Columbia Heights has long been one of this city’s worst neighborhoods. If you’re looking for crime, check out how many gang shootings have taken place there over the past several years. If you’re looking for nonstop concrete and minimal green space, Columbia Heights has it. Other drawbacks: nasty disputes over the development of 14th Street NW, drab brown-brick row houses, and a brutal mixture of speed bumps and drug dealers.
Yet there’s hope. Eight hundred and thirty residents of Columbia Heights belong to an Internet message board dedicated to improving the neighborhood. Since the publicly available digest’s 1999 debut, it has registered nearly 17,000 posts. Residents use the service in the same way truckers use CB radios: to deliver trouble alerts and trade advice on the rules of the road. Just replace “I-95” with “14th Street” and you get the idea.
In other neighborhoods, discussion topics on e-mail lists often reflect luxuries not available in Columbia Heights. For example, a Shepherd Park resident years ago shopped an idea to her group called “Fair Commute Day,” on which motorists would pledge, “I don’t cut through your neighborhood, you don’t cut through mine.” On the same message board, a man expressed scorn for the “black bituminous product” that the city uses to patch potholes on concrete streets. A woman on the Brookland neighborhood’s digest told of her daughter’s frustration with a noisy mockingbird. So the woman shared with her neighbors a poem—“Mockingbird”—that she’d written for her sleep-deprived child. Finally, a man in Takoma asked how early in the morning he could fire up his lawnmower
There’s not a lot of time for such chatter in Columbia Heights. The people who crowd the neighborhood’s discussion board want change to happen fast. If they’re recent arrivals, they’ve bought small homes at prices exceeding $500,000. In the urban narrative that they’ve invested in, that corner liquor store, long a blight, will become a coffeehouse soon. That pothole-ridden street will quickly be paved over by a D.C. government flush with cash from the real-estate boom. And that group of junkies will shortly be outnumbered by law-abiding new residents.
To some extent, that story is playing out in Columbia Heights. The 80-year-old Tivoli Theatre has been renovated and reopened. All the commercial elements of an urban renaissance—restaurants, condos, arts spaces—are set to crop up along 14th Street. Just ask anyone in the mayor’s office—Columbia Heights has turned the corner.
The Social History of Gentrified Columbia Heights—that is, the neighborhood’s e-mail discussion group—lays out a more complicated account of the transformation. Here, in small, 60-word spasms, residents tell of the digressions that their fairy-tale urban narrative has taken. Sometimes the troubles are as trifling as getting some lip from the cops for repainting a call box. Other times, they involve divisive judgments about race, class, and respect. You know, gentrification.
In December 2001, Josie Lecraw Nelson was in a bind. Her normal cat sitter wasn’t available, so she had to find a substitute. In the process, she discovered that her neighborhood was something of a liability.
Nelson recounted a conversation she’d had with a potential pet sitter:
Pet-Sitter: “What part of northwest?”
Me: “Columbia Heights”
Pet-Sitter: “We don’t go east of 16th Street. Are you east of 16th Street?”
Me: “Are you KIDDING?”
Pet-Sitter: “We just dont have the capacity.”
Anthony Nigrelli had the same problem in November 2002. Negotiations with one prospective cat sitter broke down when the feline handler discovered Nigrelli’s address. “He was averse to walking into Columbia Heights from Mt. Pleasant and felt unsafe on Irving Street in particular…and definitely would not go near 14th Street!” wrote Nigrelli. “Aargh! I told him there were lots of dog and cat owners on my block (1300 Irving) and he was missing out on a big market.”
In July 2000, Aaron Hirsch and a housemate decided to perform a community service. In the spirit of neighborhood renewal, the pair set about painting an old city call box at 13th and Harvard Streets NW. They didn’t just paint the call box; they painted it in a “whimsical style.” They got hassled by the cops. “The officer said that we have to get a permit if we’d like to continue,” Hirsch wrote.
In July 2002, John Thomas had had enough of his new neighbors’ obsession with security alarms and thug dogs. “The first thing you do when you move here is throw up bars on your windows, and walk around with your big attack dogs. And now you’re obsessing about alarms? Why on earth would someone move to a neighborhood, if you have to be this fearful to live in it?” Thomas asked. “The kids probably know that you’re scared of them….I see the way that I’m looked at by many of the ‘newcomers’ when I walk around the neighborhood.” He ended his rant thus: “I wish one of you would try to sick one of your attack dogs on me. I’ll pick up a stick and beat the crap out of the mutt.”
