That scene, in a nutshell, describes the neighborhood of 14th Street Heights. Filled with people who have lived there for decades, it’s a middle-class community with a neighborly vibe. But it’s also a quiet place where, besides Highlands, there isn’t much going on — and there are some who wish that would change.
You won’t find 14th Street Heights on every list of D.C. neighborhoods. Centered on 14th Street NW and lying about a mile and a half north of Columbia Heights, it’s almost wholly surrounded by 16th Street Heights, and its homes are generally listed as belonging to that larger community. But newspapers from the early 20th century described the neighborhood as 14th Street Heights, and the name has had a resurgence in the past decade.
That might be due, in part, to the jaunty signs that mark the neighborhood’s commercial strip. Put up years ago by an economic development organization that no longer exists, they proclaim “14th Street Heights: Shop and Dine.” These days, the signs seem more hopeful than realistic. Although the three-block shopping area is neatly maintained and holds a number of restaurants, commercial options are otherwise limited to hair salons, a discount furniture outlet, a mattress store, and Ruff & Ready Furnishings, a secondhand-furniture store that recently relocated to the area.
It wasn’t always like that. In the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhood served as a streetcar suburb, with lines that ran downtown and a big streetcar barn on the eastern side of the street. The population was as high as it’s ever been, and the strip was booming.
Al-Malik Farrakhan, who runs a community center just south of Decatur Street, grew up there and remembers it being crowded with services. There was Campbell’s drugstore on the corner, and a hardware store and Chinese laundry across the street. Of course, it was a very different neighborhood then. “When we were coming up, we couldn’t come into any of these stores,” he says. Farrakhan is black, and the neighborhood was almost wholly white. By the early 1960s, though, it had almost completely turned over.
Over the next few decades, 14th Street Heights’ fortunes mirrored those of the broader city. Its population declined, and a crack epidemic that swept the area in the 1980s and ’90s meant the streets were no longer safe. Meanwhile, the low brick streetcar barn turned into a Metro bus barn that’s still there, taking up several blocks of the eastern side of 14th Street.
Just about everyone who stuck it out remembers the bad old days. “There used to be people standing on the corner selling drugs,” recalls Johnny Duarte, sitting on the porch of his Buchanan Street rowhouse. Like most of his neighbors, he’s been in his house for more than 40 years. “Now it’s better; it’s been better for 10 years.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine now that the neighborhood was ever that bad. The streets leading and east and west off of 14th Street are neat and peaceful, with well-kept yards fronting cute rowhouses and huge single-family homes in Craftsman, Foursquare or Colonial styles.
But some residents and business owners say they think the neighborhood could advance further. They see the success that Highlands Cafe has experienced and envision a self-contained 14th Street Heights, one that has enough commercial offerings to truly serve its residents.
Count Taalib-Din Uqdah, executive director of the 14th Street Uptown Business Association, is leader of that movement. Though his home is a couple of blocks north of the neighborhood, he owns property on the strip and has been working to develop the commercial area for years. He started out by planting tree boxes, but these days he and his group have graduated to holding promotional events for the neighborhood.
This summer, Uqdah held a three-month-long “Summer of the Arts” festival in collaboration with the D.C. Office of Planning and the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities. The schedule included a wide range of music performances, drum circles and family movie nights, and it culminated Aug. 4 in a big street fair.
“Everything we’re doing is to increase the numbers of people visiting,” says Uqdah. “We’re trying to show folks that there’s something here.”
Uqdah recognizes that the neighborhood doesn’t necessarily have the population to support a range of stores, and that’s why he’s been advocating that Metro move its bus barn so that the existing structure can be turned into a mixed-use project with townhouses and apartments. It’s not that radical. In fact, the Office of Planning released a report a few months ago recommending the same thing, pointing out that greater population density could turn the area into a thriving retail zone, and the transit agency is talking of seeking a new location for the transit station. “We’d like to see it moved to a more suitable location,” says D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who represents the area.
Meanwhile, Uqdah and his fellow small-business boosters face another opponent. Just one mile away, a Wal-Mart is under construction. Uqdah isn’t under any illusions about what that will mean for the neighborhood. “I don’t have a problem with Wal-Mart per se,” he says, “but I know it’s not going to be good for our neighborhood.”
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.