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Tourists may stick to the National Mall, but Washingtonians know DC’s neighborhoods have rich cultural and historical landmarks too. From Deanwood to Columbia Heights, we explore the city’s neighborhoods with an eye on history.
- Linda Donavan Harper Executive Director, Cultural Tourism DC
- Kia Chatmon Chair of the Deanwood History Committee
- Brian Kraft Local historian, Columbia Heights walking tour guide
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a favorite Washington pastime to mock the tourists who never leave the grassy confines of the National Mall, but when was the last time you went off the beaten path? Beyond the monuments and museums, Washington's neighborhoods are home to a wealth of historical landmarks. Have you seen the spot in Deanwood where the city's only amusement park once stood, welcoming African-Americans when Glen Echo wouldn't? Do you know where Duke Ellington lived in Columbia Heights, that is, before he left for Harlem? D.C.'s neighborhoods have a lot of history to share if you're willing to go check it out. And joining us in the studio to offer directions, Linda Harper is the executive director of Cultural Tourism D.C. Linda, good to see you again.
MS. LINDA DONAVAN HARPERGood morning. Good to see you too.
NNAMDIKia Chatmon joins us in studio. He is chair of the Deanwood History Committee, which was responsible for the book, "Washington, D.C.'s Deanwood." Kia, thank you for joining us.
MS. KIA CHATMONYou're welcome. Good morning.
NNAMDIAnd Brian Kraft is a local historian and the Columbia Heights walking tour guide. Brian Kraft, good to see you.
MR. BRIAN KRAFTThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDILinda, just because someone of historical importance lived in a house or spoke at a church, how do you make that interesting and relevant to people today? What are the challenges of bringing that history alive?
HARPERWell, you know, it's interesting because we tend to think about house museums as a collection of objects as opposed to some place where people lived and sat around the kitchen table and cussed and discussed what was going on at the time that they were there. And it is hard to make that relevant, but I think the museums and the house museums are really doing a really good job at that today and terms of sort of creating new experiences and having people be able now -- a lot of them you can actually touch the objects. Children have a chance to actually create along the same ideas that the person who lived there may have.
HARPERAnd a lot of the house museums also are starting to think about what's their property? Is it just the house or is it the gardens? What happened to the gardens? And they may be beautiful, and so all of a sudden, instead of inviting somebody in to hear about the history of the house or the person, you're inviting them to share the beauty of the garden. So we're really reaching beyond some of the more traditional ways that we thought about museums before.
NNAMDICultural Tourism DC has helped create heritage trails in various neighborhoods around the city. What's involved in setting up a heritage trail?
HARPERA lot. It's a two-year project. Kojo, you know, you were involved with us when we launched the Columbia Heights Trail.
NNAMDII did. I was. Yes.
HARPERAnd that -- it was a great experience. There's a neighborhood working group that brings together the oral histories. It's fascinating to watch people take photographs down off their walls in their family homes or dig out photos and things out of the attic or the basement. But it's really a coming together of that neighborhood to tell the social history of that neighborhood, and I think that's what makes the heritage trail so unique. They're really the only one of their kind in the country, because most trails talk about buildings or locations, and this really gets into the social history of the city.
NNAMDIYou're already got 10 heritage trails in the city, two more coming next year, what are those?
HARPERRight. The two new ones will be Tenleytown...
HARPERRight here, surrounding you, and Georgia Avenue/Pleasant Plains.
NNAMDIKia, Deanwood may be one of the cities less known neighborhoods...
NNAMDI...but it's one with a rich history. It's one of the earliest places in the city, it's my understanding, where African-Americans could actually buy property.
CHATMONYes. Yes. And that's one thing we're gonna stress in our neighborhood here, the trail walk, on the 25th for Walking Town DC. It's exploring some of those buildings and churches that were built by, actually, the residents of the community, and many of the families still live in those homes and the many of the churches and other buildings are still in the community.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding that a lot of the homes in Deanwood were built by the residents themselves.
CHATMONYes. Yes, they were. Made the churches, made the homes. There actually is a story of a gentleman who lived in the northwest and he came over to Deanwood each week, kind of piece by piece building his home. So you do have a lot of indigenous architects, carpenters, masons who, with their own hands, built their homes and, again, the churches and the community.
