Columbia Heights (Washington, D.C.)

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Columbia Heights is a neighborhood in central Washington, D.C.


Located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., Columbia Heights borders the neighbourhoods of Shaw, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Park View, Pleasant Plains, and Petworth. On the eastern side is Howard University. The streets defining the neighborhood's boundaries are 16th Street to the west; Spring Road to the north; Sherman Ave to the east; and Florida Avenue to the south. It is served by a subway station stop on the Washington Metro Green and Yellow Lines.


19th century

Once farmland on the estate of the Holmead family (called "Pleasant Plains"), Columbia Heights was part of Washington County, District of Columbia. (It was within the District but outside the borders of the city of Washington; the southern edge of Columbia Heights is Florida Avenue, which was originally called "Boundary Street" because it formed the northern boundary of the Federal City.) In 1815 an engraver from England, William J. Stone, purchased a 121-acre tract of the Holmead estate—east of Seventh Street Road (present-day Georgia Avenue), and north of Boundary Street—and established his own estate known as the Stone Farm. Nearby, construction of the first building for Columbian College, now The George Washington University, was completed in 1822 on the campus which was bounded by Columbia Road, fourteenth Street, Boundary Street (Florida Avenue) and thirteenth Street. The area began developing as a suburb of Washington soon after the Civil War, when horse-drawn streetcars delivered residents of the neighbourhood to downtown.

The northern portion of modern-day Columbia Heights (i.e., north of where Harvard Street currently lies) was, until the 1880s, a part of the village of Mount Pleasant. The southern portion still retained the name of the original Pleasant Plains estate, though it was additionally known as "Cowtown."

In 1871, Congress passed the D.C. Organic Act, which eliminated Washington County by extending the boundaries of Washington City to be contiguous with those of the District of Columbia. Shortly afterward, in 1881–82, Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Antitrust Act, purchased the land north of Boundary Street between sixteenth Street and tenth Street, including the Stone farm, developing it as a subdivision of the city and calling it Columbia Heights in honour of the college at its heart. (The neighborhood's eastern, major traffic artery, Sherman Avenue, is named after its early developer.) Much of Sherman's purchase was land belonging to Columbian College.

The college had decided to move into the centre of Washington's downtown business district and in 1904, changed its name to The George Washington University, in an agreement with the George Washington Memorial Association. By 1912 Columbian, now George Washington, relocated its major operations to Foggy Bottom. The federal government purchased a few of the college's former land and built Meridian Hill Park in the early twentieth century. The park, additionally known as " Malcolm X Park", contains a large number of statues of historic international and United States figures, including Joan of Arc, Dante, and James Buchanan.

20th century

Upscale development in Columbia Heights circa 1900, was designed to attract upper level managers of the Federal government, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and high-ranking military officers. An imposing mansion known as "Belmont" marked the entrance to the neighbourhood between Florida and Clifton Streets. The mansion was emblematic of the confidence that the affluent placed in the concept that Columbia Heights represented the ideal suburb. In the early 1900s, Columbia Heights was the preferred area for a few of Washington’s wealthiest and most influential people. Residents included authors Jean Toomer, Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis, Chief Justice Melville Fuller, and Justice John Marshall Harlan.

In 1901, the Commissioners of the District of Columbia renamed streets all over the District in accordance with a newly adopted street-naming system. [2] In Columbia Heights, Clifton Street, Roanoke Street, Yale Street, Princeton Street, Harvard Street, Columbia Road, Kenesaw Avenue, Kenyon Street, Dartmouth Street, and Whitney Avenue were renamed Adams Street, Bryant Street, Channing Street, Douglas Street, Evarts Street, Franklin Street, Girard Street, Hamlin Street, Hooker Street, and Irving Street, respectively. [2]

In 1902, there was a building boom in North Columbia Heights, with the expansion of the streetcar down eleventh St, fourteenth St and sixteenth St. Homes were being built for between $2,000 and $5,000 and a total of five million dollars worth of homes were being built. [3]

In 1904, the Columbia Heights Citizen's Association published an illustrated brochure entitled "A Statement of Some of the Advantages of Beautiful Columbia Heights." (PDF) The publication describes Columbia Heights as a “residential section populated by public and spirited citizens." Residents at that time were “ever alive to the mental, moral, and spiritual advancements of their homes surroundings." The neighbourhood organisation sponsored competitions for landscaping house lots and offered prizes to the best kept lawn and garden, at the same time fought the erection of street poles and overhead telegraph and telephone lines. 1904 was additionally the year that Congress authorised changing the names of streets to align with the alphabetical and orderly naming convention of the Old City (i.e., below Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue). The name changes were put into effect the following year. [4]

By 1914, four street car lines served the section providing transportation to downtown Washington in twenty minutes. The neighbourhood additionally became the home of the Washington Palace Five professional basketball team.

The popularity of the neighbourhood resulted in the construction of several large flat buildings throughout the beginning of the twentieth century that changed the suburban character of the area into a more urban and densely populated district. As of mid-century, however, Columbia Heights retained much of its upscale residential appeal, supporting establishments like the ornate Tivoli Theatre movie house (completed in 1924). The neighbourhood was adjacent to Washington's thriving middle-class black community and came to be home to a few of its most notable citizens by the 1930s. Duke Ellington, who had grown up in Shaw, purchased his first house at 2728 Sherman Avenue in Columbia Heights. Marvin Gaye briefly lived in the neighbourhood and attended Cardozo Senior High School.

