Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Two miles north of the White House, Columbia Heights boasts a diverse population, a growing business core and a blossoming restaurant scene. But it’s also a neighborhood in transition. As housing prices rise, young professionals are moving in, while some long-time residents and businesses can’t afford to stay. Kojo in Your Community explores the debates over public space, personal safety and mapping the future in changing neighborhoods like this one.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington, WAMU 88.5 presents "Kojo in Your Community", connecting this neighborhood with the world. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. If you left the White House and drove straight up 16th Street, you'd hit the edge of Columbia Heights in less than two miles. This Northwest D.C. neighborhood began as a suburb filled with well-heeled residents and stately homes on a hill overlooking Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1968, race riots devastated the area, but a Metro station opened more than a decade ago on 14th Street bringing new life to the neighborhood's commercial core. Today, Columbia Heights has a racially diverse population, a growing business district and a lively restaurant scene, but the neighborhood's evolution has brought tensions, too. Young professionals are moving in as longtime lower income residents are priced out of the housing market. And sometimes, expectations clash over public space, over personal safety and over the direction in which the neighborhood is heading.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're exploring the changes taking place in Columbia Heights, and we're asking how well newcomers and old-timers are living and playing together here. Here to help us facilitate that conversation is John Chambers. He is founder and chief executive gardener of BloomBars, a nonprofit arts organization on 11th Street Northwest. John Chambers, thank you for joining us.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlso with us is Marian Siegel, executive director of housing counseling services. Marian Siegel, thank you for joining us. And Farah Fosse is director of the affordable housing -- the affordable housing preservation program at the Latino Economic Development Corp. Farah Fosse, thank you for joining us.
MS. FARAH FOSSEThank you.
NNAMDIAnd, Farah Fosse, I'll start with you. One of the challenges that -- in Columbia Heights is embracing the new without disenfranchising the old. Explain how you work with tenants when an apartment building goes up for sale.
FOSSEWell, LEDC works to educate and organize renters to preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement. Currently, we're working with about 70 tenant associations around the city. The majority are here in Northwest D.C. D.C. has actually the best tenants' rights laws in the country, and one of the really great ones that residents have the right to purchase their building when it goes up for sale.
FOSSEBut these rights don't mean anything if people don't know what they are and don't know how to access them. So that's where we come in, and we assist residents in working together to figure out a preservation plan for their building. That's the simple version. It involved financing. It involves a diversity of people working together and coming up with common goals.
NNAMDIHow's that been working out for you?
FOSSEWell, I think the law is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act is the best law that we have for preserving affordable housing in D.C. It's a really great process that has allowed thousands of tenants to become homeowners, to preserve affordable housing. The tricky thing currently is there's not enough financing. We really need to have public funding to make sure that buildings can stay affordable, and that's where the tension is right now.
NNAMDII listened to the discussion that we had the last time we were here in 2010, and during that time, one of our facilitators indicated that people were not aware that there was affordable housing in the area that was available to them, and they wanted to make people aware of that. Is that still the case? It seems to me that citywide the number of affordable housing or affordable housing citywide has diminished significantly.
FOSSEYeah. That's true. Actually, the statistic is that D.C. has lost half of its affordable housing in the last 10 years. That's defined as rental housing that costs $750 a month or less. So, yeah, definitely, what we have been seeing is true. There's a huge loss of affordable housing in an affordable housing crisis. There is still affordable housing, though, and we need to work to preserve that.
NNAMDIMarian Siegel, can you talk about the tensions that arise when newcomers and old-timers, if you will, have different expectations about the use of public space whether it's their own front porch or the sidewalk outside a restaurant?
MS. MARIAN SIEGELSure. Columbia Heights is known for its front porches, yet at the very same time, the tension arises when people start using the front porches, the front porches of their apartment buildings, the front porches of their house. When people start congregating, the tensions arise. Very often, after tenants do purchase their building and they are now owners of their fate, so to speak, their lifestyle might clash with some of the higher-income newcomers to the community. And we see that on a daily basis.
NNAMDIIf you have had that experience, please, raise your hand. Tell us about it. Tell us exactly how you happened to resolve that situation or whether it continues to be unresolved. John Chambers, you run a nonprofit arts group called BloomBars on 11th Street Northwest. Explain how you have tried to create a gathering spot for the whole community.
MR. JOHN CHAMBERSSure. Well, BloomBars, we've been around for about five years, and our mission is really simple. We want people to come into our space, and we like them to reach their full potential. And we believe that the arts has a very important part in that, so we work to unite and inspire compassionate and purposeful communities through the arts and nurture artists who are doing really good things in serving the community.
MR. JOHN CHAMBERSSo we try to create that space by really having an environment, creating an environment that doesn't have barriers for people to access. So we never turn anyone away at the door. We don't have any cover charge. We're all ages all the time, alcohol free, and we're a space that really just...
