202

Growth of H Street: Where people used to ‘run,’ now they stay

Once a bustling city corridor, H Street NE fell victim to urban decay following suburbanization and the city's 1968 riots. But its lost vibrancy is being restored.

'You can bring back any neighborhood in this country'

WTOP's Rachel Nania

Download audio

WASHINGTON Standing next to a colorful poolside cabana on the roof deck at H Street NE’s newest apartment building, The Apollo, one has views of a vegan diner to the right, a Starbucks to the left, and a sustainable chicken restaurant straight ahead.

Below is marble-countered coffee shop and a shiny new Whole Foods Market.

But 40 years ago, that view was much different.

“It got to a point where you didn’t walk through H Street, you ran through H Street,” said Anwar Saleem, executive director of the nonprofit H Street Main Street.

Once a bustling city corridor “probably the second-most vibrant district in the city when it comes to income,” Saleem said H Street fell victim to urban decay following suburbanization and the 1968 riots that took place after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It was redlined by banks; it was basically a forgotten area,” Saleem said.

That is until H Street Main Street and the city, along with hundreds of community members, teamed up in 2002 to breathe new life into the neighborhood’s cracked sidewalks, boarded-up buildings and shuttered art spaces.

Now, H Street’s lost vibrancy is being restored.

The revitalization of H Street did not happen overnight.

Growth has been gradual — first with a wave of businesses catering to night life. But Washingtonians are no longer hopping back over the Hopscotch Bridge once they close out their bar tabs. A new influx of residences and daytime businesses are giving them a reason to stay.

Maury Stern, a partner at Insight Property Group, which owns The Apollo, sees the redevelopment of the 600 block of H Street formerly home to the historic Apollo Theater and a self-storage business as a turning point for the neighborhood.

“This block, before we redeveloped it, was really a problem on H Street,” said Stern, who added that blocks to the east and west were seeing activity, but the middle stayed mostly neglected.

“Everything in between has sort of taken a little bit longer.”

Now that The Apollo and its surrounding buildings are near completion, Stern hopes people not only come to the 600 block, but stay on the block, visiting its array of retailers, including Whole Foods, The Wydown, Solid State Books and a dining concept from the owners of Philadelphia’s acclaimed Vedge.

“You could work within the building, you could shop at Whole Foods, you could eat dinner or lunch at [Vedge], spend time hanging out in the bookshop,” Stern said.

H Street Main Street’s Saleem says the neighborhood’s reactivation has attracted more than 300 businesses and created more than 3,600 jobs. But restaurants and retail aren’t the strip’s only appeal.

For the past 12 years, H Street has been home to a fall festival that’s grown from 500 participants to more than 150,000. And in 2016, a 2.2-mile streetcar system opened on H Street, connecting riders from Union Station to Benning Road.

A once forgotten neighborhood gets a new look

WTOP's Rachel Nania

Download audio

“If you really put the residents and the businesses together, and you work together, it just shows that you can really bring back any neighborhood in this country. And H Street’s a good example of that,” Saleem said.

H Street is by no means done growing.

A new retail and residential center replacing the former H Street Connection shopping center between 8th and 10th streets NE is scheduled to open in 2019, The Washington Business Journal reports. Urban Turf details more than 10 other developments planned for the area.

However, next on Saleem’s list of projects is a focus on stretching H Street’s business boom to nearby Bladensburg and Benning roads “to really create a community where you can walk.”

“We want to be walkable, we want to be livable, we want to be enjoyable,” he said.

Redeveloping Hechinger Mall a strip mall that connects all three thoroughfares — would be a “game-changer,” Saleem added.


Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

© 2017 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.