NNAMDIWhat did Nannie Helen Burroughs -- you see Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue over there.
NNAMDIWhat did Nannie Helen Burroughs have to do with Deanwood and who is she?
CHATMONNannie Helen Burroughs was an activist, an educator. She opened the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. So she actually purchased land in Ward 7 in Deanwood and built a school that trained women variety of trades, some of them domestic trades as well as things like print making. They had sports teams. So it was an all-around training program, and it brought women, actually, black women from America but also from the Diaspora came and were educated there. So she was one of the early people to, you know, buy an establishment. And actually, it still exists. It's no longer the Training School for Women and Girls but there's still a school on the campus in…
NNAMDIHave been in this town for more than 40 years, and one of the things I love to hear native Washingtonians debate is exactly where Marvin Gaye lived.
NNAMDIWhere was it?
CHATMONHe was in Ward 7. It wasn't Deanwood, but it actually was off of East Capitol Street. And so if you come to the community this -- or in the 25th, you can come and see and hear more about that. We actually have a park that was renamed Marvin Gaye Park. It's also part of the tour, so you can explore Watts Branch and some of the old stomping grounds of Marvin Gaye.
NNAMDIThe only amusement park ever located in the District of Columbia opened in Deanwood in 1921...
CHATMONWas in Deanwood. Yes.
NNAMDI...the black-owned and operated Suburban Gardens.
CHATMONSuburban Gardens. Yes. Yes.
NNAMDITell us about that.
CHATMONIt actually was, I guess, a counterpart to Glenn Echo. African-Americans travel from what I understand all up and down the Mid-Atlantic to visit that. At that time you had entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald who came and performed. It was an amusement and that it had a Ferris wheel, a rollercoaster. It also had a pool so people come in swimsuit. It was an all-around place where people -- families could come and spend the day and be entertained.
NNAMDIWe're talking about finding your way around Washington using heritage trails and everything else the Cultural Tourism DC has to offer. We're talking with Linda Harper. She's the executive director of Cultural Tourism DC. Kia Chatmon is chair of the Deanwood History Community, which was responsible for the book, "Washington D.C.'s Deanwood." We are taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have any questions or comments, you can also ask them at our website, kojoshow.org. Brian Kraft is a local historian and a Columbia Heights walking tour guide. Brian, Columbia Heights is a neighborhood whose trajectory has been described as boom, bust, boom. Where does the name Columbia Heights come from?
KRAFTWell, that's actually sort of up for grabs, and it's one of the fun things about history is that we can debate these things. I think...
NNAMDIYeah, where did Marvin Gaye grow up but there?
KRAFTHow about all the Duke Ellington houses?
NNAMDIOh, we'll get to that. (laugh)
KRAFTDon't even get started on that. He was all over the place.
KRAFTI think it came from -- well, the name Columbia Heights was given to a subdivision up in that part of town that was made principally by Sen. John Sherman of Ohio. He was the principal investor in a group that made that subdivision, that is, where Columbia Heights is now. I think the name came from just -- it overlooked the capital, and, you know, the ambition and the thought at that time was it was basically the capital of the New World, the place discovered by Columbus, Columbia, the same way that the university that used to be up the Hill, Columbia University, got its name -- Columbian College, rather, which today is George Washington University.
NNAMDIExactly right. Again, 800-433-8850. One of the historic landmarks in Columbia Heights is the old Riggs Bank building. It was one of the first branch banks and bears a strong resemblance to its cousin in Dupont Circle.
KRAFTYes, they were built around the same time, and that was around the time that branch banking started. So it was before there was an FDIC. It was before the government basically made your money safe in nearly any bank. And so banks really had to work and make a statement to get your money. Where are you gonna put your money? Are you gonna put it in some storefront bank, or are you gonna put it in a place that looks like the Riggs Bank at 14th and Park, where you go in there and you said, wow, this is -- for a building outside of downtown, it's a really stupendous building. It's three stories of limestone, and it looks like it belongs next to the White House.
NNAMDIIndeed. When I first came to Washington, that's one of the first buildings that struck me because I used to live in that neighborhood. It's a staid, old building. It was supposed to project the image of, well, your money is safe in here. (laugh)
KRAFTAbsolutely. That's exactly what it did.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Duke Ellington. He bought a house in Columbia Heights a year after he got married. He was just 20 years old?