NNAMDIAlcohol free meaning you can get alcohol free or there is no alcohol there?
CHAMBERSI'm glad you asked me to clarify that, Kojo. Thank you.
CHAMBERSThere is never any alcohol allowed on the premises. So what you see is a great diversity of what we are in Columbia Heights, which is one of the diverse, most diverse ZIP codes in the country and has undergone tremendous transformation in a very short period of time. If you look at the new census data, it's pretty eye-popping, the changes that have occurred. We know it.
CHAMBERSWe see it every day as we walk down the street, and we see the changes. But to see the numbers is pretty extraordinary. So what we've tried to do over that amount of time -- and I've been in this neighborhood for 12 years now, I've lived in the city for 22 -- is, again, just create that space where we're welcoming everybody of all ages, of all ethnicities, of all income demographics to experience something that's a little different but intentional in the type of conversations that we want to have using art as a catalyst.
CHAMBERSSo you can see, you know, we have toddler programs. You can see babies. You can see mothers. You can see somebody bringing their grandmother and a couple on a date, and the couple doesn't feel like it's something uncool. But, again, I think what we're really focused on here -- and I'm so glad that you're doing this -- is having intentional conversations about these changes, which I don't think there are enough spaces like that having those conversations.
NNAMDIIs that why you created this space? You felt that if such a space was not created, then it would be difficult for a rapidly changing community to be able to live together, I you will, in harmony?
CHAMBERSThat's a big part of it. That's a big part of it. This idea, I think, was hatched a little bit prior to this big election that motivated so many people toward one candidate or another, and I saw, I guess, a little, you know, a forethought that there was going to be a need really at the grassroots to channel that energy after the election back into local nonprofit organizations. So I was doing something more on a national scale when a light bulb went off, and I saw a building literally right around the corner from my house I can throw a stone at it and said the change really has to start where I live.
CHAMBERSAnd again, I've lived there for about seven years at the time, felt like I was rooted in the community, although still a newcomer at that time because there's families that have been there for generations that this is the way that I could make that impact and start some of those conversations.
NNAMDII'd like to put that question to our audience here at All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights. What are the biggest changes you've seen in Columbia Heights in the years that you've lived here? Please raise your hand if you'd like to talk about that. Excuse me, sir. How long have you've been living in Columbia Heights?
MR. JIM GRAHAMI live in Adams Morgan, but I have a connection to Columbia Heights...
MR. JIM GRAHAM...let me tell you that.
NNAMDIWhat is the nature of your connection to Columbia Heights?
GRAHAMI'm your friend.
NNAMDIThe life of the party, yes.
GRAHAMI'm -- that's right. That's right. I'm Jim Graham. And I'm the Ward 1 councilmember, and you are in Ward 1. Bienvenidos.
NNAMDICouncilmember Graham, what are the biggest changes you have seen in Columbia Heights since you've been here?
GRAHAMWell, I think the central action was to take what were vacant lots surrounded by chain-linked fences -- they were contributing nothing to nobody -- and turning them into very productive spaces. And so you have some large buildings. You have the Target DCUSA. All of that came out of spaces that had really, for all practical purposes, had been abandoned, but we did something else, Kojo.
GRAHAMVery early on, we determined that we were going to keep our extremely low-income buildings that we're not only going to preserve those low-income buildings, 3,000 units from W to Oak on 14th Street and the corridor, but we're also going to rehabilitate each and every one of those apartments so that as newcomers came in, they could feel confident that they were coming into a situation where the old-timers, if you will, the stakeholders were being kept, and they're also being given very good housing.
GRAHAMAnd I think this is a key element in maintaining the diversity. I just want to say, Kojo, that we prize our diversity in Ward 1. We treasure it, and we have worked to keep it.
NNAMDIWell, now, that we have heard the official Ward 1 commercial, tell me...
NNAMDI...what do you feel are the biggest challenges you face yet in Columbia Heights?
GRAHAMWell, I think assembling diversity and having harmony in diversity are very often two different things. And I think that we have a lot of challenge in terms of really amalgamating the newcomer into the neighborhood and having the newcomer who we welcome for a whole lot of reasons appreciate the history and the diversity and really the excitement of what Columbia Heights is all about. But we have to communicate that better, and I think meeting like tonight really contributes to that.
NNAMDIIf you have concerns about how Columbia Heights is changing, please, raise your hand, and we will get to you with a microphone. Yes, sir. You're next.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1I'm concerned about something that was present and is not present now. On Irving Street, long before the development that took place on 14th and Irving, there was a post office, a U.S. post office. Where is that post office? There's no post office within walking distance, no post office at all in the neighborhood. Where did they go, and will somebody please replace that post office?
NNAMDIHave you also been noticing missing mail boxes that there are fewer and fewer mail boxes than there used to be before? A lot has to do with the amount of time you're spending online. But do you know anything at all, Jim Graham, about a missing post office?
