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Marking a New H Street Trail

As the D.C. government invests millions of dollars in redeveloping the H Street Northeast corridor, it is about to get some help from Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit group that is organizing a heritage trail through the area.

Heritage trails — there currently are seven in the city — are designed for self-guided tours of roughly 90 minutes and 1.5 miles. They consist of an average of 17 large signs with pictures and text.

The goal, according to a Cultural Tourism DC release, is to “combine storytelling, photography, and maps to tell neighborhood stories and highlight the city’s historic assets.”

Frequently, the trails are designed to attract tourists and spur economic growth.

But unlike the versions in more settled areas such as Barracks Row, Adams Morgan and downtown, the H Street trail will cover a rapidly changing neighborhood with a tumultuous past.

After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, four days of riots destroyed a thriving business corridor that housed much of D.C.’s black middle class.

Organizers of the H Street trail will seek to balance that history with their hope for the future of the corridor, where restaurants and other businesses are popping up.

“Heritage trails tell a social history, and you can’t talk about H Street without talking about what happened in 1968,” said Jane Freundel Levey, Cultural Tourism DC’s chief program officer, who supervises heritage trails. [IMGCAP(1)]

“You can’t talk about it without talking about it as a Jewish area originally, and racial change — the ups and downs and changes in fortunes of the residents.”

Cultural Tourism DC is funded by the city and by grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Levey said it costs about $250,000 for a trail, which covers staff time, contracting a historian and designing, building and installing the signs.

Business owners along the corridor first came to Cultural Tourism DC with the idea of a heritage trail.

Levey said that although it is difficult to measure the economic boon to businesses along trails, more than 25,000 self-guided tour books have been distributed from stores along the U Street Northwest Heritage Trail since it debuted in 2001.

She said she sees a similarity between U Street and H Street.

“One of the things we’ve always looked at is the tourist-readiness of the neighborhood,” Levey said. “We started off doing neighborhoods that were really tourist-ready, but U Street when we first put the trail in wasn’t as tourist-friendly as it is today.

“We’re not trying to lead redevelopment but trying to follow it, and clearly there’s been lots of investment in H Street,” she said.

Anwar Saleem, who grew up along the corridor and is the executive director of H Street Main Street, said he hopes the trail will give a balanced look at redevelopment, the riots and the earlier business success of the area.

“I remember Malcolm X teaching at the Atlas Theater years ago, Morton’s music store, toy stores, people shopping on the weekends,” said Saleem, 53, who grew up at Eighth and E streets Northeast. “We had a great mix of commercial businesses along the corridor. At the time, H Street was the second-busiest commercial district in the city next to downtown, and in square footage we were number one.”

Saleem said he remembers being told during his seventh-grade music class that King had been killed, and wandering from Stuart Junior High School at 4th and E streets (now Stuart-Hobson Middle School) over to the riots on H Street.

He said he and his best friend were in a store that was set on fire. Saleem got out but his friend was killed when the building collapsed.

Saleem said his recollection of the riots makes him uniquely positioned to help with the trail.

“I probably have the most memory because I actually participated,” Saleem said. “We have a couple of women who lived in the area during that time, but they more than likely did not take part. I was just a curious guy to walk around the neighborhood and see what was happening.”

Cultural Tourism DC held its second community meeting on Tuesday for residents to bring pictures, stories, memories and suggestions for the trail, with more meetings to come.

The agency will be aided in its research for the project by H Street’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, which put on a one-act play on the history of the street to celebrate its grand opening in November 2006.

Jen DeMayo, an Atlas spokeswoman, said the theater has information and photos from people who worked on the play that it can provide for the trail.

Cultural Tourism DC is aiming to have the signs planned by next summer and installed by the summer of 2009.

Saleem said he hopes the trail will not avoid the corridor’s blemishes.

“I don’t think that would be good,” he said. “There may be a temptation to do that.

“It should tell the real story, and we should learn to tell our real history. Sometimes it may not be as great, but at the same time it would give a piece of a picture of how we can fall and go down to the depths, to the ashes, and then be born again.”

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