By Jeremy Borden
Riots have rocked the adjoining neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant the 1960s and 1990s, waves of immigrants have come and gone, commercial interests have transformed the area, but its unyielding identity has never broken. And in the wake of recent change, residents believe the community will endure.
Washington, D.C.’s 14th Street sits as a permanent, stoic witness to a community changing with the steady, unwavering push of momentum.
The marble monuments, wide concrete sidewalks and business suits just off the inner Beltway slowly give way to something that feels more like a home, an unmistakable place with a complicated history. Take the road far enough northwest and there sits a brightly colored sketch, a city planner’s mental notebook filled in with watercolor brush strokes and Avatar, three-dimensional people, smiles and laughter amidst the unmistakable indicators of consumerism. Target and IHOP, Starbucks and Potbelly, sit alongside trendy local bars with inviting dark hues. The sidewalks, reflecting the glow of streetlights, appear to be wrapped in mustard-colored cellophane.
The sign on the Metro stop says Columbia Heights. But if you’d blinked, been away for a few years, missed momentum’s steady push forward, the Metro’s green and yellow stripes would have faded against a background now surrounded with what some call Progress and others call Gentrification. It would look alien, exciting; the empty lot that used to be there now crawling with lines of people like ants with shopping bags, emblazoned insignias announcing a purchase.
A left turn down Park or Monroe reveals a different kind of change. On a recent cold day, Mt. Pleasant Street is a community frozen in time. The 1980s, and earlier times, still linger in Mt. Pleasant, like snapshots when Salvadorians fled their war-torn country and found one of the District’s first suburbs. They had little knowledge that not far away was where blacks had rioted for their rights and the whites had fled thereafter. All they knew were promises of hope, beginnings, opportunity – and perhaps low rents and familiar faces of fellow immigrants and refugees. America’s cities offered it, they were told, and many immigrants’ first words of English were “Washington, D.C,” not knowing where that was. But the capital is the same in both languages, and the word offers hope if not certainty.
If these two neighborhoods share a common thread, it may be that they were both the sites of riots, more than 20 years apart, that have come to define the city’s racial divides. From 1968’s black riots in the wake of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to 1991’s Latino uprising, the neighborhoods were profoundly affected, and the events still define residents’ perceptions of the past, present and future of these communities.
Today, Mt. Pleasant Street hums, as it always did. Once known for the electric streetcar that ran up and down in the early 1900s, now FedEx trucks, bulldozers and semi trucks provide the neighborhood’s sonorous backdrop of small business and Latino tiendas. There’s a line scurrying into Pollo Sabroso, where orders are called out in English and Spanish. The advertisers know the area — there’s little English here, and McDonald’s encourages those huddling under the bus bubble, catching the H8 or the 42, to try something “nuevo.” Hands are shoved into pockets, zones of warmth and comfort, while downcast eyes try not to acknowledge an unyielding cold.
In parts, the two neighborhoods — Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant — are separated by less than a block. Fall in one, and land in the other. But momentum’s fingerprints are ever-present in Columbia Heights, while history’s newest chapter in Mt. Pleasant still seems unwritten in what historians once called “Little U.N.” As those who live in and around Columbia Heights’ three-year-old Target will attest, physical change leads, inevitably, to a difference in heart or soul. And this place has Latinos at its heart.
How Latinos ebb and evolve, so does the face and soul of the community. While residents know it, can feel the uncertainty, there’s also an air of pervasive hope.
As a whole, this community voted last September for what had already occurred, this new kind of change — development, business, newcomers. Even amid the worries — Mayor Adrian Fenty had become synonymous with the new development, and 60 percent in Ward 1, the Columbia Heights area, wanted him back when they voted in the primary. He would go on to lose to challenger Vincent Gray, who, fairly or unfairly, was branded as the “minorities’ candidate,” someone who would stand up for blacks and the disenfranchised in the face of long sought-after change.
Better schools and renovated buildings, a shopping mall and a distinct police presence are credited to Fenty in Columbia Heights. Still, there were worries citywide that a Fenty agenda meant what was once known as “Chocolate City” meant less for those who have less. The white people that had once moved to the city’s suburbs were moving back in toward the core, and the blacks that had been there for what seemed like forever were passing them by on I-495.
Olivia Cadaval and Dave Bosserman have been living in Mount Pleasant since the 1980s. The couple remembers when the first Salvadorans started to arrive in droves, bringing color and music and a need to be outside, with each other. There was also, they said, a feeling of impermanence — when the Civil War was over in El Salvador, would those who had fled leave Washington, and how would the city change?
Change is endemic, the couple said. Immigrants have always come in waves. Embassies and cultural institutes brought immigrants from Mexico and Ecuador, among others. But then there were also the Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Laotians, Iranians and Iraqis.
“Anywhere we have a war,” Bosserman said.
People always talked to each other in Mt. Pleasant, the couple said. Even just a few years ago, there were open gardens, no fences to unlock or gates to raise. One neighbors’ flowers flowed into the others. Now there are fences— the beginning of separation, of division. Still, it remains an activist community, where many are involved in community affairs and with each other. Statehood Green placards dot Cadaval and Bosserman’s home. The bathroom is filled with mementos of a lifetime spent fighting in the streets for various causes.
