Columbia Heights Gets Hip

New York Times highlights neighborhood

My street in Columbia Heights is D.C.’s newest “hip strip.” It must be true -- it’s in the New York Times.

In an online travel feature, the Times says a “cluster of independent businesses has revitalized a once-desolate stretch of 11th Street, where big box stores and chain restaurants give way to indie rock dance parties and guerrilla theater performances.” New Columbia Heights says the Times pinpoints four 11th Street hot spots: the pioneering Wonderland Ballroom, which opened in 2004, the arts nonprofit BloomBars, and newcomers Meridian Pint and Room 11.

But alas, not all is well in the ‘hood. “Columbia Heights” has become a synonym for “soulless gentrification” to many Washingtonians -- Elissa Silverman of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute last week criticized NPR’s story on D.C. demographic changes by saying NPR “made Anacostia sound like Columbia Heights” -- and some think the neighborhood is becoming the city’s version of the Mall of America.

DCist writes that City Paper’s Jason Cherkis “called it the ‘ugliest gentrified neighborhood in D.C.’ and joked that ‘the difference between Columbia Heights and Silver Spring’ is that ‘Silver Spring has two movie theaters.’” Cherkis’s Twitter barrage, sparked by news that a Panera Bread will soon join Starbucks, Panda Express, and other chains -- “Columbia Heights is turning into a food court or an airport,” he said -- upset Dan Silverman, a.k.a. Prince of Petworth.

“If you actually walk around Columbia Heights you will find some beautiful architecture, sculptures, parks and even independent shops, bars and restaurants,” Silverman wrote. He added, “Columbia Heights is not filled with only chain stores and the chain stores it does have are not evil. Oh all you super cool guys and girls who scoff at IHOP and Chipotle. … The fact that you can’t see how a Chipotle and IHOP serve the residents of Columbia Heights is obnoxious and condescending to say the least.”

Columbia Heights has been going through a lot of changes. When we first moved here in 2002, several large lots were still vacant, not rebuilt since the 1968 riots. My wife and I used to watch the “development starting” date on the Tivoli get changed a few times each year.

Change came gradually. When Columbia Heights Coffee opened a block from our front door, we thought it was too soon, and that it would fail. It survives and thrives. Next came the Tivoli project at long last, then the Giant. And yes, then came DCUSA, with its Best Buy and Target and chain stores.

Columbia Heights is now a mix of urban types -- a bit of Dupont Circle, a bit of Silver Spring, and still a good bit of what it was before the last decade of change. As for my street’s newfound hipness, I take full credit.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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