January 8, 2012, Washington, DC: A weekend is a good one that includes Taylor Gourmet, Biergartenhaus, Dangerously Delicious Pies and Capital City Diner, all in this part of Washington known as the Atlas District along H Street NE. Who would have guessed it? Several years ago, this was not a part of town I frequented, nor wanted to. I came here once, actually, many years ago. I vowed not to go back.
Years later, H St. NE is a different story. Or rather, we’ve entered a new, optimistic chapter in the story of a neighborhood filled with history.
H St. NE is located east of Union Station via a bridge over the railroad tracks that head up toward Baltimore. The H St. corridor between North Capitol and Benning Rd. is not far from our own neighborhood; it’s an easy bike ride or walk directly north from Lincoln Park.
Walking north, real estate prices fall as distance from the Metro increases. Without Metro access closer than Union Station, residents in this section of the city rely on buses that run east-west along H St. to connect them to downtown Washington. From bus stops, they watch intently as a controversial streetcar project promises to further transform this corridor. Battles over funding and technology have stalled plans, but construction of tracks along H St. that had torn up the street since 2009 is now complete, making the city one small step closer to debuting DC’s first streetcar service since the early 1960s. Streetcar service is projected here mid-2013 and H St. is looking better than I can ever remember it looking.
Of course, I have no memory of this place in its initial heyday. This was once a booming business and entertainment district impressively more integrated than most other neighborhoods in the country. The first Sears Roebuck in Washington opened its doors here in 1929. The Atlas Theatre opened in the late 1930s.
Like so many places, suburban flight of the late 50s and early 60s would challenge its livelihood. But nothing hurt more than the riots of 1968, when this neighborhood rapidly declined as buildings burned. The Atlas was one of the few that stayed standing, only to close in the late 70s as crime consumed the neighborhood. When it reopened in 2006, the Atlas anchored a neighborhood renaissance.
Taylor Gourmet, home to DC’s Philadelphia hoagies, recognized the Atlas District’s renewed potential. In 2007, its owners went to work renovating a run-down barber shop and its apartments upstairs. They’d soon live and work here on H St. NE, compelling others to join them.
Today, bars and restaurants are popping up every day between shuttered storefronts. Blink and the streetscape has changed. The juxtaposition of old and new is jarring, in a good way. Formerly dark and dreary buildings have been opened wide with welcoming facades and oversized windows. The food is reflective of the diversity that existed here among the neighborhood’s earlier residents. The hope is that the neighborhood population remains eclectic.
Pockets of this community are still blighted. They are interspersed and sometimes directly across the street from places like the Pierce Street School-turned-lofts behind Checkers near Bladensburg Rd., or the Argonaut, a bar with a fantastic outdoor patio in spring and summer.
One of the newer additions to the neighborhood is Tru Orleans at the far west end of the H St. corridor. A New Orleans vibe extends beyond that establishment. Maybe it’s a perceived devotion to this place, to recovery, and to community among neighbors. Maybe it’s because even on a fairly quiet morning like this one, you can sense the music.
From September’s Festival on H St.