H Street Activist Sees Obama Link

Saleem Excited By Historic Vote

Posted November 18, 2008 at 3:36pm

On Election Day, Anwar Saleem got up at 5 a.m. and took his sons, ages 18 and 23, to cast votes for Barack Obama, who was vying to be the first African- American president.

In the 30 to 45 minutes they waited in line, Saleem and his sons discussed the historic importance of the day.

If “Barack is elected president … then you all can pull y’all pants up and turn your hats back around the right way,” he told them, joking and giddy, pointing to the Illinois Senator as “another role model.”

The director of H Street Main Street, Saleem had reason to be excited. He sees Obama as a community activist who has risen to the top and can form partnerships with those still working on the streets.

“It’s going to take people on this common level to reach out more, and we have to meet him in the middle,” Saleem said. “He has to do what he has to do from the top and meet us in the middle. That’s what we have to do to be successful.”

Saleem’s passion for the redevelopment of the 13-block H Street Northeast corridor, and the connection he sees between that effort and the larger public good, is no accident. He was a student at Stuart Junior High School in Northeast Washington, D.C., when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in April 1968, and he remembers that students were released from school the next afternoon and told to go straight home.

“I remember this thing almost like it was yesterday,” Saleem said of the riots that happened that day.

With friends, Saleem wandered the corridor, watching the looting and running through the rubble. One “very close friend” was in a furniture store when its roof collapsed. He didn’t make it out.

Saleem said they told the boy’s mother that he had been in the building, but she was in denial, convinced that he had been with his parole officer. Saleem said authorities also didn’t believe the teenagers, and his friend’s body was only found a decade later, when another building was being erected in the same place. He said walking past the building every day knowing that his friend’s body was inside affected him.

“People really didn’t care about you when you go to the authorities and tell them a body has been trapped in a building,” he said, adding that the same thing would never happen today.

In the 40 years since the riots, Saleem has remained in D.C. and now serves the H Street Northeast corridor full time. His office is a cluttered former Bank of America, complete with cubicle dividers and a working ATM outside. The bank donated the space at 961 H St. NE to HSMS in 2003 to get a tax write-off.

“This [office] is more my home than the home I sleep in,” Saleem said.

Saleem has been active in HSMS since it first began in 2002. It was a successor of sorts to the H Street Merchants Association, which was limited to area business owners; the Main Street group opened the door to input from residents.

HSMS has had mixed success. Tomika Hughey, who served as the group’s first director from January through August 2003, remembers that much of her job involved educating community members on the Main Street model while helping current business owners make progress and trying to attract prospective businesses. She called it selling a vision.

Hughey, who now works for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said Saleem, who served as chairman of the HSMS board when she was in charge, was a necessary force for H Street.

“In Anwar you found a champion,” she said, remembering that he kept pressing even when other corridors, such as U Street and Barracks Row, got more attention from civic and business leaders.

Saleem was integral to H Street’s well-being even before the birth of HSMS. He bought a storefront at 1017 H St. NE in 1989, and it became Hair Rage, a salon he still runs today. He also owns 1005 H St. NE, which until October housed Real Power Gym.

Saleem transitioned from chairman of the board to director of HSMS in February 2007. One of his proudest accomplishments so far is the youth employment program that paired 15- to 21-year-olds in the neighborhood with businesses over the summer. They learned professional skills and took a workshop on financial literacy and peer mediation.

Saleem is constantly introducing potential business owners to the neighborhood and maintaining relationships with current owners. He is in charge of promotions, including cooperating with the upcoming “I am D.C.” campaign and redesigning hstreet.org. He also oversees the annual H Street Festival. The festival, which showcases businesses on H Street, attracted about 7,500 people this year.

While HSMS requires most of his time, Saleem’s first love professionally is cosmetology. He said he never gets tired of the salon.

“You can feel good about making people look good. You can stand behind a chair all day and cut their hair. You can deal with the makeup and deal with the nails,” he said. “If you’re good, you can talk to people about solving their problems. … It’s almost like you’re a psychologist. It’s a very rewarding field.”

Saleem earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at the National Institute of Cosmetology on Logan Circle. He finished the doctorate in 2000, writing his thesis on the way parts of the body interact compared to the way the moving pieces of communities and ecosystems interact.

William Lindsay, administrator of the school and its parent, the National Beauty Culturists’ League, said the degree is not academic but professional. To complete the coursework, students must go through four years of classes for the bachelor’s degree, two years for the master’s degree and another three years for the doctorate. Professors come to the school from universities around the country to teach classes on topics that include stress management and communication.

The degree affords Saleem a couple of unique opportunities, in addition to being qualified to run the salon, teach cosmetology and judge hairstyling competitions. He said he is sometimes called to testify as an expert witness in court cases involving a cosmetologist as the defendant, and he serves on the D.C. Barber and Cosmetology Board. The board writes and reviews rules and regulations and can also approve, revoke, deny or suspend licenses.

Juggling the salon, the board and his responsibilities at HSMS must come easily to Saleem. He raised four sons on his own after he and his first wife divorced. His second wife, Monica Saleem, is a teacher and librarian at John Burroughs Elementary School, and they live in Shaw.

On Election Day, Anwar Saleem took the day off to hand out literature about Democratic candidates at five different polling places after he voted with his sons. He ended the day at the Madison Hotel, where local Democrats celebrated. He said it was hard to get home because he had to drive through cheering crowds on U Street, and he eventually had to take an alley instead of city streets.

The next day, Saleem got up and went back to work, writing his monthly Main Street reports for the D.C. government. He describes his job — and his lifestyle — as a way to effect change.

“How can you be effective in creating positive change?” he said. “That’s what it’s all about — that’s from everything I touch, from family to business to economic development along the H Street corridor.”