Day and night on H Street Northeast: Between bars and transportation woes, revitalizing neighborhood a ‘tale of two cities’
By Liz White
The streets come alive with chattering youngsters walking between bars, restaurants and music venues when nighttime hits Small storefronts are crowded with patrons waiting to get inside.
This is H Street N.E. at night, hopping with District residents looking for a place to mingle.
During the daytime hours, the same few blocks look completely different. There’s the constant bang of construction and the buzz of passing cars. The sidewalks are empty until children head home from school and a steady flow of returning residents exit X2 buses from other parts of the city.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” said Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street, a nonprofit involved with revitalizing the Northeast corridor.
The H Street neighborhood was a major shopping hub of the capital city in the 1950s before being torn apart by riots in 1968 following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The deserted streets and vacant storefronts have been recovering ever since.
In 2004, the City Council approved a strategic development plan to rebuild 13 blocks in the area, extending across 1.5 miles of mostly empty and decaying buildings.
Six years later, the corridor attracts mostly bar-hoppers and restaurant-goers, Saleem said.
“Right now, the nightlife is outgrowing the day life,” he said.
A few years ago, there were 150 vacancies along the corridor but tax incentives and added attention attracted over 148 new businesses, with 28 new ones this year, according to Saleem, who works to bring new businesses to the street. The neighborhood is one of fastest growing areas in the city, he said.
Across this 13-block span, 17 bars and restaurants have opened their doors, according to District liquor license records.
The Biergarten Haus, a German beer bar on the 1300 block, typically has lines out the door all day on the weekends, bartender Sigi Smailys, 28, said.
“The whole street is packed on weekends,” he said.
At the Star and Shamrock, an Irish pub and Jewish deli that opened in April on the 1300 block, families stop by for sandwiches during the day, but business picks up on Thursday nights through the weekends, bartender Martina Pelot, 34, said.
“The more we build up here, the busier we get,” she said.
Despite the thriving nightlife, the area still has other obstacles to overcome, Saleem said.
Getting to H Street requires hopping on the X2 bus. Or walking more than a mile from Union Station or the Minnesota Avenue Station.
People like to stay close to home or work for happy hour or nights out, and H Street is “a hike,” Pelot said.
As a part of the city’s development plan, the corridor began construction on a streetcar system in 2009 that will make getting to the growing H Street easier. The streetcar, which is set to begin running in 2012, could help market the area, Saleem said.
“Everything’s all about transportation,” he said. “If you want to grow a corridor, if you want to grow any area, you have to have good transportation.”
Elliot Williams, a lawyer who recently bought a house in the H Street area, said not having a Metro stop nearby has hurt the commercial district and the streetcars could bring more foot traffic.
“The more people come, the more people see what a lovely neighborhood it is,” Williams, 34, said.
Once the construction is finished, more businesses will move to the corridor, but for now, life on H Street is mostly nightlife, he said.
“The day life is not the same activity you see after 8 p.m.,” he said.
While H Street businesses look forward to the streetcars bringing in new patrons, construction on the project has torn apart the busy thoroughfare and hurt some stores that have seen their customer numbers drop, according to Saleem. He interviews every business owner before shop doors close for good. Stores — like the flower shop, beauty salon and barbershop — have lost 25 to 75 percent of their customers, he said.
The nightlife hasn’t suffered because people will navigate the construction to get to social locales, he said.
“They will walk around God to drink,” he said.
Bringing in retail
When the city began its strategic plan, opening more retail shops was a key issue. The corridor now has fewer vacant storefronts, but not many businesses to attract District residents for shopping.
Pelot, who spends much of her time working on H Street, said she wants to see more boutiques, like a pet store or a bookstore, in the area. But no one is going to open a bookstore where no one goes to shop.
Unlike other areas of the city, there are very few franchises, and more homegrown businesses on the corridor, Saleem said. The closest Starbucks is at Union Station.
H Street has seen a rise in tax rates for small businesses, which could hurt the Mom and Pop places dotting storefronts across the street. The city has to be careful about chasing off these businesses that make H Street unique, Saleem said.
Soon, only larger commercial operations will be able to afford to stay open. “Next thing you know, it’s going to be like any other neighborhood around the world,” he said.
The city also has to worry about offering too many incentives for bars and restaurants in the area, Saleem said, comparing H Street to Adams Morgan, where food and drink stops outnumber retail options.
“You have to have more retail to keep people here during the day,” he said. “You don’t want it to look like a ghost town during the daytime and a live spot where all the vampires hang out at night.”
In November, Giant Food announced it would open a grocery store at the corner of 3rd and H streets. With more attention from developers and commercial retail pouring into the corridor, it has become an example for how to rebuild a neighborhood in the city, Saleem said.
“H Street is a gem for the city to follow,” he said.
The recovering corridor will have to balance its popular nightlife with its struggling retail while attracting business and keeping smaller stores, Saleem said. The lifelong resident of H Street and business owner said he hopes to see an upscale corridor that competes with Georgetown.
“We’ve only seen a piece of the revitalization of H St.”