Monday, May 07, 2007

H Street Northeast Revisited

Now that H Street is coming back into its own, I wanted to pick my father’s brain about what it was like back in his day, in the 1920s. I decided we ought to take a tour, and see what was left, so my parents and I climbed into my pollen laden car and went back in time.

Our first hurdle was driving down to H Street from Northwest to Northeast. Everywhere we went the streets are being ripped up with new construction. Plus Dad couldn’t see through all the green funk on the windshield so that was a handicap, but we finally found the block where my grandfather, Peter Cokinos, had his candy shop at 1103 H Street.

Pete opened this shop after working with his brother Adam over on K street. He made candy and ice cream in the basement here, and my father was one of his biggest shoplifters.

H Street has been slow to recover from the the riots of 1968. Whole blocks were burned, and this was one of them. The exact address is gone, but there is a convenience store at 1103 H Street.

I asked Dad about other Greeks in the neighborhood back then, and you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a half dozen families - including branches of our own clan. James Cokinos, a first cousin to Pete, had a deli at 10th and K, and another cousin- Nick Kendros, had the Woodward Sandwich Shop at 1422 H Street. The Kavakos family ran a grill at 8th and H which became a very popular nightclub during World War II, but was torn down in the 1990s.

The Kalevas family ran the Rendezvous- another hot spot. The Chaconas Bar and Grill was at 10th and H, and the Bacchus Grill was at H and 15th (owned by the Bacchus family not the god) He also remembers the Paramount Grill run by two Greek brothers. It was "a blue collar sort of breakfast place." (Imagine that.) The Gatsos family had a barber shop where you could get your shoes shined, too.

Besides all the Greeks in the neighborhood, there was also Whal's Department Store which was two stories high and carried everything. There were three movie theaters- the Apollo, the Empire and the Princess - all of them gone now. (The Atlas which is now a performing arts center didn’t open until the late 1930s.)

Our next stop was 919 11th Street, the house where my Dad was born. (yes, at home.) Pete Cokinos bought this house brand new in 1914 when he got married. Greek women were scarce in Washington in those days, and Pete had to go to New Jersey to find a bride. Here's the family on the front porch around 1923.

The block is a little worn down now, the fluted columns on the houses have been replaced, but the place is still standing in 2002. It was 20 feet wide and 35 feet deep. They used every inch. My father says the kitchen was in the basement which was common at the time.

A few blocks away, at the corner of Montello and Neal, we found Samuel E Wheatley Elementary. Dad didn't recognize it at first with its two large additions. When he went there in 1920, it was a brand new school named for a very popular police commissioner and businessman. The building is empty now, but plans are underway to renovate. This is where Dad and Aunt Catherine walked to school, and where they learned to speak English. (Only Greek was spoken at home.)

Finally we went to the DC Farmer's Market on Florida Avenue.  A lot of the stalls are boarded up now, but Dad remembers when it was all going full force so it took us a while to find Litteri's Italian market- one of the few places left with a lot of history.

Little has changed since this Italian grocery and deli moved here in 1932. (Mom thought she even recognized one of the countermen.) After a long wait for sandwiches worth waiting for, we picnicked with the carpenter bees at my son Kit’s school, Hardy, which is being temporarily housed in the Hamilton School. I can't help but note that the building is located on Brentwood Parkway just off Florida Avenue, within walking distance of his grandfather's childhood.