GRAHAMYeah. We know where -- we know exactly where it is. It's on Georgia Avenue. It's in Georgia and Martin, and that's where the USPS and its infinite wisdom determined to move it. And it was a terrible mistake, and we need it back.
NNAMDIWe have another member of the audience here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1I do have a bit of concern. I've been a resident of Columbia Heights neighborhood for about three years, a little over three years now. Last November, I was maliciously attacked, and one of the things that I kind of had hoped would have come out of this situation I was searching around on the Internet for some kind of group or something that I could get together with.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1Basically, what I'm saying is that I had hoped that it would be easier for me to talk with members of my community instead of moving out of Columbia Heights to talk to people about how I can make my specific community safer, the kinds of routes I could do to, you know, make it safer for people like me. So I don't feel like I never want to move out of Columbia Heights. I love the diversity, and that's exactly why I moved here. And I don't feel like I should have to choose between the two.
NNAMDIMarian Siegel, different people have different opinions about what constitutes a threat to their personal safety. But if you get beaten up or mugged, I would consider that a threat to your personal safety. Can you talk about how that is dealt with, especially if it is a result not necessarily of a mugging, but a dispute between people who happen to live in the same neighborhood?
SIEGELWell, everybody wants safety. The residents that have lived here for generations have been looking for safety all through those generations as do the newcomers. And where the conflict arises, where there's this presumption that it's the individuals that are sitting on their porches, hanging out on the streets, perhaps, sitting at the fountain who might look different than you, act different than you who are the criminals. And that's too often where the finger gets pointed.
SIEGELSo, again, bringing communities together and making the diversity, not only in word but in action and not taking these presumptions that who are the criminals and who are not the criminals. The folks that have lived here for generations -- we look at W Street. Councilmember and I worked very hard on that particular street where there was a vicious beating and this presumption that the cause of these disasters are the long-term low-income residents.
SIEGELSo getting past that and to get together as a community with all members of the community, the diverse community to look at safety features, to talk to the police and to bring the police into the community and, in our case, where we've seen situations get out of hand, bringing the police into the community, having the police understand all of the residents of the community has had impact.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll continue our conversation about embracing newcomers without displacing those who already call Columbia Heights home. This is "Kojo in Your Community" at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you from All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. We're talking about how people live and play in a neighborhood in transition. You're listening to "Kojo in Your Community", and we have a member of our audience here. Go right ahead, please.
ELENAHi. My name's Elena, (sp?) and I've been in Columbia Heights for six years now. And I've seen -- well, six years ago, Target was still being built, and the whole 14th Street development was still being -- was still happening. And I am concerned as well as about some of the people that have been displaced, not only in some of the -- I was on 13th in Columbia for all of these years. And on my street, there is -- there's a few houses that were taken over, renovated and then re-rented out to higher-income folks.
ELENASo that's one concern. And I know that that's really prevalent in the community, and I'm glad that there's organizing happening in some of those buildings. My other concern that I want to bring up is similarly to -- on Irving Street, we used to have a shelter -- for our homeless shelter, La Casa, which is no longer there. I'm a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church, which is also in Columbia Heights. It has a huge Latino population. I myself am Latina.
ELENAAnd they also have a homeless shelter, a hypothermia shelter in the basement of the church that has been very overwhelmed because of the lack of shelters in the city. I know this is not just the Columbia Heights problem, but I do believe that the development that's come out of that has also have a negative impact on -- especially our homeless population and is causing an undue burden on a place like Sacred Heart Church, which is trying its best to meet those needs.
NNAMDIFarah Fosse, can you talk a little bit about the process of people leaving Columbia Heights? Some people say they are being displaced because they can no longer afford to live here. Others find it profitable to sell their properties because there -- because of the high property values here and move to another neighborhood or move out of the city entirely? Can you talk a little bit about that?
FOSSEYeah. I mean, we clearly are seeing people being displaced from Columbia Heights as -- particularly as rents are rising and as it's easier to turn over homes and the kind of thing you might have seen with single-family homes turning over. I think a positive thing in D.C., as I mentioned, is we do we have very strong tenant rights laws, particularly for multi-family buildings. And one thing that I would encourage people particularly newcomers is, if you live in one of those multifamily buildings, start or join your tenant association and support your low-income neighbors.
FOSSEI'm working with a bunch of buildings that are on the 16th Street corner right now just within a few blocks of where we are today that are currently for sale. They're very diverse buildings, and I think the positive thing there has been that people have getting together. And some of the newer higher-incomers residents are supporting the long-term folks. And I think that's a very positive thing.
FOSSEAlso, I just wanted to mention with the case of the shelters and homeless services is I think that's something that people -- with more taxes, we should be able to address those problems better, right? And so I think that as people are coming into D.C., you know, become a registered voter here, become a resident of D.C., which not everyone does, and support progressive policies that support -- making sure that everyone has a home.
