Friday, May 11, 2012

Shaw Interview Series: Ralph Brabham

During the second week of March, 2012, I conducted an interview with one of Shaw’s community members, Ralph Brabham.  Ralph is very involved with Shaw.  He is the owner of Beau Thai, Chair of the Board of Directors of Shaw Main Streets, and creator and editor of an informative blog about Shaw, entitled:  “Renew Shaw.”  The interview is posted below. 

Kevin:  Ralph, it is obvious you are a very active member within Shaw.  You have been a blogger since 2006, Chairman of the Board of Shaw Main Streets since last Spring (and a volunteer and board member for Shaw Main Streets for years prior to that role), and a business owner of Beau Thai since 2010.  I would like to save Beau Thai for another conversation and just stick to Shaw Main Streets and your blog "Renew Shaw" for today in order to keep our focus about my root question, being “What is Shaw?”  Let me start with your blog:  why did you start "Renew Shaw"?

Ralph:  I started Renew Shaw right after we purchased our house in  Shaw in 2006.  I thought it would be a good way to force myself to explore and learn about the neighborhood and to help promote Shaw as a great place.  We bought in Shaw because it was a centrally located, unique neighborhood, rich with diversity and history and with enormous potential to be even more vibrant.  And yet despite what we saw and knew, there was a lot of negativity out there about the area.  I wanted to provide a positive online voice about Shaw and to share with others what I learned and thought.  

Kevin:  Okay.  So you started "Renew Shaw."  What does the "Renew" part of the title signify?

Ralph:   The name is both a proactive call to action, "renew Shaw!" and a statement about the subject matter of the blog, the Shaw of today, "re: new shaw."  Speaking to renewal specifically, I saw a rich fabric of historic properties, many of which had seen years of neglect, that I dreamed of being restored.

Kevin:  So did your blog lead you to Shaw Main Streets?

Ralph:  Yes, it totally did.  Shaw Main Streets is a commercial revitalization and historic preservation nonprofit that was established in 2003.  I think many of the things I was trying to accomplish through my blog -- business promotion, advocating for restoration, planning cleanup events, and so forth -- were the kinds of activities that Shaw Main Streets did and sought to do.  Shaw Main Streets gave me the opportunity to work with talented community leaders on a comprehensive and intentional strategy for revitalizing Shaw's business corridors. We help existing businesses thrive, evolve businesses to meet consumer tastes, and help businesses develop a successful business plan.  We are in the business of helping everyone stay in business.

Kevin:  What about vacant storefronts  and buildings -- is Shaw Main Streets working to reduce the number of vacancies in the area?

Ralph:  Totally.  Empty storefronts are missed opportunities and hurt nearby businesses and residents.  We work with property owners and prospective tenants all of the time with the intent of filling vacancies.  I can cite several success stories in this regard, such as Long View Gallery, which we helped remain in the neighborhood by identifying the long-vacant building at 1234 9th Street, owned by Douglas Development, and helping with lease negotiations.  

Kevin:  So you are serious and committed to the business community thriving in Shaw.  This takes me back to my root question:  Why Shaw?  Why is Shaw unique, and why should we appreciate Shaw?

Ralph:  I love Shaw and think it's a desirable neighborhood for a multitude of reasons.  It has a really diverse population in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, roots, and educational background.  It has a really interesting and rich history.  It is like a small town in a big city -- it's easy to get involved and make a difference.  It's convenient,  as it's just steps from downtown and has several metro stops along its core on a metro line.  It's beautiful - with gorgeous historic structures, striking modern architecture, lush trees, and public art.  And it's got some pretty amazing amenities, like the brand new Watha T. Daniel/Shaw NeighborhoodLibrary, the Kennedy Recreation Center, the Howard Theatre, Westminster Park, and so on and so forth.  

Kevin:  Right.  Sometimes in communities one tries to make change or get involved but it sometimes feels like the dynamics are too large and overwhelming so we lose momentum.

Ralph:  Totally, but in Shaw you really can get involved easily.  I have had the humble opportunity to work with others to make change, and it feels good, and I'm happy to still be doing it. 

Kevin:  What about the future of Shaw?

Ralph:  Well one clear near-term dynamic shift will be from the completion of the near-term catalytic developments underway.  You have Progression Place at 7th and T delivering later this year, CityMarket at O in the heart of Shaw delivering next year, the Marriott Marquis at 9th and Massachusetts Avenue delivering in 2014, and JBG's project in the 700 and 800 blocks of Florida Avenue in the pipeline too.  I imagine that existing empty storefronts will fill up quickly once all these new, grand developments open.  The recently delivered Howard Theatre is also going to be a game changer for the area -- it's amazing that we have such an entertainment destination in Shaw, not to mention the fact that it's just a few blocks from the  9:30 club.  Shaw is going through a development frenzy, and the future shows much promise.

Kevin:  Okay, great.  So last question.  How can people help out, or get in contact with Shaw Main Streets if they would like more information?

Ralph:  We are always looking for volunteers, both for long-term, ongoing service on one of our four committees (the Design Committee (executes projects improving the corridors' aesthetics, like the annual tulip planting), the Economic Restructuring Committee (works with business owners to help them be more efficient and reach more customers), the Promotions Committee (plans events, like the Shaw Art Walk), and the Organization Committee (does stuff to help the organization as a whole, like fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and drafting the newsletter)) and for specific projects.  If anyone wants to get to know about Shaw Main Streets, or help by volunteering, go to our website or contact our executive director Alex Padro at 202-265-SHAW.

Kevin:  And with that, I want to thank you for your time, and I look forward to speaking to you about your business, Beau Thai, for the next interview.

Ralph:  You are very welcome.  It is my pleasure.  I always enjoy talking about Shaw.  It's a great community.

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