When we sat down with Margaret Holwill we got schooled on the rich history of H Street. For Margaret and so many others, H Street's character is " local, authentic, and unique."
Q: You were eager to mention that in its "hey day" 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.
Q: Please share the evolution of the H St. Festival.
A: We’re truly blessed that many of our older homeowners and shopkeepers have kept the local character of H Street alive through some tough days. They’re now being joined by a new generation of residents, many with children, who have invested in the community, and put their time and efforts into the local schools, churches, and civic organizations. Together they’re making a real difference. The H Street Festival was small for many years, averaging about 5,000 attendees and attracting many of the people who kept this neighborhood strong. Thank God they did, because when the newer residents and businesses wanted to participate in their community they had a great framework to join. Young families and small business owners threw their energies into the local theaters, non-profits, school groups, and athletic programs, adding to the diversity of the neighborhood and the H Street Festival. The community is increasingly proud of H Street as it emerges from a long period of struggle and moves toward once again being the terrific local entertainment and shopping district that it once was. It’s becoming again the center of community life for a diverse and interesting area of Washington and attracting visitors from well outside its bounds. Just like old times! The involvement of this entire energetic, involved community made it possible to expand the 2009 Festival to offer a greater diversity of entertainment and vendors than ever before. Considerable efforts were made to develop programming that engaged the festival goers and gave them a reason to spend the day not just an hour. The length of the festival was filled with art cars and their artist owners, performance artists, painting, dancing, and drumming. The festival offered something for everyone, from fashion shows to chess competitions and even a chance to show off your tattoo. We opened up the event as an opportunity to experience the “new” H Street. Following the success of last year’s Festival, more people are asking to be involved this year and the Festival will be offering an even wider range of activities. We’re really looking forward to showing you the progress we’re making and hope you have a great time with us on Saturday, September 18, from Noon until 7 PM.
Q: What's the biggest challenge facing the festival?
A: Living with the construction has been an ongoing challenge for the residents and visitors to H Street as well as to the business community. What keeps us all optimistically getting our shoes dirty and threading our way around jersey barriers and heavy equipment is the reward we’re going to get at the conclusion. As we’ve been working on Festival planning, we’re sometimes standing in the middle of H Street dodging traffic, but we look down that fabulous corridor and can already see the progress that’s been made. Wow! Will there be a better street in DC for living and playing? Maybe because I’m there every day and night, I see forward movement and it encourages me. Not just the physical streetscape and the streetcar tracks, but the new businesses popping up in the middle of all the current construction mayhem and the new families moving into the adjacent blocks. This is a new Street of Dreams. It has been giving us fits for Festival planning because we’re required by various DC agencies to provide written details and plans well in advance for a festival that will be staged on a street that changes from one day to the next. We’re fortunate that Anwar Saleem, Executive Director of H Street Main Street, knows city agencies and laws well so he’s been able to work effectively with them to keep it all moving. Not easy, but we’ve got a terrific Festival Committee of professionals with strong backgrounds in event planning, promotions, graphics, media, and the other fields necessary to produce an event of this size. Another of our biggest challenges is the explosion in the size of the Festival because of the changes in the business community and demographics of the surrounding neighborhood in just the past few years. Prior to 2009, the annual attendance at the Festival had been fairly steady at about 5,000. In 2009, there was a huge surge in interest due to the new residents, plus the businesses and the attention they were attracting in local, regional, and national media. We really had to scramble to add things to the traditional H Street Festival events to appeal to new residents, families with kids, attendees from around the metro area, and even tourists. In our dreams, we never expected to get close to the 20,000 people who came, some of whom had never visited H Street before. Watch the video to see for yourself!
Q: What's the musical line up for the festival this year?
A: We are very fortunate to have a music booking talent like Steve Lambert of the Rock and Roll Hotel working with the Festival to produce full day programs on the 2 live music stages at the Festival. He listens to thousands of bands and performers each month, booking well over a hundred for the Hotel and other venues. He has a strong reputation for spotting local talent that’s going somewhere. A local music critic commented to me that he was amazed at how many name bands had appeared at the Hotel early in their careers. Steve has the “eye” to see that they’ve got something that will later to become widely apparent and these local indie bands go on to bigger venues and greater fame. Often they come back to pack the Rock and Roll Hotel. You can see them first on H Street.
