A few months after I moved to Columbia Heights, I planted a garden in front of rowhouse. As my people walked by, they taught me about my neighborhood.

Two white men in their mid-30s who lived down the street shook their heads in disbelief. “A coupla years ago,” they said, “people were dealing crack on your porch. Now you’re planting tulips.”

A seven-year-old called out to me from the youth center across the street: “Do you want some gardening stuff?” She had just been to a gardening workshop, but “I’m not that into gardening,” she said. I traded her a trowel and a shovel for a glass of water and an apple.

Dany has already mentioned the homeowner from down the street: “I wish my tenants would do something like this,” he said. He talked about the rabblerousing of the previous residents on the block, especially those in the now vacant apartment next door. I think he was happy to see me because the color of my skin might increase the value of his home.

An older man stopped and asked if he could work for me, because his son needs medication for his asthma and he just spent all his money on diapers and he just needed eight dollars and his son has trouble breathing.

I’m not the only Columbia Heights resident who has built community by growing things. While doing research for the Our Columbia Heights project, I came across this Washington City Paper piece from 2000. It confirmed what I had heard: what’s now the Giant grocery store used to be a community garden, one where folks grew collards, tomatoes, kale, African pois melons and and callaloo from Jamaica.

The piece ends on a note that in hindsight, is a bit tragic and a lot ironic. Gardener Esther King says:

This area will be saved. There are certain key people who aren’t being dealt with. I was dealt with many times. People are always working on others to make them cleaner, stronger, more good people. Those developers just need to be taken aside and dealt with.

My garden never really grew. See, I’m one of those young white transients–you know, the ones all those condos were intended for–and I left for the summer. When I returned in the fall, weeds had taken over. Someone had uprooted a basil plant, one of the few plants still living.

The more I learn about the history of this neighborhood–the conflicts, the struggles, the delays, the incredible changes–the more I realize how important the Our Columbia Heights project is. There is so much more digging to be done (pardon the pun), and so many stories that are aching to be told.

For now, I’m just listening.

Awake

December 4, 2009

Hello to all, I’m Mark. Thanks for checking out http//:ourcolumbiaheights.wordpress.com. This is my first Blog post, to the page and I’d like to thank Dany for being consistent and keeping it up week to week. For all those that don’t know already, our aim is to tell the story of all those affected by gentrification, particularly the ones of the people displaced whose voices go unheard or ignored. The change of any particular area always has negative and positive consequences, but the intentional removal and transplantation of lower-class individuals in order to serve a new demographic has never been so prevalent and obvious. How does two Starbucks across the street from another serve to help drug-abuse prevention? How does overpriced housing end crime on the street?  The process of gentrification is systemic and is not always a solution to an areas problem.  Some will argue that Columbia Heights has changed for the better, others, for the worse. Our goal is to open people’s eyes to the issue and examine the effects it has had on people like me who have had nightmares about local landmarks that I grew and love turn into more luxury condos or apartments.

I also attended a meeting about two weeks ago and listened in on Fenty and his further ambitions for rehabilitating Columbia Heights. “Lighting up 14th St.” sounds like a great idea to deter crime, however. Will it ultimately be effective? Many of Fenty’s plans are idealistic and seek to (like Mayor Anthony Williams) create a new D.C. one not unlike Arlington, filled with transient young urban professional who enjoy the perks of living in the city. Where do the displaced go? You may be wondering. Into the Surburban metropolitan area where crime rates have soared. The issue is being patched by putting up heavily policed – shopping districts but not addressed.

Who are the players involved?

What is gained? What is lost?

Where are they now?

Police Checkpoints

November 18, 2009

I just found an article on WaPo.com about a court-case about police security check points here.

Basically, residents, and a nonprofit brought a case to court, calling these stops an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. This case court focused on the Trinidad area of the city, but rings true for my experiences in Columbia Heights. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to walk by checkpoints at the corner of 14th & Girard, for example. After losing the first case, the case was picked up by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and the residents won, along with their nonprofit partner, The Partnership for Civil Justice.

I know what my initial reaction to this is: victory! I grew up learning that the police were frequently not my ally. As I’ve grown up, I’ve quickly learned that they are taught- both formally and informally- to see my people, and other folks of color, as criminals before we even commit crimes. Clearly, checkpoint such as these are an infringement against our civil liberties, but this is much more the case, in my eyes, for the “native” rather than the “transient” residents of these two neighborhoods. I’ve seen cars with white folks glide by these check points while I and my aunt sit through insufferable questioning.

I’m happy about this progress, but it seems a lot of folks aren’t. Check out the poll on the site here.

As many folks already know, Oscar Fuentes, a nine year old boy, was killed in his apartment on Saturday night on the 1400 block of Columbia Road.

 

My relationship with murder and killing, having grown up in Columbia Heights is very clearly a complicated one. I remember waking up to gun shots (hell, I still do), and more than once the victims of the bullets that fly in the city have hit people who were very close to me. This is not an experience that I regularly find kinship through in my middle-class college educated non-profit employed reality. It’s difficult to process, I’m not going to lie, and I’m not sure whether or not the “change” or the “progress” that’s gone down in the neighborhood has really had any effect on my sense of physical safety in Columbia Heights. I live on a high crime street, and since moving in 9 months ago, there have been at least 6 shootings on my block, one of which involved a machine gun.

