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A revitalized H Street corridor has exploded in the past few years with bars and restaurants, but the area also has a fascinating history, including being the first place the Beatles played in the U.S. We explore the Greater H Street Heritage Trail, which opens this weekend.
- Jane Freundel Levey Director of Heritage Programs, Cultural Tourism DC
- Anwar Saleem Executive Director, H Street Main Street Initiative
Guide To The H Street Heritage Trail
A self-guided walking tour of the historical markers, performing arts center and university that make up the Greater H Street Heritage Trail in Northeast Washington, D.C.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast political cartoons and how they play into presidential elections. But first H Street is one of our area's liveliest nightspots with the world of bars and restaurants including a German beer garden, a Belgian gastro pub, an Italian American sub shop and an Ethiopian café.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOnce upon a time, the area was just as diverse ethnically, home to Greek, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Lebanese and African American communities and was one of the city's busiest commercial corridors filled with theaters and sport centers, including the Washington coliseum. A bit of trivia for you, where the Beatles played their first concert in the U.S.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou can learn all about it by walking the two-mile greater H Street Heritage Trail that opens this weekend. And joining us to talk about that and all things H Street Northeast is Jane Freundel Levey, director of Heritage and community programs with Cultural Tourism D.C. Jane Freundel Levey, good to see you again.
MR. JANE FREUNDEL LEVEYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd my old friend and neighbor Anwar Saleem is the executive director of H Street Main Street. Anwar, good to see you again.
MR. ANWAR SALEEMNice seeing you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou -- if you have questions or comments about H Street Northeast, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Jane, there are now 13 Heritage Trails highlighting the history of different areas around D.C. How are Heritage Trails defined and chosen and how did H Street make the list?
LEVEYKojo, I'm glad you asked me the question because we are very proud of our process and our process starts with a community. The community comes to us. We don't go to the community. I'm a historian. I've been doing history for many years in D.C. and I could go out to your community tomorrow and say, okay I'm going to write up your history and put it on some signs. And you know what? Everybody would hate it because I would miss the important stuff. And I would really know what the community wanted. So we don't do it that way. The community comes to us and that's where we begin.
NNAMDIAnwar Saleem, you are a representative of that community and many people are familiar with H Street and the many restaurants and other establishments that are there today. But the area of this Heritage Trail covers more than just H Street itself. What areas are included in the H Street Heritage Trail corridor?
SALEEMWe're talking about Union Station, around NoMa, around the old Uline Arena. You can tell how old I am, mentioning Uline Arena and H Street Northeast and probably some of the outskirts of what is some of Trinidad. So basically -- it's basically the heart of H Street Northeast.
NNAMDIYou have been a business person in that neighborhood for the last few decades or so. But when I first met you back in 1977, we were both moving into the Shaw neighborhood and I assumed that you grew up in the Shaw neighborhood then, but you didn't.
NNAMDIYou grew up near H Street Northeast.
SALEEMH Street Northeast, a very beautiful place, a very warm place. And I figured that I would venture throughout the rest of the city and taste Shaw a little bit. But my heart and my soul brought me right back to H Street and (unintelligible) business and growing the city.
NNAMDIThat's why you went back there. Now I finally figured it out. It only took me a couple of decades. Jane, this area was one of Washington's earliest and busiest commercial districts. Can you talk a little bit about the important of H Street Northeast in Washington's history?
LEVEYAbsolutely. H Street Northeast developed because of transportation. It was first a corridor for the railroad and then we had streetcar lines that came through there. And most important we had Union Station right on the edge of H Street Northeast, which wiped out a neighborhood popularly remembered as Swampoodle. And because of Union Station really we got an influx of people to work building Union Station at first and then people to work on the railroads.
LEVEYSo when you have an influx of people then you need to have shops and commerce to serve them. So the merchants followed and development followed around H Street Northeast.
NNAMDIThe railroads were the engine of that area and it now my understanding that's why the Florida Avenue Market is where it is.
LEVEYThat's correct. That was a -- it was just a block or so away from the old B & O Railroad Station and that's where the trains came in to unload produce. That's why the market developed right there as a wholesale market.
NNAMDIThe area was home to a number of immigrant communities who lived in this area. And I guess the railroads are what brought them to the area. And who were these immigrants?
