Category Archives: Neighborhoods

Gentrification Is…

Much has been written about the changes to H Street NE (aka, the H Street Corridor, the Atlas Distract), from the praiseworthy to the cautionary, and even an article solely discussing and analyzing all the other stories being written on the subject! These articles range in their characterization of the situation and use words from “rediscovery,” “revitalization,” “unease,” and “divide,” but all agree:  Gentrification has arrived on H Street NE.

And me? Where do I fit into this conversation? Let me introduce myself: Hi! My name is Ellys and I am a gentrifier of H Street. I moved to DC two years ago from NYC and into a house on 8th and F St. NE. My roommate had previously lived in a small garden apartment in Eastern Market and when her lease was up, she decided to cross East Capitol in search of a place a little bigger, a litter cheaper, and maybe even above ground.

As we were driving around on a weekend scouting trip for apartments, my friend was quick to point out that by simply crossing a street, we had made the transition between where was safe and where I was cautioned I shouldn’t be walking alone at night. I was very surprised by the geography of DC, particularly how close the “good” neighborhoods were to the “bad”.  The houses looked the same on both sides, but there was definitely a feeling of shift. The streets on the north side of H were dirtier; there were empty and dilapidated houses, the front lawns not as well maintained. At that time, H Street itself was a mess; most of the buildings were empty with huge for sale signs on shuttered, graffiti-decorated windows, it wasn’t a surprise when the street lamps came on in the evening and some did not, or to see the homeless sleeping in alleys and doorways.

However, there were signs of change and it happed very quickly. With Gallaudet University pushing south and the Hill community pushing north, that area in between, the “no-man’s land” is slowly being squeezed out. Real Estate developers, H Street Community Development Corporation, and the city were scrambling to capitalize on this up-and-coming community. It seemed that over night, planters and trees were being placed along the street, every weekend another restaurant or bar was having a grand opening, and the streets were being torn up in preparation of a promised trolley route, which will use H Street to connect Chinatown and the Orange line Minnesota Avenue metro station.

With all this rapid change, there is definitely tension and upheaval. Personally, I’ve been vocally harassed and told to leave the neighborhood, yelled that I was unwelcomed and should go elsewhere. My home has been robbed and my car broken into. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in NYC and understand that these things are part of living in the city. However, I don’t go running to tell my mother either!

I guess the short of it is I don’t know how I feel. I love my neighborhood. I’m excited by the changes but am very aware that these come with a cost. I hold a certain amount of white guilt while also acknowledging that I am now spending my money in an area when it would have gone elsewhere. I love the community I moved into and yet I also know my presence is the direct cause of its change. Who am I? I am a gentrifier.

Want to further explore this topic? Come to the Mammoth Forum “Gentrification Is…” this Sunday, August 7th following the 3pm performance. The forum will examine a range of perspectives on gentrification, and begin touching on the complexities of the issue as it is playing out in the DC area. The panel will feature:

Justin Maher, PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland.

Edward Jones, long-time resident of Bloomingdale neighborhood.

dany sigwalt, third-generation Washingtonian, youth worker, filmmaker and interactive/web artist.

~Ellys Abrams, Assistant to the Managing Director


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Columbia Heights Neighborhood Spotlight

“Columbia Heights does not have technical boundaries, but based on my experience and the different boundaries that do exist for the city, I would argue Columbia Heights is bounded in the south by Florida, the north by Spring Rd, the west by 16th Street, and the east by Sherman Avenue, maybe Georgia. It gets tricky but it is a nice, neat rectangle.  But names are really contested.  I went to some of the ANC meetings while I was doing my [dissertation] research; there have been fights over the years about getting recognition of a neighborhood to be called something.  For years the people who fought to get Pleasant Plains called ‘Pleasant Plains’ are now being taken up by modern conceptions about what Columbia Heights is, or what Petworth is.”

–       Justin Maher, Ph.D. on the contemporary boundaries of Columbia Heights.


A Brief Timeline of Columbia Heights

–       ca 1840: The horse track located on 14th and Irving, around which Columbia Heights formed, closes. 

–       1871: The area in which Columbia Heights resides officially becomes a part of Washington, DC as part of the DC Organic Act.

–       1881: Former senator from Ohio and real estate investor John Sherman names the 121-acres he purchases “Columbia Heights.” 

–       1902 – 1913: 650 row houses are built by Washington developer Harry Wardman.

–       1924: Tivoli Theatre and Riggs Bank building opens.

–       1936: Meridian Hill Park opens on the grounds that formally housed Columbian College (which became George Washington University).

–       1949: The white Central High School was replaced by the “colored” Cardozo High School due to its low enrollment and the increasing African American population in the city. This was the start of a significant demographic change in Columbia Heights.

–       1950s: Columbia Heights, and surrounding neighborhoods transitioned into a middle-class African American area of Washington, DC.

–       1968: Riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. irreparably damage many buildings.