KRAFTYeah. What we call Columbia Heights now -- he didn't buy a house in Columbia Heights. He bought a house in Pleasant Plains. We call it Columbia Heights now. And once I got into the whole of Columbia Heights, the name changes and shifts over time that mostly had to do with the demographics of if you look at the race of who was living in what part are really kind of mind-boggling. But, yeah, that was Pleasant Plains back in the day. Some would contest that it still is, and I won't get into that because that's the issue...
NNAMDIBut it was Sherman Avenue.
KRAFTIt was Sherman Avenue. We're talking -- you could talk about the same place, and you talk about different places, too, in Washington sometimes. 2728 Sherman Avenue, to be accurate. And there's a small plaque on the building now. It's around Fairmont Street. But he lived there for about three years, just after he got married, right around the birth of his son Mercer, and it's really where his career took off. I think it's really the pivotal Duke Ellington residence in Washington. But, again, that's just...
NNAMDIBut, you know, on the one hand you think about how a talented and creative innovator and musician he was. But on the other hand, you think of him as such a great self-marketer in the 1919 telephone directories (laugh) earlier. His house was listed as the address of The Duke's Serenaders, Colored Syncopators, irresistible jazz furnished to our select patron -- patrons, EK Ellington, manager. That's how he was listed in the phone book.
KRAFTYeah. Well, I guess it must have been -- one of his biographies that I read is -- I took some notes -- said that he was working as many as a half dozen different bands during that time. And he made up to $10,000 a year, which was probably more than his house would have cost on the market at that time.
NNAMDIAt that time, of course, $10, 000 a year. Think of it as $100,000 or more now. (laugh) Here is Jack in Washington, D.C. Jack, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACKYeah, great show. And I'm in the process of renovating my house over in Columbia Heights on Monroe Street. But I wanna bring your attention to books I found, of all places, at Walgreens in Alexandria, but -- by Arcadia Publishing, and there's one called "Greater U Street", and it's got these great pictures of historical stuff. And there's also another one, "Washington D.C.", but it was written by a guy named Paul K. Williams. And the books are excellent and provide just a great sort of walking tour and great pictures from way -- painting, you know, turn of the century kind of stuff. And so I just wanted to make you guys aware of it, but I'm fascinated.
NNAMDIWell, somebody thinks in this room thinks it would be good if you add to that collection Washington D.C.'s Deanwood.
NNAMDIKia Chatmon is the chair of the Deanwood History Committee and she was responsible for that book. Jack, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Linda Harper, Congressional Cemetery is another local attraction that not many people know about, but two vice presidents are buried there.
HARPERYes. It's an interesting place. Everybody thinks about it as sort of -- I think the main question is, do you have to be a congressman to be buried there? And actually the answer is no. You just have to be dead, I think is the answer. But there's over 60,000 people there. And it's really an amazing place in the sense that its people, workers from the Navy Yard, up to vice presidents, it's also they're doing a great tour as part of our walking town tours on the weekend of September 25 and 26 because they're doing a tour called Congressional Cemetery's Uppity Women, and it refers to the suffragettes and the women who wanted to have a chance to be equal. And one of the people who's buried there as part of that is Belva Lockwood, who was one of the first lawyers to go before the Supreme Court, but also ran for president before women had the right to vote, including something like 4,000 votes in a week when we're thinking about elections and votes. It's an interesting touchstone for history there. But there's -- and then also the Rock Creek will also be having a tour at its cemetery as well. I wanna go back to a comment about the book...
NNAMDIBut let me just tell our listeners, we did a show on Congressional Cemetery back in September of '09, a year ago on Sept. 2, if you wanna go into our archives at kojoshow.org. But go ahead, Linda.
HARPEROkay. When the caller -- about the book -- I think we also should let him know that if he wants -- not the neighborhoods sort of piecemeal but the neighborhoods broadly, that he can go to culturaltourismdc.org and order the new "Washington at Home" book, which has 32 of the neighborhoods in it, some fabulous historic photographs in it as well. And it really is a fabulous coffee table edition that people will want for Christmas gifts.
HARPERAnother thing, we have two of authors sitting there. So...
