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Columbia Heights – Washington DC


Although it may be difficult to imagine, the now bustling neighborhood of Columbia Heights was once bucolic fields of family farms. The gentle rolling hills of yore counter-oppose the ambiance of today’s neighborhood.

The original main estate, Pleasant Plains, was owned by a family named Holmead, in then Washington County, part of the District of Columbia. Most of modern day Columbia Heights was found within the estate’s borders. But, in 1815, William Stone, who emigrated from England, purchased a 121 acre-tract from the estate and established his own residence called Stone Farm. Following his purchase, more of the estate’s lands were sold. And, by 1819, mansions, including one built by John Parker, began to dot the landscape. It was Parker’s mansion, in 1829, that became John Quincy Adam’s home when he left the White House. President Monroe, John C. Calhoun (a leading politician of the time from South Carolina) and the Marquis de Lafayette.

But education wasn’t the only draw to this section of town. Soon, Washingtonians started to flock to the area for entertainment. At a newly-built horse-racing track, located at what is now 14th and Irving Streets, locals spent hours watching the ponies. Although the track shut down around 1840, during the Civil War, many continued the trek up the hill to evade the District’s brutal summer. Also during the war, most students from the Columbian College left to join the Confederate ranks. The college’s empty buildings were then used as a hospital and barracks, with armies of volunteers assisting in war efforts. Walt Whitman was among these volunteers and worked on the campus during the war. He would write of some of this experience in “The Great Army of the Sick,” published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and the book called Memoranda During the War. Following the conflict, horse-drawn carriages delivered the smallish number of residents downtown for work and shopping excursions.

Step-by-step, the neighborhood grew in stature. As the population of Washington expanded, it started to become both a fashionable and convenient suburban enclave, though its territory was still in the District of Columbia. (This changed in 1871 when Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act, eliminating Washington County, and extending the boundaries of Washington City to be contiguous with those of the District of Columbia.) Then, in 1881, Senator John Sherman (author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act), bought the land north of Boundary Street between 16th and 10th streets. He developed this land, which included the original Stone Farm and part of the land tract owned by Columbian College, into a subdivision of the city. It was given the namesake of Columbia Heights, after the college, which had remained its core. The neighborhood was further endowed when the federal government purchased land from the Columbian College and built Meridian Park Hill (also, known as Malcolm X Park.) Within two decades, the area transformed itself into a bustling, not bucolic, residential neighborhood.

At the turn of the 20th century, upscale development took over the Heights, which was designed to attract upper and upper-middle class residents. Belmont, the imposing mansion that marked the neighborhood’s entrance at Florida and Clifton streets, architecturally and grandiosely illustrated the desired ranking that Columbia Heights sought in Washington’s affluent neighborhoods. And, those in its marketing demographics responded.

By 1900, high-level government workers, socialites and artists lived in the neighborhood. Among them, Sinclair Lewis (the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature), Ambrose Pierce (a leading journalist who disappeared in Mexico when embedded with rebel troops of the Mexican Revoultion) and the Eighth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Melville Fuller. Columbia Heights buzzed. Streetcars made it easy to travel downtown via the 11th, 14th and 16th lines and local shops and firms began to blossom. The Columbia Heights Citizen’s Association (one of the oldest in the city) sponsored competitions for landscaping and prizes to those who kept the best lawns and gardens.

Students provided youth and its full-time residents were the movers and shakers of the day. In 1904, Columbian University changed its name to The George Washington University in an agreement with the George Washington Memorial Association and pledged to build a campus near the National Mall in honor of the first president. And, by 1912, the campus had moved into the spaces it still occupies today in Foggy Bottom. This opened up more buildings and land to the growing community and further development took place. As the popularity of the neighborhood soared, so did its diversity. The neighborhood retained much of its upscale residential appeal and became the home of Washington’s thriving African-American middle class. Soon, well-established (and well-heeled) members of this community took residence in Columbia Heights. Duke Ellington, who grew up in the neighboring Shaw area, purchased his first house in Columbia Heights at 2728 Sherman Avenue. And, later, Marvin Gaye, would attend the Cardoza Senior High School. This trend would continue for decades, only enriching the neighborhood. But, then, in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., riots ravaged Washington. Columbia Heights was not spared.

The neighborhood was practically decimated by intense destruction. Shops, restaurants and even houses remained vacant for decades after the community fled and the area experienced a downward spiral. In 1999, the District of Columbia announced a revitalization plan, which targeted former neighborhoods that still had yet to bounce back to their previous forms. Columbia Heights was chosen as one of these neighborhoods due to its historic significance and also the Columbia Heights Metro stop (which opened that year.) Within five years, the gentrification process reclaimed buildings and houses, which were razed or refurbished, and now gleamed. Through the gentrification process, Columbia Heights has steamed towards progress. It still retains its original diversity while blending in modern Washington. It is a neighborhood where development is mixed and renovated townhomes share spaces with modern condominiums. As one of the most eclectic and cultural neighborhoods in the District, GALA Hispanic Theater, proudly stages plays here in the Spanish language to packed crowds. And, The Dance Institute of Washington, which moved into the neighborhood in 2006, offers programs and events for residents and non-residents alike.

The Ecuadorian, Lithuanian and Polish embassies have all made their homes here and offer a host of events. The Museum of Unnatural History, at 3222 14th Street, entertains those who visit. This non-profit, part of the 826 National, is one of eight chapters throughout the country and annually serves 30,000 students in tutoring, field trips and writing workshops. And, it is the only place where unicorn tears and primordial soap can be purchased. Some of the best restaurants and shops are also found in Columbia Heights. Pho 14 (winner of the Best Pho in DC award) and Room 11 Winebar are in this neighborhood, as are Sticky Fingers, The Heights Tavern and Red Rocks Pizzeria. Of course, IHOP, Starbucks and Chipotle are also both convenient and quick.

For those who live in this neighborhood, eating choices never fail. On Sunday afternoons, many can be often found at Meridian Park enjoying the Drum Circle, where a vibrant cross-section of residents is on display. Families, picnickers, young soccer players and dancers come to relax and enjoy the sounds of drums that echo through the neighborhood. Or, locals might be found in DC USA, which moved into the area in 2005 when opening opposite the Metro stop. Target and Best Buy support the mall as anchors but inside are also Bed Bath and Beyond, Staples and Giant Supermarket. And, Hollywood has come calling on Columbia Heights. The neighborhood has been featured in two major motion pictures. In the 1951 epic film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu the alien lived at 1412 Harvard Street. Forty years later, in 1993, In the Line of Fire, featured the Old Columbia Heights Firehouse in an action packed scene. To live in the Columbia Heights neighborhood is a treat. It is a neighborhood that understands its past and is proud of that past, yet, continues to seek the modernization of its future.

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