Cultural Studies, Part 1: In May 2001, William Jordan lamented that real diversity is a pipe dream and that Columbia Heights’ version extends only to the eating of ethnic food—“yet all important decisions should be left to the ‘Great White Father’ or his agents.”
In June 2001, James Huber was having some work done on his back yard. The digging flushed out a “rat bigger than my 12lb dog.” Huber felt terrible about the eviction. “I would like to know where that rat is now it had brown hair and dark eyes with a long tail. Since it has been living there for a long time I can’t help but feeling a little guilt for having it displaced,” Huber wrote.
In August 2001, Melissa Knutson Leifert and her husband were trying to maximize the charm of their historic row house. The idea was to take a sledgehammer to their kitchen wall, thereby exposing the wonderful brick of the structure. “What I now have is a wall of tar covered brick,” Leifert wrote. “Has anyone ever successfully removed this? We heard about Peel Away 2. Anyone used this?”
In January 2001, James Huber asked: “Does anyone know if there is such a thing of rat repellant and where to get it?” He added, “I looked at home depot last weekend and didn’t see anything but poison.”
In January 2003, Caroline Polk proposed an idea for improving the behavior of local kids. Polk urged the start of a new program “whereby neighborhood residents could purchase tokens or coupons that they could then give to kids who are behaving well (e.g. responding to adults who say hello to them, throwing their snack food packages in the trash can, being nice to little kids). The coupons/tokens could be redeemable at the corner stores for treats (e.g. 3 tokens or coupons = 1 candy bar).”
As any exterminator will tell you, rats thrive on a steady supply of grains and soft, warm places to make a nest. Although Melissa Knutson Leifert’s newly landscaped garden presumably had neither of these qualities, she wondered in June 2001 whether it had become a rodent magnet. “Could the mulch actually be attracting rats?” she asked.
Cultural Studies, Part 2: By August 2001, “boytwirl” had been living in Columbia Heights for six months and had loved it—except for the creeping feeling that “others” thought he was taking advantage of his poorer neighbors “because I am a newcomer, white, well-educated, professional, etc. In particular, the term of ‘re-gentrification’ has been tossed out to me on numerous occasions and I resent it vehemently.” He added: “I may have had some advantages in life and may be considered wealthy by some but that doesn’t mean that I’m required to live in Chevy Chase.”
A Columbia Heights resident who goes by “zupancic3” set aside any politically correct sensibilities when describing the intersection of 11th and Lamont Streets NW. “The corner is basically an illegal-immigrant-outdoor-corona-pub.” The poster concluded with this thought: “Also, if the police would just stop and run a metal detector across anyone who is out walking past 12 AM, the city would be a much safer place.”
When Target announced a deal to put Starbucks mini-outlets in its department stores, Columbia Heights activists got excited. Target was slated to open a store in the neighborhood, and locals realized they might be getting a twofer. “Fabulous,” wrote Paul Larsen.
Larry Bellinger, however, had some misgivings. He was concerned that he would become part of an oppressive structure screwing over peasant coffee farmers in the Third World. In a discussion-forum post, Bellinger wrote that he’d “like to insist” that Starbucks sell only “Fair Trade” coffees in any neighborhood outlet. “I would be more inclined to pay the $3.00 and better for their ‘Tall’ cup (which is actually their smallest size) if I knew that the folks who actually grow the stuff are getting paid a fair percentage,” Bellinger wrote in October 2002.
In December 1999, prospective homeowner Ethan Fesperman cited an epidemic that many a Columbia Heights newbie could identify with: “Homebuyer’s Hallucination.” He explained that it wasn’t “visions of sugar plums, fairies, and other holiday delights” that disturbed his sleep. Nor was it a late dinner nor late sirens nor late street noise. “I sat up in my bed and glanced out the window of my first floor Connecticut Ave. apartment,” Fesperman explained, wondering what he was doing closing on a Columbia Heights row house. “Home buying is stressful, but buying into the politics, hopelessness, fear, frustration, vision, and turbulence of an entire community is an emotional rollercoaster. Columbia Heights will not let me sleep.”
