March 22, 2013

A while ago, it was natural to think of H Street NE as a hub of the District’s shopping, dining and night life. But that was sometime around the Truman administration. A few years later, the end of segregation took a toll on the neighborhood, as African Americans and other minorities became freer to take their business elsewhere. The 1968 riots nearly finished off H Street for good. And then, many years later, something happened.

In 2012, President Obama dined there twice. USA Today dubbed H Street the country’s most up-and-coming neighborhood, and Forbes rated it the sixth-hippest corridor in the United States. Indeed, it’s where millennials and artists flocked to ring in Obama’s second term. Celebrity sightings are commonplace, and soon the strip may get the ultimate in pop-culture distinction: its own sitcom. A pilot for a show called “H Street” is making the industry rounds. Truman could hardly have imagined it.

Funny thing, though: This story tends to be told as if all this revitalization happened magically around 2006, like a Big Bang of Hipness. A Post article in September marked “the very first rumblings” of recovery as August 2005. There’s no question that the revival of the Atlas Theater, the flowering of offbeat nightclubs and arts venues, and the explosion of general social life all became visible in just the last half-dozen years.

But the origins of that transformation date almost as far back as the riots themselves — and they had less to do with magic than with the hard work and blind faith that goes by the mundane name of community development.

With the riot’s embers still smoldering, people in the neighborhood started pulling together to preserve what they had and build where they could. They weren’t professional developers, and it often showed. But they knew what was worth saving and what might at least stop the hemorrhaging. It wasn’t long after the riots that the now wildly popular H Street festival began. And in a short time, local groups were investing in renovating old buildings and creating new ones.

The H Street Community Development Corp., backed by the city government, developed the H Street Plaza office building in the 1980s, then added some housing and retail. The Local Initiatives Support Corp. was part of the financing of that plaza as well as the Wylie Street townhomes and other projects on the street.

The buildings were modest, but they staunched the tide of decay. Microloan programs helped small businesses and residents hold on through hard times. The H Street CDC bought the crumbling Atlas Theater, preserved the façade and held on to it until a true rescuer could come along.

That would be philanthropist and playwright Jane Lang, who, in the early 2000s, rallied financial support, bought the Atlas and helped spark a historic neighborhood rebound.

Along came a new wave of daring entrepreneurs who could have stashed their money in a nice safe mutual fund but bet on the neighborhood instead. After leaving office, former mayor Anthony A. Williams saw fit to buy a condominium there.

The renaissance had begun. But without the earlier, persistent damage control by the community and the CDC, H Street’s newfound chic might have been a lost cause before it ever started.

Similar stories abound about other “miracle” neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Shaw — places where community development groups held the line and paved the way for later rebirth.

Chris Smith of William C. Smith & Co., a prolific Washington developer, made it his practice to ask resident groups what they believed would most enrich their neighborhoods. Those early development efforts gave rise to the signature community and cultural center known as THEARC.

Still, these successes hold a cautionary tale: Urban renewal can push out the low- and middle-income people and loyal institutions that stayed through thick and thin. One important goal must be to ensure that there is a place for everyone when a neighborhood turns an economic corner.

On April 1, at the National Building Museum, some of the people behind these successes, as well as new champions of community development, will gather to celebrate the past and explore how to build on these achievements. At the heart of the conversation will be a new book, “Becoming Who We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, D.C.” The book chronicles the real “first rumblings” of revitalization in eight D.C. neighborhoods, along with the national and city policies that helped (and hindered) them along the way.

It is tempting, but wrong, to think of the revival of D.C. neighborhoods as some sudden miracle. Before the bright lights, there were hundreds of small flares kept burning not by celebrity movers and shakers but by the people who walked the streets and lived in the houses and shopped in the stores, who held on, against forbidding odds, to places they believed would one day rise again.

Oramenta Newsome is executive director of the D.C. office of the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. Michael Rubinger is the group’s president and chief executive officer.