When I tell people that I live in Columbia Heights some look at me surprised, some stare at me with a questioning look, others look worried- even though most have never even been here. Located in Northwest D.C., Columbia Heights doesn’t have the best reputation among the young professionals that flood the city. Many still believe the stories told about this neighborhood from the 90’s, when D.C. was the murder capital of the country and this neighborhood was one of the hotspot for violence.
In Columbia Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods, African Americans rioted in the 1968 after MLK’s death. In 1991 the Latino community rioted in reaction to the death of a young Latino man by a D.C. police officer during a cinco de mayo celebration. Buildings and cars burned, stores were looted. In the hot summer months this neighborhood was and sometimes still is explosive, full of agitated, disenfranchised, young minorities fed up with the way they are treated. These days gangs like MS13, the Latin Kings and certain African American gangs hang out near this neighborhood, banding together, partially for protection, partially to get rich in the drug trade, partially to belong and feel validated.
Let me tell you how I see Columbia Heights. My sister and I live in an apartment building on the seventh floor. The hallways smell like fish, body odor, garbage, fried chicken, men’s cologne or any combination thereof, depending on the day. Bachata, the Salvadorian music of choice, blasts through the thin walls at any given point of the day. Immigrant workers live up to seven in an apartment that’s meant for one or two. We have the most beautiful view (if I crane my head really far to the right I can even see the capitol) with the most beautiful sunsets. I love it here.
I am sure you’ve all heard about gentrification, I have read oodles of articles about it myself- but nothing compares to actually seeing it happen before your eyes. If we take the intersection of 14th and Irving for example, you will see what I mean. On one corner you will find a woman selling sliced mangos that are eaten with salt and hot sauce (Valentina hot sauce is the preferred brand, mind you). Kitty corner from that is a Starbucks and a Target, across the street from that a homemade memorial for a young man who got shot last week in a gang related incident. There are old men who sit by the metro stop all day and smoke, a Potbelly’s, a street preacher, a woman selling sunglasses, many teenage mothers with their children, and a Best Buy. 14th street, which five years ago used to have boarded up buildings and prostitutes, is now a thriving commercial center.
While gentrification has brought a lot of safety and business to the neighborhood, it has also driven up rent to the point where many people had to move to the outskirts of the city in Maryland and Virginia. Still, Columbia Heights is now known to be the most diverse, both ethnically and socio economically, neighborhood in the district. There are free bilingual clinics, free bilingual charter schools, markets with fresh grown food that can be picked up for free, community centers that provide free breast cancer exams, diabetes tests, physicals, and eye exams, among other things. There are more churches than I can count that have food and clothing drives. There are so many opportunities for young, educated people like us to really help a community.
The diversity that exists here is completely natural, men, women, young and old, people from all over the world come together without the bias or discomfort you might find somewhere else.
So, what I want to say to those who don’t know: D.C. is great, Columbia Heights is great, you should come visit.