NNAMDIAgain, we raise the question: do you know people who are forced to move out of Columbia Heights because they couldn't afford to live here anymore, if you'd like to talk about that? Do you feel safe in Columbia Heights? Are there parts of the neighborhood that you stay away from? Our last speaker mentioned that she is Latina. Farah, after 20 years in this neighborhood, the Latino Economic Development Corporation is moving its office.
FOSSEYeah. That's right.
NNAMDIWhere are you going and why?
FOSSEWe're actually following a lot of Latinos, and we're moving to Georgia Avenue next year. We've actually seen this neighborhood. Columbia Heights in Mount Pleasant have lost about -- since the last census, have lost about 25 percent of the Latino population. Meanwhile, the Latinos along Georgia Avenue, particularly the farther north you get within D.C., the population has grown in some neighborhoods by over 100 percent.
FOSSESo LEDC like Mary's Center and other Latino organizations is actually moving near the Georgia Ave. Metro so we can be more accessible and be where a lot of the folks that we work with are out. And we've seen that really because of price and housing stock here in Mount Pleasant in Columbia Heights and the lack of that.
NNAMDIHow well do you think long-time residents and young professionals co-exist in Columbia Heights, Shandra? (sp?)
SHANDRAI think the communities are trying really hard. I came to D.C. in 2001 and have lived in Columbia Heights since 2008. And I do talk to my older neighbors every time I walk down the street, how are you doing today? We know the locals. They know who I am. It's, for me, a safety issue. That's how I deal with sometimes when I feel a bit uncomfortable early in the morning or late night. I know my neighbors. I know if something happens and I scream, so and so is going to come out and see what's going on.
SHANDRAAs a young professional, I do try to be respectful of my neighbors who have been here a longer time. But one of the things I do love about Columbia Heights is my husband is Latino -- and he moved here a year and a half ago -- and it's been wonderful seeing him be able to integrate in the neighborhood and experience the American experience in the neighborhood that I love. But one of the things I am concerned about is, as a young professional, the neighborhood is getting too expensive for us. And we are thinking about leaving.
SHANDRAWe don't want to leave. I've lived here for six years now. I love Columbia Heights. We want to buy a house. We can't afford to. So we're looking on other places, which is sad because we want to stay because of the diversity. But that's been an issue for us, not just the lower-income families as well.
NNAMDISo, on the one hand, one of the changes that you have seen in Columbia Heights is that your husband has come to live here. On the other hand, one of the changes you don't like about Columbia Heights is that you and your husband may not be able to live here any longer.
SHANDRAWe may not be able to stay. It's quite expensive to buy here.
NNAMDIThat's the dilemma that faces a lot of people indeed, Farah. What would you say to somebody like Shandra?
FOSSEYeah. And I think one problem we've seen too is that people who may be able to -- wouldn't necessarily need what some of us would call affordable housing because there's not a lot of various mixed-income housing -- end up going into, like, rent-controlled housing. And, you know, it creates this downward pressure, right, so people who could afford more, if there was housing stock available at other prices, end up taking the affordable housing. And that's another issue. And, really, D.C. needs, you know, we need a better housing plan to meet all of our housing needs.
NNAMDIBut the fact of the matter is that most of the people on this room, I think, live in Columbia Heights because they love to live in Columbia Heights. Raise your hand and tell us why you love to live in Columbia Heights. What makes it so special? But first, you, ma'am.
JACQUELYNMy name is Jacquelyn, (sp?) and I've lived in Washington, D.C. for 30 years. And I've actually lived in several neighborhoods. I've lived in this neighborhood for 13 years. I came here before the Metro was even put here. And I think the problem that I found as a resident of D.C. is that I will never have the dream of buying a house here even though we make a pretty decent income if we lived in other areas of the country.
JACQUELYNI now live in one of the largest buildings in Columbia Heights, The Woodner, and it's kind of a little microcosm of our neighborhood which, to me, means when I moved in that building, we had every different kind of, you know, background income level, people from all different countries, people from all, you know, walks of life. And I have seen the changes that had happened even in my building. But I do have to say that I'm getting priced out, and I'm actually already priced out.
JACQUELYNWe're just hanging by a thread in our building going month to month trying to afford to pay the rent. But we're above that line of income where we can qualify for any of the programs because I have accessed them. And I don't want to cry because I actually love this city, but I do think it's not just leaving Columbia Heights, which has been my favorite neighborhood. But it's -- I'm going to be forced to move out of a city that I really truly love.
NNAMDIHow much longer you think you'll be able to afford to live in Columbia Heights?
