As the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood continues to evolve, Haydee Vanegas uses her restaurant to foster the changing culture and flourish.
Stroll into Haydee’s Restaurant one night on Mt. Pleasant Street in Northwest Washington, D.C., and you’re greeted with waiters whizzing around, carrying plates of sizzling fajitas and warm pupusas.
The fake cardboard Christmas tree, tacked on the wall year-round, is lit up with blue, red and gold lights and funk, jazz and Latin music from bands like Little Red and the Renegades or Rock Creek Jazz emanates from the corner.
Haydee Vanegas came to Mt. Pleasant from El Salvador in 1988, when she was 17, during the country’s civil war. After working in various restaurants, holding down both day and night jobs as a waitress, she opened a restaurant named Trolley’s in the early 1990s and then her namesake restaurant in 1997. More recently, she also opened up a second Haydee’s on Georgia Avenue.
She can be found behind the bar in Mt. Pleasant almost every night, her long, curly hair whipping back and forth as she serves up drinks, directs servers and chats up regular customers.
“If I take a night off, I don’t know what to do. I go home, sleep, clean and then come back here,” Vanegas said. She said Haydee’s feels more like her home than her actual house, which is right around the corner.
Mt. Pleasant, which is nestled between Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo, has a strong Latino influence. Many businesses along the main street in the neighborhood are owned by Latinos, including Haydee’s, and about a quarter of the population in Mt. Pleasant is Hispanic, according to census data.
Same neighborhood, different faces
Since Vanegas opened her restaurant 15 years ago, the faces chowing down on pupusas and vibing to the live Mariachi band have changed. “It’s more faces, well more faces like you, more white faces,” she said hesitantly.
Roger St. Vincent, a member of the local band Rock Creek Jazz, agrees, and said Haydee’s is a microcosm of the changing Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. “Haydee’s is interesting because it’s a mixture of Latinos, blacks and 20-30 year-old white kids. There’s a real sense of community evidenced by the faces in here,” St. Vincent said one night when his band was playing at the restaurant, which is does twice a month.
Rock Creek Jazz plays “You are my sunshine” at Haydee’s: You are my sunshine (instrumental)
The change in the neighborhood is evidenced by census statistics. While the Latino population in Mt. Pleasant has remained relatively steady since 1990, the black population has dropped by almost half and the number whites in the neighborhood has increased by 30 percent, according to census data.
Although the neighborhood demographics are evolving, partially due to rising home prices and gentrification, the Hispanic presence in Mt. Pleasant is still very evident. Walking around the neighborhood, sidewalk conversations flow in and out of Spanish and Latino businesses like Haydee’s, Dos Gringos Café and Mt. Pleasant Pharmacy have occupied the landscape for years.
The Latino Economic Development Corporation, which was born out of the 1991 Mt. Pleasant riots, has helped some Latino-owned businesses in the neighborhood, including Mt. Pleasant Pharmacy, evolve to keep up with the changing residents through loans, training and façade improvements.
“Mt. Pleasant is one community that has seemingly kept a lot of its diversity and character in ways that are important to the community,” said Ash Kosiewicz, communications director for the agency.
Loading Dock Duke Out
Restaurant ownership hasn’t been peachy and perfect at all times for Vanegas. She, along with other neighborhood business owners, started a group named Hear Mt. Pleasant and engaged in a years-long fight to get the ban on live music lifted in the neighborhood. Although the ban was partially lifted in 2008, the incident didn’t come to a full conclusion until last year.
There have also been disputes with neighborhood commissioners over installing a sidewalk cafe, cutting down a tree and most recently, there was a fight last year over a loading zone. Vanegas wants a loading dock in front of Haydee’s. Currently, there is a loading zone down the street but it is hard for vendors to serve her restaurant from there. The neighborhood commission supported her quest but she felt action wasn’t being taken fast enough.
According to neighborhood commissioner Jack McKay, the two got in a verbal disagreement over the dock last year at a commission meeting and now he doesn’t eat at Haydee’s anymore.
“It used to be my favorite restaurant in Mount Pleasant, and I was happy to bring guests to Haydee’s. No more of that,” McKay said in an email.
Vanegas said she thinks the situation has mostly blown over but did say she had to start all over on the loading zone request. Even with all the headaches, she said there is no place she’d rather spend almost every night.
On Fridays, as the live music plays late into the night, people of many races and ethnicities, including Latino, white, black and Indian, can be found on the dance floor.
“They love it here. Why? Because we love them. We are a mix here. Mt. Pleasant is a big mix now,” Julio Cesar Herrarte, who has lived in Mt. Pleasant for 50 years, said.
In the middle of that mix is Haydee’s, with its Christmas lights in the windows, flags from El Salvador, Honduras, America and Germany along the walls, and a large statue of Jesus in a blue robe on the corner of the bar.
If there’s live music, a neighborhood fundraiser or an open mic “jam session,” in Mt. Pleasant, it’s probably happening at Haydee’s. Neighborhood activist Robert Frazier said one reason Haydee’s is so successful is because Vanegas “fosters the mixing” of many different cultures and supports the changing neighborhood.
“Some places have maybe abandoned their Spanish customers and become Anglo-oriented, whereas in her case, she has a Spanish wait staff and serves both the young American population and the immigration population as well,” Frazier said.
On a random night, disc jockeys from the neighborhood pirate radio station are making plans for next week’s radio show, a puppeteer is sitting quietly listening to music and the Iranian flower vendor is selling roses, as he’s done for 25 years, all in Haydee’s. That’s just the way Vanegas likes it.
“I have many places I could move but no plans to move. You don’t feel frustration here. When you walk down the street, people say good morning and hello. You don’t get that other places,” she said.