H Street corridor: A work in progress

July 23, 2011

It’s past last call at Sticky Rice DC in Northeast, but no one is going home. The crowd is downing shots of Smirnoff vodka, and the music is blasting. An obscure song by Sir Mix-A-Lot comes on. “This is my jam,” a girl in ripped black tights says.

Outside the bar, the music escapes with a heavy thump, thump into the new heart of the H Street corridor.

This is not what the city imagined.

When the music finally fades, most of the partyers climb into cabs back to Northwest. They zip past blocks of buildings that tumble out of the darkness like discordant notes: a burned-out storefront; a bistro that serves craft beers; a Popeyes; a coming- soon sign for a New Orleans restaurant.

The people disappear over the H Street Bridge, a physical barrier that has kept this neighborhood separate from the rest of the city for years.

When the District began redeveloping the corridor between Union Station and 17th Street Northeast eight years ago, officials had visions of how life used to be in the neighborhood in decades past.

In the years after 1929, when Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened its first store in the District on H Street at Bladensburg Road Northeast, H Street became the busiest shopping and entertainment district in the city.

The city chose H Street in 2005 as one of the first areas to become part of the “Great Streets Initiative,” an effort to transform the District’s struggling corridors into more attractive and vibrant neighborhoods.

Victor L. Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, calls it a “reweaving of the city.” The city’s vision for H Street: a neighborhood that is “hip but has young families” and is “international, multilingual and diverse.”

D.C. officials acknowledge that the H Street corridor is not quite there. The area needs more than nightlife to thrive.

But daytime businesses, such as grocery stores, bookstores and clothing boutiques, have been slow to open, while a new restaurant or bar opens nearly every week.

“We were very permissive of the first pioneers of H Street,” says Jose C. Sousa, a spokesman for the planning and economic development office. “But a lot of developers know they now need to step up their game. We want people to say that H Street is not just a place to eat out but also a place where people can go to buy things or spend the whole day.”

Devastated area

The city had a long way to go when the redevelopment process began. Like a number of D.C. neighborhoods, the corridor was devastated by riots that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

For years afterward, 30 percent of the buildings on H Street were boarded up or left vacant, according to the nonprofit H Street Community Development Corp.

Eugenia Kim, 59, a novelist, remembers her first week on 12th and G streets Northeast in 1984. She was greeted with the news that a middle-aged woman named Catherine Fuller had been robbed, sodomized and killed in the neighborhood.

“Suddenly everyone wanted to change the face of what that strip was before, which was a burnt-out nest from 1968 and the site of this brutal rape,” Kim says.

In 1987, on the site where Fuller had been attacked, the city built a strip mall with stores such as GameStop and Rite Aid.

But in the years that followed, little else happened, until 2003, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced a plan to revitalize H Street. The corridor would get office buildings, residential units, retail, arts and entertainment venues, and a streetcar line.

“We hoped [the streetcar] would bring people from other neighborhoods to H Street . . . and connect people to other areas we want to redevelop,” Hoskins said. “It’s like the Circulator bus. We had to take a real leap of faith when we started that. Now everyone uses it.”

The opening of the $13 million streetcar line between Union Station and Benning Road has been pushed back, but if all goes according to the current plan, trolleys will start rolling in 2013.

Meanwhile, plans are moving ahead for sprawling new developments to take over several blighted corners.

The strip mall at Eighth and H streets will be replaced by 50,000 square feet of retail and more than 400 apartments.

At Third and H, the site of an old gas station, a Giant Food store is planned as part of a 286,500-square-foot project called 360˚ H Street, along with retail space and more than 200 housing units.

And where the grand Sears, Roebuck once stood, a multifamily luxury apartment community called The Flats will soon rise.

Lessons from U Street

Years before developers noticed H Street, the corridor caught the eye of Joe Englert, a 50-year-old Washington businessman who had opened a number of quirky restaurants and bars with cult followings on U Street, including one that served insects.

“The more I went down there, the more I liked the feel of the street. It had a grand boulevard, and it was a straight shot. I thought if I could hold on for dear life financially for some years, it could work,” Englert said.

He found an inexpensive property, and in 2005, he opened the Argonaut, an English-style pub near the eastern end of the H Street strip. Englert went on to open seven more restaurants and taverns on H Street.

By 2008, other bars and restaurants bought into Englert’s notion of what the corridor could be: “a place to do unusual things.”

Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, a part-Western-part-voodoo-themed bar, opened in 2009. In 2010, a German beer garden called Biergarten Haus, followed.

And in January, Church and State, an irreverent bar filled with religious iconography, quietly debuted.

Sousa at the planning and economic development office finds parallels between the transformation of the H Street and U Street corridors.

“They had tough turns after the riots of the 1960s,” Sousa says. “Now, they are both undergoing a sort of renaissance. At the end of it, they will emerge as the city’s two great jewels.”

Sticking it out

Salim Newman was born and raised on H Street. Since 2006, he’s been the owner of a shop at 13th and H that sells incense, clothing and health-care products.

When construction began on the streetcar line, Newman, 40, said he watched many of his friends’ businesses close their doors because of the construction and lack of parking: a beauty shop, a perfume store and a carryout place.

The sales at his own shop declined 30 percent, he said. He eventually relocated across the street and reopened under a new name, Almahal.

“I guess the change is for the better,” Newman said. “But I’ve had buddies that tried to open a store, and the city told him they were no longer offering licenses for barbershops, fast food or carryout. How is that even fair? To say which businesses can open?”

D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs spokesman Helder Gil said that H Street’s zoning limits the amount of property that can be devoted to fast-food restaurants, but barbershops require no special permission.

One of the businesses hanging on happens to be a historic barbershop known for playing oldies music from cassette tapes that line the walls.

Nat Carter, 63, manager of Smokey’s Barbershop and Oldies, isn’t leaving, despite the fact that construction of the streetcar line pushed profits so low that “now we are just getting by.”

Kim, the novelist, has taken her son for haircuts at Smokey’s, which has been around since 1961. She says if people such as Carter stick around, H Street will retain its “real rootedness.”

Shawneequa Callier, 33, a George Washington University professor who bought a home on H Street in 2008, said the neighborhood has become “cool without trying to be.”

“It’s a little bit funkier” than U Street, she said, which helped attract creative types.

‘Everything I need is here’

A former elementary school called the Pierce School hosts art shows. The current production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the black-box H Street Playhouse has switched the characters’ genders. The Joy of Motion Dance Center has become known for its dance classes in nearly every genre and its performances in the adjacent Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Photo workshops are held at coffeehouses such as Sova.

But Callier says H Street could do a better job of opening places like a small movie theater, bookstore or library, mentioning the loss of the R.L. Christian Library kiosk in 2008.

“But I love it here. Everything I need is here,” Callier said. “Except to go to work, I never leave H Street.”

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