revitalizing the corridor,” said Berger, whose department helped with the loans to Groh and Mahmood.
-- The General Store itself is relatively new, too, opening in August 2010 when the Dopler family from Johnnie’s Meat Market, 1302 Washington St., bought the building to give them more space for their existing operation and to offer a small neighborhood grocery store.
-- The $11 million renovation of the circa-1893 Jackson School, just a block off Washington on 16th Street, began in May. Renaissance Realty Group, a Chicago-based company, is converting the building into 24 units, with another 24 in a new addition. Work is expected to be completed in a year.
“That’s going to bring new residents to the area,” Piatt said.
-- Members of the Mohassan Grotto are talking about finding new uses for the historic Northwest Turner Hall they bought in 1994 to use for bingo, a fundraiser for their fraternal organization.
The place still attracts good crowds, but Quad-City gambling operations have reduced the Grotto’s business by as much as 60 percent since the early days, and much of the building’s space is unused, said David Birdsell, the master of ceremonies.
If the building could be reconfigured into commercial and residential space, additional income could be generated, he added.
-- A neighborhood watch group has been active since 2001.
About 10 years ago, four surveillance cameras were installed at various points along the street at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000 each, Ambrose said.
“They feed into the police station and they have made a world of difference,” said Steve Stoltenberg, the owner of Northwest Music. “Anywhere between Lookout Park (12th Street) and Locust is covered by cameras. They can turn them from the station and zoom in.”
The area also has been part of the Neighborhood Enforcement Tactical Services, or NETS, program that has meant concentrated police patrols.
“There’s been tremendous improvement,” Ambrose said. “The police department works really hard up there. I can’t say enough about where it has been and where it is now.”
Areas of concern
A neighborhood watch meeting in mid-May drew 20 people to talk about unmowed lawns, loud motorcycles and overflowing Dumpsters, but by far the most numerous complaints were about noise, trash and fights generated by customers of the Happy Hollow tavern.
The tavern’s clientele has changed in the past couple of years, and they are noisy, residents say. The tavern’s door is often open, blaring music into the neighborhood, and the thump-thump of customers’ car stereos at closing time awakens some area residents.
About 20 people signed a nuisance complaint, which Angela Foht in the city’s Community Services Division is following up on.
“We walk a real fine line to make sure everybody has the opportunity to succeed,” said Ambrose, who attended the meeting. “But customers have to be respectful of the neighborhood.”
Contacted after the meeting, Mike Clark, who bought Happy Hollow 4ƒ years ago, said he has been addressing the concerns. He eliminated the use of a Wednesday night deejay that generated a lot of noise, installed more exterior lighting as well as surveillance cameras inside, in the parking lot and on the deck, and he hired a “bouncer” to oversee the parking lot. The tenant in the upstairs apartment is tasked with picking up trash every morning, he said.
Clark added that he spent $16,000 on the parking lot and $5,000 on the covered deck when he first bought the place.
“I’m just trying to make a living,” he said.
Another concern is high turnover at an eight-unit building called Sturdevant Condos, 1415-1439 Washington St.
“We’d like to see more stability,” Piatt said.
Despite those concerns, Kent Dopler, one of the owners of Johnnie’s Meat Market, sees an uptick along Washington Street.
“Especially with the latest movement with the association, we’ve seen the neighborhood looking better, taking pride, picking up trash,” he said.
“Properties are fixing up. We’re bringing back the old-fashioned charm.”