H Street arts organizations spark economic growth: Arts and Entertainment District builds vibrant community, but racial divides persist
By Samantha Miller
When the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street Northeast opened its doors in 2006, Chief Operating Officer Scott Kenison remembers having to search far and wide for a nearby coffee shop. “At that time, this neighborhood was pretty desolate,” he said. “There was a Chinese place down the street, but that was pretty much it.”
The H Street corridor, which stretches from 2nd to 15th Street, was once home to a flurry of bustling shops and entertainment venues. But the 1968 riots, incited by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., left the community in a state of disrepair, forcing a number of businesses to close or relocate.
Even after years of reconstruction projects led by the city, the areas surrounding the Arts and Entertainment District on H Street Northeast remain largely neglected — row after row of dilapidated homes and abandoned storefronts greet visitors on the drive into town. To make matters worse, the corridor isn’t Metro accessible — the closest station is on 2nd Street, a 30-minute walk from the Atlas.
A new beginning: The revitalization of the Arts and Entertainment District
“We have an interesting neighborhood that’s gone through a lot of transition,” said H Street Playhouse founder Adele Robey. The nonprofit opened in 2002 as a small, black-box theater where local companies like the Theater Alliance can rent space. The Theater Alliance is known for producing shows geared towards the District’s diverse population, like the upcoming Langston Hughes play, “Black Nativity.”
The Atlas — a 59,000-square-foot venue with several dance studios, theaters and rehearsal spaces — opened a few years later in a historic movie theater, serving as an anchor for the corridor’s Arts and Entertainment District.
Over the years, longtime residents have shared their memories of the 1968 riots with Kenison, reaffirming his belief that artistic venues provide a sense of hope for the community. “After everything had settled down and people were coming out into the street to assess the damage, there was a feeling that the Atlas still stood — and that was a sign that all was not lost, and there was a promise for something to happen” he said.
Since then, entertainment venues like the Atlas and Playhouse have encouraged artistic growth while planting the seeds for the corridor’s gradual revitalization. A slew of art galleries have popped up along H Street, including Studio H and Gallery O.
“Not only was it [the Atlas] giving people access to the arts, but it was also stimulating economic growth,” Kenison said. “And I don’t think it would have happened without the Atlas taking that big, first step.”
A decade ago, the only place to grab a bite to eat was at a Checkers, but restaurateurs soon realized that theater goers would need a place to wine and dine, according to Robey. Some of the more recent restaurants to move to the corridor include The Star and Shamrock Tavern & Deli, Biergarten Haus and Dangerously Delicious Pies. But the addition of these tasty venues has come at a price.
“There’s been a lot of tension and the word gentrification gets thrown around,” Robey said.
Robey, who defines gentrification as “white people moving into black neighborhoods,” said that acknowledging the strain between longtime residents and newcomers has helped lessen the strain. So has making community improvement part of the Playhouse’s mission.
As a resident of Capitol Hill for the past 35 years, she’s seen her fair share of change. Over the past few years, H Street Northeast has become a destination spot for trendy bars, restaurants and, of course, theaters.
A Tale of Two Cities
“I do think we are achieving a diverse neighborhood — and diverse is an interesting word in itself because only white people use that word,” Robey said. “I have never really heard any of the African American people around here use that word.”
But once the sun sets, any trace of diversity disappears along with the horizon. Robey estimates that 90 percent of the H Street bar patrons are young and white — probably because the restaurateurs that helped spice up the corridor are white themselves.
Robey, of course, is referring to D.C. bar mogul Joe Englert — the man behind some of the city’s quirkiest bars including The Big Hunt and DC9, along with H Street’s own Rock and Roll Hotel, The Red and the Black and the H Street Country Club.
“It’s a different culture than you find in most of the other neighborhoods in D.C.,” said Kim Smithman, a recent American University sociology graduate who frequents H street joints like Fruit Bat and Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar. And while she’s drawn to the corridor’s string of chic bars and restaurants, she can’t help but feel conflicted about what her presence means for the community.
“Sometimes I feel guilty when I go out there because I feel like it’s wrong that I can go there to have a good time and then come back to where I live,” she said. “I just have this image of all the bars closing down and all the lights going out, and it’s just another forgotten neighborhood.”
Smithman’s sociology degree became apparent as she pondered the term gentrification — a phenomenon she said the majority of young bar-hoppers probably ignore.
“What people want it to mean is bringing life to a neighborhood that otherwise doesn’t have much business or attention for positive reasons,” she said. “The reality is opening bars, clubs and restaurants where people otherwise wouldn’t come, and it’s kind of a slaughter on the culture.”
Shirley Brown, a resident of I Street Northeast, said she loves what the Atlas and H Street Playhouse have done for her community. But she worries about what the onslaught of new bars and eateries means for the corridor’s future.
“I think the bars probably do help the economy, but they’re so small, I can’t actually see them hiring too many people that live in the area,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t want to see it overloaded with bars, because that takes something away from the community.”
Mark Menard, manager of Star and Shamrock Tavern & Deli, recognizes that the restaurants along H Street benefit from the crowds ushered in by the Atlas and Playhouse.
“We all respect the arts and entertainment community,” he said. A large percentage of his customers come in because of the arts presence there, “whether it be for socializing on the weekends, or weeknights, or Sunday afternoon theater.”
For now, it looks like the future of the Arts and Entertainment District depends on the city’s ability to strike the right balance: between trendy taverns and artistic venues, longtime residents and newcomers, historical richness and burgeoning growth.
“You know when the Atlas has something going on because the streets feel different — it’s a different vibe, a different group of people,” Kenison said.
“It’s a tale of two cities.”