A few days after non-essential businesses shut down in the nation’s capital in March, Busboys and Poets — a popular Washington, D.C. restaurant and cultural hub — experienced a break in at its location in the neighborhood of Anacostia, prompting the establishment to board up.
“Early on in the pandemic, we had a break in and somebody threw a brick through one of our windows in our Anacostia location. And of course, we had to call somebody put a plywood in the meantime while we ordered the glass to be replaced. When the plywood went on, it looked like a scar,” Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal told ABC News.
Shallal, who is an artist himself, decided to transform the dreary image by painting an uplifting message on the board in bright colors and the words, “Busboys 'hearts' Anacostia.”
The D.C. entrepreneur said that the "outpouring of support" he received from the community inspired him to start a movement to bring uplifting art to the city. It also provided much needed gigs for artists, who are struggling after losing work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As I walk around the city and see a lot of the stores that used to be really busy, shuttered - it looked kind of depressing, frankly. And we decided, let's put some paintings on these walls of inspiration, paintings that give people a sense of hope, a sense of possibility, a sense of the future, because this is not going to be forever,” Shallal said. “We'll get through this, we'll get on the other side. But in the meantime, we need something to keep us uplifted.”
The business, which has five locations in the District of Columbia and a couple in Maryland and Virginia, is a popular bar, cafe and cultural events venue in the area known locally as “the DMV" and has been rooted in supporting activism and the arts. It was named after acclaimed American poet and activist Langston Hughes, who was a central figure during the Harlem Renaissance, and worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in D.C. in the 1920s, before he gained notoriety as a poet.
Shallal, an Iraqi-American entrepreneur who also ran for D.C. mayor, is an activist himself, so when he opened the first Busboys and Poets location at 14th and V Streets, NW, in 2005, it was embraced by a progressive community and became a gathering place for those opposed to the Iraq War. It has been frequented by notable civil rights activists, including Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and progressive lawmakers -- most recently members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal.
Over its 15-year history, Busboys has established relationships with independent artists, whose art decorates the walls of the venue, providing them with an opportunity to gain exposure and sell their work. For his latest project, Shallal tapped into that community and hired artists who were eager to join the community effort.
D.C.-based artist Shawn Perkins has worked with Busboys and Poets in the past, live painting and making art for several events, but as the pandemic shut down businesses all around the country, Perkins said he lost work opportunities in DC and beyond.
"I was booked to be at South by Southwest in Austin in March and that, of course, got canceled a week out," he told ABC News. "It was heartbreaking to hear that it was going to be canceled, and it being such a big event, I knew a lot of other things were kind of going to be [part of] the domino effect after that," he added.
So when he got a call from Busboys and Poets to make art around the city, he was eager to get to work and has painted 11 store fronts so far. Artists have been wearing masks as they work and practicing social distancing.
Luther Wright, a full-time artist in D.C. also received a call from Busboys and Poets and his brightly-colored murals have been popping up on businesses all around the city.
“A lot of us had also lost gigs and lost a lot of events due to the virus,” Wright said, adding that the opportunity to #PaintTheStoreFronts -- as the movement is known on social media -- has been helping artists financially.
“Ever since then we've just been going around the city, the DMV, basically just painting uplifting messages on businesses that may have been affected by COVID-19 or that had to close due to the virus,” he said.
Streets in the typically bustling nation’s capital had been eerily empty since March, but as signs of spring brought bursts of color to a city in lockdown, store fronts also started to bloom as artists gave businesses — from cafes, restaurants and bars to salons, yoga studios and pet service shops — unique and vibrant makeovers.
Messages like "spread love not fear," and "tough times don't last, tough people do," splashed across windows across the city and as residents took notice, Shallal began receiving calls from business owners who wanted to participate.
Molly Ryan, the owner of Aveda Salon and Spa on 14th street, reached out to Busboys after a bar nearby was adorned with a new mural and once she found out about the effort she decided to bring art to her salon as well.
“Artistic expressions like the murals outside I think really help everybody as they're walking their dogs are getting some exercise during quarantine see positive messages that leads to inspiration and something positive at the end of this journey,” she told ABC News.
From restaurants owned by celebrity chef José Andrés, to businesses in Maryland and Virginia, the movement is growing. Busboys and Poets has been paying the artists but some business owners also donated their own funds to the effort, Shallal said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of known coronavirus cases in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia topped 66,300 on Tuesday, with nearly 3,000 deaths in the "DMV" due to COVID-19.
“Restaurants are particularly a bit hard because restaurants are a very intense cash flow industry. You pay yesterday's bills with today's revenues. And if you don't have today's revenues, the bills pile up really, really quick,” Shallal said, adding that Busboys and Poets did receive some Paycheck Protection Program loans and hopes that they will soon be able to bring back some employees who were laid off as the business partially opens up for pick up services.
In the meantime, some Busboys events have resumed virtually, including a Zoom dinner with prominent activist Angela Davis on Friday.
Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on Wednesday that she is extending D.C.’s shelter-in-place order until June 8.
ABC News’ MaryAlice Parks and Becky Perlow contributed to this report.