Hub, Home, Heart
— — Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail — —
This is the western edge of what once was the rough, working-class Swampoodle neighborhood.
In the early days the marshy Tiber Creek ran between what are now North Capitol and First Streets, NE. Legend has it that lingering rain puddles ("poodles") led to the neighborhood's nickname.
Swampoodle's earliest residents, mostly Irish immigrants and free African Americans, helped build this city. Their hands crafted the White House and the Capitol, among other buildings. Swampoodle grew during the Civil War (1861-1865), when more once-enslaved people arrived seeking work. In the 1880s Italian stonecarvers and masons found affordable lodging here while building the Library of Congress, Union Station, and the National Cathedral.
In the early 1900s, Congress located Union Station in Swampoodle. Hundreds of homes and businesses disappeared as railroad tracks were laid and the station rose. Many of the displaced moved east, settling today's H Street corridor.
Soon the city rezoned the remaining Swampoodle area for commercial/industrial use. Railroad, Government Printing Office, light industry, and Post Office jobs made nearby H Street attractive to more families.
Swampoodle's large immigrant Catholic population drew two institutions honorong Jesuit Saint Aloysius Gonzaga: St. Aloysius Catholic Church, dedicated in 1859, and Gonzaga College High School, founded in 1821 and relocated beside the church on North Capitol Street in 1871.
In the early 1950s, Father Horace McKenna revived a shrinking St. Aloysius, refocusing it to serve the neediest. Father McKenna founded So Others Might Eat (some), Martha's Table, Sursum Corda Cooperative, and other enduring programs providing meals, clothing, child care, and shelter.
Trains and streetcars created the Near Northeast neighborhood around H Street. The B&O Railroad's arrival in 1835 made this a center of energetic, working-class life. Workmen living north of the Capitol staffed the Government Printing Office, ran the trains, stocked the warehouses, and built Union Station. When a streetcar arrived linking H Street to downtown, new construction quickly followed.
H Street bustled with shops and offices run by Jewish, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Irish, and African American families. During the segregation era, which lasted into the 1950s, African Americans came to H Street for its department stores and sit-down restaurants. Most businesses welcomed all customers.
Then came the civil disturbances in the wake of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Decades of commercial decline followed. Just off H Street, though, the strong residential community endured. The 2005 opening of the Atlas Performing Arts Center signaled a revival, building evocatively on H Street's past. Hub, Home, Heart
is a bridge to carry you from that past to the present.
Hub, Home, Heart: Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail
is an Official Washington, DC Walking Trail. The self-guided, 3.2-mile tour of 18 signs offers about two hours of gentle exercise. Free keepsake guidebooks in English or Spanish are available at businesses and institutions along the way. For more on DC neighborhoods, please visit www.CulturalTourismDC.org.