NNAMDIIt's sitting in front of me right now. And there are two of the authors here indeed. We interviewed the editor Kathryn Schneider Smith. We'll give you a date on which we did that interview so you can know more about "Washington at Home." But Kia Chatmon, your grandmother grew up in Deanwood at 55th in Blaine...
NNAMDI...behind Woodson Senior High School.
NNAMDITell us about some of her memories.
CHATMONSome of her memories at Strand Theater. My mother also spent some time in that home. And she remembers going down to -- it probably was Dean Avenue and not Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue at that time, but there was a little ice cream shop. I think it's actually a little -- looks like a little castle building now on Nannie Helen Burroughs, the key shop now I think. So she has memories of that and my grandmother. And she both have memories of the Strand Theater. At a time before we had the Stadium Theater -- Stadium seating theaters with, you know, 16 screens or eight screens. It was one screen. It was the same movie all weekend. And you came back the second -- the next weekend to find out what happened with the serials. So it was kind of -- it ended in a cliffhanger and then folks came back the next week, but it could be an all-day affair at the Strand Theater.
NNAMDIHow does the character of Deanwood today reflect its past?
CHATMONI think it still has that set-apart feel. One thing that I learned in this work was how the communities east the river were considered Washington County, so you had the center of the city. But then those of us kind of out in the suburbs or Washington County and even people who worked on the book talked about being cult country sometimes, because it was very rural and they were kind of separate from the center of the city. And I believe it still has a park. We still have a lot of green space. We have a lot of lands or you still have a very -- Patsy Fletcher, who was instrumental in the Deanwood history works, she said one of her first perceptions was a very bucolic community. So it still feels very rural, very green, a lot of the yards still have, you know, the fruit trees that were there from it. It was plantation land. It was farmland when it was first -- before it was fully developed. So it still has a lot of that character.
NNAMDIColumbia Heights is a community that all that seems to be changing, Brian Kraft. Same question for you. What about Columbia Heights today maintains its character from years past?
KRAFTWell, the architecture -- I mean, the row houses and some of the old apartment houses are still there. 14th Street has been made over completely from the time before the riots in 1968. But the turnover, demographically speaking in terms of both race and just economic level, have been really just overwhelming, just sort of washed over the neighborhood and made it different places throughout time. So that's a tough one to answer for Columbia Heights.
NNAMDIIndeed. Linda, what's on your must-see list of historic or cultural gems that are off the beaten path?
HARPEROh, Jesus, that's just such a wonderful question because there are so much out there. I'm a big fan of the National Cathedral and the grounds around that. Obviously, Congressional Cemetery is an important one for me. It's a place where I spent a lot of time early on in the efforts to renovate and restore that cemetery. I think the arboretum...
NNAMDI(laugh) That's my favorite.
HARPER...actually was one of -- I think there's an -- also an interesting one that -- I actually haven't spent much time at, but I'm starting to get to know. And I noticed that we actually have them on one of the tours, which is Roosevelt Island...
HARPER...which I think is when people drive by or view from the bridge, but to have it ever been there and don't really know much about it. So there's some -- sometimes it's the odd little places, the Kahlil Gibran statue and Little Park tucked in on Mass or the Albert Einstein...
NNAMDIAnd she could go on forever. (laugh)
HARPERI can go on forever. Sorry.
NNAMDIBut tell us about the free walking tours.
HARPERFree walking tours, Sept. 25 -- yes, 25th and the 26th, all across all eight wards of the city, over 100 tours, walking and biking. Everything you could imagine. History tours and neighborhood tours. We've mentioned a couple of them also, Brookland and some other places. Civil War history with the Civil War -- the Civil Rights Trail in the downtown area, Mount Vernon Triangle. It's sort of past, present and future. I noticed we're doing one in the Riverfront BID and we did one previously that had to do with the ball park.
NNAMDIFriends of mine had been on walking tours with Brian Kraft.
NNAMDIAnd there are walking tours, the 25th and 26th. But they have the most important thing about those walking tours is the magic word, free.
NNAMDILinda Harper is the executive director of Cultural Tourism DC. Linda, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIKia Chatmon is chair of the Deanwood History Committee, which was responsible for the book "Washington, D.C.'s Deanwood." Kia, thank you for joining us.
CHATMONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Brian Kraft is a local historian. He leads the Columbia Heights walking tours. Brian, good to see you.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening.
HARPERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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