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The Atlas and its Impact on the Neighborhood - Holding up H St.

As dusk creeps into the H Street corridor, the Art Deco marquee of the Atlas Performing Arts Center lights up in beaming blue and white. The street comes alive with conversation, and chattering Washingtonians crowd into bar patios. 

The historic Atlas marquee, which towers over the row of colorful low-slung buildings, is the unmistakable centerpiece of the street. 

The Atlas’s large physical presence reflects on its cultural footprint on the H Street corridor. In 2006, the former movie theater reopened as a 60,000 square foot performing arts facility. Its rebirth marked the beginning of the area’s recovery from the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. For many residents, the presence of the Atlas parallels the revival of the H Street corridor. 

“The Atlas played a huge part in the redevelopment of H Street because it actually brought people to the area,” said David Simmons, who works at the Atlas and has lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years. “The only restaurants that existed when I first moved here [were] a Popeye’s and a dingy little Chinese take-out place with Plexiglas. No one used to come here.”

The Atlas Theater was one of four movie theaters on H Street when the area was a thriving commercial district in the 1930s. It was forced to close in 1978 following years of decline. When it closed, the building was abandoned and eventually boarded up and covered with graffiti. 

In 2002, Jane Lang and Paul Sprenger, lawyers interested in the arts and community development, purchased the theater. Four years later, the Atlas Performing Arts Center opened. 

“When Jane Lang was first brought here, she took one look and said, ‘No way.’ It was too big, too messy and, with conditions of the neighborhood back then, it was too hard,” said Jen DeMayo, director of community at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. “But after thinking it over, she woke up the next morning and realized that the theater could be the catalyst for the revitalization of H Street.”

DeMayo, who has lived in the area since 1999, says that reopening the Atlas Theater was a pivotal moment. For residents who grew impatient with the city’s development plans for H Street, the Atlas “was a promise that was actually kept.”

“At the time, there was a lot of talk of new projects, but the Atlas was one of the very few that was actually completed,” DeMayo said. “People take pride in that. And when we started seeing local families bringing their children here for our programs, it was obvious that the neighborhood was willing to invest in Atlas.

Many young people from outside the neighborhood see H Street as a vibrant nightlife destination, a hip alternative to Adams Morgan and U Street. What most don’t realize is that H Street is also a residential area, and many longtime residents and even some newcomers raise their children in the neighborhood.  

“It’s important to us that Atlas offers opportunities for children here to be exposed to the arts very early on in their lives,” DeMayo said. 

The Atlas targets families with programs like “Theater for the Very Young,” which offers theater arts education for children ages 5-8. Another popular program is “Boogie Babes,” which brings children’s musicians to the Atlas Performing Arts Center every Friday.

American Youth Chorus, the youth branch of the Congressional Chorus, is also based in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Established in 2008, the American Youth Chorus has more than 80 members from ages 8-14. The chorus was founded on the belief that all children, regardless of their socio-economic background, should have the opportunity to receive musical education. 

“Families pay tuition based on household income, and the chorus offers full scholarships for some children,” said Simmons, who is also the artistic director of both the Congressional Chorus and American Youth Chorus. 

The American Youth Chorus rehearses at Atlas twice a week, bringing in a flood of children in school uniforms and bright polo shirts on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Since its creation five years ago, the chorus has performed in the White House, the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress.

“A few years ago, we performed at Hillary Clinton’s Christmas party,” Simmons said. “Some of the kids that performed lived in public housing in Southeast DC. These kids were now in the Secretary of State’s diplomatic reception with ambassadors from all over the world. That night, they got to see a world that most people would never see.”

Parents in the neighborhood appreciate that the chorus gives their children a creative outlet. 

“The chorus is great because it’s not your typical babysitter after-school activity,” said Mary Masters, mother of an 11-year-old girl in the youth chorus. “It gives them a chance to develop their artistic sides, and also builds confidence and character.

The Atlas played a huge part in the redevelopment of H Street because it actually brought people to the area.

Like many longtime residents, Masters believes that the reopening of the Atlas Theater has made great contributions to the revival of the H Street corridor. Today, H Street is lined with an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants, like a Mexican restaurant with a miniature golf course, a gastropub that specializes in mussels and a sushi bar that offers karaoke and bingo on weeknights.

The three-block stretch surrounding the former movie theater is now commonly known as the Atlas District.

“Atlas is a jewel in the H Street and Capitol Hill area,” Masters said.•

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