Greg Alexander

Washington’s Proud Neighborhoods: Walking Through Culture and History

Mason-Dixon Arrive, March 2007

Tourists flock from all over the world to Washington, D.C., to sightsee around the National Mall’s iconic museums, monuments and memorials, and learn more about our nation’s history and government. At the end of this month, thousands will converge on D.C., for one of the most popular events in the Nation’s Capital – the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which commemorates the original gift of the 3,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo to the people of Washington, D.C. Sure, seeing the new World War II Memorial, touring the Smithsonian Museums or climbing up the gigantic marble staircase to Abraham Lincoln are rites of passage for all Americans. Having done that, the next time you visit Washington, D.C., take one of the many self-guided Heritage Trails tours that will take you away from the throngs of tour buses and deep into D.C.’s unique and fascinating neighborhoods. Discover what few tourists learn – that D.C., is truly a city of neighborhoods, each worth exploring in their own right.

In an effort to showcase the neighborhoods, Cultural Tourism DC launched a series of Neighborhood Heritage Trails in 2000. This non-profit aims to strengthen the image and economy of Washington, D.C., neighborhood by neighborhood, and help residents and tourists discover and experience Washington’s arts and culture.

“It all started when Kathy Smith, who was executive director of Cultural Tourism DC at the time, coordinated a pictorial display on the history of U Street by the construction fence for the new Metro stop at 13th and U streets. It was so well received that plans were made to make a permanent planned walking tour of U Street, which coincided with the recent renaissance of that area. It was one of the first projects of Cultural Tourism DC,” says Paul K. Williams of Kelsey & Associates, who was hired to be the project director for the Greater U Street Heritage Trail and as historian for the subsequent Shaw Heritage Trail.

Williams points out that the Heritage Trail project is not a traditional walking tour. “With most walking tours, you have to follow a map, go in a certain order and read lots of text. With these tours, you can go in any order you please and the signs lead you to next closest stop on the trail. The signs, which are about two feet wide and stand about seven feet tall, are heavily visual with large photos and little text. Passer-bys can view them quickly, even if they are not on the tour but simply walking by, and you can even read them if you’re at a stoplight in a car.” Williams notes that the signs cost about $5,000 each to produce and feature special tamper-proof paint and design that prevents vandalism.

“Signs for each trail have a consistent color pattern chosen by the neighborhood that make them easy to follow. Signs are placed close to each other so that tourists can usually see the next sign on the map,” Williams says. “We designed the map so that the signs would be ‘tourist-ready,’ in that they are at safe places.” He adds that the proximity of some of the trails to each other allow tourists to change course and pick up another trail. “You can really choose your own path.” Williams notes that the trail sites are centered around Metro stops, making them easy to locate.

Williams says that the trails have been so successful that new trails are constantly being added, and other cities have come to D.C., to study and emulate the program. “It’s a great way to experience the neighborhoods of D.C., instead of visiting just the iconic sights such as the Capitol and The Mall. It’s great for tourists and residents alike.”

There are several Heritage Trails in the network, and here are a few to check out:


Dubbed “City Within a City,” the inaugural trail celebrates the rich social, civic and cultural life of Washington’s African-American community in the first half of the 20th century. Nicknamed Washington’s “Black Broadway,” U Street – near Howard University – was the epicenter of African-American culture in the early 1900s, predating Harlem, a place where a nationally significant, self-sufficient African-American community flourished. This is the place where Duke Ellington grew up and musical greats such as Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn and Dizzy Gillespie played in local clubs.

The Greater U Street Heritage Trail includes 14 poster-sized illustrated signs that combine storytelling with historic images. The tour should take you about 90 minutes to complete – if you choose to see all 14 signs and if you’re not tempted to stop along the way. The first sign is at 13th and U streets, N.W., near the African American Civil War Memorial, the only national monument to Black Civil War soldiers.

It’s on U Street where African-Americans engaged in some of the nation’s first civil rights protests while building a vibrant urban center of their own – “a city within a city.” Some of the places the tour will take you include the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, home to the first African-American YMCA; The Whitelaw Hotel, the segregated city’s first luxury hotel for African-Americans; and the restored 1922 Lincoln Theatre.

Along the way, U Street offers great shopping and restaurants, including the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl and Cake Love, both favorites of Oprah Winfrey.


Located close to the U Street Trail is the Shaw Heritage Trail, one of Washington’s oldest neighborhoods on the edge of downtown. Over the years, it has been home to varied races and classes and was significantly altered by the riots that followed the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Shaw’s residents have included the Washington elite wanting a convenient downtown address and immigrants and laborers seeking affordable housing.