In 1949, throughout the era of racial segregation in the public schools, Central High School, a white high school that bordered the southern edge of Columbia Heights, didn't have enough students. It was renamed as Cardozo High School and designated as a "colored" high school to accommodate the growing African-American population in the neighborhood. Significant demographic changes began in the late 1940s when African-American residents began to buy flat buildings previously owned by whites, and in the 1950s blacks bought individual homes in ever increasing numbers. The neighbourhood was a strong middle-class African American enclave in Washington, along with the nearby Shaw neighbourhood and Howard University, through the mid-1960s.

The neighbourhood was featured in various clips, and as the home of protagonists Helen and Bobby Benson, in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., riots ravaged the fourteenth St. Corridor in Columbia Heights, along with the commercial U Street corridor nearby, and a large number of additional Washington neighbourhoods to the east. Many middle-class residents moved out to the suburbs, resulting in a drop in business. As a result, a large number of homes and shops remained vacant for decades. Some remaining residents couldn't afford to move, and struggled with problems of poverty and violence related to drugs. In addition to African Americans, the neighbourhood had an increasing number of Latino immigrants and their descendants as residents.

Redevelopment and current day

In 1999, the city announced a revitalization initiative for the neighbourhood focused around the Columbia Heights Metro station, which opened that year. There had already been positive developments along lower fourteenth Street and the U Street corridor. The opening of the Metro station served as a catalyst for the return of economic development and residents. Within five years, the neighbourhood had gentrified considerably, with a number of businesses (including a Giant Food supermarket and Tivoli Square, a commercial and entertainment complex). Middle-class residents settled in the neighborhood. Unlike a few gentrified neighbourhoods in the city, Columbia Heights hasn't become homogeneous: as of 2006, it is arguably Washington's most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. Housing includes high-priced condominiums and townhouses, as well as public and middle-income housing.

On March 5, 2008, [5] DC USA, a 546,000-square-foot (51,000 m²) retail complex across the street from the Columbia Heights Metro station opened. The space is anchored by retailers Target and Best Buy. [6] The shopping centre additionally includes 390,000 square feet (36,000 m²) of underground parking. [7] A number of bars and restaurants have after opened in the neighborhood, including Pho 14, which was voted best pho in the Best of DC 2010 poll by Washington City Paper.


The 2000 census figures estimated Columbia Heights with a 58 percent African-American population, including a few African immigrants of the twentieth century and later, and government and professional class; 34 percent Hispanic population; 5.4 percent white population; and 3.1 percent other. [8] [9]

The 2010 census figures estimated Columbia Heights with a 43.5 percent African-American population, including government and additional professional class; 28.1 percent Hispanic population; 22.9 percent White population; 3.2 percent Asian population; and a 2 percent Other population. In 2012, Columbia Heights was named one of the fastest gentrifying neighbourhoods in the United States. [10]

Local institutions

In January 2005, the GALA Hispanic Theatre moved into the newly refurbished Tivoli Theatre as its first permanent home. This former movie theater, built in 1924, had been vacant after 1976. GALA is a theatre company dedicated after the 1970s to performing Spanish-language plays.

In November 2006, the Dance Institute of Washington opened a new 12,000-square foot (1,100 m²) facility across the street from the Tivoli Theatre. [11]

The neighbourhood is additionally home to the Greater Washington Urban League, the local affiliate of the National Urban League, in addition to additional non-profit community and service-based organisations including: The Latin American Youth Center, CentroNia, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), and the Shaw/Columbia Heights Family and Community Support Collaborative, all located along the fourteenth St. and Columbia Road corridor.

The Ecuadorian embassy is located on fifteenth Street and the Mexican Cultural Institute on sixteenth Street. Located next door to the Mexican Cultural Institute is the former residence of the Ambassador of Spain. The Spanish Embassy is working to adapt the former residence as a cultural facility. [12] The Polish and Lithuanian embassies are additionally located on upper sixteenth Street, in this Columbia Heights section, as is the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC.

The Banneker Community Center, a unit of the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation, contains playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, a swimming pool (Banneker pool), a computer lab and additional indoor and outdoor facilities. [16] The center's main building was constructed in 1934 near Howard University and named for Benjamin Banneker. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 because of its important role in the development of the black community in Washington, D.C. [18]


Residents are zoned to District of Columbia Public Schools.

Public schools in Columbia Heights include:

High schools
Middle schools
Elementary schools
Public Charter Schools
  • DC Bilingual Public Charter School
  • AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School
  • Capital City Public Charter School
  • Children's Studio Public Charter School
  • YouthBuild Public Charter School
  • The Next Step Public Charter School
  • Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for the Technical Arts

The 1993 film In the Line of Fire features a scene where a call from the John Malkovich character is traced to a building on Park Road. When the Clint Eastwood character and additional police officers arrive on the street, they spot Malkovich walking past the Old Columbia Heights Firehouse and a chase ensues.

Klaatu, the alien in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, played by Michael Rennie, boards in a house at 1412 Harvard Street for his stay in Washington.

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