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September 20, 2011

H Street resurrection celebrated at festival

From: H Street resurrection celebrated at festival | Washington Examiner - Sept 20, 2011

Reggae music from the stage at Eighth Street got people rocking long before they reached Sunday's annual H Street Festival in Northeast D.C. When they made it past that first music venue, they got sucked into a vortex of art, food and more music that makes this festival perhaps the best in D.C.

Eclectic doesn't do justice to this celebration a half-dozen blocks east of Union Station. You could hear the United House of Prayer's New Orleans jazz band; or gospel choirs that belted out songs from the sidewalk; or the whacked-out performance art and music by the Baltimore Rock Opera. Students from nearby Gallaudet University signed every lyric.

Baby diversity was on display. White hipsters wrapped their infants in slings and draped them across their chests. Black toddlers rode above the crowd on their fathers' backs. Yuppies pushed their offspring along in SUV-type carriages.

In a city that too often defines itself by clashes of race and class -- or corruption and dysfunction -- Sunday's festival showed off an urban center that can, at times, be a Peaceable Kingdom. For a day, the locals put the battles of gentrification aside and partied.

"We wanted to make H Street a collection of cultures and people who could live, work and shop together," says Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street. "People like to find ways to divide D.C. My goal is to bring it together."

The phenomenal success of this festival -- and H Street's rebirth from the 1968 riots -- has taken years of work, but it has reached new heights in part because Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells brought together Saleem and Julia Robey Christian, executive director of CHAMPS, Capitol Hill's business group. He's 54 and black; she's 34 and white. Both were born in the neighborhoods and returned to make them work.

"She's white, I'm black, and we work very well together," says Saleem.

Says Christian: "Anwar and I professionally and personally complement one another. I trust him; he trusts me."

Saleem was born in the H Street neighborhood when it was a vibrant part of D.C. He lived through the riots that torched the stores. "It went downhill after that," he says. He moved to Shaw but returned in 1989 to open Hair Rage, a salon at 10th and H streets NE. He's still devoting himself to restoring his neighborhood.

Christian was born and grew up in Southeast closer to Eastern Market. Her parents, Bruce and Adele, started the H Street Playhouse. Christian returned after college, started a family and took over CHAMPS. She was eager to expand her Capitol Hill group to Saleem's H Street organization.

"Both of us flourish and get it done," she says. "Old line businesses can exist along with the new ventures. We're creating jobs. The diversity that you saw on the street and at the festival reflects the neighborhoods."

Saleem and Christian want to preserve the street's character that was on display Sunday.

"No one," she says, "wants H Street to become Georgetown."


Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at

@ Washington Examiner