Heritage trails mark the path to preserving D.C. history

January 30, 2012

With its wooden sign in imperfect French advertising “frittes, ales, moules” seven days a week, Granville Moore’s on H Street NE looks like any other hip gastropub. But its exposed brick and chalkboard menu of craft beers belie the tavern’s rich history. In the 1950s, the Formstone row house housed the office of Granville Moore, one of the city’s most respected African American doctors.

“We didn’t want this history to vanish and become just a name of another fun place to go out,” said Marqui Lyons, a longtime resident who, on a recent frosty morning, was bundled in a thick winter coat to join a small group of amateur historians for a walk down H Street. These history hunters are digging for the kind of detail that isn’t found in guidebooks, but resides in the houses, storefronts, churches and vacant lots of this hardscrabble, working-class neighborhood a short walk east of Union Station.

Lyons and her companions belong to a group of about 400 District residents who are working with Cultural Tourism DC — a nonprofit organization that promotes the city’s heritage — to uncover and restore Washington’s block-by-block history before stories such as Moore’s vanish as fast as a $13 pint of Belgian dark ale.

“It’s really the front lines of watching the change,” said Washington historian Jane Freundel Levey, who heads the Neighborhood Heritage Trails project. “Most historians want to deal with history that happened 50 years ago or longer because they feel pressure to know how it turns out. But this is the first cut of our most recent history.”

The H Street route, “Hub, Home, Heart: The Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail,” is scheduled to open this spring and will boast 3.2 miles of history. It’s the 13th historic walking trail installed by Cultural Tourism since 2001. Existing trails dotting neighborhoods from Tenleytown to Deanwood will be joined in coming years by routes winding through Historic Anacostia, LeDroit Park/Bloomingdale and along the Anacostia River.

The heritage trails project shows visitors neighborhoods largely unknown to the tourists who crowd Washington every year, said Kathryn S. Smith, the retired Cultural Tourism director who came up with the concept. Washington “had an image around the nation that was totally out of sync with what people who know and love the city understand,” said Smith, whose focus is on history at the community level. “We realized how important it was to Washingtonians who love their city’s history, but didn’t get to talk about it that much.”

A vanishing past

The H Street renaissance is among the most recent examples of gentrification in the District. The area was once home to a mix of residents, including the Italian immigrant stonemasons who helped construct the Library of Congress and Union Station, along with the Irish and African American laborers who worked on the White House and the Capitol. At the turn of the 20th century, the heart of H Street became a neighborhood of Greek, Lebanese and Jewish immigrants who ran mom-and-pop shops, living in cold-water flats above their stores.

“Hey that’s where my childhood bedroom was!” called out Pat Collins, who accompanied Lyons on the H Street walk. The descendant of Irish immigrants who lived and worked in the neighborhood is now a reporter for NBC4 Washington. He was pointing to a vast construction site at Third and H streets NE, where a Giant Food supermarket is being built. “And over there, that’s the five-and-dime where I bought a parakeet, and the sandwich shop that had a chocolate milkshake where the straw would stand straight up,” Collins said, pointing to what is now a string of trendy bars and an Ethio­pian coffee house­ where young residents are hunched over their laptops sipping lattes.

In Washington’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, history buffs such as Lyons and Collins are archaeologists of the past, sorting through boxes of frayed family photos, researching the history of empty lots or recently renovated houses and collecting oral histories from old-timers in an effort to document the past in parts of town that have become all about the future.

Not all of the organization’s trails are in neighborhoods that are reinventing themselves. But when a heritage trail opens in a transitional neighborhood, it’s often a harbinger of change, like the arrival of a yoga studio or a cupcake shop. It’s also a chance — and sometimes it feels like a last chance — to record modern history, before a neighborhood’s demographics and storefronts are reborn.

While the project includes history from all of the city’s communities, African American historians such as Maybell Taylor Bennett say it’s especially important to Washington’s black community at a time when census data shows that the District is no longer a majority black city, and historically black neighborhoods such as Shaw and H Street NE are growing ever whiter.

