Where We Live: Columbia Heights

Photo courtesy of
’11th Street NW Rowhouses’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

Another Friday, another neighborhood.  This week’s Where We Live focuses on a neighborhood that has reinvented itself over the past ten years, Columbia Heights. Columbia Heights has a lot to offer, from beautiful residential areas to the massive new DC USA development, and it’s got a pretty neat history too.  Read on to learn all about Columbia Heights.

History: Columbia Heights was originally a horse track and farmland directly outside the boundary of the City of Washington, and it was also the original home of Columbian College (which eventually became George Washington University).  In 1881, Senator John Sherman purchased a whole bunch of land in the area and named the development Columbia Heights, in honor of Columbian College.  In 1904, the college moved down to Foggy Bottom.  The federal government purchased some land and built Meridian Hill Park, and the area became an upscale neighborhood that attracted federal workers and military officers.  In the early 1900s Columbia Heights was one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city, and attracted a number of notable residents.  By 1914, four streetcar lines connected Columbia Heights to downtown DC.

The neighborhood began to transform from a suburban neighborhood to an urban center in the early part of the twentieth century, with the construction of larger apartment buildings and the Tivoli Theater in 1924.  Columbia Heights was adjacent to the thriving black communities of Shaw and U Street, and became home to more African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century.  Then, of course, the 1968 riots happened.  Residents moved out, stores remained vacant for decades, and Columbia Heights lost its luster.

Photo courtesy of
‘DCUSA Shopping Center’
courtesy of ‘Getyourshoeshined’

Fast forward to 1999.  The Columbia Heights Metro station opened, which jump-started development in the area.  By 2005, the character of the area changed, with a new grocery store and some retail redevelopment.  But the largest development opened in 2008: DC USA, with such retailers as Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Best Buy. This development has solidified Columbia Heights as a major retail destination in the District, and a thriving mixed-use neighborhood in the city.

Photo courtesy of
‘Green. Very Green.’
courtesy of ‘kimberlyfaye’

Neighborhood Character: Let’s be honest here: despite the redevelopment happening in Columbia Heights, parts of the neighborhood still have a reputation for gangs and drugs.  A couple weeks back, the Washington City Paper had a cover story about an area just three blocks north of the DC USA development, where drug dealing had taken over a public park.  So while there is a great deal of new development in Columbia Heights and residents generally feel safe, there are still ongoing issues with crime (just as there are in many DC neighborhoods).

Because of the level of redevelopment in the area, there is amazing balance of new development mixed with older development, of historic rowhouses and new high-rise condos, and of big-box retail next to local small businesses.  It has the best of both worlds in many respects, and residents love all that the neighborhood has to offer. Andrew, author of New Columbia Heights and resident of two years, says, “Everything I need is within a short walk — groceries, restaurants, bars, Target, friends, parks!”  The author of The Heights Life and Columbia Heights resident of 3 and 1/2 years, had this to say: “It truly is a neighborhood. You get to know your block, you have friends from around the area, and you know your local business owners. DC residents are fiercely loyal to the city and I think those who live in Columbia Heights are more so than others.”

Photo courtesy of
‘columbia heights’
courtesy of ‘aliciagriffin’

Transportation: With all of the recent development in the area, the transportation network has kept up, and now Columbia Heights has a great variety of transportation options.  There’s the Columbia Heights Metro station, on the green (and sometimes yellow) line, and there’s great bus service too: the 52/53/54 buses that run up and down 14th Street, the H2/H4/H8 across town, and the S2/S4 that run up and down 16th Street.  There’s also the new McPherson/Adams Morgan Circulator route that cuts ten minutes off the time it typically takes to get from Logan Circle to Columbia Heights.  Plenty of Zipcars live in Columbia Heights, and there are lots of bikes in the area too (but no SmartBike location yet).  Columbia Heights is easy to walk around and new public plazas make for a pleasant pedestrian experience.

What to See: There’s a lot to see in this part of town:

  • The Columbia Heights Heritage Trail opens October 24.  This self-guided walking tour will tell you all about the history of this great neighborhood.
  • There are so many great restaurants to choose from in this area.  Some neighborhood favorites are Pho 14 for pho and sandwiches, Sticky Fingers Bakery for great vegan baked goods and sandwiches, and local coffee shops Columbia Heights Coffee and Pan Lourdes Bakery.
  • There are also a number of great bars, including Wonderland Ballroom for a great beer selection (Andrew recommends sitting out on the patio when it’s nice out) and Room 11 for wine, beer, and gin tastings.
  • You’ve gotta check out the drum circle at Meridian Hill Park at least once on a Sunday.  A real cross-section of Columbia Heights shows up: “families, kids playing soccer, young people picnicking and playing lawn games, plus lots of drumming and dancing if you’re into it,” says Andrew.

Neighborhood Links: With all of the development happening here, you can bet there’s an active online community (and a really entertaining, fun one, actually):

  • New Columbia Heights is a great blog featuring information on neighborhood events, local businesses, and development.  It’s frequently updated and really gets to the heart of the community.  And you can follow @newcolumbiahts on Twitter, too!
  • The Heights Life is another fantastic blog that offers a side of snark while reporting on neighborhood businesses, development, and news.  Also follow @theheightslife on Twitter.
  • Columbia Heights News has great updates on neighborhood happenings and a community forum for residents to speak up.  The major news this week: grocery store Ellwood Thompson’s may finally be heading to Columbia Heights after all, even after original plans stalled.  A lease has been signed for space in the DC USA development, and Jim Graham recently won approval for tax credits for the grocer.
  • There’s a very active Columbia Heights Listserv too– with topics ranging from yoga classes to parking to new development and crime.

Photo courtesy of
‘Three Churches, One Corner, Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.’
courtesy of ‘adcristal’

Why We Love Columbia Heights: This neighborhood has changed a lot in the past decade, and today is home to everyone from young families to hipsters to long-time residents.  It’s a neighborhood that is finding itself in between two identities: it’s a rapidly developing retail and commercial center, but it’s also a medium-density residential neighborhood.  It’s home to yuppies living in luxury lofts, but it’s also home to low-income residents living in subsidized housing.  It’s one of the District’s most diverse neighborhoods– it truly feels like a cross section of the city.

The recent development in the area has made Columbia Heights a more desirable neighborhood than ever before (um, I would LOVE to live a couple blocks away from that Target). The neighborhood has changed a lot in recent years, and Columbia Heights residents are looking forward to a bright future.  The author of The Heights Life  says, “What I am really looking forward to is the continued growth of community identity. Look at the success of this year’s Columbia Heights Day and the opening of the new civic plaza at 14th / Park / Kenyon. They represent the start of something big.”

Note: I’m running low on DC neighborhoods I haven’t profiled!  Check out this list of previous Where We Live features, and if your neighborhood isn’t on it and you’d like to be interviewed about where you live, leave a comment or drop me an e-mail.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

4 thoughts on “Where We Live: Columbia Heights

  1. Shannon,

    Some thought and ideas:

    Shirlington – Shirlington Village has some good restaurants and shops, good hangout vibe with lots of dogs, new housing, coffee joints including Busboys and Poets, new Harris Teeter.

    Old Town Alexandria — The new Wilson Bridge with through lanes has unclogged the cosmic Beltway bottleneck there, the water taxis to National Harbor and Nationals Park, and Old Town won seven RAMMIES this summer.

    National Harbor (not a lot of living yet but worth a look)


    Del Ray (don’t miss Dairy Godmother and the chair that is marked for President Obama visit!)


    Silver Spring

    Also, you might try ranking the hoods you’ve done, because We Love Lists :-)

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