Hub, Home, Heart
— Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail —
Ourisman Chevrolet once occupied almost the entire north side of this block. After two years as a top-performing Chevy salesman on Connecticut Avenue, and with a $2,000 loan from his widowed mother, Benjamin Ourisman opened his own dealership here in 1921. When he built the five-story building on your right in 1940, his was the country's highest-selling dealership. Ourisman continued to service cars during World War II (1941-1945), when automobile production was shut down. After the war, demand was so high that he hired 67 salesmen. Although he received Chevrolet's largest allotment of new cars, customers still had to wait three years for delivery. With the growth of the suburbs after World War II, Ourisman Chevrolet moved to Maryland in 1962.
Across from Ourisman's, at 619 H Street, Pietro Borghese ran Pete's Barbershop for nearly 50 years. Borghese emigrated from Italy in 1920 and opened his business near the homes of many Italian workers and craftsmen. The family got along well with its African American neighbors, recalled his son Carmelo. During the riots of 1968, when Pete's was one of only two white-owned businesses on the block, rioters left the barbershop untouched.
Sanitary Grocery, the forerunner of Safeway, first appeared on H Street in 1909. In the early 1960s, Safeway opened at 600 H, but moved in 1983 to the new Hechinger Mall on Benning Road, leaving the neighborhood without a major grocery. Five years later the independent, black-owned Mega Foods opened across the street but lasted only two years. Murry's, which took over the Safeway building, is part of a local chain founded in 1948 by Alfred Mendelson and named for his son. Murry's two-ounce frozen steaks offered consumers conveniently small portions of meat for the first time.
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.