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September 29, 2011 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

Putting Race on the Table: The Community Foundation explores race and neighborhood revitalization on H Street

By Rebekah Seder, Program Coordinator

Earlier this month, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region launched its Putting Race on the Table Community Tours series by examining the issues of race and neighborhood revitalization as they are playing out on the H Street NE corridor in the District. H Street, once called the “Georgetown for African Americans” and later neglected after the 1968 riots devastated many of the neighborhood businesses, has become a nightlife hot spot with restaurants and bars that attract people from all over the city. This influx has created a dynamic between residents and newcomers that is receiving much attention lately, as long-time residents experience the impact of major changes in their neighborhood.

Tour attendees, among them several local funders, spoke with H Street residents about the impact of rising property taxes, visited Mason’s Barbershop, a decades-old family business, and heard from Jane Lang and Sam Sweet, respectively the founder and executive director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. While the challenges resulting from the changing character of H Street were a major focus of the day, the group also saw the positive impact that these changes have had.

Although some small businesses have disappeared due to the disruption caused by the streetscape and streetcar projects, others, such as Mason’s, have continued to thrive with a more diverse clientele. Jane Lang, who refurbished the long-abandoned Atlas Theater into a state-of-the-art performing arts center, made community engagement an integral part of re-opening the theater. Thanks to these efforts, Atlas has become the hub of H Street development, allowing people from all over the city, as well as neighborhood residents, to enjoy and benefit from the arts.

In a panel discussion, Derrick Woody, formerly of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and Anwar Saleem, head of the nonprofit H Street Main Street, talked about the great potential for H Street to once again become the vital and inclusive residential and business district that it once was, particularly with the opening of the streetcar from Union Station to Minnesota Avenue in 2013.

Critical to the success of inclusive development, however, is ensuring that housing remains affordable through strong inclusionary zoning practices and progressive tax policies, and that government, local businesses, and nonprofits partner to create equitable opportunities for all by helping the corridor attract diverse new businesses – beyond restaurants and bars – that serve and employ neighborhood residents, old and new.

Related: Jane Lang and the impact of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the revitalization of H Street were profiled in WRAG’s 2009 publication Beyond Dollars.

CFNCR’s Putting Race on the Table Community Tours series continues next month with a look at race and community wellness in the Port Towns Communities of Prince George’s County. More information here.

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