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Amid the Turmoil, Columbia Heights Struggles to Revive

By Dana Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 24, 1996; Page E01

The corner of 14th and Irving streets NW in Columbia Heights is a mess. Residents carefully pick their way across the street, past the fences erected by Metro for construction of the Green Line. Cars and buses slowly snake through the intersection, waiting for workers to signal them forward.

The lengthy construction of the Columbia Heights Metro stop, scheduled to be completed in late 1999, is but one of the issues facing the neighborhood, but it's at the forefront.

"It's like going through a maze," said Delores Tucker, 66, a lifelong resident of Columbia Heights. "I couldn't believe it. They had part of the road closed off, and we had to detour all around."

Many residents feel that their neighborhood has been severely disrupted. They are unhappy about the growing number of rats they see and about ugly construction sites -- they're muddy, and neighbors complain about debris left by contractors. Traffic often slows to a crawl up and down 14th Street, a major thoroughfare. And some homeowners have reported cracks in their ceilings and foundations, which they assume were caused by drilling into the ground.

"The living conditions around the construction sites are hazardous," said Lenwood Johnson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who has lived on Columbia Road since 1978. "And the rats over there are absolutely horrible." A second Green Line station, Georgia Avenue-Petworth, is also under construction nearby.

D.C. Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), whose ward includes Columbia Heights, voiced similar concerns.

"A development project as big as Metro really does disrupt the community," Smith said. "I've heard a lot of complaints about how dirty it is -- there's trash and rats and debris from all of the digging."

Normally, Columbia Heights' location makes access to other areas easy -- 14th Street provides a ready way to Silver Spring to the north, or downtown and across the bridge to Virginia. It is convenient to Howard University and adjacent to Mount Pleasant. Technically, the boundaries of the community are defined by 16th Street, 11th Street, Harvard Street to the south and Spring Road to the north. Yet its limits expand when you talk to the residents, who consider the area as far south as Florida Avenue and as far east as Georgia Avenue to be part of Columbia Heights as well.

"I live on Sherman Avenue," Tucker said. "It's more than central. It's the greatest place to be as far as public transportation is concerned. I can catch a bus on Irving Street to Catholic University or Fort Totten, or walk a few blocks and catch an H bus all the way to Wisconsin Avenue."

Long home to many middle-class African Americans, Columbia Heights has had a steady influx of Latino and Asian immigrants as well as other changes in its traditional demographics. The large, turn-of-the-century houses, many of them Victorian, have been discovered by artists and students hoping to save money by living in group homes. And many older owners are holding on to their residences rather than moving out of the city, in hopes that a revitalization is just around the corner.

"The train of thought is that once you leave here, you'll never be able to afford to come back," Tucker said.

The rich history of Columbia Heights -- birthplace of Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer -- is intertwined with the April 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In Washington, Columbia Heights was hit very hard as rioting spread down 14th Street and along U Street. Once-thriving businesses along the corridor were gutted, and many have never reopened.

Crime and drug trafficking increased in the years after the riots. A multitude of dilapidated property, much of it owned by the city, attracted drug dealing and prostitution. Neighborhood activists such as Dorothy Brizill point to the number of vacant scattered- site public housing units as a source of crime in the community.

And the "Shotgun Stalker" -- who terrorized Columbia Heights and neighboring Mount Pleasant in a spree of indiscriminate shootings that left four people dead during the spring of 1993 -- did little to dispel the neighborhood's dangerous reputation.

Economic development has been slow to come to the area. Most businesses are small concerns, such as barbershops, liquor stores and convenience stores, although there are a Woolworth's, a Shoe World and a Riggs Bank on 14th Street.

But residents hope change is coming. "I think you'll see what happened along U Street happen up here," said Smith, referring to the chichi string of nightclubs that popped up after the U Street-Cardozo Metro stop opened. "There have been individual pioneers along 14th Street for years. I think that the subway, when completed, will revitalize the area. But it's a mammoth construction project. If you're a business, the wait is just terrible."

Though the construction frustrates many residents, the prospect of Metro access is a selling point to home buyers.

"The market is kind of hopeful," said Jay Feldman of Weichert Realtors, which is attempting to sell at least 15 properties in the neighborhood. "We're seeing activity in the listings that we have. Prices move in anticipation of things happening. Anyone who waits for Metro to be finished and then tries to buy will be disappointed."

According to Feldman, "The housing stock is truly gorgeous. Some of the Victorians are amazing. . . . And you get a lot of house for what you buy." Prices range from just over $100,000 up to the mid-$200,000s.

Beyond the chaos of the Metro construction are other promising beginnings. Some Columbia Heights residents are exploring the idea of applying for historic status with the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation; a small coalition of neighbors hopes to see the gutted Tivoli Theater restored; and between 14th Street, Park Road, Monroe Street and Holmead Place, residents tend to the sprawling Tivoli Garden. Started five years ago on a vacant lot, the community garden is filled with big leafy heads of cabbage, almost-ripe corn and sunflowers with heads so heavy that they droop. Each of the more than 100 plots costs $5 to neighborhood residents, who have been eager participants.

"Our motto has always been 'planting a garden and building a community,' " said Juliette Smith, one of the original organizers of the project. "And it is amazing to see the different types of growing procedures that people use."

It is things such as the community garden that most residents mention when asked what keeps them committed to their neighborhood, despite its problems.

Said Lenwood Johnson, "I'll be here till Columbia Heights throws me out."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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