Columbia Heights

Izzy Dipaolo, Jeffrey Guzman, Thomas Treadwell

Diversity & Integration


A Statement of Some of the Advantages of Beautiful Columbia Heights: A Neighborhood of Homes, a brochure published in 1904 by the Columbia Heights Citizens Association, interestingly touches on a point made by T.J. Sugrue in 1996 regarding the importance of home ownership to the white identity during this period and in the period continuing into the Civil Rights Movement (Source). The brochure states, under the subheading ‘Desirable Neighbors:’ “to give an idea of the stable character of the population of Columbia Heights, attention is called to the fact that nowhere else in the District does such a population of the inhabitants own the buildings in which they live… [and] nowhere in the District of Columbia can be found a community freer from the objectionable classes than that on the ‘Heights.’” It can be concluded that the “objectionable classes” mentioned here refer namely immigrants and blacks, considering the time period in which it was published.

The neighborhood experienced a demographic shift which occurred most dramatically at the start of the 1950’s, most notably during an intense period of segregation in both the District and the country. Columbia Heights transformed into a predominantly black, middle-class neighborhood. The introduction of black residents into the area can be partially attributed to the close proximity of Howard University, which many “upper crust” African-Americans attended (Source). The neighborhood’s black population increased further with the reestablishment of Cardozo Business High School (formerly Central High School) as an all-black school in 1949 due to surrounding area black schools becoming overpopulated. Of course, with the demographic transition the neighborhood as whites fled to the suburbs led to drops in real estate values. The riots of 1968 devastated the neighborhood; businesses and homes were left in ruin as a result of looting, fires and other damage, and many remained boarded shut as some residents left the area, leaving few behind to pick up the pieces and without the resources to do so.

For the remainder of the 1970’s, Columbia Heights was, according to a 1998 article in the Washington Post, “a mix of low-income blacks, bohemian-minded whites and small clusters of legal immigrants from countries like Chile and Bolivia.” This demographic mix shifted in the early 1980’s, when civil war in El Salvador resulted in a massive influx of El Salvadoran refugees into D.C., in particular to the Columbia Heights neighborhood, “pushing the District’s Latino population from less than 5,000 to more than 70,000.” Although the demographics had begun to shift slightly, economic conditions in the neighborhood did see significant improvement; this was in part because the neighborhood had struggled to rebuild itself after the riots in ‘68 and because many of the Salvadoran refugees came to the country with little education or money, and often lacking English language skills, leaving them with little resources to attempt to rebuild the neighborhood themselves. Conditions for second-generation Salvadorans were not much better; Constable writes in her article “In the Barrio, All Face a Struggle” how the new generation of Latino immigrants still “lived in crowded apartments with parents who [spoke] little English” with many young people “dropping out of school, getting pregnant, doing drugs or joining gangs,” issues which could likely be attributed to the lack of both public and private resources in the Columbia Heights neighborhood at the time.

Demographic Data Analysis:

Source: Neighborhood Change Database

The graph above illustrates the total population of Columbia Heights as recorded by each census from 1970 to 2010. One significant population trend marked by this graph is the decline of the total population between 1970 to 1980, which can most likely be attributed to many middle class residents moving out of the deteriorating neighborhood after the 1968 riots, when “vacant properties were pervasive” (Giambrone 2016). There was a sharp population increase between 1980 and 1990, which is when the neighborhood saw the largest increases in Hispanic and Foreign populations (as is illustrated in the previous graph). This can likely be attributed to immigration reform during this period, like the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which had little impact on decreasing the immigrant population (Chapman and Ciment, Immigration Policy) and the Immigration Act of 1990, which specifically benefited El Salvadoran citizens (Warren 2014), particularly important as El Salvadorans were still flooding into D.C. as a result of the El Salvadoran Civil War as well as several natural disasters. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “between 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran immigrant population in the United States increased nearly fivefold from 94,000 to 465,000,” a statistic illustrated in the previous graph (2016). Even with the effect of family reunification measures, which further increased immigrant populations nationwide, the population can be seen to have levelled between 1990 and 2000. The increase in population after 2000 can be attributed, in part, to the opening of the Columbia Heights metro station, which opened in 1999 and increased mobility into the neighborhood. The white population also experienced the most growth during this time period, which correlated with the massive “revitalization” and redevelopment of Columbia Heights which was carried out by the city starting with the opening of the metro station and included a billion dollars in investments in the area (Schwartzman 2008). Census Tract 28.02 saw significant population loss as recorded in the 2010 census, while other tracts experienced population growth or their population levels steadied. The decrease in 28.02 may be due to revitalization occurring in the area, i.e. the metro station and DC USA shopping center.