–       1976: Tivoli Theatre closes.

–       1999: Columbia Heights Metro station opens.

–       2008: Target opens.


Ebb and Flow

“Change is what Columbia Heights does best, and every change seems to reflect, in dramatic and exaggerated terms, the state of the city and the city’s most powerful trends.”

–       Washington at Home, “Columbia Heights: Passageway for Urban Change” by Brian Kraft






14th Street between Irving and Park Road in 1925.








The same section of street today.


Columbia Heights by the Numbers

“Columbia Heights is one of those rare DC neighborhoods where people of all races, ages, and socioeconomic classes share space, and to many, that – not the revitalized commercial strip – is what gives the community its charm. With the housing market moving slower than its former breakneck pace a few years back, the face of the area might not change drastically in the next few years, but DC neighborhood growth being what it is, it’s unlikely Columbia Heights will stay the same for long. “

– Amanda Abrams, “Columbia Heights: DC’s Most Diverse Neighborhood, But For How Long?,”


DC’s population according to the 2010 census: 601,723

Number of Columbia Heights residents in 2011: 39,000+ within a half-mile of the metro station.

Average number of house holds:  15,164

Average house hold income:  $55,222

 Over 25% of Columbia Heights residents are population is between 20 – 34 years of age.


For more information visit our sources:,_Washington,_D.C.



~Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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Brandon Gryde on OEDIPUS, Los Angeles, and the Importance of Storytelling

Upon seeing Oedipus el Rey, I was excited by the fact that it was based in Los Angeles, my hometown. While my life was far removed from the world of those in prison, the dialogue, the references, and even the rhythm of the language reminded me of my community. Hearing Jocasta speak about her sister in Forest Lawn, a cemetery whose shining cross on the hill can be seen from the hill my parents live on, or hearing Oedipus call Creon “King Taco”, a local restaurant chain whose food I ate WAY too much of in high school, made me smile.

 And yet, while the location and even the streets were so specific, there was universality to the story. The fact that a contemporary setting and characters are woven seamlessly into the narrative and structure of classical theatre is pretty amazing. I recognized the chorus but on stage but also recognized the guys hanging out on the street corner. I was also struck with the important role tattoos played. Even having read the script several times, it wasn’t until I saw the play that I made connections with aboriginal cultures that mark their bodies and even the stories in Amy Tan’s Woman Warrior that depicts the body as a canvas for storytelling. And yet Oedipus didn’t know his story – he wasn’t marked until the end…and then he learned the truth.

 Seeing the play on stage, even more than reading it, I saw an emphasis on the importance of storytelling, whether they’re found in religion, family, or the library. We pattern our lives after them and we use them as references for decision making.

 ~ Brandon Gryde, Claque Member and Oedipus el Rey Working Group Member

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It Takes a Village…

It Takes a Village is the title of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1996 bestseller about the impact individuals and groups have, for better or worse, on a child’s growth. In Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, a child is abandoned by his father and raised within the community. His fate leaves us with a troubling question: what happens to the child if the village is sick?

This was one of many provocative topics discussed during the “Mammoth Forum” this past Saturday. The spirited post-performance discussion, moderated by Woolly’s Connectivity Director Rachel Grossman, featured audience members and three guest speakers: Madye Henson, President and CEO, Greater DC Cares; Rebecca Renard, Teens of Distinction Program Coordinator, DC Public Library; and Bill Chandler, Jail Case Management, Visitors’ Services Center (VSC).

These speakers made clear that Washington, DC, as a village, offers many services to help raise individuals. For disaffected youth like Oedipus, the DC Public Library is an example of a “safe space” which provides staff and computers to help individuals learn and find jobs. For people like Oedipus who are in or newly released from jail, the VSC offers counseling and resources to help them transition back into society. And for individuals who have the ability to help others, Greater DC Cares connects volunteers with community service groups.

Yet the forum’s speakers and audience also made clear that Washington, DC, like any village, does not provide all of the answers. Why are we not devoting more resources to nonprofits like the VSC, when roughly two-thirds of people released from jail are returning to crime (like Oedipus), going back to jail, and costing us even more? Why do millionaires in our community accept thousands of dollars in tax breaks, but simply watch as funding is eliminated for mentoring programs that serve prisoners and children of prisoners (like Oedipus)? Does jail reform and improving prisoners’ lives give them the freedom to change course? What does?

Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey is a call to action about the power of a community to shape an individual and build a better society. But again – what happens if that community is misinformed? What happens if you are raised without the love of a mother? What happens if the strongest community you know is your fellow inmates? What happens if you have free will, but you don’t know it? Are you to blame for your actions? Are you blameless?

Join Woolly for a performance of Oedipus (now through March 5th, with Mammoth Forums like this after every Saturday matinee), and strip your subconscious thoughts about right and wrong. Think about Oedipus’ life journey, and think about the responsibilities of his parents, his community, and Oedipus himself. Think about whether Oedipus truly was fated, or whether the cycles that controlled his life could have been broken. Because este hombre, Oedipus, might be a man whom you can help.

