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NoMa History Project to preserve 150 years of memories, lore and facts

NoMa


NoMa from the Hopscotch Bridge

Recently, the NoMA Business Improvement District announced it was hiring a historian to tell the story of D.C.'s newest neighborhood.
 
Despite having a residential population of 1,400 and growing, gourmet restaurants and a Harris Teeter--in other words, a young professional's dream 'hood—NoMA has been called "sterile" and "a work in progress."
 
However, it's impossible to deny that the work in progress has radically changed the neighborhood. Abandoned warehouses and parking lots have been swept away to create luxury apartments and that aforementioned Harris Teeter. The area median income has increased more than 50 percent over the past decade and rents have skyrocketed, changing the area even more.
 
"I think all of our history is in danger of being lost," says Robin-Eve Jasper, the president of the NoMa BID. "We felt the area had a rich history, and because so much of it is new, and so many of the people who are coming to the area are new, they are unaware of it, so that was really the motivation" behind the history project.
 
The historian will comb through historical archives and reach out to residents to tell the story of the neighborhood on a website that will go live later this year. According to the BID's official map, NoMA encompasses the area behind Union Station formerly known as Swampoodle, but also includes pieces of Eckington and Near Northeast.
 
The unofficial boundaries are a bit more fluid: "We have heard from people who live on upper P or R Street NW," says Jasper. "They are telling us they live in NoMa."
 
So the question becomes not just how to preserve the history of the neighborhood but also how to draw people together from disparate places – some who have lived in D.C. for decades, others maybe just for months.
 
Jane Freundel Levey knows a lot about bringing people together. As Cultural Tourism DC's director of heritage and community programs, she's worked on the organization's Neighborhood Heritage Trails, the self-guided walking tours for 14 D.C. neighborhoods, since the program's initiation. (The 15th, for Logan Circle, will be installed later this summer.)
 
NoMa History Highlights

The residential neighborhood where Union Station is now was called "Swampoodle" for the puddles and swamps that appeared when the Tiber Creek overflowed. When Union Station was built, 1,700 families were displaced.

The Beatles played their first U.S. concert at Uline Arena, then known as the Washington Coliseum. "What a lot of people don't know is it was the only large venue for integrated public gatherings," says Robin-Eve Jasper. The arena was also used as an ice rink (developer Michael Uline sold ice to Washingtonians before the advent of refrigerators).

The Washington Nationals played here for three years in the late 1800s, on what is now the National Postal Museum.

The Emancipation Proclamation (and many other important government documents) was printed at the Government Printing Office, which has been at its current location at North Capitol and H NW since its creation in 1860.
Does history bring people together? Well, yes and no, she says. "Are we there to help build the community? That wasn't our aim, but it certainly becomes a byproduct of these projects."
 
When Cultural Tourism DC convenes a meeting in the neighborhood, the room is often packed with both longtime residents and newcomers. "The newbies and old-timers start off by eyeing each other with some suspicion," says Levey.
 
But the barriers quickly disappear, she says, because "the newbies are there because they want to learn and the old-timers are there because they want to be sure that what they know gets passed on. It becomes a community right there in the room."
 
After Cultural Tourism DC finishes installing the trail signs, a neighborhood often takes ownership of the signs, with neighbors joining graffiti patrol and local schools taking children on walks to learn about their own streets.
 
But, Levey says, all of Cultural Tourism DC's history projects have been generated from the community. "We put heritage trails into the neighborhoods where the community asked us to bring them. We didn't impose them... There are people who believe history gets hijacked when somebody who is doing a for-profit enterprise wants to incorporate history into it. Some people think that's hijacking; other people think it's a mark of respect for the community."
 
(Elsewhere in the city, along U Street NW, bars named after famous black residents have come under fire for "swagger-jacking.")
 
Then again, the point of the NoMa History Project isn't necessarily to bring more people together or counteract the critics of NoMa's transformation. "It's an attempt to bring light to the history that's there, which is at risk of being lost," says Jasper. "I think people are coming together already over initiatives like [building] parks, or even our events like our summer movie series.
 
"I think a lot of people look at NoMa and they say, 'Oh, well, this is a place you just made up,' and I understand that response, but I don't actually think it's accurate and I kind of feel like it's our job and an opportunity to help people understand what cool stuff went on here."

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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