H Street NE Corridor Struggles for Identity

WI Staff Writer | 2/2/2012, 11:33 a.m.

Some Resent, Others Relish the Change

Area resident Derek Shuford said he is troubled by the change he sees taking place on the H Street NE corridor as an influx of "white people move back into the community" they once fled during the aftermath of the '68 riots.

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.

Police presence is another thorn in Shuford's side.

"You use to not see as much of a presence that you see now," said Shuford. "That's the way the system works in America. They get most of the police presence and everything else."

George David Butler, 73, recalls the day police showed up at the Sherwood Recreation Center last year because the new members of the community complained the annual Father's Day celebration at Sherwood was too noisy. The celebration, sponsored by the merchants on H Street, has taken place over the past 30 years without incident.

Butler also remembers the 10th and G streets recreation center when it played host to a basketball tournament where NBA stars like Elgin Baylor and Moses Malone participated.

"They went and remodeled that whole community center and now it's a whole different thing around there," said Butler, who closed the doors to George's Place because the revitalization projects kept his customers from entering the store.

"Those are some of the changes that they are making around here," said Butler.

But some things, according to Shuford, do remain the same. Shuford would like to have seen more African-Americans get the jobs being created on the corridor.

"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."