The task sounds easy enough: Know your neighborhood. But in a city with rapidly changing demographics, that isn't easy anymore, if not impossible. One of the parroted beliefs of the anti-gentrification crowd is that when people move to the District, they make no effort to learn about the history of the city.
Judging from what I saw last week at the Mount Pleasant
Neighborhood Library, that's just not true. At the presentation, "The Rise and Fall and Rise of Columbia Heights: A lecture by Brian Kraft," interest was overflowing in the room. Literally.
More than 125 people packed the small meeting room to hear Kraft, a hobby historian, discuss the history of the now-popular, hipster-laden neighborhood. And while many were self-selecting history buffs, there was clearly a thirst for knowledge of the basic roots of the community where they lived. Some even brought their kids.
What they learned, in some cases, was surprising. Mary Catherine Howell, who attends Grace Meridian Hill Church, hadn't thought back past the 1968 riots when it came to the history of the neighborhood she lives in. To her, “history” dated to the 1950s and ’60s. Before the riots, it was a diverse, working-class neighborhood, even if divided, and was certainly not a burned-out mess.
"I just moved into the neighborhood really knowing a lot about the period of history related to the civil rights movement right before it, after it," said Howell, 25. "I think of Columbia Heights as a historically black neighborhood. I describe it to people like that, I think of it like that, and obviously, I should have assumed that something happened before that."
As part of his lecture, Kraft presented the information he has dug up and the maps he has built from archives in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library's third-floor Washingtoniana Room. And he did it without condescension or a bleeding heart. Just data. He is, in fact, quite a funny guy.
The crowd he played to was part knowledgeable, part clueless. When he quizzed it on the original name of Florida Avenue, more than a dozen voices immediately yelled out, "Boundary Street!" Like a teacher on a field trip for grown-ups, he replied "A whole room full of smarties."
But one point he touched on got to the true complexity of Washington's history. After court rulings determined that covenants that prevented minorities from buying property on specific blocks weren’t enforceable, the intermingling of societies wasn't so easy to define.
"When black folks moved from Pleasant Plains, they weren't moving into Columbia Heights. Columbia Heights was a white place. They were taking Pleasant Plains with them. They were stretching Pleasant Plains," Kraft explained. "This is the duality of place and identity of place, back in the days of segregation. For a while there, you had white folk living on, say, the 1200 block of Girard Street, who lived in Columbia Heights. And the black folks who lived next door to them, who lived in Pleasant Plains. And that's just the way it was."
For this presentation, you can thank a non-D.C. native. Ana Elisa de Campos Salles, an adult and teen librarian at the recently renovated branch at 3160 16th St. NW, who thought of the idea while at an interim facility on Mount Pleasant Street, around the corner.
Originally from Brazil, she wanted to find a way to welcome the community to the new facility. "Sort of as a welcome-back love letter to the neighborhood," she said.
She teamed up with Michele Casto of the Washingtoniana special collections division, which was trying to spread more of its collection to neighborhood branches. The result was the seven-part "Know Your Neighborhood" series.
"I just thought it was a natural fit. The Mount Pleasant neighborhood is such a wonderful and diverse community," said de Campos Salles, who has been in the District for eight years. "It's a fascinating city, because it has these two populations. It has the very transient, professional population that's here either for the politics or the business or that aspect. And then there is this other community that, sometimes, kind of tends to be forgotten, but it's so vibrant and local and homegrown. And the Mount Pleasant community has both. And that's one of the reasons we've gotten such a big draw."
With the program set to expand to Anacostia in June, expect more wide eyes to wander into libraries, looking for what they cannot see everyday. People say that history belongs to those who tell it. But these days in the District, it also belongs to those who choose to listen.
Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC