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Adams Morgan Community – Washington, DC


Adams Morgan, the youngest neighborhood of Washington, did not exist until the mid-1950’s. Of course, the land, streets and buildings, which occupy this section of town did.

But it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that both the neighborhood and its moniker were established. The road heading north on 18th Street and its establishment was long and full of interesting twists and turns.

The hilltops of what is now Adams Morgan initially attracted Native Americans and Colonial settlers. Meridian Hill, specifically, was a sacred space for the tribes and they honored this land through rituals. Incidentally, Meridian Hill remains so. As recently as 1992, a delegation of Native tribes gathered together to walk across the United States and ended in this park. They mourned the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving to America.

At the turn of the 19th century, when Pierre L’Enfant designed the City of Washington, he did not include the area of Adams Morgan in his plan. Rather, L’Enfant ended the boundary line just below at modern day Florida Avenue. This was due to the hilly nature of the neighborhood and the inconvenience to future citizens of the city who relied on horses and their own foot power to traverse it. Only those citizens, such as John Quincy Adams, who had both the desire and the means to reach the area built on the land. Adams owned a stretching estate called Adams Mill (later to be called Meridian House) as did a few others. This remained so until the turn of the 20th century.

With the introduction of the streetcar, Washington sprung to life. The cars allowed people to commute to downtown while living in a ‘suburban’ neighborhood. The line that ran along 18th Street to Calvert drew residents into this expanding area. And, land prospectors came calling as well.

Perhaps the best known developer in Washington at the time was a woman by the name of Mary Foote Henderson. Married to Missouri Senator John B. Henderson, (who introduced the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery), she had a vision for the area. Henderson bought large tracts of land during the early 1800’s. Under her guidance, by 1890, large manses occupied 16th Street. She, herself, lived in an imitated castle at the corner of Florida and 16th Street (now Beekman Place Development) The constructed mansions were meant to lure embassy staff, which, they did. Many neighbors worked in embassies owned by Spanish-speaking governments. By the early 1900’s, these homes were filled with diplomats and their household workers. But, she also tried to take her ideas further. Attempting to persuade the Federal government to build a ‘new’ White House or Lincoln Monument in the area, Henderson developed a campaign. This ultimately failed but it did bring recognition and more residents to the neighborhood.

Throughout the early 20th century, the area today known as Adams Morgan, which formed its seams around Meridian Hill and Lanier Heights, blossomed. The colonials and Native Americans were replaced by younger, professional citizens of Washington. Meridian Hill became a fashionable district in which to live. The streetcar made it convenient. It contained beautiful homes and history. The hill, was the spot of the starting point for mapping the continents until 1884, when it was replaced by the Greenwich Prime Meridian. One of the neighborhood’s highlights was Meridian House (named after this honor), which was also the former residence of John Quincy Adams. Wealthier Washingtonians began to move into the area.

Likewise, Lanier Heights was promoted as Washington’s new ‘it’ neighborhood. Banker Archibald McLachlen and Smithsonian Institute naturalist George Brown Goode developed the area in the early 1900’s. Goode, who laid out the street plan, began a campaign to persuade fellow colleagues from the museum to purchase houses in the area. McLachlen built the Ontario Apartment building, in addition to townhouses, which ginned up interest. Lanier Heights attracted many members of Washington’s growing Jewish middle-class who were moving up the economic ladder. By the middle of the 20th century, prominent shops and restaurants also took up residence. Furs by Gartenhaus opened its doors in 1940. Avignon-Freres attracted the elite of the city, who stopped by for French pastries. Among its clientele – Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Lanier Heights became a bonified urban neighborhood.

However, during World War II, the area fell into decline. Residents began to move into true Washington suburbs and other areas of the city. Families of all economic status’ bought homes in the area. By the mid-1950’s, urban planners decided to promote a new version of the cobbled together neighborhoods. One that would fairly represent the diversity of the area and bring it all together. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Boiling vs. Sharpe, provided the inspiration.

Boiling vs Sharpe ordered the desegregation of American public schools in 1955. Planners of the area celebrated the decision by naming the neighborhood Adams Morgan. Adams, after the all-white John Quincy Adams Elementary School. And, Morgan, after the all-black Thomas P. Morgan Elementary School. Both schools fell within the boundaries of the new neighborhood. The naming was meant to signify the openness and welcoming spirit of Adams Morgan, which it did. By the close of the 1960’s, the affordable neighborhood attracted young people from all ethnic backgrounds, most significantly the Central American community, as it became a gateway community for immigrants. Residents from El Salvador and Guatemala moved into its region. And, although Adams Morgan is the home of Washington’s Latino community, as the neighborhood grew in stature, waves of immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean made their way to this diversified sector of the city. This has resulted in one of the most vibrant communities in the entire city.

This vibrancy and diversity are on constant display in Adams Morgan. Walking up 18th Street or down Columbia Road, Spanish, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, Mexican, Italian, Dutch, Vietnamese, Ghanian, Cajun, Palestinian, Peruvian, Brazilian, Indian, Israeli, Thai, Lebanese, Eritrean and Chinese restaurants demand attention. Of course, those are the eateries that are located on the main strips. There are also choice restaurants off the drag that delight foodies. Residents of this neighborhood can never complain for lack of choice but rather can embark on a global eating tour without leaving the city. Myriad shops and boutiques also entice the residents and visitors of this neighborhood. Whether it is a bicycle or patchouli, Adams Morgan is a fantastic place to lose yourself in shopping. It never disappoints.

The main event of the neighborhood – Adams Morgan Day – is celebrated every second Sunday in September. This street festival, full of live music, food samples and entertainment, showcases the eclectic nature of the community. It also displays resident’s pride in their neighborhood as the event draws Washingtonians from far and wide to participate. And, the Adams Morgan Farmer’s Market is one of the oldest farmer’s markets in the city. For over thirty years, every Saturday, residents of the neighborhood and city have purchased fresh produce and dairy from the vendors that gather. Afterwards, they can be seen window-shopping along the streets.

All neighborhoods of Washington have distinct offerings. Each supplies a convenience or a history or an environment that attracts. However, those that are exhibited by the Adams Morgan community are favorites among residents of the city. The restaurant and club scene are renowned throughout Washington. Its colorful shops are inviting. Its diversification is strong and not replicated in other areas of Washington. For the newest neighborhood in the city, it is one of the strongest.

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