LEVEYYou know, we don't think of D.C. as having immigrants. I mean, we don't have like New York City where you have Little Italy and you have Chinatown. But H Street Northeast is sort of a miniature version of all of those communities. And the people that we got who you would recognize from other cities, I suppose, would be the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came and they were mostly shopkeepers.
LEVEYWe had Greek immigrants who found a foothold in the market and doing -- opening groceries and eventually nightclubs along H Street. We had Italian immigrants who came in as artisans and they came to help build the Library of Congress, Union Station. They were stone carvers and they had those highly skilled trades that we needed to build our city. So that's how we got all these immigrants.
LEVEYAnd I have to say that the group that surprised me the most was there was a Lebanese community up on H Street Northeast.
NNAMDIA Lebanese community?
LEVEYIn the beginning of the 20th century we had a Lebanese immigrant community up there. And we talk about them on the Heritage Trail signs.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about the H Street Northeast Heritage Trail with Jan Freundel Levey, director of heritage and community programs with Cultural Tourism D.C. and Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street. If you'd like to join the conversation, have you walked any of the District's 13 Heritage Trails? Did you learn something? Call us at 800-433-8850 or what do you know about the history of the H Street corridor? You can also send email to email@example.com, send us a Tweet at kojoshow or if you want to go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIOf course, one of the more distinctive structures in the neighborhood is the Washington Coliseum, formerly known as ULine Arena where the Beatles played their first concert in the U.S. That's got an interesting history.
LEVEYIt was started by a man whose name was Uli, and although that's been anglicized a bit, he was a Dutch ice man. He was making ice here in Washington. He set up an ice plant and with all this refrigeration and ice it led him naturally, I guess, to opening up this arena for ice hockey. So that was the reason it got built.
NNAMDIReally? It was ice hockey...
LEVEYIce hockey in Washington.
NNAMDIBecause I remember I used to go to the roller derby at the Washington Coliseum. Remember that?
LEVEYYes, you did. Well, the ice hockey didn't last. I mean, we've had just about everything in that facility. Right now it's been rescued from being a trash transfer facility. But we've had ice hockey. We have had the roller derby, as you mentioned. We had professional basketball in there briefly before the -- we had the Washington Bullets and the Washington Wizards. We had a team there. We had concerts of course and they were, you know, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.
LEVEYBut we also had classical concerts at one time. We also had boxing and we had political rallies and religious meetings, including Malcolm X spoke there at one point.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you know about the history of H Street Northeast? Did you know that the Washington Coliseum was where the Beatles first played in the U.S.? What memories do you have of it or what would you like to know? 800-433-8850. Anwar, when we think of the 1968 riots a lot of people think about what happened in the 14th and the U Street areas. A lot of people don't remember that 8th Street Northeast was hit pretty hard by the riots in 1968. Talk about that.
SALEEMYeah, 8th Street was tough. I mean, it was so tough they had to have -- had to bring in the guards that had the bayonets on the top of the rifles. But, you know, H Street burned pretty seriously. It was a dominant business district for African Americans at the time. And I tell people all the time I think it was one of the most dominant economic hub of African Americans.
SALEEMAnd at the time, I think during the riot, I think the only thing it had was probably about (unintelligible) mall, I think probably as far as bringing in income, you know, per square footage that we brought in probably more income than any other district probably in the city during that time.
NNAMDISo when -- after the riots of 1968 that was devastated but of course H Street is once again a very lively restaurant, nightlife area. You've played a role in that transformation. Can you talk a little bit about how it came about?
SALEEMWell, as a kid I shopped there. I shopped -- bought my first pair of drumsticks there. I was employed there and so basically it was in my heart. And I watched H Street burn during the Dr. King riots. I was in the 7th grade. And the teacher told us that you need to go home, you know, that we need to secure ourselves and not participate and not go down to see what's going on around our area. Let's go home.
SALEEMBut, you know, being a kid and being inquisitive...
SALEEMThat's right. You want to go see what's going on. And our whole thing is to seek, find and discover. And I had a chance to witness a lot that was taking place on H Street. And you look at it and you wonder, you know, in time, who's going to rebuilt H Street. But at the end of the day there's no one more qualified to build H Street than those who know H Street the most. And over the years, when I went to Charlotte to live that it was somewhere always, like I said, in my soul to go back and to take part in the validation process.
