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Make a Difference on H Street

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The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, toured the H Street corridor in a national study on neighborhood revitalization.  Here’s the story.

Make a Difference on H Street

Donors who participated in The Community Foundation’s recent tour of the H Street corridor in northeast Washington came away with a better understanding of both the challenges and opportunities that face a changing neighborhood, from previously predominately African American to a majority Caucasian and Latino community in 2010. Participants learned how philanthropists, nonprofits and government are playing instrumental roles in the effort to support equitable community revitalization strategies that benefit all residents and business owners. The Sept. 14 tour was the first of the Foundation’s Putting Race on the Table Community Tours.

Over lunch at The Liberty Tree restaurant, three leaders–a philanthropist, nonprofit executive director and former D.C. government representative— who played critical roles in the revitalization effort provided context for the birth and evolution of H Street’s revitalization, answered questions about tensions between the vision of long-standing African-American residents and that of new Caucasian residents and outlined ways donors can use their time, talents and resources to help this near Northeast community remain a mixed race, socially and economically diverse community.

A decade ago, disagreements bubbled up about how the corridor should grow, Derrick Woody told the gathering. At that time, Woody worked in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and was instrumental, along with neighborhood leaders, in developing the plan for H Street. Tensions existed, he said, between the longtime, largely African-American residents to the north of the corridor and new arrivals to the south, who were mostly Caucasian. Ultimately, however, the conversation turned to a common shared vision, thanks in no small part to the work of the nonprofit H Street Main Street.

Anwar Saleem, Executive Director of H Street Main Street, stressed that one way to ensure that longtime residents—especially those who are low-income—remain in the neighborhood is to provide vital community services beyond the many bars and restaurants that have opened in recent years. “We need doctors and dentists offices,” he said. “We need a place to buy shoes, a decent pair of pants, a shirt. H Street may be vibrant at nighttime but it will be destitute in the daytime unless we reach a balance.”

The question of whether H Street is a model for gentrification at work or equitable community revitalization came up as well. “First you have to remove the negative connotations,” said Jane Lang, Board Chair and Founder of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, adding, “Gentrification is the other side of revitalization.” She said residents are united in wanting a safe neighborhood, good schools, a place to go for entertainment and buy clothes. “In that sense, everyone is for revitalization.” Lang admitted that when gentrification or revitalization occurs, it will cause people to transition out of neighborhoods.

Lang went on to say that no resident wants to be pushed out of his or her home, adding that it is the impact of taxes that ultimately drive people out, not other people coming in. “With conscious policies on the part of the city and the awareness of groups like H Street Main Street, we can have the good revitalization and not the bad gentrification,” she said.

At the same time, the Atlas “owes it to the city to do what we said we’d do—be in schools, be in senior centers, provide opportunities in our spaces for residents to experience the arts in ways that enrich their lives and make them want to stay here and make the extra commitment to be part of the H Street community. That’s what it will take to make sure people are not displaced and for them to recognize they have a stake in what’s happening.”

In closing, Saleem said “We all have the same aspirations. We all want a descent family, a descent school, a decent block to live on. The more we talk, the more we realize we all have the same dreams. We need to focus on the things we agree on and not the things we don’t agree on. If we do that we’ll have more success.”

Earlier in the day, participants explored the neighborhood with guides Marqui Lyons and Orlando Brooks, long-time African American residents of near Northeast. Turning onto Wylie Street, Lyons revealed to her group that this was the first time she had stepped foot on the block, though she grew up nearby. She explained that during her childhood the 1200 block of Wylie was known for its drug and gang activity; she was not allowed to go there. Today, Wylie Street is home to renovated residences starting at $400,000 and house young professionals who view Wylie Street as the new extension of the Capitol Hill community.

The groups also stopped in on Norman Mason, an African American businessman, who has owned Mason’s Barbershop since before the 1968 riots and has seen the neighborhood go through many changes. “How did you survive the riots?” one visitor asked.

“I didn’t,” he said. There were days when he earned $14 and drove a cab part time to survive. “It was a really depressing time. Almost like being in prison,” he said. Then came the Black power era, which was also bad for business because short hair lost popularity in favor of long hair. More recently, Mason met with other small business owners about the revitalization efforts to share concerns about the impact of the street construction on business and other challenges. Many are worried that they will not be able to sustain their businesses through all the changes.

As for the response from his customers (one of whom came in and got a haircut during the discussion), Mr. Mason affirmed “My customers are pleased. Who wouldn’t want to see improvement?” At the same time, he has seen neighbors go out of business. “It’s been rough but we are beginning to see the light.”

During a visit to the Atlas Performing Arts Center, participants learned that a decade ago, a Community Foundation donor provided the first major gift to the Atlas outside of funding provided by founder Jane Lang. “Your confidence inspired the confidence of many others,” Lang told them. “Visitors heard about Atlas’s arts partners and its commitment to “bringing people together across cultures, race, ages and genres of art,” Lang said.

Make a Difference on H Street

Whether you participated in the tour or are simply interested in learning more about the H Street Northeast Corridor, here are a number of ways to become involved in promoting equitable community revitalization:

Volunteer and Financial Support: Provide financial support or volunteer for nonprofits such as the Atlas Performing Arts Center and its arts partners—American Youth Chorus, Capital City Symphony, City at Peace, Congressional Chorus, Joy of Motion Dance Center, Step Afrika! and The Washington Savoyards.

Volunteer: Work with education reform advocates like Empower DC to improve local schools. While the Atlas is doing its part by bringing the arts into neighborhood schools, there is still a tremendous deficit in the achievement levels of students, Lang said. “Government cannot do this work alone.”

Advocate: Work with H Street Main Street to let local city officials know you are in favor of tax incentives and credits that help existing and new businesses, homeowners and renters. Tell officials how important it is that the streetcar project stay on schedule.

Financial Support: Help H Street Main Street or the H Street Community Development Corporation establish an incubator for retailers who might want to open or grow a small business on H Street. Provide technical assistance to businesses to help them move to next level.

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