Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gradually and then suddenly: Comparative Changes in Another C-Heights

(the NYT discovered Columbia Heights around the same time it started venturing out to Crown Heights)

Every now and then, ILFA hops on an interstate bus on a Friday afternoon with a few friends from high school who live in the NYC area, and we head south to our nation's capital. This isn't business - despite my best efforts, ILFA has yet to be read into the Congressional Record - and we don't make for the Mall, the Capitol, or any of the other sights. Our destination is Columbia Heights, where we spend the weekend with the other half of this decades-old crew doing, well, what twentysomething high-school friends do when they're all back together.

Given our mild allergies to high-paying jobs and our predilection for rambling discussions on all things city-related, it's no surprise that these trips have yielded a fun and fruitful back-and-forth about the comparative gentrification of these great Heights, which have proceeded, in many ways, in parallel fashion. I'd always meant to make more of this comparison while I was writing ILFA, but now that I'm wrapping things up, I've finally recruited Columbia Heights local (and former bandmate and teammate of ILFA's) Colin Richardson to give those of us up in Brooklyn the skinny on what gentrification looks like below the Mason-Dixon line. It's a post in a similar spirit to pieces like this and this, which ILFA put together a year or two ago for HuffPo. Without further ado:

Columbia Heights, Washington DC: For Better and Worse, Richer Not Poorer
By Colin Richardson
When I told people that I moved to the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C., in December 2006, I was greeted with many fairly similar responses: “Everyone I know who has lived there has been mugged;” “You realize that’s in the ghetto, right?” “That’s where white people go to buy drugs;” “I bike as fast as possible whenever I have to go through that neighborhood.” These are just a few examples, but they are representative of what I heard from people who had lived in DC longer than I had.
Needless to say, this unanimous opinion of my new neighborhood made me a bit nervous. The only businesses in the area were a small and lovely café, a Hispanic dive bar that always had police outside, and a hip dive bar called Wonderland. The rest of the neighborhood was mostly working class families, a few young white people who had moved to the area recently, and lots and lots of abandoned buildings. Since I had just seen the fourth season of “The Wire,” the abandoned buildings kind of freaked me out. But I didn’t have many options at that moment in my life: My lease had already expired, I was 22 years old, and had next to no money. In a tight housing market like D.C.’s, a dangerous house in the hand was worth a non-dangerous one in the bush, so to speak.
Well, things have changed quite a bit in the seven years I’ve lived here. Now when I tell people I live in Columbia Heights I am called a yuppie, or someone asks if that’s near the wine bar they like, or they ask if I live in one of the swank apartment buildings. One friend even calls the neighborhood “Columbia Whites.” Ouch.
For a twenty-something-year-old, seven years is a long time to live in one place (which is possible thanks to my oblivious landlord not raising my rent), so in some ways it is unsurprising how much has changed. However, the changes over the last decade are more dramatic than the three decades that preceded it. So what happened?
The riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, devastated Washington. Businesses shuttered, people fled for the suburbs, and a once-vibrant city was left a shell of itself with only extremely isolated pockets of prosperity in Georgetown, upper-Northwest, and Capitol Hill. In Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” he lives and spends his free time in Georgetown. Georgetown!
Things stayed much this way through the dark times of the 1980s and early 1990s. Waves of drug violence propelled America’s political capital to become its murder capital as well, when in the early ’90s there were over 1000 murders in a two-year span in a city of about 500,000. Then, in the mid- to late-90s, in what was a similar story in many cities across America, the crime rate began to fall, the economy boomed and things began to look up. This trend has continued and since the 2000s there has been rapid urban gentrification and Washington and other cities are safer and wealthier than ever. There were fewer than 80 murders in all of D.C. last year, and the city now has about 630,000 residents.
When I moved to Columbia Heights it was gentrifying the way Hemingway claims to have gone broke: gradually and then suddenly. The two big changes that started the process were the extension of the Metro system (ah, beloved Green and Yellow lines) and the building of a Giant, a large chain supermarket. These were the first steps that made the neighborhood much more appealing, especially for young professionals who worked downtown.
That was the gradual part. Then suddenly, a major development went up right in the heart of Columbia Heights. The appropriately named DC USA mall contained a Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Washington Sports Club, Marshalls, Chipotle, and what would any yuppie development be without the most ubiquitous yuppie chain of them all, a Starbucks. Almost immediately after DC USA’s completion, in the spring of 2008, a flurry of condos and nice apartment buildings sprung up around the development and the Metro.
What was once a hole in the ground and a picture of urban blight transformed into a yuppie magnet. In this case, the magnet is the size of a huge city block and the yuppies are like iron shavings.
In a neighborhood where there were only a few El Salvadoran restaurants, a coffee shop, and two nearby bars—then-dive Wonderland and the legitimately dangerous (if police presence is any indicator) dive the Acuario. The influx of young professionals and their money had a profound effect. Two abandoned buildings were replaced with an artisanal pizza place and an American beer bar that doesn’t serve any cheap beer. In the next few years a wine bar, a hip Mexican-American restaurant/bar, another wine bar (in the place of the Acuario), and a swanky 24-hour café/restaurant/bar opened. This was all on a three-block stretch of one formerly out-of-the-way street. Once the New York Times wrote a piece about it, it was clear that Columbia Heights had arrived. And apparently everyone who lived there was an alcoholic.
But the changes weren’t all craft beer, creative margaritas, and artisanal gin. Just recently, the lovely coffee shop went out of business. No longer can I walk across the street in slippers and short shorts to buy a cup of coffee or a muffin from a very friendly family while listening to classical music. I suspect that they lost a lot of business to the new 24-hour café. According to local blog Prince of Petworth, it opened in the early 2000s and was the first of the new businesses on 11th Street.
On one hand, I almost can’t even remember what Columbia Heights was like in early 2007, before all of the crowded new bars and the strollers, back when it seemed very necessary to walk lady friends to and from the Metro station that was just a few blocks away, and when living there gave me some modicum of street cred. On the other hand, I like the new bars, most of the pre-gentrification El Salvadoran places are still there (RIP Columbia Heights Coffee; good riddance, Acuario!), and it’s nice to feel safe in the place I live and will continue to live. Well, as long as my oblivious landlord doesn’t raise the rent.


  1. Great article. I visited Washington two weekends ago, and spent a lot of time in a neighborhood directly south of Columbia Heights, around 14th street and Avenue P. It appears totally gentrified now, with doorman buildings, many bars and restaurants---a poster describing the changes in the area told of how in the late seventies, gritty neighborhood residents fought to transform a high crime neighborhood into a solid one. But now, the area seems to simply existt for one class of person. Like the writer of the article, the changes make me feel more at home as a visitor, but at what price....?

  2. Great article. I can attest to the fact that I used to visit and be scared to take a wrong turn, but now I'm scared to order the wrong microbrew.

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  4. One striking incident that underscored the pains of gentrification was the rash of a few armed muggings right by the metro stop immediately after the mall opened. It was a clear illustration of the complication of dumping money and development into a changing neighborhood. The new Columbia Heights is very "nice", but for whom, and what does that mean?