SALEEMI went over and tried to open up a business. I ran a business, but when you have something that's lurking -- it's lurking -- when you go to sleep and all the time you walk the streets to get involved in the validation process, I felt it was obligated for me to do that.
NNAMDIAnd you are now executive director of H Street Main Street. What is H Street Main Street?
SALEEMH Street Main Street is a nonprofit. In our job basically it's a lesson of burden of government. Sometimes people get nonprofits from all -- what is nonprofits all about? But, you know, there are many organizations throughout the city that have tried to revitalize areas. And I tried to, you know, learn from the missteps that they have made. And so our thing was to basically protect the money.
SALEEMOne to stay close and on point without mission and to really work hard in getting it done. And it wasn't about a bunch of rhetoric, you know. I watched the rhetoric that took place over the years in many places throughout the city. But my thing was to how can we get it done. And you listen to people, you listen to the city. And I think the city did it very well, especially on the Anthony Williams in reference to listening to us and then making a way to really make it happen.
SALEEMI think he was the mayor for H Street in reference to economic development and in reference to understanding what we wanted, and understood the older structured buildings and the jewel that we had for H Street. And he was the strongest catalyst that we had to push H Street forward.
NNAMDIYou go over to H Street 20 years ago and you go over to H Street Northeast now, there's a complete world of difference. And Jane Freundel Levey, as in many places arts organizations were vital to the H Street transformation. Can you talk a little bit about those contributions, like the Atlas Theater?
LEVEYThe arts institutions tend to be the leading edge of bringing a neighborhood back, especially in Washington. We've seen that in lots of areas. We saw it in 14th Street District and certainly it happened on H Street Northeast. But you have to put together what Anwar just said about that the community development groups who came in an laid the groundwork. And he worked with Jane Lang at the -- to redevelop the Atlas Theater.
LEVEYThe Atlas Theatre was a movie house in that it was a pretty little movie house on H Street in the 1300 block. And it also was attached to a row of shops so that was part of the commercial core. It was absolutely devastated in the riots. And with the vision of people like Jane Lang and Anwar, they turned it into not just a theater again, but a performing arts center so that you not only can go there to see a wide array of performances but you can also go there to take classes. You can also go there to buy things and to enjoy the way the building has been reused and adapted into something quite artful and beautiful.
NNAMDIWere there movies there when you were growing up at the Atlas Theater?
SALEEMYeah, we had a movie at a theater and I enjoyed it. And we had a chance to see quite a few venues there.
NNAMDIWell, of course there was also the H Street Playhouse on H Street but your loss is Anacostia's gain because the H Street Playhouse has moved over to Anacostia and is renaming itself the Anacostia Playhouse. That's something we'll be talking about more later. There is of course a new streetcar line on H Street but the first one was built in 1871?
LEVEYVery early, yes. Streetcars didn't get started in Washington D.C. until 1862. That was during the Civil War because we needed a way to move the troops and materials around the city that wasn't going to totally destroy our street. So we had street railroads and they were rails that were laid and they were pulled by horses. The cars were pulled by horses. By the time that the streetcar came up to H Street in 1870s they were being pulled by cables -- cable car type things, also still horse 'cause we didn't electrify them until almost 1890.
LEVEYBut the streetcar makes all the difference in the neighborhoods' development and in the ability to change us from a city where you walk to work to one where you ride.
NNAMDIWell, there's a delay with the H Street Northeast streetcars now, Anwar. When are you expecting them to start rolling?
SALEEMNew Year, 2013 I think it will be good. And I think it will be a good catalyst for H Street. And I've told people many years they were supposed to start it over (unintelligible) southeast and they decided they didn't want it. And we knew from history that this transportation that moved people throughout the country and throughout neighborhoods and if you want to find a way to reduce pollution and cars and all the rest, you give people an opportunity to take a different traffic opportunity -- transportation opportunity. And I think that's what is happening with H Street.
SALEEMAnd I think if you really look at what's going on in connecting us with the first phase from Union Station down to near Spingarn high school, I think it would be a good catalyst for tourism and all the rest and help strengthen the economic hub along H Street -- the H Street corridor. Not only the H Street corridor, but yes, also look at the Benning Road corridor and Bladensburg Road. So I think it'll have an effect over -- overall a positive effect these...
