Anwar Saleem

The Man on H Street

On the corner of Third and H NE, a lanky man stands still looking east. It is a chilly March evening and he wears creased dress pants, a button-down shirt, vintage shoes and a skinny tie. Behind him is an impossibly pink sunset, and before him is the product of his life’s work. Anwar Saleem smiles at the fifteen blocks, which fifteen years ago lay deserted, decrepit and drug ridden. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has awarded his beloved H Street Corridor the 2013 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA); and Anwar has just gotten the word.

The GAMSA is the Oscar of urban development and Saleem set his sights on the award when he co-founded H Street Main Street (HSMS) in 2002. The organization, which Anwar heads as executive director, has helped attract 132 new businesses and 1,576 jobs since its founding. Today, the vacancy rate of H Street’s colorful storefronts has fallen from 30 to 10 percent. 

Anwar expects publicity from the award to bring visitors in droves. When Forbes Magazine designated H Street sixth on the list of “America’s Hippest Hipster Neighborhoods,” last September, a wave of new business flooded the neighborhood, including one honored guest in particular. 

“In many ways that Forbes article led to President Obama hosting his last campaign dinner at our establishment,” says Miles Gray, owner of Smith Commons. “This type of press is a frequent occurrence, largely due to the amount of time that HSMS puts into public relations, community outreach and social media, which directly benefits the neighborhood.”

Anwar Saleem: H-tonian

At 58, Saleem has spent his entire life in the District, mostly on H Street. The H Street Corridor is Saleem's home. “Hey, how you doin?” he says, greeting a familiar face. Saleem has an encyclopedic memory for faces and names. His earnest, good nature makes an impression.

“Anwar is so effective because he is of the people,” says Teresa Lynch, senior program officer at the National Trust’s Main Streets Center.

“You might not recognize it as leadership at first,” Lynch adds, “But he is so bright in the way he can relate to and inspire every level of the community. We often say here that every neighborhood needs an Anwar.” 

It was 1949 when Anwar’s North Carolinian mother and Baltimorean father chose H Street as their first nesting place. Classic Ford luxury models cruised alongside streetcars, which connected H Street with downtown Washington and the Southeast Navy Yard. The corridor was lined with shops, restaurants and offices owned by Italian and Jewish immigrants.

In 1949, H Street was one of the few places in the nation where African Americans lived, worked and in many cases, were served next to white counterparts. Saleem was born in 1954, the year after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in DC’s public accommodations.

As a youth, Saleem prowled H Street walking in and out of its many stores looking for work. He cut grass, cleaned windows, and shined shoes on the corner of Eighth and H. During the holiday season, he decorated full blocks of homes. If he couldn’t find work, Anwar’s mother insisted he attend community meetings at churches and the library. Saleem didn’t know what he was supposed to learn at those meetings, but, the dutiful son, he went anyway never thinking that one day he would be at the podium. 

As he got older, Saleem kept his odd jobs but also learned cosmetology by working for free in local beauty salons. When he wasn’t working, he was out on H Street exploring. He bought his first pair of drum sticks at Chuck and Marge Levin’s music store. He learned how to build bikes at the local bicycle shop. 

As the late ‘50s and early ‘60s went on, the descendants of white immigrants migrated to the suburbs taking their businesses with them. By 1968, most of H Street residents were African American, and 24 percent of the labor force was either unemployed or underemployed. It was a volatile environment.

Riots & The Drugs: Devastation & Blight

Saleem was sitting in his seventh grade class when the school loudspeaker announced the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After being sent home, he and his best friend Vernon Marlow went out to investigate what was happening on H Street. At first, the riot didn’t look like a riot — it was just people loitering. Then, the 600 block went up in flames.

Saleem and Marlow joined a growing crowd on Sixth and H Street. Smoke billowed around the Morton’s department store, enveloping the big white letters that spanned the length of its rooftop. Watching in awe as people hurried out of the store with arms full of merchandise, Saleem stayed put in fear of his mother. A year older, Marlow was more daring. He went to have a look inside. The building collapsed and he never emerged. Saleem had lost his best friend forever. Vernon Marlow was only 14. 

