H Street Corridor, NE Struggles for Identity

An article from the Washington Informer: Some Resent, Others Relish the Change

H Street NE Corridor Struggles for Identity

Sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the riots left the corridor in shambles. What once was a vibrant retail destination for many black people soon fell into a downward spiral of despair, including a drug trade, crime and poverty.

But now that the community is being reshaped, Shuford’s ambivalence—fostered by downward spiral–has turned to resentment.

“It’s the gentrification thing to me,” said the 51-year-old Shuford and native Washingtonian. “The D.C. area is changing. A lot of places I used to live—they are taking over those areas.”

The H Street corridor, for example, has been renamed by the new arrivals. Now, it’s becoming known as the Atlas District.

H Street merchants, who once catered to the tastes of Blacks, now cater to others. Shawafel, a Lebanese owned restaurant, opened last year near the Atlas Theatre, serves Hommus, Tabouleh and Shish Taouk. A German bar, Biergarten Haus, hosts Oktoberfest, while Metro Mutts caters to the new arrivals’ pets.

Then there are the rising property values that are pushing people out of their existing housing.

“The rent is becoming so expensive they are mainly the only people that can afford it,” said Shuford.

The income gap between the long-time residents and the new ones is staggering.

The income of the new home buyers in the H Street area is about $127,000, over twice the estimated median household income of $60,000, said a 2008 report by the D.C. planning office.

“I was up and down this corridor when they were building things up,” said Shuford who spent 10 years of service in the U.S. Army. “They had more African-Americans than I usually see at these jobs, [but] the majority were Latinos though.”

With the areas high unemployment rate, especially among African-Americans, the presence of Latino workers on the streetcar construction became troublesome.

“A lot of African-Americans feel they are backed up in a corner,” said Shuford.

Others Welcome the Change

But for many other blacks, a reshaped H Street is a desirable.

The H Street NE corridor, once known as a wasteland of poverty and despair, is now home to a more affluent, diverse and well educated resident. Brandon Johnson, 43, said he wishes the corridor had been reshaped a decade sooner.

The corridor is no longer an enclave of exclusively African-Americans, but there are a significant number of whites and a growing number of Latinos who have come to the area to work, do business and live.

The unwelcome feel that the area is poor, unsafe and unattractive is quickly slipping away.

According to a 2008 District government report, the city has invested more than $65 million on the corridor in street improvement projects, including curbs, benches, street lighting, sidewalks, bus shelters and trash receptacles.

Johnson, who has lived in the area for decades, enjoys the cultural and racial diversity he is experiencing.

“Where just a few years ago there were mostly barber shops, liquor stores and churches, now the entire area has changed,” Johnson said. “It’s a plus to have different kinds of people come to this area that wouldn’t normally because it wasn’t safe.”

Johnson also sees it as a “blessing in disguise” to have a lot more options for dining, shopping and bar hopping.

“It’s like this area is going through an urban renaissance that’s been long overdue,” he said.

Johnson also sees prices go up, his own rent included. But he chalks it all up as one of the “casualties of having all of this” while admitting, “some people will not be able to afford the changes that happen.”

Joanne Acevedo, who lives in the Congress Height section of southeast, enjoys the restaurants and bar scenes on the corridor.

“I come and support the businesses,” Acevedo said. “It’s a great addition to this community.”

Acevedo, 27, also has heard that some people in the community are not happy with the changes.

“I would not know why anyone would be against that,” Acevedo said. “It brings more tourism to the area. It’s actually a time for the residents to take advantage of that.”

Joseph Pereira, 41, sees the reshaping of the social fabric of the H Street community as a “catch-22.”

“It’s been a long time coming, very slow progress. But progress in the right direction for most people,” but he added, “not [for] everyone. It’s a catch-22 position: You have to raise taxes in order to support the city and all of the things that go on with the operation of the city but also alienating and pushing out people who have been here when no one else wanted to be here.”


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