Columbia Heights (Washington, D.C.)

Columbia Heights is a neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C., United States. Columbia Heights is known for its diversity,[1] housing stock,[2][3][4][5] major retailers,[6][7] "[a] splendid panoramic view of downtown DC,"[8][9] and a thriving restaurant scene.[10][11] In 2016, The Wall Street Journal recognized the Filipino food of "Washington D.C.'s thriving Columbia Heights neighborhood."[12]

Columbia Heights
The Tivoli Theatre, a renovated landmark on 14th Street NW, is a symbol of Columbia Heights
The Tivoli Theatre, a renovated landmark on 14th Street NW, is a symbol of Columbia Heights
Columbia Heights within the District of Columbia
Columbia Heights within the District of Columbia
CountryUnited States
DistrictWashington, D.C.
WardWard 1
 • CouncilmemberBrianne Nadeau
 • Total.85 sq mi (2.2 km2)
 • Total31,696
 • Density37,289.4/sq mi (14,397.5/km2)

In the early 1920s, jazz musician and composer Duke Ellington lived in Columbia Heights.[13] After turmoil during the 1970s and 1980s,[14] Columbia Heights has been cited as an example of "how a mixed-income, multiracial community can begin to stabilize."[15]


Located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., Columbia Heights borders the neighborhoods of U Street Corridor (Cardozo/Shaw), Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Park View, Pleasant Plains, and Petworth. On the eastern side is Howard University. The streets defining the neighborhood's boundaries are 16th Street to the west, Spring Road to the north; Sherman Ave to the east, and Florida Avenue to the south. It is served by the Columbia Heights station on the Yellow and Green lines of the Washington Metro.


19th centuryEdit

Once farmland on the estate of the Holmead family (called "Pleasant Plains"), Columbia Heights was part of Washington County, District of Columbia. (It was within the District but outside the borders of the city of Washington; the southern edge of Columbia Heights is Florida Avenue, which was originally called "Boundary Street" because it formed the northern boundary of the Federal City.) In 1815 an engraver from England, William J. Stone, purchased a 121-acre tract of the Holmead estate—east of Seventh Street Road (present-day Georgia Avenue), and north of Boundary Street—and established his own estate known as the Stone Farm. Nearby, construction of the first building for Columbian College, now George Washington University, was completed in 1822 on the campus which was bounded by Columbia Road, 14th Street, Boundary Street (Florida Avenue) and 13th Street. The area began developing as a suburb of Washington soon after the Civil War, when horse-drawn streetcars delivered residents of the neighborhood to downtown.

The northern portion of modern-day Columbia Heights (i.e., north of where Harvard Street currently lies) was, until the 1880s, a part of the village of Mount Pleasant. The southern portion still retained the name of the original Pleasant Plains estate, though it was also known as "Cowtown."

In 1871, Congress passed the D.C. Organic Act, which eliminated Washington County by extending the boundaries of Washington City to be contiguous with those of the District of Columbia. Shortly afterward, in 1881–82, Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Antitrust Act, purchased the land north of Boundary Street between 16th Street and 10th Street, including the Stone farm, developing it as a subdivision of the city and calling it Columbia Heights in honor of the college at its heart. (The neighborhood's eastern, major traffic artery, Sherman Avenue, is named after its early developer.) Much of Sherman's purchase was land belonging to Columbian College.

The college had decided to move into the center of Washington's downtown business district and in 1904, changed its name to The George Washington University, in an agreement with the George Washington Memorial Association. By 1912 Columbian, now George Washington, relocated its major operations to Foggy Bottom. The federal government purchased some of the college's former land and built Meridian Hill Park in the early 20th century. The park, also known as "Malcolm X Park", contains many statues of historic international and United States figures, including Joan of Arc, Dante, and James Buchanan.