The riots destroyed 90 buildings housing 51 residences and 103 businesses. In a matter of days, H Street had been transformed from a central shopping corridor into a wasteland. For the next three decades, the corridor struggled to recover. 

In the middle of the ‘80s, the crack epidemic hit adding drug-infested blight to H Street's physical devastation. Many of Saleem's peers fell to addiction, while the District endured its worst crime. “Despite all of this, H Street has always been a warm place,” recalls Saleem.

Saleem Returns to His Roots

After working for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for a number of years, Saleem decided to return to his roots. He opened his own beauty salon in 1989, which he named Hair Rage International, and bought the building five years later. To connect with local businesses and start becoming involved in the corridor’s development, he joined the H Street Merchants and Professionals Association in 1992. In 1996 Anwar became the first African American in the country to win Salon Magazine’s Salon of the Year Award. The printed piece omitted Hair Rage’s address due to H Street’s nefarious reputation. “It was like the neighborhood was there, but really didn’t exist anymore,” Saleem recalls.

Intent on making a difference and increasing his involvement, Saleem served as chair of the Merchants and Professionals board from 1998 to 2001. During his tenure, he lobbied then Mayor Anthony Williams to include H Street development in the City’s funding plans. In 2002, Anwar co-founded HSMS serving as chair through three executive directors.  In 2007, he became executive director himself.  

From the start, Anwar’s focus was inclusion. He formed committees, held meetings and hosted workshops, always reaching out to diverse stakeholders so he could learn and incorporate their concerns in the redevelopment process.  

“That helped slow the gentrification process, because we wanted to make sure people who had been here and suffered through H Street’s hardest times could stay and experience the pay off,” Saleem says. 

When four years of trolley construction starting in 2008, and simultaneous business tax hikes hurt H Street business owners, Anwar testified in front of the City Council. He advertised businesses and lobbied for grants. 

Smokey’s Barbershop owner Eddie Maye is still recovering from the construction slump. “It’s slowly turning around,” he says, adding that new clients are of all ages and races. “Anwar did a good job. It was just a hard time.” 

Maye worked at Smokey’s Barbershop in the 60s before the riots, but didn’t meet Anwar until he returned to H Street to buy the shop in 1999. “We met because he was always coming in here and telling me about meetings and grants,” says Maye. “He still does that today.” 

Likewise, 360° H Street developer Guy Steuart says Anwar was the first community member to approach him when he introduced the project eight years ago. “We had never met before and I knew little about H Street Main Street,” he says. “Since then I've learned Anwar is an enthusiastic, sincere and dedicated leader … I’m thankful for his encouragement to all of us.”

Inclusion does not mean everyone is always happy. Saleem still hears complaints as he balances stakeholders' needs, but his unending effort is what sets H Street apart. 

“What distinguishes H Street is that Anwar and his team have done a great job accommodating the needs of both old timers and newcomers,” says Main Streets Coordinator Cristina Amoruso at the DC Department of Small and Local Business. “They have found ways for diverse businesses to feed off of each other’s energy in a way that makes people want to come back for more,” she adds.

Councilmember Tommy Wells says Anwar’s adaptability is key to his success in balancing needs. “When I came in as councilmember and began reimagining H Street, Anwar could have easily felt threatened or left out,” he says. “But he showed that he could share a vision and provide leadership to all merchants, even as demographics and economics changed. It’s been a pleasure working with Anwar. H Street shows what is possible when everyone works together with a vision.” 

When H Street’s ANC commissioner Omar Mahmud got wind of H Street winning the GAMSA, he said he was happy to see HSMS’s efforts recognized. “I continue to be amazed by the hardworking, diverse group of folks — residents and business people alike — who make up our H Street community,” he said. “All have had a hand in the neighborhood's success and I hope all will continue to shape its very bright future.”

Looking to the Future

On the corner of Third and H, Saleem looks east and squints. He is trying to glimpse Benning Road and Bladensberg Road which branch out from the bottom of the corridor to the north and south. Those areas need shops and service-oriented businesses, he believes.  They need HSMS. So later, when friends ask about future goals, Anwar simply states, “More work.”

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