Hub, Home, Heart
— Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail —
On Friday, April 5, 1968 the 600 block of H Street went up in flames. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated a day earlier, and grief-stricken, angry men and women had taken to the streets across the city. Some took part in looting and burning.
Helen Wooden Wood remembered watching from her home on Linden Place as flames spread. "It was horrible. You could feel the heat and couldn't open the windows for the smoke." According to a fireman, the alley behind Morton's Department Store became "a freeway for looters" carrying "television sets, clothes, everything." Yet other people supported the firefighters, bringing them chairs and coffee.
When Morton's first opened downtown in 1933, it was among the few white-owned department stores that did not discriminate in hiring or sales. In fact owner Mortimer Lebowitz was a former Urban League president who had marched with Dr. King. Nevertheless, looters ransacked and torched his store here. The destruction, Lebowitz told a reporter later, "was nothing against me personally."
"The riots did not happen in a vacuum," recalled Sam Smith of the Capitol East Gazette
. In 1968, "24 percent of the [area's] labor force was unemployed or underemployed." After the smoke cleared, 90 buildings in Greater H Street, containing 51 residences and 103 businesses, were gone. Most stores that weren't destroyed closed, never to reopen.
While the city cleared land for sale, it didn't pay to repair existing businesses or develop new ones. In 1984 the H Street Community Development Corporation formed to attract investment for development. The corporation and other nonprofits built housing and commercial buildings but H Street suffered from relentless suburban competition. It took the rehabilitation of the Atlas Theater, which started in 2002, investments in nightlife, and a new appreciation for the charms of the neighborhood's close-in, 19th-century buildings for H Street's revival to take hold.
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.