The trail’s 17 poster-sized illustrated signs start at 7th Street and Mt. Vernon Place, N.W., at the front of the Washington Convention Center. The two-hour self-guided tour proceeds north up 9th Street, down 7th and east along M Street, before returning to end a block from where you started. On the Shaw Heritage Trail, you’ll see Carnegie Library, one of few public spaces in Washington never to have been segregated; the home of Carter G. Woodson, the celebrated scholar who originated Black History Month; the church where Arena Stage got started; and the origins of Washington, D.C.’s Jewish Community Centers.


“From River Farms to Urban Towers” is the theme for this trail, as it follows the transformation of Southwest D.C., from a working-class, waterfront neighborhood from 1791 to the 1950s, to one almost completely razed for the nation’s first experimentation with urban renewal resulting in an entirely new city. Southwest D.C., has been home to everyone from the first colonial residents to fishermen, government clerks and congressmen. Today it is where boats take tourists out on the Potomac River and residents flock to the fresh seafood markets.

The Southwest Heritage Trail, which takes about two hours to complete, begins at the Waterfront/SEU Metro station plaza (Fourth and M streets, S.W.), and then proceeds up Southwest’s historic “main street,” Fourth Street, and heads west toward the Washington Channel Waterfront and continues along the waterfront toward Fort McNair, Washington's first military installation. Although Southwest D.C., was almost completely razed for the urban renewal project, some historic structures remain, including some of Washington’s oldest houses on “Wheat Row.” Modern architectural highlights include Waterside Towers, River Park and the Arena Stage building. Participants on the Southwest Heritage Trail will also see where Washington’s own regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops returned in triumph at the end of the Civil War and a memorial to Benjamin Banneker, a self-educated mathematician, scientist and astronomer. Born the son of a freed-slave in Ellicott Mills, Md., Banneker worked as a technical assistant in the first survey of the Federal Territory, now known as Washington, D.C.


Once called “Capitol Hill-Navy Yard,” this neighborhood centers around Washington’s oldest and largest industrial plant, the Navy Yard, and is steeped in rich military and political history. U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines walked the streets here, as did Congressional workers, carpenters, slaves, freedmen and merchants.

Starting at the Eastern Market Metro station plaza at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E., the Barracks Row Heritage Trail, dubbed “Tour of Duty,” winds visitors through the now-tony Capitol Hill neighborhood and to the Navy Yard, a 12-acre site that in 1803 was designated by President Thomas Jefferson to be the home port of the U.S. Navy. During the Spanish-American War, the Navy Yard’s Naval Gun Factory was especially busy. Also on this tour is the Marine Barracks, which was occupied by British troops during the War of 1812 and is the oldest continuously manned Marine installation in the nation; the home of the first woman White House correspondent, Emily Edson Briggs; and Washington’s oldest Episcopal congregation – Christ Church Episcopal – where Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams were worshippers.


Known today for its restaurants and lively nightlife, Adams Morgan has been home to U.S. Presidents, artists, activists and immigrants. The neighborhood has long been known as a melting pot with entrepreneurs from Africa, Central and South America taking up roots here with a strong Latino community today.

“Roads to Diversity: Adams Morgan Heritage Trail” will take you by charming Victorian rowhouses, ethnic restaurants and bright murals. It begins at 16th Street and Florida Avenue, N.W., and winds through Kalorama Street, Columbia Road and 18th Street. The trail will take you by the site of the first Toys ‘R’ Us store, which opened in 1948; the grand foreign embassies of 16th Street; Lanier Heights, which became a haven for radicals, activists and left-wing leaders in the 1960s; and the handsome rowhouses and grand apartments of Kalorama Triangle and Victorian townhouses of 18th Street.


Another unique tourist program celebrating public art in Washington, D.C., is the “Art on Call” project, a public art initiative to save the police and fire call boxes that were first installed throughout the District in the 1860s but became obsolete in the 1970s with the onset of the 911 system. Starting in 2000, more than 1,100 deteriorating call boxes were surveyed and identified for refurbishment. After they were stripped and primed, local communities were invited to place their artistic stamp on the call boxes by working with local artists to place works showcasing local culture and heritage inside the boxes. Cultural Tourism DC reviewed proposals and allocated grants of $250 per box; neighborhood groups were required to match these funds and raise additional monies if necessary.

The refurbished call boxes now exhibit the unique culture of their neighborhoods and range in style from the traditional to the avant-garde. Finished call boxes can be found in such neighborhoods as Mount Pleasant, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle and Sheridan/Kalorama.

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