Source: Neighborhood Change Database

The graph above shows the racial/ethnic composition of Columbia Heights as recorded in every census from 1970 to 2010. It represents the three largest racial/ethnic groups in the area: Black, Hispanic, and White. Foreign represents other immigrant groups whose numbers who too insignificant in comparison to the other three racial/ethnic groups to include in this particular graph. Asian, Native American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander were other racial/ethnic groups which were also identified in the census, but their populations in Columbia Heights are small compared to the four groups identified here. The most obvious trend which can be identified from this graph is the significant decline of the black population in the neighborhood, particularly in conjunction with the rising population of whites. The rise of the white population correlates with a rise in the Hispanic population, confirming that whites are more likely to move to areas with larger concentration of Hispanics than blacks. As of the most recent census from 2010, the Hispanic population has begun to decline in the area. The continuing decline of blacks and recent decline of Hispanics in Columbia Heights, along with the relatively recent and significant rise of the white population indicates the occurrence of gentrification and its clear effects on minority populations. Additionally, the graph includes data for the foreign (immigrant) population in Columbia Heights, which strongly correlates with the Hispanic population, indicating that the majority of foreign immigrants in the area were also Hispanic immigrants/migrants.

Source: Neighborhood Change Database

The map above shows the percent of Spanish speakers in each Census tract. Though there is a great distribution of Spanish speakers in the city as a whole, Columbia Heights’ darker shades reflect a greater prevalence for Spanish speakers in the neighborhood. Interestingly, there are more Spanish speakers west of 16th St than there are east of Columbia Heights. Typically, neighborhoods east of Columbia Heights have been more similar. This could be reflective of how Hispanics are more likely to choose majority White neighborhoods (those west of 16th) than majority Black (those east of Columbia Heights). The percent of Spanish speaking adults in Columbia Heights is 13.75%.

Source: Neighborhood Change Database

The graph above represents the age composition in Columbia Heights and DC as of the 2010 census. The largest age group in Columbia Heights, which is significantly larger than any other group, particularly than the “under 18” and “35-49” group, are 25-34 year olds. This age group consists of “Millennials,” many of whom are individuals just entering the job market after graduating college, and young professionals. This indicates a potential decline in families in Columbia Heights and a rise of single-person households; additionally, many of the families who were in Columbia Heights previously may have been pushed out because of gentrification and a massive increase in prices of residences in the area. Curbed, a website focusing on D.C. issues, stated that the population of millennials in Columbia Heights and neighboring Mt. Pleasant has increased by 4,400 millennials over the past ten years (Paschall 2014). By comparison, DC has a much small 25-34 age group. It is still the largest group, but the population distribution amongst groups appears more uniform. Furthermore, the 50-64 and 65 & older age groups are a lot larger in DC than in Columbia Heights.

Source: Neighborhood Change Database

The above graph illustrates the percent of children in comparison to the percent of adults over 18 living in the neighborhood from 1970-2010, with the orange line indicating adults over 18 and the blue line representing children. Between 2000 and 2010 the population of children fell to 5.5% - after decades of hovering close to 10%. The percent of adults spiked 10% to 84.36% between 2000 and 2010. This could be reflective of young millennials without children, who are not having babies moving into the neighborhood.


All those interviewed noted sensing the dramatic demographic shifts undergone in Columbia Heights. Some felt that change has successfully brought diversity to the neighborhood and that racial divides have been bridged; however, others expressed feelings of cultural erasure and dissatisfaction towards newer residents’ lack of engagement with older residents. This poses the question: is Columbia Heights a neighborhood of cultural convergence, one where groups successfully integrate, or do groups simply co-exist?


