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Partners:
  Incoming Trains Carry Hope

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 1999; Page C01

In the homesteads of lifelong neighbors, the crowded apartments of recent immigrants and the gorgeous Victorians of young professionals, the residents of Columbia Heights--Washington's most diverse square mile--have varied impressions of the wave of change that is about to crash over them.

"I can't see a downside," said Carl Remy, 45, standing in the 1300 block of Irving Street NW, where he grew up, admiring the new Metro entrance rising from the rubble he has lived with since the shops on 14th Street NW were looted and burned during the riots 31 years ago.

"Things are getting better and better, but you've got to look at prices and how high are they going to go," said Maria Marquez, 18, who came here from El Salvador and is troubled by rising rents.

"This is one of the last places in Northwest Washington where you can buy a whole lot of house for not a lot of money," said Tom Costigan, 42, a real estate agent who moved from Capitol Hill into a Victorian row house at 10th Street and Spring Road with a double lot and a carriage house. "This is Adams-Morgan 30 years ago."

Passionate and clear-eyed Columbia Heights learned the hard way to be skeptical of such daydreams about the future. The nearly 30,000 residents at the center of the District mostly have focused on the here and now--cleaning up after the 1968 riots, holding down two jobs, learning to live among people of different races, languages and incomes.

Suddenly the future is tangible, and it amounts to much more than the Metro station that opened yesterday at 14th and Irving streets NW. Home prices are on the rise. There are bidding wars to purchase property near where, six years ago, the killer dubbed the Shotgun Stalker hunted victims and tarnished the neighborhood's reputation. A recent Columbia Heights house tour was crowded.

In two weeks, former Washington Redskin George Starke plans to move into a house he is renovating in the 1300 block of Kenyon Street NW. "I've always liked this part of town," said the former lineman and "Head Hog," who runs a vocational school nearby. "It's a nice mix of people."

The city has given tentative approval to $149 million worth of development--including a Giant Inc. supermarket, a partially restored Tivoli Theatre, movie screens and stores--on blighted blocks close to the Metro station, where previous building plans have stalled.

Neighborhood pride blooms on the elaborate Columbia Heights Web site (www.innercity.org), where readers can download oral histories recorded by residents.

And change is on everyone's lips.

"It's like a sick child who was given another chance to live," said Gracie Rolling, director of Change Inc., the aptly named neighborhood social services agency where Rolling has watched Columbia Heights evolve for 34 years.

The sickness is still in evidence. There were four killings last month, some tied to drug disputes. The blocks with beautiful homes and gardens also contain boarded-up houses that attract squatters.

Competing visions of what kind of development is best have divided residents seemingly along class lines, according to some residents.

The proposals, approved Sept. 9 by the city's Redevelopment Land Agency, included entertainment offerings such as a Jeepers indoor amusement park. The plans carried great weight with working-class families tired of taking public transportation to the suburbs for such amenities.

"The key is that it had entertainment for our youth," said Mack James, 44, a lifelong resident and advisory neighborhood commissioner. He will commute by Metro to his job managing an Au Bon Pain downtown.

Marquez, the El Salvador native, is enrolled in Columbia Heights YouthBuild, where young people learn academic skills and help renovate nuisance properties. She recently wanted to throw a birthday party for her daughter, Brenda, 3, at a place like Jeepers. But planning a Metro bus and rail route was too complicated, so the party was held at Pizza Hut on Georgia Avenue NW.

"Which is not so fun," Marquez said.

But many other residents with more experience analyzing development proposals held an extensive public planning process that yielded design principles with no room for a Jeepers. Better for a neighborhood of modest means would be big-box stores, such as a Target, they said. They also favored preserving the entire Tivoli as a performance space, and they supported developing more of the blighted lots near the Metro station--proposals the redevelopment agency rejected.

"Not doing all of the parcels means they aren't going to get done," said Elizabeth McIntire, a Columbia Heights resident for 25 years and an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "The city has no vision."

Whatever development eventually comes, advocates for poor people and immigrants say business opportunities must be reserved for local entrepreneurs, and new housing must include affordable units.

Columbia Heights is bounded by 16th Street on the west, Spring Road on the north, Sherman Avenue or Georgia Avenue on the east (depending on whom you ask), and Florida Avenue on the south. About 70 percent of the residents are black, and nearly one-third are people of Hispanic ancestry, who may be of any race, according to current estimates. Median household income is $23,000.

Latinos, mainly from El Salvador and Guatemala, have been moving in for the last two decades, while more non-Hispanic whites have arrived in recent years.

Aaron Hirsch, 31, an Internet consultant, moved into the neighborhood in May, after getting over his reluctance to live east of 16th Street. He couldn't afford to buy in Adams-Morgan, where he had been renting. He was one of four bidders for a five-bedroom house on 13th Street that needed a lot of work. He got it for $140,000--$5,000 over the asking price.

One of the first things he noticed: "The ice cream man comes to Columbia Heights."

All the children give Columbia Heights a different feel from Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant.

"It's the kind of environment I grew up in back home," said Sergio Luna, 36, a native of Guatemala, who rents an apartment in Columbia Heights but can't afford to buy a house there yet. "I just step out from my building, there's a bunch of kids running around. People are struggling with different kinds of situations, but we are smiling.

"That's why I like this neighborhood."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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