Hub, Home, Heart
— Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail —
The starburst intersection of five major roads marks this spot as a transportation hub for the neighborhood and the region.
Shortly after Congress arrived in Washington in 1800, city leaders chose an old farm road to create a private toll turnpike to Bladensburg and points northeast. Its toll booth once sat at this intersection. During the War of 1812, British forces used the turnpike to reach the new capital city. Before they retreated, they had burned the Capitol, White House, and other key buildings.
In 1871 District officials made the Bladensburg Turnpike into a toll-free city street. Soon Columbia Railway Co., a horse-drawn streetcar line, opened, and for 30 years linked this spot to downtown via H Street. Then the streetcar line pushed farther east along Benning Road, spurring real estate development. A new rail line took commuters from here to Baltimore or Annapolis. With so much traffic, this hub soon anchored a busy commercial area.
In the early 1900s, H Street developers invited traveling circuses to use their vacant parcels so that audiences would see the area and consider buying here. A tradition was born: thrilling circus parades with camels and clowns and elephants lumbering down H Street. Circuses later set up near Union Terminal Market, in Uline Arena, and along Benning Road.
In 1930 Sidney Hechinger opened a salvage and hardware store just east of here on Benning Road. Hechinger's soon became a Washington institution. After the 1968 riots many businesses abandoned the area. But Sidney's son, John W., Sr., showed his commitment to the city by opening the suburban style Hechinger Mall on Benning Road, anchored by his modern hardware store, in 1981.
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.