Columbia Heights’ cultural diversity is an effective selling point. The prospect of cultural convergence drives many people here:

“In terms of them, meaning maybe people that you can connect with across class, race, or what have you. Regardless of where you come from, you’re always looking for people you can connect with and that get you.” – Ian

“I wanted it to be the culture and that’s what drove me to Columbia Heights, but it’s different now. That’s why I cut it short.” – Denise

A very specific group of people are moving in and these developments have dramatically changed much of the neighborhood’s composition:

“I see less color – faces of color.” – Denise

“Since they made all the development Whites are the group that is moving in and coming up. That’s what you see now. Them walking their dogs, riding their bikes. You didn’t see that before.” – Roberto

Demographic changes alone have not changed the neighborhood’s culture, but rather, it is that a lack of communication and interaction that exists between newcomers and older residents. The lack of engagement between the two groups forges disconnects which allow incomers’ values to dominate:

“I’d say they [different racial groups] coexist. I think that’s the interesting thing about Columbia Heights, because you have a lot of diversity and different groups. I feel like unless there’s a concerted effort by you or a certain medium to connect with people, people just kind of coexist and are floating in the same space.” – Ian

“I think you get a lot people who come to the neighborhood for the culture, but don’t include that culture that already exists. So it gets wiped out…In the building I lived in Columbia Heights, they tried to do include people who have maybe been in the building for 30 plus years with these new people, these new faces that are coming in. But you can’t find it in every neighborhood. I really do love the neighborhood I grew up in (Bloomingdale), I just moved back there, but it’s frustrating for me to see that in the 90s we had block parties and everyone would reach out to everybody. You would see kids with flyers asking for donations, asking for everybody to contribute. Now it’s like the new neighborhood versus old D.C. You don’t see this outreach. It’s the same thing when coming from this culture. You’re kind of afraid….instead of taking over, put a part of it.” – Denise

Interactions between the different groups despite being desired are not always welcome:

“At work. I think talking to people to. If you don’t smile at people they’re not going to talk to you. They continue on their path. But you can’t smile at everyone. I smiled at a stranger once and was reprimanded by my friend. He said I could’ve been injured.” – Manuel

“It’s crazy that you look at me like I’m weird cause I said hello, but that happens. That happens walking the street. It’s definitely based on lack of interaction, more so the vibe becomes sort of weird and forced. It’s almost like people don’t want to deal with each other.” – William

The lack of communication between incomers and older residents is conflated with race, because a clear difference between the two groups is race. The tension is felt by many, regardless of race: White people are perceived as colonists…:

“There’s this undercurrent, even for me as a white person, of feeling unwelcomed because you’re like a colonist. Where I grew up was 99% white, but even if you’re white moving in, those who have lived there for generations you’re considered an outsider. I think it’s about people being territorial. Generally, unless you’re in a cosmopolitan city, people don’t welcome the outsider or it takes a while for people who have been there a long time regardless of background.” – Ian

…and people of color are feared to be criminals:

“I think people are just so in their heads about what that person’s thinking. What are you getting? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? You’re worried about they’re not too friendly or that person thinks I’m xyz, because you have your own preconceived notions about them. But you choose to reflect as if they are somehow judging you.” – William

“After living here I’ve realized that you have to be very mindful of how you interact with people… You can be very flippant with people, but some people based on their background or where they’re coming from don’t have a lot to lose and can pull a gun on you. You just don’t know how people are going to react. I think you need to recognize where people are coming from. I’ll say people are acting that way because of their education. Also, I feel like yes there are issues of race and racism and structural racism that have existed in D.C… Now you have a constant influx... of young professionals coming in and I even kind of make up that population even though I’ve been here for quite some time and I’ve seen people come and go. However, then issues of race and class come in and the matter becomes touchy.  Therefore, we don’t necessarily talk about them…People become numb to what’s going on around them.” – Ian

Prejudiced characterizations are normalized. The theory of symbolic interactionism argues that how society interacts with objects and other humans based on the meaning they’ve been ascribed and in Columbia Heights, groups have been ascribed meaning based of subjective and surface level interaction:

“I think a lot of problems are generational. People who have grown up and have learned certain values in this want to have hope and think there are redemptive qualities, but I’m also a realist and know some of those behaviors won’t change. I feel like that almost feeds into people’s poor portrayals of people of color because they see how people are behaving and they attribute that to everyone. While that may be based on some reality or some of the things that you see that doesn’t encompass the whole population.” – Ian

“I know that the Latinos and the American, we have racist attitudes towards Black people. In, part because of their behavior. Not all, but the thing is we base our perceptions of a group off one person…When one person does something bad the whole group gets a bad rep. I think we’re all a bit racist. There are people who have had bad experiences. For example, I was here a few months ago and some black youngsters threw nuts at me. It’s the way in which they have fun, but they don’t notice they’re hurting other people. I was here with another friend when that happened and that gave him have even more dislike for them. One person can ruin it for the whole group.” – Manuel

Though limited, integration does exist in certain contexts and cultural convergence has introduced diversity of cultures to groups that often maintain to themselves:

“Next door, a Cuban restaurant opened up. People thought that opening up the Cuban restaurant would drive our revenue down, because it’s direct competition. But to the contrary, our revenue actually went up. What happens is people who come to specifically eat that food are going to someday want variety and they’ll come here.” – Roberto

“Before it was just Latinos and Blacks that ate it, but now it’s them as well as Whites. This has helped us a lot for sure, the diversity.” – Roberto

“People who come to the restaurant, tend to be pretty diverse. I mean of course people stick together with people of the same race, ethnicity, but they also come in pretty diverse groups. In the schools there are people from all over. In offices there are people from all over. So, there’s lots of diversity. It’s not like before where it was Latinos on one side and Black on another. Now there’s a mix for sure and it’s really good. At the metro, many people get together.” – Roberto


It overwhelmingly appears that the gentrification occurring in Columbia Heights has not necessarily made the neighborhood more integrated. The average Black, Latino, and White resident in the neighborhood reserves sustained interaction for people of their own ethnic or racial background. Naturally, people gravitate towards others who are similar – it’s safe, particularly if you feel that those who are different from you have in some way inflicted injury. This notion came across in interviews. Many residents of color feel this injury in that their neighborhood is suddenly seeing an influx of White residents with few previous connections to the neighborhood and many of these newcomers are neglecting to engage with the previous community, thus causing dramatic changes. These are changes that many feel can’t be undone. Many White residents, old and new, sense a dual perceived and real hostility towards them. The way in which interaction with residents of color are characterized reveal a struggle to grapple with roles as gentrifies, perhaps guilt, and noble, but perhaps misplaced desire to lift the neighborhood out of poverty and violence.

Neither group is wholly responsible for the lack of interaction. Symbolic interaction argues that groups will interact based on ascribed meaning. Groups will interact based off the normalized misconceptions attributed to other groups. It’s very easy to point fingers in this way and overlook the larger systems responsible. Being that people of color and White people had not previously interacted within the space of Columbia Heights and the existence of a large White community in Columbia Heights has been a very recent development, it will take time for meaningful interactions to occur. If they occur at all. A very pertinent problem is that in addressing the needs of newer residents, some of which are similar to those of older ones, but which are not being tackled in unison because of racial tension, residents of color are being left back.

To move forward proactively, there needs to be space for discourse. Older residents and new ones must be able to openly talk about the issues plaguing their community, so that as many as possible in the community are benefited by action. Currently, most action benefits new, White residents. Allowing racial tension to divide the community only exacerbates the problems experienced by older, communities of color within the neighborhood. Although foundationally discourse is a two-way street, it needs to be mostly on incoming residents to forge connections to the old neighborhood and the residents there. Seeking diversity and prosperity are not mal-intended and can be achieved, as is clear from Los Hermanos owner Roberto’s success story. However, this is an exception not the norm. The reality is that most residents are pushed out and if a newcomer is seeking out Columbia Heights for culture and diversity that can quickly be erased if they see diversity as just a noun and not a living concept that requires constant action. However, this does also mean that residents of neighborhoods in cities should be prepared for population and demographic shifts, because of the way in which migration patterns normally center on diverse, lower-income areas.