A martini bar and several upscale restaurants have opened this year on a formerly blighted stretch of Eighth Street SE on Capitol Hill. Business is booming at a new yarn store, and the Starbucks that moved in last year usually is packed.
What the neighborhood was like in the past, however -- what else it has been -- is the subject of a new 16-station walking trail that tells its history. Last week, city officials and community leaders unveiled the series of poster-size signs that document the community's evolution -- from the 19th-century Navy Yard and Marine Barracks that anchor the commercial corridor, to the houses and shops that have survived or been demolished in the past 200 years.
Those who walk the trail -- which starts at the Eastern Market Metro station and ducks under the freeway to the Navy Yard before looping back through some residential streets -- will see the birthplace of famed march composer John Philip Sousa and a school where he studied music, as well as the old Naval Hospital that opened just after the Civil War and Christ Church Washington Parish, where presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams worshiped.
"Tour of Duty: Barracks Row Heritage Trail" is the city's third neighborhood walking tour; signed trails on U Street NW and in downtown were created in 2001. A trail along the Southwest Waterfront is set to be unveiled Jan. 15, and signed tours of Adams Morgan and Shaw's Seventh Street corridor are in the works.
Officials at Cultural Tourism DC, the nonprofit that runs the heritage trail program, said they eventually would like to create self-guided walking tours of at least a dozen neighborhoods, including historic Anacostia and the H Street NE corridor. Each trail costs about $150,000 to create and is paid for with federal and local transportation funds, officials said. The trails are designed to help revive blighted neighborhoods and draw attention to them, as well as to document their history, said Kathryn S. Smith, Cultural Tourism DC's executive director.
"We're called tourism, but we're really about building neighborhood identities," Smith said at a ceremony Friday to dedicate the Barracks Row trail. "If we can get some of these folks off the Mall and get them walking our streets, they're going to shop in our shops and eat in our restaurants."
The Barracks Row trail is opening at a time of rapid revitalization for Eighth Street, a once-seedy strip of run-down and vacant storefronts. Its transformation was launched four years ago with the creation of a coalition called Barracks Row Main Street, which received funding from the National Main Street Program to refurbish dilapidated storefronts and attract retail pioneers who could draw upscale customers.
Projects that are proposed or underway are adding interest to the area, including a stadium for the Washington Nationals; the replacement of a public housing complex with a much denser, mixed-income community; and the redevelopment of land on both sides of the Anacostia River.
William McLeod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, said 14 businesses opened this year and 18 last year. McLeod said he works with existing businesses in addition to recruiting new ones -- persuading the owners of a Popeyes franchise, for example, to brighten the facade with fresh paint.
Recognizing that there is still a need in the economically diverse neighborhood for a discount Dollar Express store on Eighth Street SE, McLeod said he asked its owner to display a painting by a local artist for a community arts festival this year. The merchant agreed, which meant the dusty clutter in the display window was removed and the window scrubbed.
Like most of the storefronts on Eighth Street, which is part of the Capitol Hill Historic District, the Dollar Express building dates back more than a century.
The poster-size signs along the heritage trail include vintage photos of many structures and a concise narration of their role in the neighborhood.
Additional information is contained in trail brochures at city visitors' centers and shops along the route.
The second sign shows the Haines department store, which was built in 1892 by Elizabeth A. Haines, a widow who called it the "largest store in the world . . . built, owned and controlled by a woman."
The gray building, which stands a few dozen yards from the sign at Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, looks strikingly similar to the original. Its first-floor retail space is vacant and its upper floors are used as office space.
The trail shows some of Washington's last remaining "alley homes," cramped dwellings built alongside stables and warehouses during periods when affordable housing in the capital was scarcest.
It also shows pictures of houses destroyed to build the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, and the Ellen Wilson Dwellings public housing complex -- which initially allowed only white residents -- that eventually was shut and later razed to make room for a mixed-income cooperative called Townhomes on Capitol Hill.
At the dedication event inside the new Belga Cafe, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society's president, Robert L.M. Nevitt, called the new trail signs an invitation.
"An invitation to explore further and discover," Nevitt said. "Not a monument, not an edifice, but some more about this place we call home."