JACQUELYNI'm going to be honest. I mean, there's been times where I haven't actually paid, you know, my rent because I couldn't afford to pay all of the rent. And I have a very understanding landlord, and they've been very helpful with us. But, you know, my husband is a federal worker. There shouldn't be any reason why we couldn't stay in this neighborhood. I volunteer in the neighborhood. I do a lot for community. This is actually my church, All Souls Unitarian. And I just -- I find it, you know, I find it very sad.
NNAMDIMarian Siegel, you are the executive director of Housing Counseling Services. How would you counsel the young lady that I just spoke with?
SIEGELWell, unfortunately, I have no magic for anybody on this but to really understand each individual's circumstances and to study and not to run so fast. There are actually many ways for low and moderate-income individuals to purchase in D.C. in this neighborhood and in other neighborhoods. And I encourage everybody to -- if they are looking at this as a long-term location to take advantage of the market as it sits right now. The interest rates are at historically low and not to run so fast to seek housing counseling, to look at your full line of options before assuming that your only option is to flee.
NNAMDIWe have young man right here. Go ahead, please.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2Kojo, I'd like to ask Ms. Fosse, how well are these various laws working? I mean, living here, we have the impression that if it weren't for rent control and weren't for the right of tenants to organize and at least try to purchase buildings, there would be a gold rush here. So this holds them back. But of the buildings that are midsize or larger and where the -- what percentage of them are actually purchased by tenants, and basically, what is becoming of rent control? Are these laws failing?
FOSSEWell, good questions. So rent control does work. I think one thing that we've seen though with rent control, work for preserving affordability from my perspective. I think one thing we should -- we have seen with rent control is long-term tenants are often forced out. There's a cycle we see whereby landlords intentionally run down the building to try to force long-term residents out. And then when they -- the unit turns over, there's what we call a vacancy of exemption. The rent can go up by up to 30 percent.
FOSSEAnd so -- then the rent levels jump in buildings that have transient populations, that a lot of, you know, where a lot of new residents live in particular. The prices can go up and up and up because every year, there's a vacancy exemption.
FOSSESo there are some glitches. Tenants purchasing is tricky. We had some years where there's been a lot of tenant purchases. And the issue is for affordable buildings, it's tied to the housing production trust fund, whether we can actually make tenant purchase a reality, whether the tenants themselves can purchase. And that depends on taxes that are essentially received through the sale of commercial buildings.
FOSSESo it's a volatile fund. It's something that the city is looking out right now make a more stable funding source. But it's doable. Residents do do it, and I think it's a really good tool. There's also a lot of other ways to use that law to actually negotiate, get a good landlord, and then that's something we've been seeing more common lately.
NNAMDIIt's "Kojo in Your Community" coming to your from All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where we're talking about how this neighborhood is changing, what people like about living in this neighborhood and what the challenges that they see. If you have reasons that you like to share with us about why you came to Columbia Heights, why you like living in Columbia Heights, please feel free to raise your hand. By the way, sir, what's your name?
MR. BEN GILLIGANYeah, hi. My name is Ben Gilligan. I'm a small business owner in Columbia Heights. I hate to hop on the same point that was made before, but I guess I'm in the same boat as everybody else that works here. I've been working here for about 10 years. My wife and I just bought a house two years ago, and, like a lot of other people in this room, we couldn't afford Columbia Heights either. So we've moved up to Brightwood which is the neighborhood we really love, I have to say.
NNAMDIIt's also my neighborhood.
GILLIGANThat's why we love it, I guess. I didn't know that till tonight. So but, I mean, I think what initially attracted me -- I was living in Mount Pleasant for a while, and we were in the same situation, we couldn't afford our rent there. We moved to Columbia Heights, and we were looking to buy and ended up in Brightwood.
GILLIGANI think what I particularly like about the area is that, yes, there are new tenants and a new group of people moving in, but a lot of those seemed willing to engage with some of the older tenants. I think that, yes, there are people who just happen to find the house they like in this neighborhood. But I feel that a lot of -- there is a lot more dialogue and a lot more engagement between some of the older tenants who've been here and some of the newer tenants that are here.
GILLIGANAnd I think that's really great to see that on a street level, this gentleman was talking about before that this is an open dialogue, and this is something that we're all go in through, you know, together, obviously. And I think there's a lot of work to be done.
NNAMDIWhat's the nature of the business you own?
GILLIGANI have a small restaurant on 11th Street, right near BloomBars called Room 11. I opened up with a couple -- oh, thank you.
NNAMDIFans of BloomBar.
GILLIGANThank you very much. We opened it with a couple friends. We're all, at one time or another, lived in the neighborhood, did it on a shoestring budget, and we're kind of small, independent place that's been really embraced by the community. And I feel we do a good job, but we get a lot of people who are attracted to just the area and are coming to see us not because of what we're doing but because of where we are. And I think there's a lot of excitement about some of the things that are happening.
NNAMDIWell, that, in a way, is a good thing, isn't it? The fact that you are located in an area where people want to come to you because this is the neighborhood they want to be in. What effect has that had on your business?