In some ways, research for the trails helps ease the inevitable tensions of gentrification, said Bennett, 62, director of the Howard Community Association, a group that worked on the recently opened Georgia Avenue/Pleasant Plains Heritage Trail. “We feel like our stories are being heard and recorded. That really builds pride. What’s powerful about these signs is that this is public history, it’s the people’s history,” she said. “It’s so important in the city right now as it changes so that newcomers understand this place that they now find so attractive to live.”

Much of the information collected for the project is mounted on history trail signs that look a bit like old-timey street lamps. Their large vintage photographs include images of well-known entertainers such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, who performed in the city’s elegant after-hours clubs, as well as intellectuals including novelist Zora Neale Hurston and poet Langston Hughes, who both lived and worked in Washington.

The signs are as diverse as the history of the city. A Columbia Heights trail sign, for instance, includes a photo of a Chilean exile group performing in the neighborhood’s All Souls Church in 1974, a year after they fled the military coup that brought in Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. About that time, the neighborhood became a haven for Latino immigrants fleeing political turmoil.

Others contain largely unknown D.C. tidbits: Who knew that go-go king Chuck Brown was a shoeshine boy outside the Howard Theatre as a child? (That story is on the Georgia Avenue/Pleasant Plains Heritage Trail) Or that deaf football players at Gallaudet University invented the American football huddle, so they could conceal their signs from opponents. (Photos of that first huddle are on the Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail).

Bennett says tracing the neighborhood’s history also brought her family together. As part of the research for the upcoming LeDroit Park/Bloomingdale trail, her cousins got together over breakfast to research the story of two priests in the family. One was Father Leslie Branch, the first African American Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Navy.

“We hadn’t sat down and gone through family pictures, ever,” she said. “And they had boxes and boxes of photographs — it took us all back.”

‘A busy, busy place’

Community meetings to determine what goes on the signs bring out new and old residents alike, Levey said, groups who are often at odds over neighborhood issues. Off H Street, for instance, new white residents are annoyed by the overflow of cars at African American churches on Sunday, while older African American residents worry about being priced out of their homes.

“We usually have community meetings over concerns or controversies,” said Lyons, whose family has lived on H Street for five generations. “So it was nice to have a harmony-building project where people who had just moved to the community become enraptured with the history and older residents feel like their stories are being collected and listened to.”

For newcomers such as restaurateur and nightclub promoter Joe Englert, who is often credited with resurrecting H Street, knowing the history of the Granville Moore building gives “the neighborhood a depth and it shows that these main streets didn’t just spring from the head of Zeus.” (Englert and chef Teddy Folkman decided to name the restaurant for the doctor after they learned about the building’s history.)

The meetings also bring back those who fled the city for the suburbs. Collins, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, moved to Chevy Chase years ago. He returned to the old neighborhood for the H Street history project and remembered how his grandfather worked as an engineer for the railroad that ran between Washington and Chicago.

“It was a busy, busy place right near the railroad when that was the center of transportation. But it was also rough. It was tough. We had two watchdogs, stolen three times,” he said, and laughed with Lyons, as they walked the neighborhood on a recent day. “We had to pay a ‘reward,’ to get them back. This was never Chevy Chase or Georgetown. People should know that. There’s not enough history about Washington so I think these trails are really recording two or three generations of a neighborhood’s metamorphosis.”

Indeed, every trail records the rise, fall and renewal of a neighborhood. Almost all describe how the riots of 1968 destroyed many of the city’s business districts, leaving economic and emotional scars. This is especially true of H Street NE, where much of the rioting took place.

Anwar Saleem, a former city bus mechanic who now heads H Street Main Street, a nonprofit group that promotes business in the neighborhood, said he appreciates the trail’s honest storytelling, even when those stories are painful. He was in the seventh grade when his best friend was killed during the rioting inside Morton’s Department Store.

“Folks have a tendency to see a vacant lot or see a new store and not look into the history,” he said. “But these trails are important because our society is changing and everyone wants their stories remembered.”

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