“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.
Greater H Street Heritage Trail
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.