I walk into my favorite coffee shop this morning in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, only to see that yet again I’m too late. My favorite table, off to the side and by the window, is occupied as it is most mornings by a guy I like to refer to in my mind as Scraggly Goatee. Many mornings, I walk in, spy the table and either sigh in relief or resentment, depending upon whether or not I’ve been fortunate enough to beat him to it. On the mornings that I do, I’m elated and super productive until he shows up and spreads his work on the table next to my own, marking his territory like a dog on a tree. On the mornings that I don’t get there first, I flash furtive glances at him and my preferred spot through my eyelashes, hoping he’ll leave before I do but he never does.
Like myself, I suspect that Scraggly Goatee is office-less and perhaps feels ownership over his favorite table at his favorite coffee shop. I frequently think to myself, “This is my neighborhood. What’s this guy doing taking my favorite table day after day?” Yet, I don’t live or work in Columbia Heights. Even though for most of the eight years I’ve lived in D.C., I’ve considered this neighborhood to be my own, the only solid tie that I have is the fact that my daughter’s school is located there and that my son will be attending the same school in the fall.
Even still, my ears perk anytime I hear mention of the neighborhood on the news and in real estate and market trends. My husband, Isaac, and I tried to buy there four years ago and were outbid offer after offer. Many other buyers were offering as much as 50K more than the asking prices and we couldn’t compete. Sometimes I hang out there because I’m familiar with the area and there is just more to experience than in my own neighborhood. Other times, I’m compelled to hang around because I have to be vigilant. This is the neighborhood my children spend their days in. This is the neighborhood where they walk to parks in the middle of the day. This is the neighborhood they will take public transportation from for school field trips. If the neighborhood is unsafe or grubby in any way, my children could be compromised. As a result, I hang out here between teaching classes at Howard University and Prince George’s Community College or on those days when I am merely writing. I spend my time grading and reviewing papers, writing my next opus and keeping watch just in case something funky goes down while my children are in school.
Prior to buying a home, we’d lived in the Shaw-Howard neighborhood for almost three years and it was amazing. We were able to walk downtown to museums, trendy eateries and boutiques. I could even walk to work. As a swamp rat from south of New Orleans, this was the ideal city life — a small town community feel, mere blocks from the National Mall. Heaven.
My fascination with all things city compelled us to try buying in Shaw first. However, the home that we were renting, a two bedroom English basement, appraised for 1.2 million. It became evident early on in the house hunting process that we could not afford an abode in such an affluent neighborhood. Once again, my small town mentality encouraged me to look near an area in the city that I felt comfortable in and intrigued by: Columbia Heights. The neighborhood was booming and hadn’t yet experienced its current level of chaos. We thought we still had time to slide in before the market went crazy. If I couldn’t live near my work, I would live near my daughter’s school. After four months of aggressive searching and bidding, my husband and I gave up again. Essentially, experiencing reality when looking in Shaw and being outbid time after time in Columbia Heights forced Isaac and I to explore other neighborhoods for our ideal city living situation.
We searched for a neighborhood with the same potential and walkability as Shaw or Columbia Heights. By this point I’d started to understand how gentrification, at least in D.C., worked. In many ways, wherever the massive construction cranes sprang up directly affected the means of relaxation and escape. I’d seen Columbia Heights change from a seedy area with a few charter schools to a metroplex with a Target, a Starbucks, and a myriad of independent coffee shops and eateries. It had become a hipster haven, bordering such trendy neighborhoods as Adams Morgan and the U-Street corridor. I wanted to be right in the middle of it. A culture vulture at heart, I craved the new experiences that a diverse and growing neighborhood like Columbia Heights had to offer.
Additionally, Columbia Heights has an energy and spirit like no other neighborhood I’ve spent time in. The resident population is largely Hispanic. This means my daughter attends a bilingual charter immersion program where she studies English and Spanish in equal time, and the best pupusas you will ever eat are only steps away from the ultimate dirty chai. Frequently, the people on the street are a mix of young professionals, hipsters, artists selling their wares on the sidewalk and families running to and fro.
I craved this energy and still do. Consequently, we continued searching for a neighborhood that would someday yield similar day to day culture and modes of escape. This led Isaac and I to buy in Eckington, a transitional neighborhood in Northeast D.C. At the time, we bought the house we could afford, in the area we could afford, with the hopes of more growth. Our approach to buying a home was different from our friends who were and still are content to rent or buy in the ’burbs, in places like Potomac and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Touted as urban pioneers, we soon found ourselves part of a neighborhood undergoing a wave of gentrification in a 100 year old house that contained many surprises under the floor boards and drywall.
My family and I have been living in our new home in Eckington for four years. The crime is still high. From time to time, it even feels like it’s on the rise. Our amenities are few and far between. We get new neighbors weekly. They descend upon fixer-uppers and completed renos with the same pioneering attitude Isaac and I embodied four summers ago — bright-eyed, determined and naive. As a result of the development boom, my house is surrounded by contradiction with high-end condo developments popping up amidst unsavory take-out joints and liquor stores, sprinkled with Section 8 housing and 100-year-old Victorians like my own home. We don’t have a coffee shop, we don’t have a gym and we don’t have many delivery options outside of pizza and Chinese. Consequently, my favorite spots all tend to be within a five block radius of my kid’s school.
Despite the crime and lack of just plain old stuff to do, I still love my neighborhood. Summer is here and my neighbors are coming out of hibernation. We chat at the fence and share homegrown veggies from our cityscape gardens. I remember when Columbia Heights was similar to Eckington, lacking the community feel that the neighborhood now embodies. I know that as the construction dust settles and my neighbors are finished with the inevitable growing pains, I’ll find more relaxation here.
For now, I find myself in Columbia Heights, on weekends and days the kids don’t have school, going to my favorite pho place or seeking out my table at my favorite coffee shop to get my much desired dirty chai. Many a Saturday, my family and I go to the fountain at 14th and Park NW. We get some fro-yo and the kids play in the fountain with other neighborhood kids. Sometimes we see families from the school or one of my daughter’s teachers. We seek and find community where it’s most accessible, waiting for it to eventually be a means of escape closer to home.