20th centuryEdit

Upscale development in Columbia Heights circa 1900 was designed to attract upper level managers of the Federal government, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and high-ranking military officers. An imposing mansion known as "Belmont" marked the entrance to the neighborhood between Florida and Clifton Streets. The mansion was emblematic of the confidence that the affluent placed in the concept that Columbia Heights represented the ideal suburb. In the early 1900s, Columbia Heights was the preferred area for some of Washington's wealthiest and most influential people. Residents included authors Jean Toomer, Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis, Chief Justice Melville Fuller, and Justice John Marshall Harlan.

In 1901, the Commissioners of the District of Columbia renamed streets all over the District in accordance with a newly adopted street-naming system.[16] In Columbia Heights, Clifton Street, Roanoke Street, Yale Street, Princeton Street, Harvard Street, Columbia Road, Kenesaw Avenue, Kenyon Street, Dartmouth Street, and Whitney Avenue were renamed Adams Street, Bryant Street, Channing Street, Douglas Street, Evarts Street, Franklin Street, Girard Street, Hamlin Street, Hooker Street, and Irving Street, respectively.[16]

1903 Baist Atlas of Columbia Heights, Washington, DC development[17]

In 1902, there was a building boom in North Columbia Heights, with the expansion of the streetcar down 11th St, 14th St and 16th St. Homes were being built for between $2,000 and $5,000 and a total of five million dollars' worth of homes were being built.[18]

Advertisement for 1201 Clifton St. NW, Washington, DC – 1910[19]

In 1904, the Columbia Heights Citizen's Association published an illustrated brochure entitled "A Statement of Some of the Advantages of Beautiful Columbia Heights." (PDF [1]) The publication describes Columbia Heights as a "residential section populated by public and spirited citizens." Residents at that time were "ever alive to the mental, moral, and spiritual advancements of their homes surroundings." The neighborhood organization sponsored competitions for landscaping house lots and offered prizes to the best kept lawn and garden, at the same time fought the erection of street poles and overhead telegraph and telephone lines. 1904 was also the year that Congress authorized changing the names of streets to align with the alphabetical and orderly naming convention of the Old City (i.e., below Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue). The name changes were put into effect the following year.[20]

By 1914, four street car lines served the section providing transportation to downtown Washington in twenty minutes. The neighborhood also became the home of the Washington Palace Five professional basketball team.

J.C. Barker Motor Co., 14th & Irving St. NW in Washington, D.C. (1920s)[21]

The popularity of the neighborhood resulted in the construction of several large apartment buildings during the beginning of the twentieth century that changed the suburban character of the area into a more urban and densely populated district. As of mid-century, however, Columbia Heights retained much of its upscale residential appeal, supporting establishments such as the ornate Tivoli Theatre movie house (completed in 1924). J.W. Marriott and his wife opened an A&W root beer franchise on 14th street in 1927, before creating the Marriott hotel chain.[22] The neighborhood was adjacent to Washington's thriving middle-class black community and came to be home to some of its most notable citizens by the 1930s. Duke Ellington, who had grown up in Shaw, purchased his first house at 2728 Sherman Avenue in Columbia Heights. Marvin Gaye briefly lived in the neighborhood and attended Cardozo Senior High School.

Looking north on 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights

In 1949, during the era of racial segregation in the public schools, Central High School, a white high school that bordered the southern edge of Columbia Heights, did not have enough students. It was renamed as Cardozo High School and designated as a "colored" high school to accommodate the growing African-American population in the neighborhood. Significant demographic changes began in the late 1940s when African-American residents began to buy apartment buildings previously owned by whites, and in the 1950s blacks bought individual homes in ever increasing numbers. The neighborhood was a strong middle-class African-American enclave in Washington, along with the nearby Shaw neighborhood and Howard University, through the mid-1960s.

The neighborhood was featured in various clips, and as the home of protagonists Helen and Bobby Benson, in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots ravaged the 14th St. Corridor in Columbia Heights, along with the commercial U Street corridor nearby, and many other Washington neighborhoods to the east. Many middle-class residents moved out to the suburbs, resulting in a drop in business. As a result, many homes and shops remained vacant for decades. Some remaining residents could not afford to move, and struggled with problems of poverty and violence related to drugs. In addition to African Americans, the neighborhood had an increasing number of Latino immigrants and their descendants as residents.

