The unlikely benefactors of Columbia Heights gentrification: Street vendors and the homeless
By Matthew Boyle
Gentrification hit the Columbia Heights neighborhood harder than any other in Washington, D.C. Most media coverage has focused on how and if the area’s Mom and Pop businesses will survive the onslaught of big retail, or how longtime residents of Columbia Heights will be able to handle the housing price spike associated with increased property values.
But how does the two-year-old DC USA shopping center’s presence affect the often-overlooked homeless population and the area’s street vendors?
George Kemp has sold flashy toys at various Metro stops along the Green Line for years, but didn’t spend nearly as much time at the Columbia Heights stop as he does now. Kemp said he makes about $50 a night during rush hour at the Columbia Heights stop, and having many people around certainly doesn’t hurt his sales.
“I got a job, I work down in Boiling [Air Force Base], and normally what I do is, I get off at 12, get about three hours, four hours sleep and then catch the rush hour,” Kemp said. “I only stay out for a couple hours. You don’t need but a couple hours.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority confirmed that since the DC USA shopping opened, foot traffic in and out of the Columbia Heights Metro station is up.
WMATA spokesperson Taryn McNeil said the average number of passengers boarding at the Columbia Heights station on weekdays rose from 8,441 in 2007 to 11,375 in 2009. DC USA’s biggest shopping attraction, the Target store, opened its doors to customers in spring 2008.
Kemp loves selling stuff. Before he switched to selling flashy toys, he used to sell maps to tourists by the Smithsonian and the other attractions downtown. But, now, though, he said he makes a killing off selling toys to kids and families.
“It’s a lot easier,” Kemp said. “Maps, you got to ask people for donations, five or ten dollars.”
Other vendors jockey for position on the sidewalk. One man sells winter gloves out of a plastic bag, jogging up and down the street in front of the Metro stop and DC USA shopping center entrance courting customers. He yells, “Gloves for a dollar!” People stop to buy them, since it’s fairly cold outside in early December in Washington.
Another vendor lays claim to a city bench outside the DC USA’s Radio Shack, selling, in addition to gloves similar to his colleague’s, wool socks, tee-shirts, winter hats and other small items. Both vendors declined requests for interviews.
A few feet away, a Spanish-speaking immigrant sells corn-on-the-cob to passersby from his rolling cart.
On the other hand, Lamont Caldwell a homeless man who has lived around Columbia Heights for more than 18 years, the extra pedestrian traffic means more chances to try to get help. Caldwell said there are a few folks who live in the newly renovated neighborhood who help him out quite a bit, and he wouldn’t survive without them.
“They’re very nice people,” Caldwell said. “Some of them, they buy you food and stuff.”
As he’s talking, Caldwell points to a young woman undoing her bicycle lock and says, “This girl here, she’s one of the girls who gives money to me and buys food for me. Sometimes she helps me out and sometimes she can’t and I appreciate her help whenever she can.”
Caldwell said he can’t read or write, and has been homeless for most of the 18 years he’s lived in Columbia Heights. But, whether by coincidence or as a direct result of the DC USA shopping center going up, he’s going to get housing assistance soon, he said.