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What’s Past is Prologue

September 7, 2011

by Jane Freundel Levey
Director of Heritage Programs, Cultural Tourism DC

Today H Street NE is at the epicenter of the city’s ongoing struggle with change. Within living memory, H Street was an African American business district, a burned-out, post-riot, crime-ridden corridor, and now a gentrifying arts and entertainment district interspersed with small, everyday businesses. To our grandparents, H Street NE offered opportunities for immigrants to establish businesses, work for the government or the railroad, care for the sick, raise and educate families. In addition to African Americans migrating from the South or displaced by economic change in other areas of DC, immigrants from Lebanon, Ireland, and Eastern Europe all lived here together, despite the social practices of this southern city. Their experiences both confirm and challenge our views on the intractability of racial inequity.

A good 30 years after H Street was nearly destroyed in the riot following the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., new investments, beginning with the Atlas Performing Arts Center, became the catalyst for the current revitalization efforts.

Long-time residents and business owners of the neighborhood have wondered what all the new investments and opportunities, such as the new streetcar system, will bring. One shop owner has watched as many of his friend’s business have closed due to a lack of business caused in part by the construction and lack of parking. Others, despite suffering slowdown in business, say they have benefited from infrastructure improvements with new streetscaping and building facades.

Participants in the upcoming Putting Race on the Table Community Tour on September 14 will learn about how opportunities are changing the look and feel of H Street. They will hear from long-time community member Marqui Lyons, a co-chair of the Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail Working Group, as well as from Jane Freundel Levey, the Cultural Tourism DC historian responsible for the city’s Neighborhood Heritage Trails system.

In addition next spring “Hub, Heart, Home: Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail,” will be installed in the neighborhood. The Heritage Trail presents the history of the area, from its origins to recent redevelopment, with compelling historical photographs and text. This Heritage Trail will be the 13th in the city-wide system. Like the others, it began with community discussions to answer the question: what do you want to tell a visitor to your neighborhood? H Street’s new businesses make creative use of nostalgia, such as the restaurant named Granville Moore’s.

The new Heritage Trail will bring to the streets the remembered and researched context for what we do today, and explain how Dr. Granville Moore was a neighborhood hero. It will illuminate the distinctive buildings of H Street. It will trace the neighborhood’s development as a commercial center for working class people in response to transportation innovations—streetcars, commuter trains, long-distance rail travel and shipping, automobiles.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sam Talbott permalink
    September 7, 2011 2:35 pm

    H Street for 30 years+ was quite a downtrodden, ignored, very poor, even scary place post riot. Now there is more hope, activity, investment, and yet…

    This tour should be informative..and yet likely will be static at best in the sense of doing little to help attain a rich, stable demographic mix of this district. Will black grassroots H St NE projects get funding now? Grants to serve the new visitors or older residents there? Will tour attendees & their friends discover it now is “OK” to party on H Street, thereby hastening its Adam-Morganification? Neither the tour nor Foundation is to blame: it’s essentially an open market now for H Street: change comes with economic demand, esp. when no buffers in place. Capitalism still rules.

    Troubling:: there are many many city blocks and neighborhoods getting gentrified, many by people with little long term roots in the city: past or future. What happens to those driven out or who cashed out? What happens when long-time residents declare Enough! What happens to the soul of this town?

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