The red neon sign was in place over the entrance and the shelves were neatly stocked with wines, whiskeys and vodkas. Sorab Dilawri was ready to launch his new liquor store on that corridor of D.C. cool known as H Street NE.
Two days before opening in mid-September, just before dawn, burglars threw a brick through Dilawri’s window. They tipped over a row of shelves, smashing $10,000 worth of red wines and adding to the toll of crime jarring the neighborhood and city beyond.
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By mid-October, a month after H Street Liquors opened, Dilawri had swept up shattered glass from two more break-ins. “I’m scared for my life,” the 40-year-old owner said from behind his cash register, contemplating his options. “What are you going to do? Stay home?”
A decade ago, following years of disinvestment after the 1968 riots, H Street NE evolved into a haven of buzzworthy cuisine and nightlife, drawing visitors from across the region. As luxury high-rises went up and a Whole Foods opened, the neighborhood became, after the city’s financial collapse in the 1990s, a symbol of D.C.’s rebirth.
Yet, more recently, the allure of H Street has faded as the corridor has come to reflect a more contemporary version of Washington — a city still recovering from the pandemic, buffeted by economic uncertainty and battered by violent crime.
Located northeast of the U.S. Capitol, from Second to 15th streets NE, H Street’s diminished prospects are partly the result of competition from newer nightlife playgrounds at the Wharf, Navy Yard and nearby Union Market, as well as traditional standbys like U Street, Adams Morgan and Georgetown.
The corridor’s challenges also are exacerbated by violent incidents over the past year that drew national attention, including assaults on a member of Congress and a staffer. At the same time, a steady grind of burglaries, robberies and stolen cars add to a collective sense of unease. There also is the near-constant presence of aggressive panhandlers and clusters of people lingering on sidewalks, many of them appearing disheveled, disoriented and, at moments, menacing.
As October ended, a community group felt it necessary to advise a neighborhood email list that a D.C. judge had released a man with no fixed address who had been arrested on H Street after allegedly threatening two people with a machete.
“Please be alert,” wrote Bobby Pittman, chair of the First District Citizens Advisory Council. (By then, the judge had issued a pretrial stay-away order, barring the suspect from being with 100 yards of the two targets.)
Days later, the owners of a restaurant with locations on H Street and Dupont Circle announced they are shutting down, citing a “spike in violent crime” among their reasons.
“I’m just done,” Aaron McGovern, who closed Brine Oyster and Seafood House on Nov. 11, said in an interview. Several months ago, he also shuttered Biergarten Haus, a longtime H Street tavern. “People don’t want to come to H Street, not only because there are better options but because of the scariness of the street.”
“People don’t want to come to H Street, not only because there are better options but because of the scariness of the street.”
— Aaron McGovern, who closed two eateries on H Street this year
At 11 p.m. on a recent Friday, the longest line — two dozen people — was outside the Safe House, among the 20 or so marijuana shops that have opened on H Street since 2021. Landlords, seeking to avoid punishing tax penalties, were willing to lease vacant storefronts to cannabis entrepreneurs, said Anwar Saleem, who, as executive director of H Street Main Street, a nonprofit business advocacy group, maintains a list of the shops.
Saleem acknowledged in an interview that the strip “doesn’t feel comfortable,” a sense he attributed to corner drug dealing, the homeless population, a pervasive smell of marijuana and other factors. His organization, he said, has spent $30,000 this year fortifying the security systems of businesses and replacing windows shattered during break-ins.
“You walk past people, and you feel their spirit and you know it ain’t right,” he said. “We want to reclaim the street. We need a reset. We are going to set the example for the city.”
‘Boots on the ground’
As she made her rounds one recent day, D.C. police Capt. Sherrelle Williams stopped at Shop & Run, a convenience store on the corner of H and Eighth streets NE, where the front window looked like a glass spiderweb — cracked from a brick someone threw three months ago.
Many of the store’s shelves were bare. Where the chips should have been, there was nothing. Same with the shelves for freshly made sandwiches and doughnuts.
The owner, Mohammad Mohammad, stopped ordering food a couple weeks ago. He is breaking his lease two years early, saying he is fed up with $5,000-a-month in shoplifting losses, the $14,000 monthly rent and the marijuana peddlers too often lingering outside his door.
“Maybe tomorrow will be my last day,” Mohammad, 38, told the captain.
“Give us 30 days,” Williams said. She repeated herself twice more: “Give us 30 days.”
The captain took responsibility for H Street in July and needs time to get things straight. She has started what she touts as a “boots on the ground” campaign involving residents, business owners, city agencies, and police officers on bikes, scooters and in cruisers.
“We want to disrupt what’s happening on H Street,” she told a recent meeting of 40 residents and business owners. At one point, she promised to have a bench removed from Eighth Street, where people linger at all hours, near storefront real estate ads that announce, “You Belong Here.”
As he listened to the captain, Itay Hertz, an Israeli-born security consultant who bought a rowhouse in the neighborhood in 2022, worried that the police department’s approach is more reactive than proactive.
“They talked about taking a bench,” he said later. “What is the strategic plan?”
