Heritage trails highlight D.C. neighborhoods

Arturo Ramos of Logan Circle discusses the history of Meridian Hill Park with Lynn C. French of Columbia Height's trail working group.
Arturo Ramos of Logan Circle discusses the history of Meridian Hill Park with Lynn C. French of Columbia Height's trail working group. (Christy Goodman/the Washington Post)
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By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

After the success of the neighborhood trails along U Street, in Mount Pleasant and throughout downtown, among other areas, signs for the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail are up, and neighbors and tourists are learning more about the community's history.

D.C. Department of Transportation officials said $579,000 in federal transportation funds would be awarded to Cultural Tourism D.C., which works with communities to develop the trails. The funds will launch the Tenleytown and the Georgia Avenue/Pleasant Plains trails next summer and fall. The funds also will help other projects, such as a downloadable audio tour for the U Street trail.

About 20 million tourists visit the District every year and focus on museums and government buildings near the Mall, said Jane Freundel Levey, director of heritage programs for Cultural Tourism D.C., which boasts about 200 cultural and visitors groups as members.

"They were not aware we had more than 70 heritage institutions that were not the Smithsonian. That is why Cultural Tourism D.C. exists," she said.

Because walking is a great way to explore a city and all neighborhoods are filled with historical stories, the group began working with communities on the heritage trails as one of their many projects.

"It is the sense that people are coming to Washington for heritage and something relevant to them personally," Levey said. "We want them to see the memorial and monuments. Those are the grand jewels of Washington. We believe there is a lot to learn from our historic neighborhoods that relates to our history. . . . We believe visitors will find points of familiarity and relevance to them here in our neighborhoods."

Cultural Tourism D.C. works with communities upon their request. A working group is established, and neighborhood history is researched for nearly nine months.

Former advisory neighborhood commissioner Anne Theisen, who chaired the Columbia Heights working group, said she noticed the U Street trail and wanted one in her community.

"I knew that there is a really rich heritage of civil rights history in Columbia Heights. I heard a lot of stories about the kind of organizing going on in the '60s, and I really thought the community as a whole, back then and even before, could earn some validation through the heritage tour," Theisen said. "The communities, especially in Ward 1, are changing so rapidly. It is great, but I think it is important that what has been there gets a lot of recognition as well."

The working group, which included a variety of community members, listened to stories, researched buildings and dug through old documents. Even businesses got in on the project, because more people coming to the neighborhood by trail could lead to potential customers.

Lynn C. French, a sixth-generation Washingtonian, moved to Columbia Heights in the 1980s. Her great-grandfather, the Rev. William James Howard, attended school at Wayland Seminary, built to educate freed slaves. The seminary sat among a thriving black community that was leveled to create Meridian Hill Park. Some of her family's photos are part of the trail. A sculpture by local artist Uzike Nelson is found on each of the trail's signs.

"This is a neighborhood, dating back to its earliest inception in the late 1700s, early 1800s, that has been a transitional neighborhood," French said. "It has always welcomed people. So you find some very interesting history here, just the diversity of people who have roots here."

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