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Neighborhoods: A look at Columbia Heights, Washington DC

March 10, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — First-time visitors to Washington, D.C., have a long list of must-sees: monuments on the National Mall, Smithsonian museums, cherry blossoms in springtime, maybe a selfie in front of the White House. But repeat visitors, and even some on a first trip, want more than top attractions. A walk through the Columbia Heights neighborhood offers an interesting glimpse of African-American history in a once-devastated area that’s made a comeback.

Racially restrictive housing covenants led to white and black communities in different sections of Columbia Heights in the early 20th century, according to a neighborhood guide offered by Cultural Tourism DC. Many of the African-American residents were affiliated with Howard University. Other notable locals included diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first black Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. J.W. Marriott and his wife opened an A&W root beer franchise on 14th street in 1927, before creating the Marriott hotel chain.

White flight followed the end of school segregation in the 1950s. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at a local high school in 1967, and riots erupted after his assassination a year later. The area’s 14th Street business district was ravaged and took decades to recover. But new businesses have opened in recent years, both mom-and-pop stores and a mall with chain retailers.

An award-winning bakery, Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats (1370 Park Road, NW) sells vegan cupcakes and other goodies, while a number of eateries serve Latin American food from pupusas to tamales, including El Pollo Sabroso (1434 Park Road, NW), El Rinconcito Cafe II (1326 Park Road, NW) and Taqueria Distrito Federal (3463 14th St., NW).

Other foodie faves include Pho 14 (1436 Park Road, NW, Vietnamese) and Red Rocks (1036 Park Road, NW, pizza). A burgeoning restaurant and bar strip around 11th Street includes Wonderland Ballroom (1101 Kenyon St., NW), a bar that opened years before the area gentrified, and Maple (3418 11th St., NW), an excellent, newer pasta place known for lamb ragu. In January, President Barack Obama visited a diner called The Coupe (3415 11th St., NW).

The Museum of Unnatural History (3233 14th St., NW) is a hipster curiosity shop. Among its displays: a skeleton of a fictional creature and a roulette wheel that answers scientific questions with options like “Aliens,” ″Just Because” and “Why Do You Ask?” Best-sellers in the museum store include Unicorn Tears, Replacement Eyes and diet supplements to encourage growth of plumage, gills and camouflage. But the tiny, free funhouse has a serious mission: A nonprofit called 826DC offers after-school programs and tutoring focused on creative writing.

The local Carlos Rosario School, known for adult education including English as a second language and citizenship test prep, is on the schedule for an upcoming visit by England’s Prince Charles.

A free, illustrated walking guide to Columbia Heights is available online from Cultural Tourism DC, or pick up a printed version at local stores. Nineteen poster-sized signs mark noteworthy spots around the neighborhood like All Souls Church (1500 Harvard St., NW), where activist Angela Davis spoke in 1974, and the Tivoli Theatre (3333 14th St., NW), a 1920s restored historic landmark.

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If You Go...

COLUMBIA HEIGHTS HERITAGE TRAIL: http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/819 . Take the yellow or green Metro to the Columbia Heights stop.

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Associated Press Writer Brett Zongker contributed to this story.

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