A Step Back in Time

Posted October 16, 2009 at 4:15pm

From its humble beginning as a country estate to its rapid transformation into one of D.C.’s most cosmopolitan and diverse neighborhoods, Columbia Heights has a long and vibrant cultural history. In celebration of the neighborhood’s colorful legacy, the nonprofit coalition Cultural Tourism DC opens its newest self-guided walking trail on Saturday with a grand unveiling and celebration in Civic Plaza, in the heart of the neighborhood.

The walking tour’s theme, “Cultural Convergence,— was chosen by neighborhood residents and emphasizes the strength of the neighborhood’s diversity.

“Essentially any group that you can identify in Washington has lived [in Columbia Heights] at one time or another,— says Jane Freundel Levey, historian and Cultural Tourism DC’s director of heritage programs.

The trail consists of 19 large street signs that contain stories, photographs and maps. Topics explored on the tour include important historical locations such as the childhood home of author Jean Toomer, the Harlem Renaissance author who is best known for his 1923 novel “Cane.— Another sign explores the history of the prominent historically black Wayland Seminary, an important school designed to educate black missionaries and preachers. Also, the headquarters of some of the most influential Latino advocacy organizations and the location of some of the more vicious looting and destruction that accompanied the 1968 riots are both stops along the tour.

One of the most poignant stops is the former site of the black-owned Pitts Motor Hotel, where civil rights leaders gathered during the ’60s. Later, as homelessness in the city increased, the owner converted his hotel into a homeless shelter.

The Columbia Heights heritage trail is the organization’s 10th. Levey is quick to emphasize that there are no formal boundaries imposed on the neighborhood, but since the nearby Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan neighborhoods already have heritage trails, the Columbia Heights trail doesn’t stray south of Florida Avenue or west of 16th Street Northwest.

The process for a neighborhood getting a trail is long and rigorous. According to Levey, the Columbia Heights trail has been in the works for at least three years.

“All of our neighborhood trails start when a community comes to Cultural Tourism DC and asks for a trail,— Levey says.

The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission initially proposed the project, and Cultural Tourism DC held a series of public meetings to zero in on important community landmarks in the area and to collect oral histories from longtime residents.

The stories and experiences of longtime locals then went through several rounds of verification by professional historians and researchers. “Anything that’s on a heritage trail has been very carefully checked and rechecked,— Levey says.

The opening celebration is slated to begin at 1 p.m. at the intersection of 14th Street and Park Road Northwest. The emcee is local public radio host Kojo Nnamdi, and D.C. author Marita Golden is scheduled to speak. For more information, visit culturaltourismdc.org.