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White-wigged Masons envisioned the District of Columbia as a federal metropolis, but Parliament’s 1975 album Chocolate City gave Washington its most popular nickname. Still, anyone who overstays a summer internship knows that neither government bureaucrats nor the black community owns D.C. Instead, the city’s singular identity is forged where a transient, bourgeois culture collides with a permanent—and usually not Caucasian—underclass. Since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant—three diverse neighborhoods that throttle 16th Street as it plunges downhill toward the White House—have seen their share of such collisions. But the occasional spasm of violence is less frustrating than the constant tension between property owner and renter, black and white, white and Latino, Latino and black, African-American and African, and between the cops and all of the above.
Borrowing its moniker from an integrated committee formed in 1955 to facilitate school desegregation, Adams Morgan is now less notable for its political conscience than its embrace of the party line—“party” being the operative word. Eighteenth Street’s debauched, Bourbon Street-like nightlife defines the neighborhood by highlighting its deep divisions.
As mobs of drunken frat boys, government flacks, and Eurotrash swarm for jumbo slices and falafel on any given Friday or Saturday night, their Dionysian revelry and Virginia license plates identify them as tourists in a nabe where gentrifying yuppies call in noise complaints from overpriced condos that tower over low-priced rentals that house a struggling African-American population whose beef with an invasion of Ethiopian restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, and cab drivers has evolved into the District’s least-discussed race war.
A showcase of diverse shopping, eating, and drinking options (Crooked Beat Records, Perry’s, Meeps, Lauriol Plaza, Meskerem) and crumbling urban infrastructure (Marie Reed’s abandoned outdoor swimming pool, Marie Reed’s grimy indoor swimming pool, Marie Reed’s oft-abandoned basketball courts), Adams Morgan is a puzzle—it’s simultaneously cheesy, exhausting, exhilarating, and tedious. I once witnessed an argument between two fruit vendors in front of Tacos Pepitos Bakery: As cumbia blared from a nearby CD vendor’s display, one man nonchalantly removed an enormous knife from a mango and waved it at his adversary until he allowed himself to be disarmed by a passerby. It was an Adams Morgan kind of moment—the threat of life-or-death conflict, but not life-or-death conflict itself, played out against a chaotic background.
There is nothing chaotic or unpredictable, however, about the story of Columbia Heights. We know not only the equation—1968 riots plus 1970s white flight plus 1980s crack epidemic equals 1990s gentrification opportunity—but we have explained this neighborhood’s inevitable resurgence to D.C. expats so many times that the dialogue has become rote:
Q: Did a new Metro station in Columbia Heights really open in 1999, directly connecting a once-inaccessible neighborhood to both distant suburbs and downtown?
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Q: Is the Tivoli Theater—that abandoned hulk that somehow symbolized Columbia Heights’ fall from grace—now the home of the Gala Hispanic Theatre, refurbished next to an enormous new Giant?
Q: And a Target? And a Best Buy? And a UPS Store? And a Starbucks? And a Ruby Tuesday’s? And a Staples? And a T-Mobile store? And a Rita’s Water Ice?
Q: But that community garden still exists, right? You remember? The one at the corner of Monroe Street and Holmead Place where everyone could plant vegetables, right?
A: Wrong. That community garden is gone, and no one remembers it.
As waves of gentrification break west from Rock Creek Park, Columbia Heights has become a functional if characterless community rejuvenated by drywall dust. Meanwhile, the fading silhouette of drug corners is lost in the glare of a corporate retail Babylon, and Nob Hill—Washington’s oldest African-American gay bar that stood for almost 50 years at the corner of 11th and Kenyon—has been replaced by an aptly named white-hetero 20-something playground: Wonderland.
But if Adams Morgan is the District’s New York and Columbia Heights its Disneyland, Mount Pleasant has always been its place apart. Settled at the end of a streetcar line at the dawn of the 20th century by well-to-do government workers seeking refuge from downtown bustle, Mount Pleasant’s tree-lined streets have absorbed sweeping demographic changes.
Riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination solidified the neighborhood’s African-American/Salvadoran identity; more riots in 1991 after a D.C. police officer shot a Salvadoran man left the neighborhood under curfew for four days and kept gentrifiers wary. Still, artists and musicians crept into Mount Pleasant group houses in the 1990s, and the District’s burgeoning punk scene blossomed at the Embassy of the Nation of Ulysses near the corner of 19th Street and Park Road and at Irving Street’s legendary Pirate House.
As real estate prices rose, neighborhood busybodies armed with a 1987 historical designation checked the malling of Mount Pleasant Street (the main drag has a 7-Eleven and a Bank of America, but no Starbucks) as they waged an ongoing war on live music (including mariachis!) at a parade of very confusing community meetings. As a result, Mount Pleasant sports a healthy collection of local businesses offering limited nightlife (Don Juan’s, the Raven, Marx Cafe) and diverse dining (Burritos Fast, Adam Express, Tonic).
Though Mount Pleasanters battle over how these joints may behave—Do they deserve a public space permit? What about live tunes?—they aren’t incapable of consensus. Judging by the outpouring of community support for 200 people left homeless after an apartment building went up in flames on Mount Pleasant Street earlier this year, they may even secretly enjoy one another’s company.
• Don’t discount the Dollar Star on Mount Pleasant Street just because Target is nearby. This shop—where one can purchase umbrellas, socks, party balloons, Madonna light-up clocks, drum sets, guitars, and trumpets—redefines the term “variety store.”
• Jerusalem Cafe on Columbia Road was opened by a disgruntled former employee of the much-lauded Amsterdam Falafel. The employee may not be enjoying his revenge: Jerusalem Cafe, slightly less accessible to the 18th Street crowd, is often empty, but his restaurant offers better food and a frat-boy-free atmosphere.
• Your dog may like to play with other dogs, but what about more exotic wildlife? Take him for an off-leash run at Walter Pierce Park as Rock Creek deer look on and National Zoo primates caw at the sunrise.
• Those with a sweet tooth may balk at Sticky Fingers’ prices, but the bakery’s surprising popularity and mostly understated ethical stand—all vegan, all the time—make it a Columbia Heights can’t-miss. Just park your fur coat outside before entering.