To make way for a pending $50 million dollar affordable housing development in Historic Anacostia, the former Big K Liquor store was razed this past weekend. Falling beyond the boundaries of the Historic District by mere inches, little could be done to save the building, which was more than one hundred and ten years old.
Here’s a look at its history and a short interview with a local resident speaking to his memories and feelings about the neighborhood remnant.
Grocery Store Origins
In 1905 James V. Conway, a merchant in Anacostia acquired a vacant lot at the corner of Nichols Avenue, today Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and Morris Road. The next year, Conway applied for a building permit to construct a two-story structure, a grocery store below and housing above, and a rear shed. For a number of years Conway and his family ran a business and lived on the property.
In the mid 1920s the grocery store came under new management. Unfortunately, in April 1946 a tragic death befell the lot.
“The neighborhood at Nichols avenue and Morris street S.E. was piecing together the evidence which might explain the death yesterday of its popular grocer, Jacob Denenberg,” read the Evening Star on April 17th. For the past 21 years, Mr. Denenberg, described as “moustached and goateed,” had run a popular store. Across the street from the police station, officers “looked to him for their midnight lunches.” In and out foot traffic was constant. “Tales of neighborhood life were told in his store year after year, tales of birth, death and marriage. The store was a community place and the proprietor knew every one.”
A month before Denenberg had sold his store. He erected a sign letting locals know the grocery would be torn down and a theater erected in its place. There was comfort knowing Denenberg planned to find a nearby building and re-open. However, “inquiries within recent days brought from Mr. Denenberg the opinion that good locations were hard to find.” He was reportedly in bad spirits, thinking he had sold too low, and “was seen leaving a hardware store with a length of window sash rope in his hand.” Shortly thereafter, “his wife found her husband’s body hanging by a rope from a bannister on the first floor of the store building.” He was 50 years old.
For an unknown reason the theater never came. Later that fall, Baby’s Butler Service opened. The short-lived business took out a large newspaper ad promising, “Leading Brand Baby Food and Supplies Delivered Right to Your Door … Once Each Week!” Before the close of the decade the property was once again a market.
Beginning of Big K
On September 30, 1964, Isadore and Gertrude Kushner, applied for a licence from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to operate a wine and liquor store at 2252 Nichols Avenue. The Kushners were a family known in the area, one of their sons was a star football player at Anacostia High School that year.
Evening Star, September 26, 1964, p. 14
The Big K Liquor Store was born and for more than sixty years would be a neighborhood feature. It is unclear when the brick wall facing lower Martin Luther King Jr. SE was christened with the dominating “BIG K” mural. Anecdotal evidence suggest it appeared in the mid 1960s.
Upon opening, the Kushners regularly advertised for full and part-time help in the local papers. They ran a delivery service and when new products were released, they participated in city-wide releases. For example, in June 1969, Big K was one of the nearly 100 liquor stores serving as the official depot for the sale of “Rebel Yell Southern Sour Mash Bourbon.”
A city health inspector visited in fall of 1974, accompanied by a journalist who noted, “cigarette butts cover the floor like leaves in November.” They were given 7 days to clean up. During the holidays of 1975 they ran a series of print ads claiming, “Our National Brands Cheaper Than Other’s Private Labels.” They would be open all day Christmas.
From a variety of sources, including an uncle, Big K served as a neighborhood check-cashing business with long lines regularly forming on Fridays. In order to cash your check, you had to spend a certain portion on beer and wine. Gertrude was well-known by young children and daily drinkers as “Dirty Gertie” for her propensity to short-change customers.
A Washington Informer article from the early 1980s noted, “Lennie Kushner of Big K Liquors is back on the Big K scene after hospitalization. Lennie thanks all those who were concerned about his illness. Butch Perry is no longer at Big K where Bobby, Andy, Noah, David, Benny, Harvey Moore and Ray Brown are working under Anne Kushner’s supervision.”
By the late 1980s, the Kushners leveraged their liquor store and the adjacent properties on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue they had acquired over the years — 2228, 2234 and 2238 — for an $80,000 loan from Riggs Bank to stay afloat.
City Takes Ownership
In the early 2000s, times were time tough for the Kushners. The three residential properties they had acquired next-door to the liquor store were in such a state of neglect and squalor the city pursued legal action. Under Mayor Fenty the “Big K lot” of 2228, 2234, 2238 and 2252, the liquor store, were purchased by the Department of Housing and Community Development for just short of 1 million dollars in 2010.
In subsequent years there have been countless community meetings and public debates over the preservation of the buildings and development of the lot.
In 2012 2228 MLK, the oldest home, was razed. In 2013 plans for disposition of the properties to Chapman Development for $1 began. After the Historic Preservation Review Board denied the development plan’s application, in 2014 the Mayor’s Agent got involved. In early 2017 the development plans secured $50 million in financing and the two remaining historic homes were relocated. This weekend the Big K was finally leveled.
“Just a Liquor Store”
I stepped inside the Big K Liquor store once or twice, back in 2009 or so. A co-worker wanted to pick up some Sutter Home Wine. I remember asking the weather-worn man if neighborhood chatter of their being shotguns at the ready behind the counter were true. He was not amused. I once saw the staff go through the lengthy process of padlocking the front door at closing time, a “Lorton style of entry,” as a resident recently referenced. The Kushners were not ones to invest in a modern security system. It finally closed in late 2009 or early 2010.
“I bought a lot of ‘Bumper’s’ of Colt 45 out of there and much, much, much cheap wine,” says Arnold Kieffer, a tinknocker and former juvenile delinquent in and around the neighborhood forty years ago. “Plus the fact it was across the street from # 11 [Police Station] where unfortunately I seemed to end up at far too many times to remember. In short, it was always there, definitely a landmark, can’t imagine going up Nichols Avenue without it being there.”
“Big K is almost like the Shrimp Boat,” said law professor and poet Brian Gilmore who for 7 years worked and wrote about Anacostia, “but it was really just a liquor store.”