Michael Leary, a self-described Columbia Heights newcomer, complained in August 2000 that it was hard to relish the trashy landscape of his new block, at 14th and Fairmont Streets NW. “I have taken to picking up garbage myself each night in an effort to demonstrate to the renters and passers-by that our street is a neighborhood and the folks that live here do care,” Leary wrote.
Cultural Studies, Part 3: In January 2001, it dawned on Valerie Mitchell Sigwalt that no one wants to be poor. “Economic diversity is bull-shit….Some of you posting here might like to be Bwana—the big man taking care of our little brown, yellow and black brothers,” Sigwalt wrote. “But realistically in the interest of diversity—who among us would willingly be the economically disadvantaged.”
In response to Sigwalt’s post, Dave McIntire produced a roll call of non–Columbia Heights residents who chose to be poor, among them Ralph Nader, farmers, Van Gogh, Mitch Snyder, and Gandhi. He asked: “Who was Jesus Christ?”
In November 2002, Columbia Heights resident “zupancic3” offered a lesson in how to gentrify the corner store—one bottle of Chimay at a time. Offering this bit of unsolicited advice to “Arthur’s Grocery,” the neighbor wrote: “I would start with selling a few microbrews, and some decent wine.” Zupancic3 conceded that the unsolicited inventory plan might shove Steel Reserve off the shelves, but argued: “In business, if you don’t adapt to changing times, you may not be in business anymore.”
Sometimes all it takes to start dreaming of Reston is a snow day. After receiving two $250 tickets for parking along a snow-emergency route, “alarikf” announced an intention to leave Columbia Heights in December 2002. “The hell with this damned city,” alarikf wrote. “I gave it a shot. It sucks, it will always suck, and I am leaving for the suburbs as soon as I get the damned chance. The hell with this—at least somewhere else I might be respected as a taxpayer instead of taken advantage of as a shill.”
After being mugged outside of her house for the second time in three months, “adcvictim” wrote in December 2002 that she as a white woman was a “perfect target for disgruntled, disrespectful, mean-spirited, violently and criminally-orientated black youths…. I am now so scared I will cross the street when I see a black youth(s) approaching or behind me (and you should to or you may be the next victim).”
Urban blight finds a way into the most personal of disputes on the Columbia Heights group. In October 2001, a resident who goes by “madixon” wrote to a neighbor following a disagreement over the rental market: “See your doctor about Prozac….I recommend you wiping the shit off your nose and getting off your lazy ass and keeping our alleys clean, sidewalks swept, and patrolling our neighborhoods to keep the peg-legged crack whore from Fucking her John’s behind my garage at 2 am.”
Cultural Studies, Part 4: All residents can be lumped into categories, insisted Dave McIntire in January 2001. “Although it is not my cup of tea, it seems to me that humans tend to naturally segregate….It can even be seen with newcomers to Columbia Heights,” McIntire reported. But he’s not one of those people: “I would speculate that there is some kind of genetic ‘tribal’ nature in most people and that I have a ‘recessive’ version.”
Forget the sound of gunshots at 3 a.m. Forget the neighbor who won’t shovel the snow from his part of the sidewalk. And forget the trash that isn’t picked up on time. Nothing angers a person quite as effectively as a dog defiling the yard. In August 2004, a Columbia Heights resident who goes by the handle “nomore dogpoop” demanded that the neighborhood’s dog owners cease allowing their pooches to use private property as a giant shitter. “Continue to allow your dog to soil my space and face an all out war,” nomore wrote. “I will follow you and I will smear dog waste all over your house, your car, your dog!”
In May 2004, “Xavier” wrote that you can do more than just threaten a dog owner. He reported that when he confronts offending dog walkers and they give him, well, shit, he gives it back. “I pick up the shit and throw it at them,” he wrote. “I generally don’t prefer this method since it results in a dirty and smelly hand but the dogs don’t come back.”
A Columbia Heights resident in August 2003 recounted a positive experience at the CVS outlet on 14th Street NW. The service was satisfactory, reported the resident, and the place was relatively clean. However, the resident did have one complaint—that “one of the cashiers—a male—had a bandanna wrapped around his head,” which gave him the look of a “thug.” Although acknowledging that such an accessory might be “considered a fashion thing/or a style,” the resident declared it “inappropriate” for a work setting.