These experiences are not earth shattering to me anymore. Yes, I feel for the family who lost their son. Hell, I even feel for the person whose life has diverged so far from the socially respected that he shot a 9 year old boy and will spend the rest of their life in the prison system. I feel bad about the situation all and all, but there’s something about all of this that’s making me really really uncomfortable.

This shooting is all over the blogosphere, but “the fact that something like this could happen” isn’t what’s concerning me in this moment. My housemate sent me an email this morning with an article about the shooting from WaPo. She highlighted the last paragraph of the article, which I will share with you now:

“If they talk to me, I say hi and keep walking,” he said, carrying a just-purchased leather Bible cover emblazoned with a white dove. Ortega said some nearby neighborhoods have improved while others have lagged. His son is also 9 years old. He won’t let him walk to school by himself. (link)

In the spirit of full disclosure, this quote is from Pedro Ortega who was talking about his interactions with drug dealers. But, here’s the deal: drug dealers are not always evident. In fact, I’m fairly sure (let’s not go into why) drug dealers try to make themselves reasonably inconspicuous.

I’m in a place right now where I’m working through what it means to be a good neighbor in the world that I like to imagine. I think that engaging with people genuinely, or you know, trying to at least, is really central to that project. I talk to people on the street. Yes, they may be asking me for money, or a cigarette, I’m give them what I can at that moment if it’s evident that they need the couple of bucks in my wallet more than I do, because if I was in that situation I would hope that someone would do something similar for me. My understanding of the community that I want to live in, although always developing, growing, and expanding, hinges on things like accountability, communication, and trust.

Now, I know that this all seems lofty and damned near impossible in any urban context, right? Well, this might have to do partially with the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time in small-town America in my life. I know that this sounds damned near insane in the context of Columbia Heights, but I think that it’s important to, at the very least ask why there is so much animosity and fear goin’ down in the area. Is this because of the massive influx of middle to upper class residents? Is this because many white folks hold onto deeply ingrained racist ideologies unwittingly? Is this because folks of color are threatened and angry by both of these factors and not managing that well?

What’s going on here, folks? Why do we separate when terrible things happen, rather than come together? Is it just fear? Is fear the problem with Columbia heights? Fear of displacement? Fear or dark skinned people? Fear of power? Fear of the rich? Fear of the police? Fear of the criminals? So, now I just need to work on thinking about how to get folks to overcome that fear?

 

Maybe a conversation in documentary format?

 

Let me know if you dig what I’m saying on this blog- I’d like to actually talk to you or email with you about your experiences in Columbia Heights to see if you would be a good candidate for the film.

 


 

On Gentrification…

November 4, 2009

I remember when the majority of buildings on 14th street between Euclid and Monroe were burnt out from the ’68 riots.

I remember celebrating the arrival of the metro in 1999 not because of increased property values, because it cut off 30 minutes from my morning commute to school across the park.

I remember walking to the Woolworths on 14th street when I was in elementary school to buy embroidery thread to make friendship bracelets.

My memories, my sense of home, and my sense of belonging are all rooted in Columbia Heights these days, it seems.

A little over a week ago, I was walking to the metro on my way to work when I passed by a neighbor who lives just three doors down from me. Still holding on to learned midwesternisms from college, I give him a bright morning smile, to which he quickly averts his eyes and keeps walking, not even so much as acknowledging me.

Now, I realize this was the morning and not everyone can smile before their morning cup of coffee, but this experience struck a cord with me that had me crying less than a week later.

In the things Mark and I have written about this project, we use the term animosity. Animosity, to my understanding of the word, means extreme ill-will and hostility.

This neighbor embodies that. When I first moved into the house I’m living in now, this neighbor took it upon himself to inform one of my white housemates of the street’s recent victory: getting the city to revoke section 8 subsidy status for a building on the block.

Several of my friends grew up in that building and were displaced as a result of his “organizing” efforts.

So, that morning last week evoked all of my insecurities about living in Columbia Heights right now. Although I come from middle class academic stock, I am assumed one of the public housing recipients in the neighborhood. I am black, and I identify with their struggles, so I’m not trying at all to distance myself from them, but highlight the racialized stereotypes that many of the white folks coming into this neighborhood hold.

That morning, I felt like this man was looking at me as if I was bringing his property value down. These are the experiences that I want to highlight in our community to bring people back down to earth.

We (black folks and other communities of color) have been in Columbia Heights for more than a generation. We’re quickly getting forced out of our homes, but we still have a long standing history here, folks. We belong here. So does everyone. Let’s make this work, mmmkay?

If I can work to make that happen, I will be happy.

Columbian College

October 21, 2009

Did you know that Columbian College, George Washington University’s Undergraduate school was founded in Columbia Heights? (Hint: That’s why “Columbia Road” and “Harvard Street” are named after such epic institutions of education)

The picture below is from 1850 and was taken at what is now 14th & Euclid.

Justice Park

October 19, 2009

I was just walking by Euclid at 14th and noticed a big sign for a new park development called “Justice Park.”

The language I see in this neighborhood irks me a little bit, most notably, the “Victory Heights” building on Kenyon and 14th, so the irony here struck me hard. Upon further research, I found a Prince of Petworth commenter say that the park is named after an Atlanta Brave’s Outfielder, David Justice, who is helping fund the project, which looks like it will primarily be a community garden. Hopefully I can get a spot for next season! It’ll be nice to have space to do some farming so close to home.

You can find the DC Parks and Rec’s page on Justice Park here.