Friday, July 19, 2013

Guest post: Columbia Heights in 1998 and today

14th, Kenyon & Park in 2002 by Michael Wilkinson
by Omari Daniels

Columbia Heights? It’s great now, but no one used to live here!

Ridiculous assertion, but not an unfair one. To introduce myself, I’m one of those rare District people called locals. Yes, believe it or not- there are people who live in D.C. who are from here and did not just assimilate after graduating college, making them bona-fide experts of every nook and cranny of the city. We are indeed a rare breed.

Columbia Heights today is a bastion of shops, a dance center, restaurants and an increasingly diverse neighborhood, but this area did not always appear as vibrant. In fact, you could almost call it a ghost town. Don’t believe me? Well, a snarky local coming down on the optimistic tourist could make for a very grumpy read.

So let’s read.

I moved out to Columbia Heights with my folks in the first half of 1998 to start middle school at St. Augustine Catholic School. Folks lived along Irving or the surrounding streets, but driving through or riding the 52/54 bus through Columbia Heights meant passing giant holes in the ground, accompanied by “Coming Soon” signs. Two separate Green Lines existed at this time, with one going from Anacostia to U Street/Cardozo and the other from Fort Totten to Greenbelt. The Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metros were just far off dreams.

Victory Heights, 14th and Irving. Used to be a
spot where kids played. Now for adults.
Try and see it, or what would have been. No Target or Best Buy, no Z-Burger, no bars next to a convenient IHOP. You’d have to trek to Gallery Place or Foggy Bottom for your Chipotle fix. Want to take your kids out to the fountain at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza? Have to make the trek up 14th street until you reached the pool at 14th and Colorado. On the off chance you wanted to move here, you couldn’t look up and see folks partying on the terraces atop The Heights. Children played in the vacant lot on Irving just east of 14th, which is now Victory Heights.

Interested in your child taking up dance lessons? Well, I'd have to give you directions since Columbia Heights does not have a studio up here. Cleaners? I believe one used to be at the intersection of 13th and U Street across from what is now the Dunkin’ Donuts, but nothing up here. Sorry.

Radio Shack? Bed, Bath and Beyond? Lime Fresh? Have to head up to either Tenleytown or Wheaton Plaza for your shopping needs. Oh, and waiting for the last Yellow Line of the night to take you up to Fort Totten so you can transfer to the Red Line? Or hoping the Rush Plus service will guarantee you a quick visit to Prince George’s Plaza? Sorry, kid, but this Yellow Line terminates at Mt. Vernon Square. And what the heck is Rush Plus?

Columbia Heights
Facade on Irving Street, 2006. Later part of DCUSA. Kyle Walton
Wait, come back! I’m not finished! Don’t turn away- look at it! It’s barren, isn’t it? Who indeed would choose to move here after graduating from college? Bet the giant price tags of Georgetown, Foggy Bottom or Dupont Circle look pretty appealing.

But this is what it was: Columbia Heights in a primitive state. You made the most of what you had and spent your money elsewhere.

However, I’m not always an unfair cynic when it comes to discussing my hometown and its overnight development. Given Metro’s still-relevant track record with delays while they continue to improve the Metro experience at the expense of your patience -- paraphrasing, but you get the point -- I did not expect Columbia Heights to flourish anytime soon. I have been proven wrong before: both Franconia-Springfield and Glenmont, two stations under development for as long as I could remember, opened after a long wait. Soon enough, the same happened with Columbia Heights.

And then someone hit the Fast Forward button on what you folks call a DVD player, but we refer to it as a high-tech VCR.

September 18th, 1999: Columbia Heights Metro station opens for the Green Line. With that brought new visitors to the area, but still nothing to call Columbia Heights a neighborhood where you’d want to live. The tourist still doesn't mark Columbia Heights on their places to visit, not because it’s not a booming residential area, but because it’s lacking in DC paraphernalia.

But if the living adverts in The Express are an indication of anything, a nearby Metro station means apartments and homes. And with apartments and homes come businesses. And with businesses come jobs.

DCUSA today
The idea of a Best Buy, Target or anything resembling a mall or shopping center in my neck of the woods still baffled me. Why here? There’s no market for a shopping center here since most folks shop elsewhere. No way could you get the popularity and demographics of, say, Georgetown or Foggy Bottom. No offense to residents of either of those areas- they’re fantastic places, but they’re also easy targets for an unsuccessful attempt to be snarky.

Another far off dream that would take years to come to fruition.