GILLIGANIt's been great. I mean, I think that we get a lot -- we do get a large local clientele. We get a lot of repeat people during the week. 11th Street, obviously, is becoming more of a little enclave of D.C. that people are interested in coming to. So the weekends, our business is slightly different. But, you know, we're in the process of an expansion. So everything is going well so far.
NNAMDIYou're in the process of an expansion which means that your business seems to be doing well. In spite of that, living in the neighborhood has becoming so difficult for you that you've had to move to Brightwood?
GILLIGANI guess that's probably true. I've spent the better part of the last sort of seven or eight years fixing places up. I was there for a year with the construction of the bar. So when we got to -- when we started to look around, a lot of the places that we saw were examples of something that was really run down and required a lot of work, which I've done, or how many people have married. But that can put a little pressure on you if you're constantly in the process of renovations. So Brightwood just seemed a little more approachable for us at the time.
NNAMDIJohn Chambers, talk about the restaurant scene on 11th Street Northwest. It's a lively destination. But some older businesses may lose their leases, right?
CHAMBERSYes. That's -- it's a great question. First, I just have to say I'm a big of Room 11, too, and we're now married to Room 11. We actually had our first wedding at BloomBars. It was one of the -- we're not a church. I don't want anybody to get confused. We're not a church, but we did have a wedding. And it was because of Room 11, and we're excited about that. But the scene has really just exploded on 11th Street. It's a lot like if you compare it to Brooklyn, and I hate those comparisons 'cause I hear them all the time.
CHAMBERSIt's like Fifth Avenue where you have this main strip of businesses that's like 14th Street, and then you go over to Fifth Avenue and it is all small, independent businesses, restaurants and bars and shops. And it's changed significantly in the last, you know, 12 years that I've been there, where there was a lot of abandoned storefronts and mom-and-pop stores and shops and not much else. There was a few restaurants.
CHAMBERSAnd just over time with the Room 11s, with the RedRocks and Meridian Pint, Columbia Heights Coffee was actually the first on 11th Street, but there are actually a few other restaurants, El Rinconcito. And there was another strip along Park Road that was historically, interestingly enough, Vietnamese and Salvadorian community that's -- that had been there for generations, that is now completely -- almost completely wiped out from those buildings.
CHAMBERSSo it's changed a lot, and I think it's continuing to change. The most recent news on 11th Street is that El Rinconcito Deportivo that's been there for 16 years, there's a new owner of those two buildings. One's been vacant, the one that's been next to BloomBars for a long time, and El Rinconcito. And she's going to be closing in November, and we're very sad about that 'cause she is just -- Maria is just one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, and it's a great business that's leaving.
CHAMBERSI also know that, you know, Arthur's, when you talk about that, you know, on-the-ground relationships, Room 11 has a relationship where, you know, your deliveries are taken by Arthur's sometimes, which I just think is a beautiful thing, when you see the contrast on the street corners, that that dialogue is happening. And I think we might, you know, in a few years, might not have Arthur's -- I think they're getting ready to retire -- and see that corner change. We just had -- the owners of the diner just opened up The Coupe, another -- a 24-hour diner on 11th Street.
NNAMDI24/7 they're going to be, right?
CHAMBERS24/7. Yeah, it's changed a lot, and it's changed the -- it has changed the energy on the street, I think.
NNAMDIFor the better or for the worse? Clearly there's more energy on the street. But is that a good thing or not?
CHAMBERSIt depends who you talk to. It depends who you talk to.
FOSSEI used to have a bedroom -- my bedroom used to be on 11th Street. I lived there from 2001 to just a few months ago. And I don't know how many people I heard break up outside my window because they usually got back together. But I'd be like, come on. They'd be leaving Wonderland and walk by my house on their way to the Metro or the car. So, for me, it got a little crazy.
NNAMDIMust make life a little interesting, huh?
FOSSEYeah. But you don't always want it to be interesting when you're sleeping, so…
NNAMDIWell, who's enjoying the restaurant and bar scene that's opening up on 11th Street Northwest, Cassandra?
CASSANDRAWe've been in Columbia Heights for about five years. We're very fortunate to be here. We used to go out of our neighborhood for dinner, and now we hate to leave the neighborhood. Now we're overwhelmed by choices. We love our neighbors. Actually, four years ago, when our son was born, the entire block threw a baby shower for us. And recently we went out to celebrate my neighbor's 90th birthday party with 300 of her closest friends. So we definitely are getting along with our neighbors.