Hertz’s concerns sharpened earlier this year when a neighbor was mugged while pushing his daughter in a stroller at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. “Took his money, phone and the shirt off his back,” Hertz said, an account confirmed by the victim. In October, a man with a pipe lumbered toward Hertz’s wife, Elisabeth, cursing and threatening her as she took a lunchtime stroll.
Hertz said he plans to train volunteers for a neighborhood patrol modeled after those that he said exist in Israel. The goal, he said, is not to intervene, but to document illegal activity and alert police. “I want eyes on the street,” he said.
The growing sense of danger in the neighborhood is reflected in crime data. Since January, for example, the number of violent crimes increased from 76 to 96, or nearly 25 percent, compared to the same period last year. The number of stolen cars rose from 115 to 163, or 41 percent, while robberies increased from 62 to 79, or 25 percent and burglaries jumped from 14 to 36. Overall crime is up nearly 6 percent.
The increase in violent crime has been greater elsewhere, including the U Street neighborhood, where the number of incidents jumped nearly 84 percent in that same period. Yet, what distinguishes H Street is the public attention catalyzed by high-profile incidents, the most recent in September when Blake Bozeman, a former Morgan State University basketball player, was fatally shot at the Cru Lounge.
A little more than a year ago, Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson Jr. was shot and wounded during an attempted robbery on H Street NE. In February, Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) fought off an apparently disturbed attacker in her apartment building who she said punched her in the face. The following month, a man stabbed an aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during a random late-afternoon encounter on the corridor.
“Everyone is replaying the same news over and over,” said Adam Kelinsky, the owner of Pursuit, a wine bar on H Street NE that has been burglarized five times this year. “If eight stations cover the same thing, the word is out. At some point, people are going to say, ‘I’ve seen this eight times, this is bad. I’m not going over there.’”
The neighborhood’s anxiety was enough to draw a recent visit from Police Chief Pamela A. Smith, who walked the corridor and listened as owners of shops, bars and restaurants talked of desolate streets and creeping fear.
“Instead of stealing a candy bar, they’re stealing the entire store,” Leon Robbins, owner of Stan’s, a longtime clothing store, told the chief, describing a problem that he says is afflicting cities throughout the country. “Business is horrible. Crime is horrible.”
“Instead of stealing a candy bar, they’re stealing the entire store.”
— Leon Robbins, H Street clothing store owner
Ryan Gordon, owner of the Queen Vic, a British-style pub, told the chief he closes earlier because he fears for his employees’ safety leaving work late at night. “It would kill me if something happened to one of my staff,” he said.
A block away, Smith stopped at Pursuit, the wine bar, where Neal Gearhart, the general manager, complained that the streets empty at nightfall. “It’s crime that keeps people away,” he said.
One recent Saturday, Gearhart told the chief, he made “$50 in revenue for the day.”
H Street’s potential
A bustling shopping area in the 1950s, H Street NE was ravaged by rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. By 2000, 75 percent of its storefronts were vacant, and the strip became known as a place to buy and use heroin.
Around then, Mayor Anthony Williams (D) seized on H Street’s potential, endorsing zoning policies that attracted developers, investors and the likes of Joe Englert, a nightlife impresario who opened themed bars with whimsical names like the Rock & Roll Hotel, H Street Country Club, and the Palace of Wonders.
By the end of 2012, H Street ranked sixth on Forbes magazine’s list of “America’s Hippest Hipster Neighborhoods.” Four years later, after numerous delays, the city opened a $200 million streetcar system that provides free transport along the corridor.
Dolly Vehlow and her husband, Steve Hessler, an attorney, were among those who “bought into the dream of the H Street promise.” They acquired three buildings, leased two more, and opened Gallery O on H in 2005, where they exhibit art, host concerts, and lease space for weddings and other events.
Now, Vehlow said, when they show the gallery to people shopping for a place to hold an event, “they look around and rave about how gorgeous it is, and that’s the last we hear from them.”
She and her husband attribute the decline in interest to the neighborhood’s poor buzz.
“We’re dying, our business is dying and our dream is dying,” Hessler said. The couple remains committed to H Street, for now. “If there’s no change in the next six to eight months, you’re going to hear something different,” he said.
Tony Tomelden, the owner of the Pug, a dive bar and H Street pillar since 2007, is unwilling to make any such pronouncement even as his revenue — $50,000 a month a decade ago — is less than half that now.
On a recent night, the Pug hosted a Taylor Swift-themed party, and there was the bearded owner, greeting patrons in a glittery dress and a blond wig. “I have to be optimistic,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m going to choke somebody.”
On a recent afternoon, Dilawri bought 20 boxes of pizza and stacked them on a folding table outside his liquor store.
“FREE PIZZA,” read the chalkboard at his feet. A half-hour later, he was down to his last box.
The three break-ins during his first month cost him around $18,000 in lost liquor sales and repairs, he said. After the second, he installed a buzzer to control who gets into his shop. Still, he ponders ways to build neighborhood relationships. Pizza was his first idea. An art exhibit is planned for December.
“This is about creating goodwill,” he said. “Showing people we don’t mean any harm. Karma.”
“Everybody loves you!” a man shouted.
Dilawri smiled and waved.
Two days later, he was sweeping up the glass from another shattered window and filing one more police report.
Story editing by Jennifer Barrios. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo. Design by Jennifer C. Reed.