Hub, Home, Heart
— Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail —
When the Atlas Performing Arts Center opened in 2005, it gave hope to an area still recovering from the destruction following the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. But when K-B's Atlas movie house opened here in 1938 as one of DC's first air-conditioned theaters, this was a bustling commercial strip.
The Atlas originally admitted whites only. African American movie-goers traveled elsewhere until 1943, when the Plymouth Theater opened in an old auto showroom at 1365 H Street. Then in 1953 the Supreme Court declared segregation in DC's public accommodations illegal.
But H Street's shops, run by families of many nationalities, had always served all: their working-class neighbors as well as commuters. Most owners, like Meyer Greenbaum of Greenbaum's Bakery, 1361 H Street, lived above or behind the stores and worked long hours. Carroll Barber Shop opened next to Greenbaum's in 1931 as one of H Street's first African American businesses. A few years later Meyer "Mike" Kanter opened I.C. Furniture, selling used and inexpensive goods. (Kanter's son Ted switched to high-end furniture, opening Theodore's in upper Georgetown.)
Beginning in 1951 Jack Napier ran Ultra-Modern Barbership at 1338 for nearly 50 years. Napier is remembered for hiring and training local young men. In the mid-1970s, Marcus Griffith made and sold his patented hair care products at Hairlox, 1315 H Street.
Despite entrepreneurs' post-riots efforts, progress was slow. Then in 2002, in cooperation with H Street Community Development Corporation and the Linden Neighborhood Association, the nonprofit Atlas Performing Arts Center began its large-scale renovations and H Street began its latest revival.
Between 1981 and 2009, the northeast corner of 13th and H Streets hosted the Robert L. Christian Library. Thanks to lobbying by community members the library first opened in 1972 at 1007 H and honored the former teatcher who founded the Northeast Neighborhood House. In addition to promoting literacy and academic achievement, Northeast Neighborhood House offered job training for young people, recreation, tutoring, mentorship, and day care for working parents.
Trains and streetcars created the Near Northeast neighborhood around H Street. The B&O Railroad's arrival in 1835 made this a center of energetic, working-class life. Workmen living north of the Capitol staffed the Government Printing Office, ran the trains, stocked the warehouses, and built Union Station. When a streetcar arrived linking H Street to downtown, new construction quickly followed.
H Street bustled with shops and offices run by Jewish, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Irish, and African American families. During the segregation era, which lasted into the 1950s, African Americans came to H Street for its department stores and sit-down restaurants. Most businesses welcomed all customers.
Then came the civil disturbances in the wake of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Decades of commercial decline followed. Just off H Street, though, the strong residential community endured. The 2005 opening of the Atlas Performing Arts Center signaled a revival, building evocatively on H Street's past. Hub, Home, Heart
is a bridge to carry you from that past to the present.
Hub, Home, Heart: Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail
is an Official Washington, DC Walking Trail. The self-guided, 3.2-mile tour of 18 signs offers about two hours of gentle exercise. Free keepsake guidebooks in English or Spanish are available at businesses and institutions along the way. For more on DC neighborhoods, please visit www.CulturalTourismDC.org.