Redevelopment and current dayEdit

In 1999, the city announced a revitalization initiative for the neighborhood focused around the Columbia Heights Metro station, which opened that year.[23]

There had already been positive developments along lower 14th Street and the U Street corridor.[24] The opening of the Metro station served as a catalyst for the return of economic development and residents. On March 5, 2008,[25] DC USA, a 546,000-square-foot (50,700 m2) retail complex across the street from the Columbia Heights Metro station opened. The space is anchored by retailers Target and Best Buy.[26] The shopping center also includes 390,000 square feet (36,000 m2) of underground parking.[27] Within five years, the neighborhood gentrified[28] considerably, with a number of businesses near the metro (including a Giant Food supermarket, Chipotle, CVS, Starbucks, Cava, Washington Sports Club, Bed Bath & Beyond, Petco and Tivoli Square, a commercial and entertainment complex). The Columbia Heights Farmers Market, located across the street from DC USA, provides neighborhood shoppers with locally produced food.[29] Pho 14 was an early Columbia Heights success story and was voted best pho in the Best of DC 2010 poll by the Washington City Paper.[30] Washingtonian magazine named Laotian restaurant Thip Khao one of the "100 Very Best Restaurants" of 2017.[31] Travel + Leisure wrote that "[t]hanks to Thip Khao, Laotian cuisine is having its day in DC."[32]

Unlike some gentrified neighborhoods in the city, Columbia Heights has not become homogeneous: "white, Asian, black and Latino residents each make up at least 10 percent of the population—and no group constitutes a majority."[1] It has been described as "a perfect little microcosm of D.C."[33] Housing includes high-priced condominiums and townhouses, as well as public and middle-income housing, and "even multi-million-dollar homes."[34] Developers in Columbia Heights have "watched it transform with dozens of new restaurants, shops and nightlife.[35]" In June 2017, Columbia Heights was listed as one of D.C.'s neighborhoods where home sellers get more than asking price.[36]

The 11th Street "Hip Strip"Edit

The New York Times has called Columbia Heights' assortment of restaurants and bars on 11th Street Northwest, "Columbia Heights' Hip Strip."[37] It has also been called the "11th Street corridor."[38][39][40][41] Locals and observers have "described 11th Street as 'the social hub' of Columbia Heights."[42][43] Many bars and restaurants have opened along 11th Street[44]—some to great acclaim. Bistro and bar Room 11 is a "Columbia Heights mainstay"[45] and was part of a group of restaurants "shaping the arts and culinary landscape of the nation's capital."[46] President Obama visited 11th Street's The Coupe,[47] a combination bar, restaurant, and coffee shop, which has become "a one-stop destination for D.C. residents."[48] 11th Street wine bar and Italian restaurant, Maple, was named one of "America's Hottest New Wine Bars" by Details magazine.[49] Mexican eatery El Chucho, made The Washington Post's list of "essential eats,"[50] has "formidable mezcal collections"[51] and has an "Essential D.C. Rooftop."[52] Bar and restaurant Meridian Pint is "[t]he Columbia Heights craft beer destination"[53] with some of the District's best mac and cheese.[54] The Hill picked Meridian Pint as "Columbia Heights' most versatile new bar."[55] In 2016, Bon Appétit magazine named the Columbia Heights Filipino restaurant Bad Saint the No. 2 new restaurant in the United States.[56] The New York Times designated Bad Saint a "Critic's Pick," awarding it three stars and describing it as "one of Washington's most sought-after restaurants."[57] In 2019, Bad Saint's chef, Tom Cunanan, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.[58]

11th Street is also home to the "Brooklyn-Inspired Corner Store," Odd Provisions, which carries some products made in Washington, D.C.[59] Comedian Patton Oswalt made a surprise appearance at 11th Street's Wonderland Ballroom,[60] which Travel + Leisure magazine honored for its "beer garden, a spacious patio with communal picnic tables, trees draped in twinkling lights."[61] 11th Street is also home to the arts & community center BloomBars, which "offers such varied events as independent film screenings, drum lessons, poetry readings, folkloric or belly-dance sessions, open-mike nights and yoga."[62] In 2017, Washingtonian magazine singled out 11th Street's Patrick's Pet Care for their annual list of "Washington, DC's Best Pet Care," noting its "emphasis on reliable and environmentally friendly pet services."[63]

