Bringing Vitality back to the H Street Corridor

It was just six years ago that Jane Lang, the visionary behind the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, took LISC inside the former Atlas Theatre and laid out her vision for a performing arts 2 center. Vacant for about 30 years, the space was a shell of its former grandeur. Though it would be a long and difficult road to put this facility back into use, we knew we wanted to support this effort to help bring much needed investment back into this community.

While the 59,000 square foot theatre was being renovated, LISC provided ongoing technical assistance and nearly $100,000 in operating support for core staff. In 2007 once the Atlas had been open for about a year, we provided grant support for their Clean and Safe program, which helped to change some of the negative perceptions of the community.

Now open for three years, the Atlas has helped H Street NE to once again become an entertainment destination. The space itself contains four theatres, three dance studios, expansive lobbies and large behind the scenes space. Their resident arts partners range from the Joy of Motion Dance Center and Step Afrika!, to the Capital City Symphony and the Washington Savoyards. (Pictured: American Youth Chorus Rehearsal)

It is now remarkable to drive down H Street NE, particularly the 1200- 1400 blocks. The economic and social impact of the Atlas is unmistakable. New restaurants, clubs, and bars have transformed these blocks. According to Jane Lang, “The community took ownership and has tremendous pride. Just go down there in the evenings – instead of dark and shadowy streets there are crowds of people having a good time. Today on H Street you can have sushi, Belgain ale and mussels.”

But even more, the Atlas has connected with the existing community. Before they ever picked up a hammer, the Atlas brought in their arts partners to forge relationships with seniors and school aged children. They started with a seniors chorus, recruiting residents from Delta Towers and Capitol Hill Towers, two local senior apartment complexes. The chorus is still active today and has progressed from basic familiar repertoire to more challenging pieces, including excerpts from Porgy and Bess.

They also went into local elementary schools with partner Joy of Motion and introduced dance classes. “Overall, if you don’t have an organization like the Atlas acting as a facilitator and connector, it is not possible to create a force for change. Everything tends to be ad hoc and nothing amounts to anything.” says Jane Lang. “The Atlas provides continuity- we’re not here for just a season or semester.” This is especially true for seniors who are benefiting from setting goals and seeing progress in themselves “these opportunities have changed the quality of their lives.” Lang added. (Pictured: Joy of Motion Dance Class)

It has also introduced hundreds of young children to the world of dance through Joy of Motion. “Joy of Motion has been central to the success of the Atlas” says Lang. It is the only arts partner that has dedicated space in the Center. “They have taken their commitment in the community to such a level that you have to wonder where these kids would be without it.”

This past year however has proven to be a very difficult time. Many of the Atlas’ partners don’t have endowments or reserves to fall back on. According to Lang, “not everyone is going to survive this.” While the Atlas is fortunate to have many of their funders committed for the long haul, ultimately, the Atlas they are shooting for the goal of self sustainability, generating roughly 85% of their budget through earned income. That is very high for an arts entity, but it is a goal that they are earnestly seeking to meet.

No one could have predicted the success of the Atlas in helping to spur revitalization and connect the community to the arts. We are proud to have committed to this project early and will continue to support their efforts.