Marietta Smith remembers a time when she didn't have to go downtown for anything. There was shopping at Morton's department store, Mel's hardware, Murdick's food and credit union, and weekend movies at the Tivoli. "It was prettier than downtown. It was like a paradise. We had everything," she said.
But the riots on the 14th Street corridor after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 took away much of the splendor of the Columbia Heights neighborhood, a community that was one of the city's largest commercial districts in the 1940s and 1950s.
Today, Columbia Heights is a myriad of homes, apartments and commercial areas, still bearing the bumps and bruises of its past, but struggling to rebuild and recoup a flavor that many of its residents remember.
Forest Hudson, 70, who bought her house at 1355 Meridian Place for $12,500 in 1954, recalls a time when she didn't have to lock her doors at night and people could afford to leave their chairs, flowers and belongings on the porch. Columbia Heights, she said, was like the Georgetown of today.
"From 14th and Monroe to 14th and Columbia, there was nothing but valuable stores," Hudson said. "If you didn't do anything but window shop, it was a pleasure to go out," even after dark, she said. But during the riots, stores were burned, houses deteriorated and "I felt like we had had a war, and I couldn't understand why," she added.
Now some of the mostly two- and three-story, turn-of-the-century row homes, which have been boarded for years, rest in the shadows of buildings that have been built or renovated and turned into luxury condominiums and apartments. And a block away from dilapidated stores and an empty lot lies Columbia Heights Village, a modern apartment building for singles. They all reflect the double-edged character of Columbia Heights, an area that is both old and new, suffering and thriving.
Its people are just as diverse. A predominantly white community in the early 1950s, it is now a melting pot for blacks, whites and those of oriental and Hispanic descent. Smith, who has been an ANC commissioner representing the area for 10 years and a community activist since 1957, said that in the past two years the area has seen marked growth in Hispanic residents, most of whom have migrated from nearby Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan. Relationships among the various ethnic groups are peaceful and pleasant, she said, because "we're here for one common goal and that is to live and let live."
Smith said the 13,275 residents in the Columbia Heights community are like a cohesive family. "We all stick together," she said. Several blocks have groups that meet to discuss various concerns and neighborhood crime-watch groups that provide surveillance around the clock. There are also tenant councils and neighborhood planning councils. She said older residents take pride in the community, younger people less so. "Hanging" on the corner is a favorite pasttime for the younger set and drugs are a serious problem in the area, she said.
Nonetheless, Olalee Williams, one of the first residents of the new Columbia Heights Village and now property manager of the building, said the community is getting better. "It's improving even though there is a drug problem here. There's not as much destruction here. People are taking a chance building buildings here. It's more community oriented. It's like a togetherness here, an unsaid bond between us."
Homes in Columbia Heights, bordered by Spring Road and Harvard Street on the north and south and 11th and 16th streets on the east and west, have an average sale price of $77,772, but can range anywhere from $25,000 to $181,000. Smith bought her home in 1961 for $14,950, and today it is valued at $95,000.
There was a decline in selling prices in the 1960s because Columbia Heights was considered a high-risk neighborhood, according to Minnetta Coles, a city government residential assessor. Long-time residents were trying to sell and many homes were for sale, but no one was buying. It wasn't until urban pioneers in the late 1970s and early 1980s came to the area and began to buy and reconstruct. Even today, there are still many boarded and dilapidated homes in the area that continue to hold down property values compared to what similar homes would sell for in other parts of the city, she said.
Coles said many of the homes are excellent structures, like the large three-story semidetached houses in the 16th Street section of the community, but "they are being abused because there is just too much going on in those homes." Some may have as many as four or five families living in them, she said.
Despite deteriorating conditions in some homes, Coles said many homes still sell for double their assessment value, but there's no explanation why, she said.
Columbia Heights' climb toward renewal and development has been slow. Smith said, "We're not getting the money or the development we need." Plans to restore the area after the 1968 riots were stalled by high interest rates and the sagging economy in the early 1980s. Renovation of many brick and stone houses, where top federal and District officials and upper middle class citizens lived in the early 1900s, got a late start compared with other neighborhoods close to downtown. Renovation and construction of a commercial area is just starting.
One of the problems, according to John Nyarku, a city government planner for Ward One, is that many homes, some of them boarded, have absentee landlords, owners who are holding on to their property and refusing to sell in hopes that, with development, property values will rise. Another is that much of Columbia Heights, designated by the government as an urban renewal area, has to conform to standards set in the urban renewal plan, which takes time and money.
"There's no question that 14th Street is going to be revitalized," he said. Development in the Columbia Heights area of 14th Street includes the Riggs Bank Building office renovation at 14th and Park Road; the Columbia Heights Mall planned for the northeast quadrant of 14th Street and Park Road; and individual retail businesses such as a shoe store planned for the area south of Park Road. The U.S. Postal Service is planning a new facility on 14th Street between Columbia Road and Park Road. In addition, a Metro subway station is scheduled to open in the early 1990s at 14th and Irving streets. "We want to see the festive atmosphere that it used to be," Nyarku said.
Edna Worrell, 81, who lives in a two-story, six-room home at 1341 Meridian Place, said she would love to see the area revitalized, "but it won't be done in my day." Worrell paid $13,000 for her house in 1952, "at a time when you couldn't rent and you either had to buy or move in with someone else." She moved into the area because of the ready availability of transportation. "You could get almost anywhere you wanted to go," she said. Since then, she has been offered $70,000 for her house. But Columbia Heights is home for her. She doesn't plan to move.