Thursday, September 9, 2010

Must read: H Street Festival and neighborhood history

365 Things to Do in DC has this important interview with Margaret Holwill about the upcoming H Street Festival on Saturday, September 18. Holwill is a long-time area resident, who does PR for various H Street businesses, and is a leading organizer of the Festival. The interview includes lots of details about this year's festival as well as some great history about the H Street neighborhood. It is a must read piece for anyone attending the festival, but also for anyone with an interest in the neighborhood. Holwill shares great detail about the history of H Street going back to the 1930s. The historical review portion is reproduced below, but check out the full piece for the rest of the interview and exciting information about this year's Festival.
Q: You were eager to mention that in its heyday the H St. corridor was Washington's most important shopping district, please tell us more about that.

A: We’ve all become so accustomed to glitzy shopping centers that’s it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that people shopped at local merchants – exactly what they’re saying now that they prefer. Local, authentic, and unique. Yes, H Street has always been amazing. It was second only to downtown as the place to go, yet it retained a decidedly neighborhood character. The 30s, 40s, 50s were something of a golden age for window shopping, having lunch, meeting your friends, looking long and hard before you purchased. Isn’t this social component what people are looking for now? The personal character of H Street with its small retailers has always fit that model and I think that our attention to that model is what’s driving our success. Tough economic environments are nothing new, yet H Street prospered through them just as it’s doing now. The single family homes surrounding it were mostly owner-occupied in its heyday, and that’s the most important thing driving the renaissance now: people truly caring about their own neighborhood. Despite that, there were major anchors. The first Sears department store in the District. Two large luxury car dealerships in a time when private vehicles were moving from dream to reality for ordinary Americans. Things that drew destination shoppers while still serving the local community with personal relationships. H Street has always had astonishing diversity. Old census records show that the people who lived adjacent to it were a serious melting pot that was reflected in the shops and restaurants of H Street. Greeks, Italians, Jews, Muslims, Germans, Jamaicans, and more. When the city’s Central Market at the site of the present National Archives was demolished in 1931, the wholesale market for the entire area moved to Florida Avenue. Many of Washington’s great buildings were built then using the skills of immigrants. The workers and their families lived and shopped on H Street. GIs during WWII poured out of Union Station and enjoyed the stores and restaurants, as did the federal work force that surged during the war effort. Can you imagine how vibrant all of those different people made life on H Street? Post-War recovery brought America a new prosperity and H Street was an important factor in a new optimistic spirit in Washington. This community was a wonderful place for everybody as you can hear in the stories of some of the older people who have added to the H Street Main Street’s ongoing oral history projects. The most difficult period for H Street coincided with the decline of America’s great cities as homeowners moved to suburbs and inner city neighborhoods became rental properties and began to deteriorate. Vacant building bred despair and the breakdown of the social fabric, culminating in rioting in the late 60s and early 70s in urban centers across the US. The four days of riots in Washington following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King were the final death knell for what had once been the prosperous H Street Corridor. Few buildings were left unscathed and it would be decades before serious renewal would take hold.

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