For gentrifier-on-gentrifier envy, nothing beats the rivalry between Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. Mount Pleasanters say their neighborhood has nicer architecture and a better commercial strip. Columbia Heights people say they have more diversity and an authentic urban feel. Whatever they have, they’re always sniping at each other. In February 2004, a neighbor calling himself “Jack” proposed using public resources to bridge the divide—specifically, by renaming the Mount Pleasant Library the “Mount Plesant Pleasant and Columbia Heights Library.”
When the rumors of an IHOP moving to Columbia Heights hit the discussion group, the neighborhood’s proletarian-pie-in-the-sky crowd hit their keyboards. “Would it be possible for a local community group to own and operate [the IHOP]?” asked “Aidan” in January 2003.
When the topic of Section 8 housing arose on the e-mail group, “Big Ol Top” went to the extreme of ALL CAPS: “JUST WHAT WE ALL NEED, ANOTHER HAVEN FOR HOMIES, DERELICTS, DEGENERATES…” Top went on to dub Columbia Heights the “Homie Homeplace.”
Fritz Faerber wondered in July 2004 what Columbia Heights residents thought of the Duron paint stores moving to 14th Street. “Does this mean there will be large groups of day laborers gathered at the lot (not that I mind people loitering who are looking for work)?” Faerber asked.
Cultural Studies, Part 5: Forget about us—what about the digital divide? “Ben B” had been reading the e-mail discussion group closely, or at least closely enough to post this question, in August 2001: “Just wondering if the ‘poor’ you are talking about get a chance to voice their opinions.”
Cultural Studies, Part 6: For J. Thomas, sympathy comes down to tough love. “Sympathy and victimizing our ‘demographics’ doesn’t uplift them, but only serves as a crutch to leaving them crippled still…We should feel sorry for the children being mutilated in Sierra Lieone, not the rat farmers on 13th Street,” Thomas wrote in January 2001.
In Columbia Heights, neighbors judge neighbors not by the clothes they wear or the cars they drive but by the buildings they inhabit. In January 2001, some locals were fretting that a dumpster in the ’hood was taken over by unauthorized trash. As it turned out, one of the errant pieces of detritus was a “giant” Christmas tree, according to a post by David McIntire. As for the provenance of the tree, McIntire theorized that it hadn’t come from an ungentrified household: “That almost certainly didn’t come from a [Columbia Heights] Village apartment. It would have taken up an entire apartment living room and residents don’t generally have the resources to spend on such a frill.” Instead, argued McIntire, the mystery tree likely came from one of the homes on Irving Street that “Mark Barlet was judging for Christmas decorations.”
One of McIntire’s neighbors later responded that the tree had indeed come from the low-rent complex in question. “Why are You assuming that the residence of [Columbia Heights Village] can’t afford a tree?” asked James Huber.
A staple of Columbia Heights e-group chatter is the please-don’t-attack-me-for-saying-this line. In a December 2000 post, Mark Barlet pleaded with his neighbors: “Please note, I am just passing on information, don’t get mad at me.”
Why did Barlet fear a backlash? Because he was writing that a group of three young black men were robbing people near the intersection of 13th Street and Columbia Road NW. Barlet noted that he’d foiled a purse-snatching attempt by the trio. Then broadened his warning: “Please, Please, Please be careful when you are walking around the streets right now…there is a LOT of crime in the 13th and Columbia Rd Area, more than I have seen in a long time.”
Not everyone heeded Barlet’s plea for immunity. Lenwood Johnson wrote back: “So, what should one do when he/she sees three Black men around 13th and Columbia?”
Mark Barlet finally determined that the neighborhood’s problems could not be resolved over DSL lines alone. Just before moving out of the neighborhood, Barlet wrote a final salvo: “If many of you spent as much time working within your community as you do hitting the refresh button on your computer, Columbia Heights would be an unstoppable force….If anyone wants the information and contacts on the Decorating Contest, contact me.”CP
Additional reporting and writing by Rebecca Corvino, Mike DeBonis, Leonard Roberge, and Erik Wemple.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Derf.