A special guest performer is Paul “HR” Hudson, the legendary frontman of Bad Brains. Noted as the pioneers of hardcore punk, Bad Brains was formed in Washington, DC, in 1978. The band quickly developed a very fast and intense punk rock sound, which was both musically complex and developmentally ahead of its time. Since then, HR has become one of the most notorious, iconic, and memorable artists in the history of music. HR’s solo career began in 1983 with the formation of the Human Rights, aka the HR Band.
Q: We love that it's considered critical to the H Street Festival planning committee that the festival have a true neighborhood connection on every level. Why is it so important to have a DC-centric event?
A: Of all the compliments the 2009 H Street Festival received, the most meaningful to the organizers were the ones that said that it reflected the community itself more than any other festival in DC. I referred above to the three catchwords that I try to emphasize: local, authentic, and unique. H Street has that character. Our strongest consumer base walks, bikes, and uses transit to get there and many come several times a week. If some of our restaurants become less trendy, these are the people from our community who will still come. With the emphasis that our entertainment venues place on local talent that’s going somewhere, H Street provides a sense of excitement that makes it more than a neighborhood shopping district. It attracts people from all over the metro area, giving us the critical density that we need to prosper without losing the almost small town ambience of community involvement that has made this a great place to live.
Q: Fashionistas reading this now, listen up! We understand that attendees of the festival will also be treated to a Runway Show. Can you give us more details on that?
A: The H Street Festival has had a separate Fashion Stage for years. The crowds really like this, especially a full-on runway show produced by Ean Williams, Exec. Dir. of DC Fashion Week that opens immediately after the H Street Festival. We get the first look and last year, the same models and fabulous clothing went on to the huge event later in the week at the French Embassy. The Festival has expanded the use of the Fashion Stage. H Street merchant, Spoiled and Rotten Kids Boutique and Spa, presents a kids’ fashion show that always delights the crowd, and last year we added a fantasy hairstyles show featuring some of the corridor’s best hairdressers. A fun addition this year is a Lady Gaga show from the Joy of Motion. They’ll be teaching the choreography to Gaga’s videos at the studio and then selecting some of the best to strut that runway in their Gaga Gear. Festival attendees are encouraged to come in their best Gaga get-ups. Dressing great for the Festival should not be hard for our friends!
Q: Who is eligible to enter the Skin & Ink Tattoo Competition and will festival goers be able to get fresh ink that day?
A: This is the Second Annual Skin & Ink Competition and we’re looking for a repeat sensation again this year. The participants will show their body art on the Fashion Stage runway, competing for trophies and bragging rights.
No live tattooing will be done but, like last year, there will be temporary tats from some of our local merchants like Dangerously Delicious Pies and Sticky Rice, as well as the limited edition 2010 H Street Festival tattoo.
Paul Roe of British Ink, the MC of the competition, has a studio on H Street and with his partners, does only fully custom work. That requires consultations and drawings submitted in advance of the work being done. Come on! This is forever. Not something to do because the mood catches. If you want something unique (that word again,) take the time to do it right.
Q: What's your favorite thing to do in DC?
A: It’s taking the whole family to some of our favorite places on weekends, whether it’s brunch on the patio at the Argonaut where even the dogs can go and the little kids are happy, or heading to Montmartre or Granville Moore’s for a leisurely adult meal. On a Friday or Saturday night “soaking up a little folk art culture” and dancing in the street to a free outdoor concert by Gallery OonH. A family favorite since my kids were small has been Jimmy T’s on East Capitol. I’ve lived in the same house all these years, and now both of my daughters live in their own homes less than a mile from me. How lucky are we? Yeah, our roots are here - firmly planted. Three generations now. Capitol Hill and H Street are home. I can’t even imagine living anywhere else.