Theater Revival Boosts H Street

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Atlas is back.

For three days last week, art patrons donned tuxedos and evening dresses to mingle, listen to music and take in a play at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE. The black-tie events were part of a five-day grand opening that organizers hope will serve notice that one of the city's historic commercial hubs is resurrected after a hiatus that began during the turbulent 1960s.

The riots in 1968 sent many businesses running to the suburbs, leaving strips such as H Street barren and boarded up. But gradually, as the city's fortunes have risen, so have those of H Street, attracting condominiums, bars and, more recently, the arts.

The Atlas, which opened in 1938 as a movie house, is part of that renaissance. Three dance studios that are part of the complex have been open for more than a year. But for many residents, the recent celebration was their first time seeing the new facility, which boasts two performance theaters, a cafe, dressing rooms and offices.

"This is beautiful," Nina M. Martin, 76, and a resident of the District since 1955, said as she entered the sparkling new building. Martin remembered attending 25-cent movies on Saturdays, a memory shared by her neighbor, Mary Hinson, 71.

"We need this," said Martin, recalling how the riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination sent the nation and the city reeling. Smoke rose over the city as stores and homes burned to the ground, youngsters clashed with police and troops flooded the streets. "I couldn't get home. I have never seen a place look so bad."

Nearly four decades later, things are looking up on H Street. In addition to the Atlas, which bills itself as a community performing arts center that will house companies currently without a base, there are new yoga studios, coffee shops, fitness centers and restaurants hoping to rekindle some of the magic old-timers remember.

Meredith "Ann" Belkov, for instance, remembers her father's grocery store, McBride's variety store, a lady's dress store named Kopy Kat and her alma mater, Eastern High School. Although the city was segregated, Belkov said her family regularly mingled with people of other races and religions and volunteered at a black church after the riots.

"It was one of the saddest times to see smoke rising across the city," said Belkov, who is a member of the Atlas board of directors.

A former director of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York, Belkov was all smiles this weekend, watching a children's hip-hop dance group perform and as hundreds took in a musical commissioned for the opening that recounts the lives of immigrants -- Jews, Irish, German -- who once lived around H Street, co-existing with black residents. The play's title is "Coming Home."

Officials said the goal is to make the Atlas feel like home to others. Among the partners that will use the space are the African Continuum Theater, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Capital City Symphony and Levine School of Music. Groups that use the space are required to perform community outreach and education programs.

The gleaming, expansive space that begs outsiders to come in is a far cry from what the center's principal founder, Jane Lang, saw five years ago when she had the idea to create such a space. She said it was "disgusting" then.

More than $20 million later, Lang has changed her tune.

"I couldn't visualize it," she said during the recent celebration. "So every time something was completed, I would say, 'Oh, this is what this is going to look like.' "

At the opening, what it looks like got plenty of accolades.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company