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Columbia Heights Is Not Withering –

But It Is Leaving People Behind

Columbia Heights is an amazing, diverse, densely populated, and economically layered community. We’ve come a long way from the riots of 1968 – while our neighborhood was effectively ignored and avoided for decades by city planners, the neighborhood has witnessed an extraordinary revitalization since the Metro stop was installed in 1999 and DC USA was established in 2008.

This is why it’s amazing to me that some community members look at Columbia Heights and see a neighborhood “in decline.” There is no comparison to our community now and what it was like 10 or even 5 years ago. Businesses are thriving, people are competing to live here, and we even have America’s #2 Best New Restaurant! Our community has changed dramatically, and mostly for the better.

Unfortunately, the blessings of community revitalization have historically run “downhill.” What has generally been positive change has ended in a sporadic drip of benefits for long term residents. These changes are perceived as encroachment, because the changes are not for them but are geared toward supporting the “New Community.”

This visibly translates into a disparity within the community that begins to look like a line between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots.” 

What is happening here is not unique to Columbia Heights. As newcomers enter an established community and work to make that community their own, they often aren’t aware of those they are displacing or the long term residents they will now be calling neighbors. But it is particularly dramatic here. From 2000 – 2010 the black population in Columbia Heights dropped 13%, while the white population increased 18%. And it’s only continued in that direction since then.

The new residents’ singular vision of creating a home often neglects to involve the vision of those who have called these neighborhoods home for generations.

As long-term residents watch their neighborhood undergo dramatic change, what they see are affluent new people who are able to come in and make substantial changes: upgrading their property, buying out neighbors, closing or replacing the local corner store, and changing traffic patterns.

This progress clearly isn’t meant for long-term residents. They have been here for decades without change, but all of a sudden it is the new comers who get to dictate and direct the transformation of their community.

For example...

For example, one Saturday morning a neighborhood in DC woke to the bustling hum of a new farmer's market. The farmers had their trucks out and were busy setting up tables and cordoning off the area. The neighborhood soon learned that the market was to be a regular staple in the area from 10 AM – 2 PM every Saturday going forward. What a surprise this was!

What was also surprising is that no one knew that this was happening, not the home owners and residents who regularly parked their cars in what was now a restricted area, not the local corner market that would now be losing business to the incoming vendors. No one informed the ladies who regularly sat in the small park adjacent to the new market on Saturday mornings to enjoy the quiet setting.

At the next ANC meeting the “newcomers,” young white couples with toddlers at their sides and million dollar investments in their new homes, faced off against the “long-termers:” African American residents who had raised their children, grandchildren and great grands in homes they had occupied for most of their lives.

“Why would anyone oppose a farmers market?” the newcomers asked.  “This is good for everyone!” What the market planners failed to understand was the importance of the process, the necessity of inclusion, the expectation of respect for the existing community. The market had drawn a line in the sand and brought to bear the real questions that typify the problems of a transitioning community:

"Whose community is this? Who gets to decide what “we” want? Does my voice matter? Is your voice more important than mine?"

When a community prospers for some and not for all, ill winds will blow.

The community of Columbia Heights is currently weathering this storm of transition. As a community changes it is the responsibility and duty of the designers of change to foresee the pitfalls of transition and work to address, if not prevent the inevitable ill winds.

Crime is one of those inevitable ills that result when parts of a community are left out of the prosperity equation.

While no one is opposed to growth and success, everyone must have a stake in progress and a viable chance to grow with the community. Real opportunities for participation in the “New Community” have to be within the reach of long term residents.

Solutions vs. Support

These opportunities include things like easy micro loans for home improvement, accessible job opportunities, training programs, homeownership, affordable housing, etc. Without these kinds of supports, feelings of resentment and exclusion fester as people who have the most to lose in our community are left behind or shoved aside.

City Planners, politicians, community advocates and members must continuously seek to engage strategies that create an inclusive community that promotes both the old and the new.  Failure to do so will only breed the kind of contempt that results in a disregard for all things, including the community that no longer feels like home.

What Thrive DC Can Do

While Thrive DC  is located in Columbia Heights and primarily serves the homeless of DC, a large part of our work is also homelessness prevention. More than 200 families a week come to Thrive DC for emergency groceries, or for fresh fruits and vegetables from our free farmer’s market, or simply to bring their children in for a free meal.

We are doing what we can to provide job assistance and job training for individuals who want to participate in our community. We even have a re-entry program for women coming home from incarceration that offers support while helping them get back on their feet.

However, these solutions will have limited effectiveness until our city and community leaders plan for a future that includes both the old and the new communities they serve.

Alicia Horton
Executive Director
Thrive DC

Our Morning Program is aimed at providing our clients with fresh food, emergency groceries, personal care items, showers, laundry and mail.

Recently, American University students conducted an assessment on our male clients to get a better grasp of their needs and backgrounds. Not only has this report helped our team to further understand our clients but it has created a better awareness of DC homelessness for everyone.

To help you get a sense of who we work with, here are 5 things you should know about our clients.

1. About 1/3 of Our Homeless Speak Spanish

We are located in Columbia Heights, a region with a large Spanish population often overlooked when it comes to Spanish programs.

Wanting to address this growing issue, our bilingual Job Developer David Vicenty has implemented a Spanish Employment Workshops to help our Hispanic clients.

Twice a week, we provide two hours of working one-on-one with them to improve resumes, look for jobs online, and assist with completing job applications.

2. Almost Half Have Lived 5+ Years in DC

Despite DC being internationally recognized as a city with opportunities, DC’s homeless are growing and many are staying homeless.

Though we do provide a variety of programs to all of our clients, our mission is to prevent and end homelessness. That being said, this study is proving just how important it is to continue addressing an often neglected population.

3. Not All of Our Clients are Homeless

Actually, more than 30% are low-income individuals who are struggling to keep afloat. This can be especially difficult when buying groceries since healthy alternatives are often expensive.

Luckily, our Fresh Food Fridays provide a free farmer’s market for all of our clients. Therefore our place becomes a haven for many wanting vegetables, fruits, pasta and much more!

4. Our Clients KNOW They Have the Skills for a Job

In fact, 80% of our clients believe they have what it takes to land a job. However, many of them are currently not working yet and are looking for jobs.

We understand just how essential jobs are and help through our Employment Support and Real Opportunity Training Program. It’s through these programs that our clients are able to make a real change in their lives.

If you're interested in helping people find jobs, contact the Employment Specialist Jemahl Nixon at (202) 503-1521 or jemahl@thrivedc.org.

5. 60% of Our Clients Cannot Afford Public Transportation

Not being able to pay for transportation can be very hard to our clients since this often means they miss major appointments like going to the doctor or job interviews.

However, over one-third of our clients use tokens which allow for a free pass to board the Metro or Metrobus. Yet this continues to be an important issue. In order to help prevent homelessness, we have to provide those who cannot afford to use the Metro or bus the opportunities to get to job interviews.

How You Can Make a Difference

If you enjoyed getting an insightful look into who we serve and how we help, join the Thrive DC team either through volunteering or donating. To get started, contact our Community Relations Manager Greg Rockwell at 202-503-1528 or greg@thrivedc.org.

Click here to read more about the assessment.

1525 Newton St NW
Washington, DC 20010
(202) 737-9311

Client Hours:
Monday - Thursday
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM | 1:00 PM - 3:00 PM

Staff Hours: 
Monday – Friday
8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
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