Monday, July 23, 2012
Alan Page: What H Street Means to Me
A sign on Wylie Street warns off those seeking to buy drugs in the Spring of 2005
I have lived just off the H Street corridor since the beginning of 2003. I was the first gentrifier on the block, so to speak. A black lawyer, with a pregnant fiancee, I often found I was the lone fellow on the block heading off to work in a dress shirt and khakis in the morning (as vivid a sign of the unemployment problem facing the neighborhood as any).
When my fiancee told me she was pregnant, we were living in an efficiency in NW. For us, raising a family in an efficiency was out (kudos to whoever pulls it off), so we started looking for a new place. Rents in NW were already high enough for me to decide to pursue purchasing a house, especially looking at the reasonably low interest rates of that time. A lot of other people must have had the same idea, because we got outbidded on every house we tried to buy in NW.
So, we expanded our search to other areas of the city. We chose Wylie Street because it was affordable. So, we got the joyous experience of moving into a very community oriented, friendly neighborhood, although admittedly there was enough drug traffic to justify the sign at the 13th Street entrance to the one way block warning "automobiles that come onto this block to purchase drugs may be seized" (this sign was subsequently removed when the block improved; the old school hand-to-hand drug sales prevalent on the block nine years ago are now completely gone).
The block and the surrounding area had problems beyond drug traffic. Garbage collection was spotty. H Street itself was filled with abandoned buildings and there had been years of discussion about (and some action taken toward) revitalization of the corridor back to its commercial glory days. My new neighbors were happy to let me know the scoop on prior restoration efforts. The Hechinger Mall was one revival attempt. The strip mall stretching from the 800 to the 1000 block on the south side of H was another attempt at getting the retail aspect of the corridor back to its prior level of strength. There was a lot of foot traffic on the block, but businesses were coming and going, some only lasting a year. A lot of small entrepreneurs were willing to give the strip a try, but few of them were surviving for the long term (businesses like George's were the exception, lasting for decades, only to close recently).
I worked with the H Street Main Street program and its volunteers on a few ideas to get things up and running. Anwar Saleem and Richard Layman were the two folks at H Street Main Street that I often sought for advice about how best I could help the street. I walked the corridor with Richard Layman helping to gather business information for a H Street business directory meant to inform neighbors and other potential customers about all the current businesses awaiting their patronage on the strip. Layman personally introduced me to Sonny (who formerly operated a plumbing supply shop on the east side of H Street that is now a fashion boutique). Sonny was a great plumber who did fast work and charged reasonable rates. Parks Hardware didn't look as fancy as Lowe's, but it usually had the items I needed for home improvement projects around my as-is home. H Street Main Street (brought back?) the H Street Festival a few years ago, to minor success, but each year, the crowds got bigger and the production value went up.
I was pretty happy to stumble onto Frozen Tropics near this time period, as it allowed me to keep up with forward progress in the neighborhood. The purchase and revitalization of the Atlas Theater was a good first sign. A book store opening on the west side of H (421 H St NE) was another (it subsequently closed and was replaced with a small parade of bar concepts, including Pap & Peteys, Toyland and now The Big Board).
The wave that helped revitalization stick was the rise of concept businesses on the corridor. A children's spa, a nautical-themed bar, a mussels place in a former doctors office. This was the first wave. Barber shops, hair salons, and beauty supply shops fed the longtime foot traffic during the day, but an increasing number of bars and restaurants were bringing the corridor alive at night.
Finally, major investment came. The long empty space on the north side of the 300 block of H Street soon will be the location of the first new grocery store on H Street since its heyday (note I use the term "new" to differentiate this store from the current presence of Murrays in the 600 block, another site that is soon to be developed). The phrase "soon to be developed" is a bit of a mantra around H Street now, as some major projects are moving at a slower pace than some neighbors would like. We could use more daytime retail among the new waves of businesses opening up (the arrival of a bike shop is a particularly welcome sight for me and my young bike-riding A-alike). Coming from a 2003 view, though, I think H Street is in a great space and getting better. No matter when you arrived, welcome to the neighborhood! Random acts of kindness and saying hi are always welcome, especially if you see me riding or walking around our 'hood. *smile*
Headshot photo provided by Alan Page