It’s 10 p.m. on H Street NE, and the queue of clubgoers waiting to hear a band is a block long. A group of sexy tomboys walks past, headed to girls’ night at a sleek lounge. A few doors down, a cheer goes up for a big score in skeeball. Welcome to party central Washington.
And while there’s no bigger celebratory moment in this city than the presidential inauguration on Jan. 21, you won’t find this sort of fun on Capitol Hill.
Behind the bustling Union Station, about a kilometre north of the government buildings, lies the H Street Corridor (a.k.a. the Atlas District). It was once home to immigrants, Pullman porters, teachers and shop owners. From the 1930s, until the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, it was the city’s second busiest commercial district. Now, after a down-and-out few decades, H Street NE is roaring back.
Late at night, trustafarian white guys with skinny pants and gals sporting scarlet lipstick and vintage frocks pour in, queuing up at nightspots with such clever names as Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club; the area’s African-American partygoers head to the rooftop of Twelve, the coolest boîte on the strip.
By day, the lunch-pail crowd still hangs out at Mason’s barbershop and snacks on fried-fish sandwiches at Horace and Dickies, a carry-out joint more than 20 years old.
H Street is a checkerboard of narrow storefronts, some selling hardware and workwear – others housing hot new restaurants and yoga studios. The neighbourhood is a clutter of early 20th-century buildings on little side streets. (As with other parts of D.C., evening visitors might not want to stray too far away from the main drag.)
One thing you won’t see much of is tourists – “yet!” says Anwar Saleem emphatically. As executive director of H St. Main Street, a non-profit working to reinvigorate the neighbourhood, Saleem is its biggest booster. He reminisces as we stroll through the blocks where, as a kid, he shined shoes or ran errands for shopkeepers.
“That was before the ’68 riots decimated everything,” he says sadly, gesturing to a strip mall where family businesses stood. But in a millisecond he’s upbeat again, noting that the area is also the site of the Beatles’ first U.S. concert.
“Even when there was crack and crime here,” Saleem says, “this was a warm place with good neighbours. It took us years of working with the city, but the residents brought H Street back.” In less than a decade, 180 businesses have opened. New sidewalks line the streets, and locals are betting on the launch of a streetcar later this year to bring in shoppers and tourists.
So far, H Street is primarily a weekend destination. “It’s where you want to go when you want to go somewhere really different,” says actor Will Gartshore, a native of Sault Ste. Marie who works as a lobbyist for the World Wildlife Fund. “H Street has the closest vibe to Parkdale, West Queen West [in Toronto].” He favours the “great scrappy” Rock & Roll Hotel, known for live acts such as Toronto’s Dragonette and its popular scatological spelling bees.
That kind of playfulness is common. In one venue, millennials indulge in arcade games. At the bar/Mexican restaurant H Street Country Club, patrons munch on duck tacos and play shuffleboard, skeeball or Washington-themed mini-putt.
More upscale fare is on the way, says Joe Englert, an early investor in the bar scene. “It’s time for more sophisticated places.”
This spring he will launch Vendetta, an Italian soul food joint with indoor bocce and, he adds with a laugh, “an all-star collection of plaster saints on the back patio.” So still irreverent, but tonier.
Despite all the development, this is a community with deep roots. On my walk with Saleem, we’re greeted by old-timers who still tip their hats to ladies. News that sitcom star Neil Patrick Harris just dined on ramen at Toki Underground leaves long-time residents unimpressed. But everyone is thrilled that President Barack Obama has eaten at Smith Commons and Boundary Road, and that the first lady considers Sticky Rice a favourite.