A Continuity amidst Change – Lessons from a Local Entrepreneur

By Omari A. West

When one talks to local entrepreneur, lawyer and visionary Stanley Mayes, one is immediately struck by a sense of irony. Irony in the sense that Mayes, whose working class family once thrived amidst a bustling African American community in Shaw, has fully embraced the demographic changes in Shaw over the past decade.

For Mayes,’ who owns and operated the Divine Shine shoe care and handbag restoration shop on T Street, between 7th and 8th in Shaw, it comes down to a sense of vision. “I clearly remember some of the civil rights heavyweights of our community at that time. They were mostly Christian ministers such as Channing Phillips, pastor at Lincoln Temple and David Eaton, pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church.” Interestingly, during the mid-to late 1960s, urbanization saw many of the middle class white families leaving Washington for the suburbs, leaving a congregation at both churches that was largely black and poor.

Mayes grew up in the 1960s and 1970s just off 14th Street on Wallach place, and still owns several rental properties in Shaw, including the house on Wallach Place where he grew up. “This was quite literally the center of black culture in Washington, D.C.”, he recalls. “There were three theaters that catered to the community, The Lincoln, The Republic and the Booker T.” He also recalls that although the residents were largely African-American, Shaw was host to a very diverse business community. “Although many of the businesses were owned by Jewish merchants (many of whom lived in apartments above their storefronts), they were not an integral part of the social and cultural dynamic of the community.” Blacks owned many of the clubs, barber shops, beauty parlors, and of course the underground economy consisting mainly of the illegal numbers operation.

Then of course the riots of 1968 hit the community, destroying much of the existing business environment. “There was simply no business activity to speak of for 30 years,” says Mayes. But in the early 1980s that began to turn around, thanks largely to a deal the city struck with then Mayor Marion Barry to revitalize the riot corridor. Although the city was planning to put one of its municipal buildings downtown, it eventually agreed to erect the building on 14th and U Street. The Reeves Center (named after noted Howard University Law Professor Frank Reeves), became the anchor for subsequent development in the community.

At the time, there were a lot of vacant lots, mainly because of buildings that had burned down in the riots. Consequently, much of the recent development did not involve displacement of existing construction, but was essentially infill commercial development.

Also, contrary to popular belief, there were many black homeowners who – discouraged the sociological changes to the neighborhood (increases in crime and drug activity) that plagued D.C. in the early 1990s, decided to sell their property and move to the suburbs. “My take is that [African American] residents made a strategic business decision. There were people who inherited houses and decided to sell them, took profits and moved on.”

When asked why he did not sell or move in the midst of the urban exodus of the 1980s, Mayes states. “The reason I still own property is because I had a different vision. I actually loved the community I grew up in, and it was way more affordable than some other places. My mortgage was about $280 per month. And when I caught wind of the fact that they were building a subway station, it cemented my decision to stay. I had lived in New York and understood the real estate implications of having access to great public transportation.”

In some ways Mayes laments the choice of the black middle class to leave the neighborhood. “Instead of doing things that could have driven wealth to us, we walked away from it, chasing a suburban dream. It all comes down to the choice between “guns or butter.” Instead of cultivating a culture of investment wealth, he argues, many in the black community chose to become consumers, displaying flash at the expense of substance.

Obviously a financially astute investor and armed with a law degree from Rutgers University, one can usually see Stanley sitting in the Divine Shine shoe care shop. Mayes laughs when he recollects how people now think of him as the shoe guy. “I was originally a passive investor in the deal to open divine shine, he says. I was asked if I would be willing to invest in a shoe business. I was already busy being a lawyer. But after we got up and running the manager had a stroke, so I stepped in and took over. Now they call me the show guy; but the business has thrived.”

Mayes vision for Divine Shine is ultimately to build a better mousetrap. “There are very few people still in this business and they are aging out.” Mayes vision is to scale the shoe repair business, focusing on efficiencies and quality control, grow it into a dominant player, and eventually sell it to a larger company, possibly retaining the real estate and leveraging it into other ventures.

When asked about how the feels about the once familiar neighborhood that has changed all around him, Mayes returns to the issue of vision. “Now that the house I bought for $35,000 is now worth more than $1.4 million, I’m starting to get ‘the look,’” he says, referring to stares he receives from new residents who don’t quite believe he fits the profile of a local homeowner in the New Shaw. But for Mayes, who’s family were at one time largely sharecroppers in South Carolina, the cultural challenges of living in a dynamically changed community are vastly outweighed by the personal satisfaction he gets from actually having an opportunity to be a landlord. Moving over two generations from sharecropper to owner and landlord is a sign of progress, as he sees it.