In his 2008 piece, entitled “A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights,” Washington Post writer Paul Schwartzman started off by saying “To stand at 14th Street and Park Road in Northwest Washington is to behold a new world created at whiplash speed.” Whiplash is the correct word. Someone at DC USA saw something in Columbia Heights worth developing, but again, having a Metro station has to factor into that. Would stations like Gallery Place, Pentagon City, Silver Spring or Clarendon be as popular as they are if they were not surrounded by restaurants, apartments or bars and movie theaters? Doubtful.

The same I will say for Columbia Heights. Prior to around 2005 and 2006, the Metro station just provided a means to get from Point A to Point B, not to set up shop. Sure, the Tivoli Theater had a brief jolt when it reopened in the mid-2000s, before it housed the Z-Burger, but few businesses could open here and thrive unless they appealed to the base demographic living here at the time: a demographic that continued to find business elsewhere and handed its money to downtown DC or sought entertainment in Maryland or Virginia. That drove money away from Columbia Heights, so how indeed could such an area flourish if the few residents have no reason to invest?

You put a shopping center here, some apartments there, here a bar, there a restaurant, everywhere another car blocking the intersection at 14th and Irving and you get the Columbia Heights of today. The game changed and more folks flocked to the area.
You know the Giant at 14th and Park? Would you believe that a Giant used to exist where the Allegro Apartments stand right now? It happened.

Now the neighborhood is not flawless. We still had the shooting at the IHOP last March. Heck, just two Saturdays ago, as I walked home, I saw a group of women get robbed by a man who they said had a gun. He ran off toward towards the church at the end of 16th Street. Point is that despite the neighborhood’s development, the mixing bowl of races that have diversified what used to be a predominantly Black population; Columbia Heights still has a lot of the crime that makes people hesitant to move into these areas.

I’m reminded of native Washingtonian Dave Chappelle’s 2000 comedy special, “Killin Them Softly,” when he talked about leaving DC in the 1980s. Whites would look from their binoculars, afar in Virginia, and conclude that DC was still a dangerous place to live. Now folks ride their bikes and jog through Columbia Heights at night, take their dogs for walks, stop by FroZenYo for an afternoon treat before heading downtown to hit the clubs. Hint-hint, nudge-nudge, say no more, folks. You know what to do.

What’s happening in Columbia Heights is a trend I’ve seen expand throughout most sections of Northwest DC. When locals of the “Chocolate City” becoming more of a Swirl City, it’s evident just looking at whose moving into the neighborhood. The city that they and I have known for years is changing, but in my opinion, not for the worst. More money remains in the city and the District begins to look like a whole rather than just downtown symbolizing the District of Columbia.

Like everything else, here used to be nothing but empty space.
Columbia Heights is having its identity reshaped rather than removed altogether. I’ll admit it’s a prettier sight to see businesses bustling rather than signs telling me that Columbia Heights Metro station will be coming soon. Folks stick around here now. I’ve stuck around since 1998 and have enjoyed the neighborhood’s evolution. Despite having next to nothing to draw folks in, for me, it was a good enough place to live then and it’s a better place to live now.

Just not better than Georgetown or Foggy Bottom.


  1. The level of condescension in this made it annoying to read.
    The photos are nice.

  2. Haha, agree with the above comment. I wonder if "there was never anything here, I'm native!" includes pre-1998, as there were once many people and many things. Also, were the Columbia Heights and Petworth stations really that much of a "far off dream" in 1998? Is a year really that far off?

  3. 1998 isn't that long ago, but the neighborhood is completely different since then. I think that's one of Omari's main points.

  4. I came away from it thinking the main point was that the only way to grasp that the Z-Burger and Target haven't always been here was to hear it from a "native." I'm sure that wasn't the intention, but it made reading this difficult when that point kept coming back up.
    Did I mention how awesome the photos are?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Now that I'm actually at a computer...yes, the point was mostly the neighborhood's evolution. I was not here prior to 1998, so I cannot speak to that period. If I was, I would very much have, but cannot. In regards to the tone, what can I say? I have a very dry, sarcastic sense of humor. If it comes off as condescending, then that's one person's opinion to another. That's how I write and talk.

  7. I caught the author's point. As someone who grew up in DC, moving to CH in 1988, I can also say that although there was a lot of hope and tenacity and hard work going on to bring those "coming soon" signs to the neighborhood, I was also always cognizant that way more had been there and come before my tenure. It would have been nice to contextualize the building era further. Contrary to popular opinion the planning and work to revitalize CH didn't start in the '90's. If you look at the plan that was achieved by local activists working with architects and planners at Howard, it's pretty much the same as where we landed. Only no one thought that this neighborhood (or most of the neighborhoods in DC for that matter) would become quite so high priced.

  8. Nice writeup except the very last sentence.


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