Residents in the area say nearly everyone is involved with their neighbors. Katharine Ferguson, an aid to Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, said she likes the neighborhood because of that sense of inclusiveness.
“There’s kind of a deeper sense of connection and community and loyalty in the neighborhood,” said Ferguson, who has lived in the Mt. Pleasant/Columbia Heights area, in different spots, for five years. “I can only imagine in any neighborhood just north of Howard University that has historically been very true. … I get a deeper sense of people there in part because of the deeper sense of community that remains intact.”
Still, she said, “Change is definitely ongoing in Mt Pleasant and there’s plenty of gentrification there, too.”
For many, it’s “white flight” in reverse, and it’s happening around cities across America, from San Francisco to Atlanta. Those who have lived on the outskirts in the last few decades are moving back. For Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights, that change affects the Latino community most, though its residents are often silent in the public sphere. The future seems murky. Latinos are still very much present at CentroNia, a Latino education and advocacy center, and the Latin American Youth Center, among other seemingly ubiquitous groups and agencies. The pews at the churches are still packed — many still attend from Langley, Md., and other suburbs. Identity is shifting along with place.
Quique Aviles, who grew up in the Columbia Heights area after moving from El Salvador, points out that Columbia Height’s vast network of social services agencies and well-meaning organizations have been unable to produce a Latino leader, someone who stands up at City Council meetings or, better yet, is elected to speak for the Latino community. Maryland has Latino leaders, he said, why not D.C.? His brother, Pedro Aviles, is a prominent Latino leader in the community and said he doesn’t know why there are no elected Latinos in D.C. despite a decades-long push.
Pedro is the diplomat — a long-time activist and organizer, who now works as a consultant to other non-profits. Quique is the rebel, a poet, writer, performer, and activist. Take their answers to what they remember from what has become known as the 1991 Mt. Pleasant riots, a turning point for the city’s Latino community. The basics they remember well: A Salvadoran man was shot by a black police officer while police said he was drinking at a bus stop. Latinos had been celebrating Cinco de Mayo in nearby Adams Morgan when they heard the news — and many began rioting that would last three days.
A May 7 Washington Post story described the scene in Columbia Heights: “Breaking into a Safeway store on Columbia Road, youths carted off an automatic cash-dispensing machine, while others grabbed food, liquor, clothes, money and other items from numerous stores. Police radio frequencies crackled with countless reports of fires, lootings, crowds gathered on corners and sporadic reports of gunfire.”
There was a sense, residents said, that Latinos had been ignored too long, that a black D.C. government had willfully mistreated them and that this was a chance to fight back. Bosserman points out that because many had come from war zones, they had skills such as how to make a Molotov cocktail.
There was another element as well. As youths, not just Latinos, rioted, it got out of hand.
“It was a made-for-TV disturbance,” Bosserman said. “They said, ‘Let’s go shopping.’ ”
That’s exactly what Quique Aviles remembers. Quique, then in his early 20s, is brutally honest about his intentions. He said the first night of the riots he was too high — smoking crack and dope at his apartment — to participate. The second night, he was hanging out at the Latin American Youth Center and noticed all of his friends had new clothes.
“Deep down inside everybody wanted to throw rocks,” Aviles said. He said even though there had been significant tension between Latinos and blacks, they all saw it as an opportunity both to steal new clothes and send a message.
“Man, you went to 14th street, and blacks and Latinos were helping each other like crazy, passing each other bricks,” he said. “People said enough is enough and there was this window where you could … actually fight the system literally, with rocks and sticks and bricks. And people went.”
Some called the riots more of a disturbance, something inflated by the media. But regardless of the intent of the violence, the media and Latino leaders — like Quique’s brother, Pedro — used the event to talk about the state of the Latino community. Pedro Aviles remembers the “Latino blueprint” that emerged, as he became a central community leader and spokesman for Latino rights. The blueprint spoke of services needed and inequalities that should be addressed.
There was also a sense, ever so tentative, Cadaval said, that even illegal Latinos should have rights, too.
Cadaval, who works as a researcher and historian on Latin American issues at the Smithsonian Institute, and others say they’re not sure what the fallout from the Mt. Pleasant riots actually produced, even though it felt seminal, monumental, important. At worst, she says, a bunch of Latinos got themselves jobs in D.C. government or as leaders of various advocacy groups. Bosserman bristles, saying that he wanted to get public bathrooms installed. Instead, he said, they repaved the whole neighborhood in bricks.
“We wanted bathrooms and we got bricks,” he says, shaking his head and chuckling.
No one knows exactly what the future holds for the area’s Latinos. Pedro Aviles is thinking of making a documentary to look at 20 years after the Mt. Pleasant riots, and he isn’t sure what kind of progress or lack thereof he will find.
E. Gail Anderson Holness, a local politician and church pastor, believes, ultimately, in the strength of the community. She said she’s hopeful.
“We can set aside our racial differences … and know that we’re an inclusive people,” said Holness, the Area Neighborhood Commission chairwoman for Ward 1. “It is our color that makes the differences … and I wish that we would not see the color in each other, but see the soul in our people.”