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Public Spaces

Tregoning, NBM show off Columbia Heights

The National Building Museum is creating a series of videos about DC's "Great Green Places," which combine transit, good streetcapes, parks, and a sense of community to create a welcoming and sustainable place to live. In the latest video, Office of Planning head Harriet Tregoning gives a tour of Columbia Heights, where historic row houses coexist with new condos and lively retail.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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For a split second at the end when she's waiving her key chain I had a panic attack that she was about to get into a car. Phew...PR disaster averted.

That's a great video. Very nice production values. It's his strong support of fantastic googoos like Harriet and Gabe Klein that makes Fenty's pointless indiscretions all the more frustrating.

by Reid on Aug 19, 2009 1:40 pm • linkreport

What, no hipsters?

by цarьchitect on Aug 19, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

Definitely a nice idea. I wonder, though, what really makes a place "green"? Transit is a great start. Nonetheless, I can't look at the CH metro stop without thinking about the latest shootings there -- it makes cringe. Green or not, we need safety in our neighborhoods too.

by ditro on Aug 19, 2009 1:59 pm • linkreport

I think Columbia Heights does qualify as a "green place." Getting people to walk rather than drive, or use transit rather than drive, instantly makes it more ecologically friendly. But that's true of much of DC. One of the great things about this city is that you really don't have to drive anywhere. Heck, I live in Georgetown, don't own a car and get around just fine (and Gtown is frequently listed as transit challenged, absurdly.)

There are two issues I have with using Columbia Heights as a model, however. The first relates to all of DC, in that most of the District wasn't carved up and emptied out by the highways, and is well served by transit. DC may have gotten "sick" during the great movement towards cars, suburbs and the like, but it didn't die; it didn't carve huge slices of itself up for the sake of the automobile (and the 'burbs,) and it was always a walk-friendly place. Contrast that reality with many older cities in the US (or worse, newer Metropolitan Statistical Areas which never really had that fabric to tear,) and you'll find (well, I find, at least,) that the DC model doesn't really apply in practice in many ways to the many challenges facing metropolitan America. For example, transit-starved Atlanta has attempted to create "Columbia Heights" from islands of their historic fabric...but that's all they are: essentially marooned by highways and causeways. Even if there are just merely streets, those streets are clogged with traffic, with people trying to find a spot, or cruise through...because the region is dependent, utterly, on the car.

The second directly applies to ditro's safety issue, and it's a challenge that neither Columbia Heights nor other places undergoing gentrification have conquered: what do you do with the people that can no longer afford to live in Columbia Heights? What happens to them? What becomes of their social fabric as a new tapestry is sewn over their way of living?

Don't get me wrong: I love Columbia Heights. I love me some Target. I love that the older brownstones are coming back to life. But what about the people that are left there, struggling to afford life in a higher tax bracket? Or those that give up the struggle? For that matter, what about the turf resistance of a criminal element not wanting to give up a "home" it's known since the riots?

It's these complications to the gentrification story that rarely, if ever, get told. And, in my opinion, it's these complications that cause tension, crime and anger when you read between the lines. Those socio-economic questions must be answered...or at the very least, we must strive to have a conversation about them, because this process will one day be done. Columbia Heights will be an upper-middle-class 'hood. People will be displaced...and then the questions of gentrification will bear their marks on Eckington, Shaw, Anacostia and the rest.

Wow, that was waaaaaaay more than the two cents I intended!

by Aaron rides a Dahon, y'all! on Aug 19, 2009 2:38 pm • linkreport

struggling to afford life in a higher tax bracket

I wish I was in a higher tax bracket so I could struggle with it.

by Po' on Aug 19, 2009 2:45 pm • linkreport

That was said wrong. The struggle is in dealing with higher priced goods and services all around you (that you can't afford.) Or the now higher property tax (that you can't afford to pay.) Or the higher rents (that you can't afford to pay.) Sorry. Hope it didn't seem flippant.

by Aaron rides a Dahon, y'all! on Aug 19, 2009 2:50 pm • linkreport

Note the near total lack of trees along 14th St. Also, where are all the teenage mothers throwing chicken bones into the gutter? That Chinese place next to the 7-11 at Columbia is probably the single greatest contributer to street trash in the city.

by Matt on Aug 20, 2009 9:35 am • linkreport

Aaron, have you ever shopped at a Target? It's not exactly a high-price boutique, nor does the clientele at the Columbia Heights store consist principally of gentrifying hipsters. Columbia Heights is becoming a mixed-income neighborhood, but it's not like all the new retail amenities going in are irrelevantly expensive for incumbent residents.

I don't get it. We wring our hands about how poor neighborhoods lack access to low-price, decent quality necessity retail, then development comes along that drops a new Giant and a Target in the middle of Columbia Heights, and now we wring our hands about what the new retail means for the incumbent residents. What, exactly, would be a satisfactory outcome for CH?

by Josh B on Aug 20, 2009 10:06 am • linkreport

Yeah, it's a catch-22. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Same thing happens with transportation projects. In Minneapolis, some folks along the Central Corridor light rail line that should start construction soon are both demanding improved transit, but opposed to the project for the increase in value it might bring.

by Alex B. on Aug 20, 2009 10:30 am • linkreport

Josh B,
Obviously, I've been to a Target.

And I don't know the answer to the gentrification question..indeed, we are "damned" either way. I just wanted to ask the questions, because they are constant and chronic regarding gentrification projects all over the country. And they will come up again and again.

I do think we differ on the mixed-income issue. Columbia Heights IS mixed income today. With high property values and more cash in the area, Columbia Heights WILL be middle-to-upper income tomorrow. Will a Payless Shoe Source work for a middle-to-upper income client base? (Target is kind of a special-case store, attracting a wide berth of socioeconomic classes...from those who need low priced essentials to those that want fake Converses for $20 to go with their glitter pen.)

Look, I don't live there. The last shooting I encountered involved university students and Jello. But if these moments with gentrification are constant and chronic until it's "done," why not talk about the issues, rather than bury one's head in the sand? Why not look at the real friction and tension?

by Aaron rides a Dahon, y'all! on Aug 20, 2009 11:41 am • linkreport

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