NNAMDII think when I get ready to celebrate my birthday, I'm coming to that neighborhood. The entire neighborhood came out, 300 of her best friends. You're listening to "Kojo in Your Community." It's a conversation from All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington. We're talking about demographic and economic changes sweeping through this neighborhood and others like it. Got to take a short break right now. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, coming to you from Columbia Heights, a D.C. neighborhood where you can still see some of the scars from riots that erupted in 1968, but a place where a new Metro stop and a $1 billion worth of development have sparked rapid changes in the past two decades. It's "Kojo in Your Community". And we're asking the members of our audience here at All Souls Unitarian Church why they have chosen to live in the Columbia Heights area or what concerns and challenges they see for the area. Yes, sir, you're next.
MR. ALAN JOHNSONHi. I'm Alan Johnson. I'm a member -- longtime member of All Souls Church, and I'm proud to say that 40 years ago, after the '68 riots, All Souls got together with another neighborhood group called Change and formed Change All Souls Housing Corporation, which became the community developer, as in Columbia Heights Village, which is on a 400-unit, low-income building on 14th Street.
MR. ALAN JOHNSONIt's been interesting to see the changes over those years. One of the more recent ones, a few years back, was a concern over a small park on 14th Street, 14th and Gerard. The local residents, mostly low-income, have been using it for years, but some of the new residents thought it was a little run-down and wanted to change it into a dog park.
MR. ALAN JOHNSONBut through the auspices of our city council, Jim Graham and others -- and people got together -- they've reformed that park and made it a -- it's called Justice Park, and it's been used now, well used by the whole community in that park. We love it. Our low-income residents from several of those units down 14th Street use that a lot. That's a success story. One of the things we need, though, is we need more mixed-income housing, and it's hard to come by.
MR. ALAN JOHNSONWe've looked at ways of doing it. If there are any developers who you hear about wanting to get their ANC and other interested in helping preserve some housing, we all need to get together and support it. That's the only way we'll be able to keep some of those places. I hope you can join us when we do.
NNAMDIYou mentioned dog park. I'd like to ask members of the audience. How do you use the public spaces in the Columbia Heights neighborhood? Do you hang out at the plaza? Do you take your dog to the dog park? Do you watch your kids ride bikes in the alley behind your house? Magda, (sp?) how long have you been living in Columbia Heights?
MAGDAActually I live in Brooklyn, but I have been working in Columbia Heights and this area for many years. I arrived in 1979 and -- to actually work for Lincoln High School and many of the Latino community centers in the area that are not -- most of them are not around. As Chris was -- were saying, they are more into the Georgia area. But I think -- I'm hopeful that some of the Mexicans survived this change.
MAGDAI think what Ms. Siegel was saying is exactly what we need to work on. The newcomers need to look at the neighbors as friend, different, but that doesn't mean that they are the enemy. We need to welcome and be -- look with open eyes the values and habits of different cultures. And we can all grow by opening our eyes. We all have strengths, and I think that we all have more similarities than differences.
MAGDAUnfortunately, though, we look more at the differences and what -- we all want the best for our kids. We want our kids to be safe. We want our kids to get a great education. We want to have fun. We want to -- and I think that this community would like that diversity, and we should just, again, embrace it and be tolerant.
NNAMDIThank you very much. We've heard this several times, Farah Fosse, that people liked the diversity in this community. At the same time, not only is the Latino Economic Development Corporation moving, but listening to Magda, a lot of the places that served the Latino population here are no longer here. Is it a concern of yours that ultimately this community might be losing some of that diversity because of the Latino population moving elsewhere?
FOSSEDefinitely. I think still this neighborhood is a hub for, you know, restaurants and services and businesses that do -- are owned and served Latinos. And I think that's something that, you know, I encourage all of you to support, to go to those places and the try the pupusas and try other excellent food. But, yeah, it's definitely a concern. That is actually something that -- LEDC also works with small businesses to support the businesses to give them capital to be able to grow and expand their businesses.
NNAMDIWe got a question from Cyan, (sp?) who says, "Are long-term residents and new comers racially coded when we talk about gentrification? When we say gentrification, are we really talking about African-American and Latino flight and white entry? Or are we simply talking about a neighborhood that's changing with more affluent people coming to the neighborhood and therefore making the neighborhood more diverse than it really was?" Which do you think we are talking about? Should be talking about race and ethnicity in this conversation at all? Marian Siegel.
SIEGELWell, I think it's both. I mean, I think that's it's definitely an economic gentrification going on first and foremost. And with that, it brings obvious racial changes. But it's all -- it's a diverse population coming in. It's a diverse -- well, it's less of a diverse population leaving. But if you look at the economic disparities, it's striking, and the age disparities, it's striking. If you are 70 years old and facing a rent increase again another year down the line, it's -- the seniors are moving. The seniors are needing to move as well.
NNAMDIElena, I see you nodding yes.
ELENAOh, yeah. Well, definitely, I think, you know, when I was, you know, on Columbia Road, I saw a lot of -- like I said, I just saw a lot of people moving out. And what I was thinking is that the population, the young professionals that are moving in tend to be more -- very transient. And I think that's the part of problem, is that there is not the sense of rootedness to the community.