NNAMDII for one will never worry about parking again once the streetcar comes about. Jane, we know there have been tensions as the area gentrifies between older residents and newer, but another question is whether the history of an area gets erased when an area gets revitalized. And is that one of the reasons why you think the Heritage -- the H Street Northeast Heritage Trail is a good idea?
LEVEYThat was an easy question. Of course I do think that. I think it's a brilliant idea. You know, you have to remember when we started doing Heritage Trails they were intended to be ways to get tourists off the mall and into the historic neighborhoods of Washington. That was the whole purpose. That's how we originally got, you know, the funding for it because somebody who can provide some economic development for a neighborhood through tourism is going to get support by the city.
LEVEYBut we quickly discovered in doing this using our process, which is I think unique in the country of starting with the community and getting their oral histories, we discovered that by doing that we break down the walls in a community that is gentrifying. And let's face it, everything in the city is changing. You can call it gentrifying if you want to but everything changes. That's the reality. I'm a historian and what do I study? I -- history doesn't stand still. I study the change over time.
LEVEYSo what we have is change and what a Heritage Trail process can do in the neighborhoods, and I think it did it certainly in this neighborhood, it brought together people who have been there for many generations and people who had just moved to the neighborhood who wanted to learn, and got them talking to each other and created a new community. I'm really proud of that.
NNAMDIAnwar, we talked a lot about H Street's past. What do you hope to see in the future of H Street Northeast?
SALEEMWell, I really want to see us come together and I think we are taking the right approach with the historical trail. That, you know, I tell people all the time that we're not responsible for where we were born. We're not responsible for who our mothers and our fathers are and the color of our skin, but we are responsible for the way we act. And that we have a great opportunity to really -- with this venue to really understand each other's strengths and how we need to strengthen from where we are now into the future.
SALEEMI think this is a great opportunity for us to set an example for the rest of the city and other neighborhoods to follow throughout the country. So, you know, I just don't look at what's happening in Washington D.C. We want to set the pace in the nation's capitol, how we can be a good example for other cities throughout the country and hopefully through the world.
NNAMDIA vibrant merging community. In addition to the launch of the greater H Street Northeast Heritage Trail this weekend is the H Street Festival. What can we expect if we head to H Street this Saturday?
SALEEMA lot of warmth, a lot of activity. You're looking at about five or seven stages taking place along the corridor. You're looking at arts, you're looking at cars, you're looking at Chuchito Valdes is coming to HR 57. He's going to speak at -- he's going to sing at the festival. Our last hour, we're going to have a tribute to Chuck Brown, who is one of our own.
SALEEMWe have things like doggie parks. The Metro Muts putting on doggie parks. A lot of food. You talk about so much going on, the Cultural Tourism is going to kick it off with the H Street Historical Trail. So, you know, there's so much going on I think it's one of the best festivals -- neighborhood community festivals on the eastern seaboard. And more people are really looking at it and catching on. So I think we have something great again.
SALEEMAgain, we want to set a good example for others to follow. And I like the competition between other neighborhoods and having festivals. And I think that's something that we need to strengthen throughout the city. And just as we've done something with the sports in the past we have to go back and say, look how can we have competition and create the best festival in the city where we're putting the competition on.
SALEEMSo we're inviting other people to do the same thing.
NNAMDI...H Street Northeast this weekend for the festival. And Jane Freundel Levey, the marketing director at Cultural Tourism DC Pat Wheeler has been bugging me to death about all of the other events that you have got coming up, including the Art For All D.C. Mega Event. Please tell us what that's about.
LEVEYArt For All is taking place right now through October 21. And it is 40 organizations in music and theater, dance, fine arts, fashion, all putting on tremendous events that we have listed on our website. And so you can go there, check it out. I'd like to mention one. There's going to be Taste of Art All Night Saturday, October 20, 7:00 pm to 3:00 am. We're going to have visual and performance arts and this is at night.
LEVEYAnd this is real different for this sleepy little southern town in which we live.
NNAMDII was about to say 7:00 pm 'til 3:00 am. I hope I can stay up -- okay, Pat, I did and I'm glad. Thank you very much for your service. Jan Freundel Levey is the director of heritage and community programs with Cultural Tourism D.C. Jane, good to see you again.
LEVEYThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnwar Saleem is the executive director of H Street Main Street. Anwar, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, political cartoons and how they play into presidential elections. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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