On Saturday, residents from across the D.M.V area converged on the revitalized H Street NE Corridor, some for the first time, under threatening gray clouds, for the highly anticipated and popular 4th annual H Street Festival organized by non-profit, H Street Main Street.
The festival sprawled an additional four blocks this year from Fourth to 14th streets, NE and featured over 50 local and visiting artists, 80 performances on 10 stages with music genres ranging from rock, bluegrass, fusion, to gospel as well as a myriad of local, regional, and international cuisine served in food trucks or in stands set up in front of the restaurants that regularly call H Street home.
As if the competing aromas of barbecued ribs, Korean tacos, or freshly fried donuts weren’t enough to entice the anticipated 100,000 festival-goers, they could also browse over two-hundred booths lining the corridor varying from vendors selling colorful and unique dangling earrings, graphic t-shirts, vintage clothing, and artwork.
Chickie Brown, a self-described history geek, was among the vendors hoping to increase brand recognition and revenue for her business. She is founder of Chickie Brown M.A.N.- Monarchs and Nomads, a men’s graphic t-shirt line that combines her love of art and history. The graphic t-shirts hallmark pop art, highlighting a blend of historical characters with flashes of intense color that draws the eye.
Brown explains why she decided to participate in the H Street Festival, “To sell my tees and…be a part of the community. There are a lot of changes and I do really want to be a part of that. They’re kind of bringing this community (together) and making it more vibrant,” Brown said.
Shoppers that visited Brown’s tent reflected the diversity of the crowd, which ranged from young to old and every possible race and ethnicity.
However, H Street did not always lure an assortment of people or engender exuberance.
One festival-goer, Steve Mesker, a Capitol Hill resident since 1999, visited H Street in the 1980s with a friend for breakfast and recalled being the only two white guys on the entire block.
H Street has come a long way not only in terms of diversity, but it has also managed to advance beyond its reputation, once mired in urban decay and defined by its fire-charred and cracked sidewalks and vacant buildings with broken windows, attracting many frequenters.
“You know the eighties was not a great time in some neighborhoods here,” Mesker said referring to H Street. “It’s improved. Just in general, Washington has gotten a lot wealthier.”
Prior to the revitalization effort which has taken place over the past decade, native Washingtonian and Inspire BBQ vendor, Akisha Greene noted, “H Street was messed up during the riots of Martin Luther King Jr., so they burned (it) down, so it was a part of town that D.C. kind of wrote off.”
With the influx of wealth generated by real estate developers, rising property values has forced out some local businesses, paving the way for a number of new businesses that have cropped up along the H Street Corridor over the past few years, a trend that has been impacting the District’s trendiest neighborhoods.
“There wouldn’t be an H Street Festival without gentrification, but the cool thing is, I think they’ve done a good job. As you can see there’s a mix of crowd(s) here, all kinds of different people. That’s cool. I think D.C. still has that and hopefully that will stay,” Mesker said.
Mesker observed that while the festival has grown and was comprised of a mishmash of arts and culture and places to eat and drink, it also flaunted a tamer, corporate element by including kiosks for Ford, ZipCar, Car2Go, Geico, REI, and Arsenio Hall as compared to the funkier street festival held several days earlier in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood.
Once shopping was no longer on the agenda, revelers could watch small-scale fashion shows, attend educational events, converse with local entrepreneurs, artists, and community organizers, or take their children to have their faces painted.
Additionally, there was a lineup of psychedelic and steam-punk inspired cars and trucks and Burning Man-esque installations that the crowd could meander around and snap photos of.
Some the attendees became attractions too, for instance, a woman pushing around an electric blue stroller overflowing with four Dachshunds captured the curiosity of onlookers while others fawned over a 9-month-old cat on a leash.
Despite the weather reports promising a cloudy day, by mid-afternoon the sky opened up and rain poured with a fury, slightly dampening the joviality of the festival. Attendees caught off-guard without umbrellas scattered to find shelter and their movements throughout the festival appeared to be timed with the intensity of the downpour.
“As soon as I got out onto the street, it started raining and I had to just go and find a place to shelter from the rain, so I didn’t really get a chance to listen to any of the music,” said D’lena Duncan who drove in for the festival from Germantown, Md. and spent 30 minutes locating a parking spot.
It seemed the rain was determined to turn the H Street Festival into the H20 Festival, prompting jokes from the Fanthom Comics booth.
The vendors and festival-goers braved the inclement weather, but eventually with the rain unrelenting, the vendors, one by one, began to pack up prematurely.
Despite the clash between the spirited festivities and the uncooperative weather, the organizers of H Street Festival seemed to have successfully accomplished their goal of attracting people throughout the District and beyond to experience the hidden gems of the new and improved corridor.
“I generally like street fairs. I think it brings out the best in every neighborhood,” said Adar Schneider, a San Francisco native and junior at George Washington University.
All in all, it was a sublime day to sing in the rain on H Street, NE.