Meet Michele Molotsky, Logan Circle Main Street Director and longtime Logan Circle resident. Learn more about Logan Circle’s complicated history, challenges facing the corridor today, and what the Main Street is doing to help keep business roots in the community.
First off, what is a Main Street and what does a Main Street Director do?
I like to say that the Main Street is community informed economic development. So we’re not looking for economic development that’s the “highest and best use” because that could give you a lot of bars and no dry cleaners. The challenge is figuring out how the community can influence the preservation of neighborhood-serving businesses.
I see my role, first, as working with the businesses to be their advocate so that they can stay in business and succeed. At the same time, I work to involve the community in making decisions about priorities through the Neighborhood Strategy Council.
So, I provide technical assistance to the business owners but also work on amplifying community events that are already happening to build a sense of neighborhood.
You live and work in Logan Circle. I imagine a lot of the businesses you work closely with are also places you patronize in your day to day life. Is that a good thing or does it sometimes make it hard to escape the job?
It’s both. It is definitely a good thing. I feel like I had a leg up when I started because I already knew a lot of people and business owners. Other times, I want to run out to the store in sweats and not talk to anybody and that’s nearly impossible.
You’ve been in Logan Circle for a long time. In your eyes, what makes Logan Circle unique and special? How has it changed over the years?
I moved to this neighborhood in 2001, but my family has been in DC since the 80’s. Logan Circle’s story is a bit complicated like most American cities.
For me, I feel like there’s great community spirit and there’s a cohesiveness in the neighborhood, especially for people who have lived here a longer amount of time. We’ve worked together to kind of recreate it.
Logan Circle as it is today has a complicated history. 14th Street has been a commercial corridor since the 1860s! Horse drawn streetcars gave way to auto row. Our large buildings are former car showrooms. Later came white flight. When MLK was assassinated, the uprising led to a lot of the neighborhood being razed. When I moved here in 2001, there were still a lot of empty buildings and vacant lots. There were auto repair shops that had barbed wire fences and broken glass.
In the 80’s Dupont Circle had been THE neighborhood but it got too expensive and so people started moving east. People started fixing up houses and wanted to attract businesses and that’s when there was a campaign to get Whole Foods to move into the neighborhood.
So that’s what’s complicated because you can’t talk about the economic development of the neighborhood without talking about gentrification and displacement.
So, when I say I feel a cohesiveness in the community, it’s with people who have invested a lot in the neighborhood and the economic development is a result of that investment. I actually think we’re on the cusp of being the victim of our own success.
What do you mean by “the victim of your own success”?
Well, for one, it’s getting prohibitively expensive. Building owners want the high rents and stability that comes from national chains. That’s hard on the locally owned stores that make the neighborhood unique and charming.
Chains don’t have roots in the community. During the pandemic the businesses that were most likely to close were the chains, like Peets, while the independently owned Slipstream stayed open. The owners, Ryan and Miranda, worked really hard to stay open. The chains don’t worry about the local impact of closures like our small business owners do. Also, local businesses are much more likely to donate to local charities than national brands.
The tagline of District Bridges is “Investing in Community and Supporting Local Business.” What are some of the ways that you do this and what does it mean to you to be invested in a community?
I started in January 2020 and then, of course, we went into lockdown in March. And it was extremely scary. But once we got past worrying about dying, we started thinking “how are we going to help businesses stay open?”
One of the things that I feel really good about is the number of streateries we have in Logan Circle. That’s a very concrete example of what a Main Street can do because I was able to jump in, deal with the government rules, figure out the permits and site plans. A number of business owners said they would have gone under but for the streateries and it’s a sizable amount of their revenue still. I feel really good about that and I feel like that’s how District Bridges was able to invest in the community.
District Bridges runs programs in 7 neighborhoods in DC, is that correct? How do the programs work together and who else do you all work closely with?
We work very closely with each other internally at District Bridges. One of my best memories from when I first started here was how open and sharing my colleagues were. I had to work on the small business grant process and it was totally new to me. My co-workers shared their forms and timelines so I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Their generosity caused me to feel open and share my work. That’s been the big benefit of being the Main Street Manager within the District Bridges – how much we support each other.
Of course we also have external partnerships. We work with the Department of Small and Local Business Development and the National Main Street Program. I do work with a number of the other Main Streets that aren’t part of District Bridges. I work with the Logan Circle Community Association on a daily basis. Other partners are the Coalition For Non Profit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), the DC Bar Pro Bono Center, Councilmember Brooke Pinto’s office and our ANC Commissioners.
You have a degree in labor relations and a background in union organizing. Have you found that your experience in organizing has helped you in this role at all?
My union work taught me some basic things about structure, how to attract people to get involved, about communications, and in general just knowing that there’s strength in numbers.
I don’t know if you believe it, Sara, but I used to be really shy and when I started working as a union organizer it kind of forced me to talk to people, so now I feel pretty comfortable walking up to someone I don’t know and introducing myself.
What’s the most difficult thing about running a Main Street?
Time management. The needs are endless and there’s just not enough time, and there’s definitely not enough money to do everything that I want to do. Fundraising has gotten a little bit easier, but it’s still a big challenge.
What is something else you want people to know about Logan Circle Main Street?
The major challenge in the neighborhood (because it’s otherwise very successful) is keeping the mix of locally owned vs. national chains. Right now we’re at about 70% local and 30% national. I don’t want us to become too heavily national because then the neighborhood becomes generic, like anywhere else and we have less control over what happens. It’s really tough though if the ‘mom and pop’ can’t pay the price per square foot that the landlords are looking for. I’ve thought a lot about how to try to level the playing field.