The Columbia Heights Farmers Market provides a regular supply of local produce and other foods from local vendors[64]


The 2000 census figures estimated Columbia Heights with a 58 percent African-American population, including some African immigrants of the 20th century and later, and government and professional class; 34 percent Hispanic population; 5.4 percent white population; and 3.1 percent other.[65][66]

The 2010 census figures estimated Columbia Heights with a 43.5 percent African-American population, including government and other professional class; 28.1 percent Hispanic population; 22.9 percent White population; 3.2 percent Asian population; and a 2 percent Other population. In 2012, Columbia Heights was named one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States.[67]

A sign in Columbia Heights in English, Spanish, and Amharic, reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood

Local institutionsEdit

In January 2005, the GALA Hispanic Theatre moved into the newly refurbished Tivoli Theatre as its first permanent home. This former movie theater, built in 1924, had been vacant since 1976. GALA is a theater company dedicated since the 1970s to performing Spanish-language plays.

In November 2006, the Dance Institute of Washington opened a new 12,000-square-foot (1,100 m2) facility across the street from the Tivoli Theatre.[68]

The neighborhood is also home to the Greater Washington Urban League, the local affiliate of the National Urban League, in addition to other non-profit community and service-based organizations including: The Latin American Youth Center, CentroNia, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), and the Shaw/Columbia Heights Family and Community Support Collaborative, all located along the 14th St. and Columbia Road corridor.

The Ecuadorian embassy is located on 15th Street and the Mexican Cultural Institute on 16th Street. Located next door to the Mexican Cultural Institute is the former residence of the Ambassador of Spain. The Spanish Embassy is working to adapt the former residence as a cultural facility.[69] The Polish and Lithuanian embassies are also located on upper 16th Street, in this Columbia Heights section, as is the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Banneker Community Center (2011)

The Banneker Community Center, a unit of the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation, contains playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, a swimming pool (Banneker pool), a computer lab and other indoor and outdoor facilities.[70] The center's main building was constructed in 1934 near Howard University and named for Benjamin Banneker. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 because of its important role in the development of the black community in Washington, D.C.[71]

In 2010, Washington Parks and People purchased the land between houses on 11th and Sherman Avenue in northwest D.C. near El Chucho, Red Rocks Pizza and Meridian Pint and created a community garden. The lot was purchased for $1 after Washington Parks and People worked tirelessly to remove the numerous liens on the property. The Columbia Heights Green continues to be supported by Washington Parks and People. Once a junk yard, the Columbia Heights Green is now a thriving community farm and community work days continue every Saturday. The garden was originally designed for individual plots, but is now set up with community beds.

The Columbia Heights Day Festival is a one-day street festival is a celebration of the diversity and community of Columbia Heights.[72]


Residents are zoned to District of Columbia Public Schools.

Public schools in Columbia Heights include:

High schools
Middle schools
  • Lincoln Middle School
Elementary schools
Public Charter Schools
  • DC Bilingual Public Charter School
  • AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School
  • Capital City Public Charter School
  • Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School
  • Children's Studio Public Charter School
  • E. L. Haynes Public Charter School
  • YouthBuild Public Charter School
  • The Next Step Public Charter School
  • Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for the Technical Arts

In popular cultureEdit

The 1993 film In the Line of Fire features a scene where a call from John Malkovich's character is traced to a building on Park Road. When Clint Eastwood's character and other police officers arrive on the street, they spot Malkovich walking past the Old Columbia Heights Firehouse and a chase ensues.

Klaatu, the alien in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, played by Michael Rennie, boards in a house at 1412 Harvard Street for his stay in Washington.

Homeland TV series, S02E08


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External linksEdit

Coordinates: 38°55′30″N 77°01′48″W / 38.925°N 77.03°W / 38.925; -77.03