Cultural hot spots breathe new life into H Street Corridor

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By Dorry Samuels
Observer Contributor
Feb. 27, 2008

On a Sunday afternoon, not many places are open in the historic H Street Corridor in northeast Washington. Doors are shut, windows have bars over them and the streets are practically empty.

Return to the H Street Corridor at night, however, and the area has a much different feel.

Known for its nightlife, the neighborhood draws a crowd to its array of restaurants, bars and theaters.

Recently dubbed the “Atlas District,” members of the neighborhood credit the new Atlas Performing Arts Center with attracting more attention to the area.

Photo courtesy of SOVA.
SOVA Espresso and Wine, an upscale coffee house, is one of several new businesses opening up in D.C.’s historic H Street Corridor.

The effort to revitalize the neighborhood can also be felt at SOVA Espresso and Wine, a recent H Street addition. Most restaurants in the area serve southern-style food like flaky fish and jambalaya. But the small, upscale coffee shop opens its doors to customers looking to get off the street and away from the cold. From inside, SOVA looks uncharacteristic of what one might find in this neighborhood. With its high bar stools, comfortable couches and a flat screen television playing CNN, SOVA could be confused with a cozy java shop in Georgetown.

Since business is slow on Sunday afternoons, young barista Nicole Lukan looks forward to reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides between customers. But once she starts talking about this up-and-coming neighborhood, she has much to say.

Lukan said she enjoys how the neighborhood attracts not only a college crowd, as is typical in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Georgetown, but a group of young urban professionals.

“[The business owners] are trying to make it more of a family feel than Adams Morgan and Georgetown,” she said. “There’s a presence of more culture here because of the [H Street] Playhouse and the Atlas Theater.”

The Atlas Performing Arts Theater, built in 1938, has been revamped and reopened, creating such a sensation that the neighborhood has been dubbed the “Atlas District.”

The Atlas Theater, built in 1938 as a movie house, was destroyed in the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. After the riots, the white business-owners deserted the area, leaving the street abandoned and beginning to rot.

Before the exodus of people from the cities to the suburbs, H Street was comprised of people of a variety of ethnicities. Irish, Jews, Germans and blacks made up a majority of the people, said Jen DeMayo, director of communications at the Atlas. They lived in an integrated society there and even petitioned the city to have an integrated school. Ultimately, that petition failed.

In the 1950s, however, most white people fled to the suburbs, leaving H Street made up of mostly black people. It stayed that way for many years, not really starting to change until approximately 10 years ago. Whether they are driven by new attention to the community or cheaper rent, more people are leaving their comfort zones in northwest Washington, and moving to the Atlas District.

In 2001, Jane Lang was looking for a small venue where a medium-sized troupe could perform. She toured the Atlas Theater, decrepit and flooded, and decided there was no way she was going to buy the property.

There was just too much work to be done.

As she now tells the story, she had a vision that night of a community-based theater that could be the center of revitalization for the run-down neighborhood.

The next day she made an offer.

Through small donations from neighbors and larger contributions from various corporations and foundations, the building was renovated and reopened in 2005.

Since it is considered a historic building in the city, the architects needed to follow strict procedures for renovating it.

They kept an original alleyway, covered in graffiti, that used to run between the movie theater and surrounding storefronts.

Now it is a hallway inside the theater. Through that hallway is the main lobby, nothing like the original. Its spacious atmosphere, with metal accents along the walls, looks very modern.

“When community members come in for the first time, they are always surprised that this is their neighborhood,” DeMayo said. “It brings them a sense of pride.”

More than H Street community members walk through the lobby. The Atlas draws a diverse audience from both inside and outside the neighborhood.

Community members practice in the dance studio, in particular. It’s special when they come in because the arts have not always been a part of their lives, especially when the arts programs keep getting cut from schools, DeMayo said.

Some of the larger shows have a very different kind of audience, made up mostly of affluent people who can afford the tickets.

DeMayo said that before every show, she gets a call from someone who is lost because they didn’t realize that the intersection of 13 and H Streets in northeast is different from 13 and H Streets in northwest, and people end up in the wrong quadrant.

Recently, the Atlas implemented a valet service before each show because in reality, DeMayo said, it’s such a huge leap for some people to come down there at all.

“If people don’t worry about walking, that takes away one more reason for them not to come,” she said.

Longtime residents are shocked at the new shift of attention on the Atlas District.

“There was never any focus on H Street before,” DeMayo said. “Now real estate agents are calling Florida Avenue ‘Capitol Hill North.’”

Though there have been vast changes in the composition of the neighborhood already, many more plans are in the works.

When asked what her favorite parts of the neighborhood were, Lukan mentioned more places that are coming in the future than establishments already there.

She referenced an art gallery, a few restaurants, even a country club.

“[The neighborhood] is not there yet,” DeMayo said. “Everyone wants to walk to a bakery. It’s not Georgetown. It’s not downtown. There’s no Gap here.”

DeMayo, who has lived in the Atlas District for seven years, works closely with its

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