By Katie Seitz, Host Committee Member
Just two neighborhoods east of Woodley Park, past the cool green expanse of Rock Creek Park and the hilly residential neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, is Columbia Heights. This neighborhood has become well-known for its diverse communities, the plethora of excellent restaurants and shopping options, and the community feel created by a central plaza and fountain. Its history and the changes it has gone through exemplify the best and worst of the shifts in DC over the last twenty years – to understand its history is to understand much of the struggles of modern-day DC residents.
The land that we now know as DC was first the home of Native people, the Piscataway, Anacostank, Pamunkey, Mattapanient, Nangemeick, and Tauxehent. The Smithsonian, the National Park Service, and the Library of Congress have online resources that give a glimpse into pre-colonial Native life in the heavily trafficked trading area of the Chesapeake region, the impact of colonization and genocide, and resistance and cultural continuity between then and now.
The DC government’s page on DC Emancipation Day (April 16, 1862, which is celebrated as a DC holiday to this day) gives a short history of the early days of slavery and waves of African American resistance in the District. For an excellent in-depth look at the ways the neighborhood developed and changed through the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular focus on African American communities, walk the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail or check out their online guide. The Heritage Trail takes its participants on a loop around the neighborhood to see sites of social justice activism, gay black history, slavery and resistance, and literary and artistic achievement. The Over the years, Columbia Heights has been the home to many luminaries, from musician Duke Ellington and diplomat Ralph Bunche to writers Carlos Fuentes, Jean Toomer, and Marita Golden.
From the 1970s on, Columbia Heights has been home to waves of immigrants from El Salvador, the Caribbean, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Vietnam. However, since the 2000s the multicultural, working class nature of the neighborhood has been threatened by gentrification and the rising cost of housing, forcing out many longtime residents of color. While the spirit of Columbia Heights is alive, the future of the neighborhood as a multicultural, economically diverse mecca is uncertain.
Today, most visitors, if they’re not headed to the Target, are likely in Columbia Heights for the amazing food and nightlife. Most evenings in the summer, the small plaza at 14th and Park Roads NW is alive with neighborhood residents gathering to watch children play in the fountain, to talk, or simply to sit and watch the world go by. Columbia Heights (and adjacent neighborhoods) boast incredible restaurants across the spectrum of cuisines, price points, and levels of fanciness. Here are some representative examples, chosen with an eye to variety and as places where the community gathers.
Meals from $5-$15
Pupusas, El Salvador’s crave-worthy national dish of griddle-fried, stuffed tortillas, are obviously served at Pupuseria Maria (3915 14th St. NW), but make sure to try other things on the menu, especially the yucca con chicharron. Nearby is Taqueria Habanero (3710 14th St. NW), which boasts of being “99% Mexican.” The tacos, huaraches, and tortas are the best in DC, so expect a short wait at peak hours. NuVegan Cafe (2928 Georgia Ave. NW) is a legendary black-owned vegan soul food restaurant that serves both a killer mac and cheese and home-pressed juices and smoothies in its loungey, hip location. Pho Viet (3513 14th Street NW) is always packed with people hungry for their signature pho and grilled meats.
Meals from $15-$30
Letena (3100 14th St. NW), tucked on the Park Road side of the looming Target at the Columbia Heights metro, is an excellent Ethiopian restaurant serving a wide variety of meat and vegetarian-friendly dishes. (Hint: the vegetarian sampler works for omnivores too!) Thip Khao (3462 14th St. NW) is DC’s only Laotian restaurant, but its lack of competitors doesn’t stop it from offering incredible food and cocktails. Reservations are recommended for peak times.
Meals from $20 and up
Bad Saint (3226 11th St. NW) was named Bon Appetit’s 2nd best restaurant in the country in 2016. This small, beautifully appointed Filipino restaurant has been packed ever since. Pay attention to their website for instructions on getting a table.
PLACES OF NOTE
Visit Malcolm X Park (officially Meridian Hill Park) on 16th Street between W and Euclid Streets NW. Come on Sunday afternoons at 3pm for the drum circle, a DC institution, or anytime to walk along the shaded walkways and Italianate fountains. It’s both beautiful and rich in history.
For a standout example of Mediterranean Revival architecture, the Tivoli Theater at 14th and Park Roads NW cannot be missed – literally. It’s visible from the metro station and takes up most of the block. This important piece of Columbia Heights history now houses the GALA Theater, a national center for Latino performing arts.
Columbia Heights is most easily accessible from the Wardman Park Marriott by the Circulator buses, which cost only $1 per ride. It’s also a stop on the Green and Yellow metro lines. Visit the WMATA website for routes that include buses, fare estimates, and times.
We are excited to welcome you to Washington, DC, and hope this glimpse into the past and present of Columbia Heights makes you want to visit. Come, learn our history, and grab a bite to eat!