ELENASo if people don't feel like they're going to be here for a long time, they don't feel the need to invest and actually meeting their neighbors and, I mean, of my friends, of my demographic, of my situation, I'm the person that's been here the longest and I've been here six years. And, I mean, I can't even say that I'm very, I mean, I'm incredible rooted. I mean, I know some of my neighbors, but they also had changed completely.
ELENAAnd so that's, I just think, has been a big problem. And then the folks that have been here for much longer than I have, I mean, they, you know, they've seen these -- they are being forced to go, and a lot of the people that they know are also going. And so I think that's part of the issue, is just how transient the population that's coming in is. That's why -- I was nodding, but I was also thinking, you know, that's it's -- that the people that are leaving are also diversities because the population that's kind of coming in is also just here for one or two years and then they're gone.
NNAMDIJim Graham, isn't transient part of the characteristic of living in Washington, that there are large numbers of people who live in Washington who are not from Washington, who come to Washington for a while to work and then they leave? How does one make, I guess, a comparison between people who have made Washington their home for generations and people who come and go, which, as I said, is a characteristic of life in the city also?
GRAHAMYou know, I think Washington has always been a transient city because of the federal government. But I got to hesitate here on some of this conversation. The Mary Center did not leave Ward 1. The Mary Center is still on Ontario Road. You know, the -- all of our -- what's happened is that our major Latino nonprofits have become so successful to have expanded elsewhere. The Latin American Youth Center has a satellite operation in Maryland because there are lot of Latinos there.
GRAHAMAnd so, you know, there is definitely been change. There is definitely been. I think some of these new buildings, the way in which they are structured, Kojo, and studios, largely studio apartments, is an appeal to a particular type of potential resident. But we have strong rent control. We have great landlord-tenant laws. We still are the most diverse ward in city because this is the only ward where a single population group does not have a majority. Those are the facts.
GRAHAMAnd our neighbors are changing, new comers are coming, others are leaving, but I think the core of this ward is stable. And that includes the Latino population because we have George Avenue too. George Avenue is Ward 1. And...
FOSSEAnd they're moving north of the metro to Ward 4.
GRAHAMRight. But the Mary Center has not moved from Adams Morgan. The Mary Center is still in Adams Morgans.
FOSSERight. And it's in -- on George Avenue.
GRAHAMAnd in George Avenue, in the 3800 block of George Avenue. We go to the 3700 block so...
NNAMDIJim Graham said there is no majority population, if you will, in this part of his ward, Ward 1, in Columbia Heights. Is that the reason that any of you moved here because the diversity in this ward is greater than in any other ward in the city? How about you, Art?
ARTI live on Connecticut Avenue. I'm here because I go to this church and I wanted to see -- I listen to your show, so that's why.
NNAMDIWell, pleased to meet you, Art. Goodbye, Art.
NNAMDITim, your turn.
TIMThank you, Kojo. Yeah, I can say that with a bit more perhaps, that that was a strong motivation in moving to this area. My wife and I have only been living here for about six months. We were moving from Canada, actually from Montreal. And I really sought out this neighborhood because we felt it kind of, more than other neighborhoods, just had a great level of diversity and community as well. And that's kind of why we chose it.
NNAMDISix months you've been living here. How have you been enjoying it? Have you been going to the bars and restaurants on 11th Street Northwest?
TIMYeah. And I would say definitely on 11th Street. I think something that we haven't spoke about is maybe -- what I see, perhaps, as a new comer is a bit of an East-West split culturally in the neighborhood. So 14th Street, in my opinion, has a completely kind of vibe to it than 11th Street. And personally, my wife and I just gravitate to 11th Street a little bit more, so definitely like -- places like Room 11 and things like that.
NNAMDIWell, what reminds you most of Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal?
NNAMDIMy favorite street.
TIMThis is a family show, so I'm not sure if I can go into that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for coming to live in Columbia Heights. It is a family show indeed. We can't -- there are certain things we can't talk about. How long have you been in this area, Gerald?
GERALDI don't live in this area. I lived here in the early '80s. But at that time, the population near Mount Pleasant Street was almost predominantly Latino. And I've seen migration since that time. It seems that it is an economic decision that most people have used to decide where they're living.
NNAMDIIndeed the diversity continues. As I said, we started here in 2001, and this is the conversation we were having and we're having it still. Farah Fosse, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIFarah Fosse is director of the Affordable Housing Preservation Program at the Latino Economic Development Corporation. Marian Siegel, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMarian Siegel is executive director of Housing Counseling Services. John Chambers, good to see you again.
CHAMBERSGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJohn Chambers is founder and chief executive gardener of BloomBars, a non-profit arts organization on 11th Street Northwest. We're at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. Thank you all for joining us. Please, give yourselves a warm round of applause. And thank you all for listening to "Kojo in Your Community" at All Souls Unitarian Church. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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