~Eric Colchamiro, Claque Member and Oedipus el Rey Connectivity Working Group Member

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A Look Behind the Authenticity of Playwriting

What business does a white dude from Boston who’s never set foot in California have dramaturging a Chicano re-imagining of Sophocles’ Oedipus that’s set in a South Central LA barrio?

A few nights ago, I moderated a post-performance dialogue with Oedipus el Rey Scenic and Costume Designer Misha Kachman and Lighting Designer Collin Bills. After I asked the designers to reflect on how director Michael John Garcés’ interest in authenticity impacted their designs, an astute audience member asked if it’s possible for white designers living in DC to create an authentic portrayal of a South Central LA barrio? This got me thinking about what business I have serving as dramaturg on this production.

I came to work at Woolly several months ago from the world of new play development, where I had the opportunity to work with lots of exciting emerging, established, and mid-career playwrights, each with their own distinct stories to tell. For instance, this past summer at PlayPenn, I dramaturged Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, which centers on a 600-pound gay man from Northern Idaho reuniting with his estranged daughter. Weeks earlier, at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, I dramaturged Jen Silverman’s Gilgamesh’s Game, which centers on a cult-like, high-stakes, life-or-death “game” involving mankind’s deepest, darkest, sickest fears (think: leeches, sharks, suffocation, electrocution, etc.).

I’m not from Northern Idaho. I’m not morbidly obese. I don’t have an estranged daughter. I’ve never swum with sharks, covered my body in leeches, or been suffocated or electrocuted. But I still think I had something meaningful to contribute to these scripts by helping to sharpen the authenticity of the storytelling.

This is also true for Oedipus el Rey. I’m not Chicano. I’ve never set foot in California let alone South Central LA. But as a dramaturg—particularly as a new play dramaturg—I’m not just the person responsible for providing the rehearsal room with sociopolitical and cultural context, especially since LA-based, Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro was so heavily involved in Woolly’s production. So, within the Oedipus el Rey rehearsal room, I focused on providing structural rather than cultural perspective for Playwright Luis Alfaro and Director Michael John Garcés.

The version of the script that Woolly is currently producing is significantly different—especially in terms of its structure—than the versions of the script that the Magic Theatre and Boston Court produced as part of the National New Play Network’s rolling World Premiere. Sure, all of the different versions of the script end the same way. It’s Oedipus, after all. But it’s how the characters and you, the audience, get to the end of the play that’s different.

For the Woolly production, Luis reordered, cut, added, combined, and reconceived scenes and whole chunks of the play, as a result of conversations that Luis, Michael, Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, and I had about structure. Essentially, Luis’ rewrites investigated and reconsidered the authenticity of the storytelling to make sure it builds and unravels in a way that resonates with you, our DC audience.

~ John M. Baker, Literary Manager

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Luis Alfaro and Washington, DC: “A Great Love Affair”

Some people make their discoveries through a map, directions, or even a little GPS. Playwrights do it through the body. Sometimes it is the literal body and sometimes the body of an idea, building, or even a city.

Today I am thinking a lot about how much I love actors. The way they move in space, but also in showing the expression of your thoughts and the interpretation of your story—all of it done through their amazing bodies. How extraordinary to think that those limbs are a tool and the rich tones of their voices make your words sound like poetry. If I was born in an earlier time, I am sure that I would have been a company writer for a repertory.

I fall in love with actors all the time. Not literally, because, hey, they are “actors” after all, and post your play, they have to move on, whether you like it or not. But for the moment, they are in my heart in such a deep and profound way. I listen to the rhythm of their voices, the cadences that are uniquely their own. Mostly I am looking for the authenticity of their character (not the one they are playing) and trying to write towards that tremendous strength.

On the actor level, Washington, DC has been a great love affair for me. Some of these artists I had known through seeing or hearing about their work. The director Lisa Peterson had told me that J.J. (Creon) was a special actor indeed. Natural and free on stage—she is right. Mando (Coro) is a talented playwright in his own right, whose production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York I had heard good things about. David (Laius) is one of those celebrated New York LAByrinth Theatre actors with a body of work that I am in awe of. Gerard (Tiresias) is the local that is new to me, but he is lovely, funny, and a great conversationalist. I saw Andres (Oedipus) in a play by the great Naomi Iizuka where he played Orestes, and I was blown away by his tremendous talent. Jaime is new to me and yet we have had a series of conversations about art and journey that have given me so much hope. I love these guys. They feel like a band of older and younger brothers to me. As for the only female in the company, Romi Diaz, I am in total artistic crush with. Romi and I have already had a journey with Jocasta because she essayed the role in San Francisco. She not only makes me want to write—I am impassioned to think of all the roles I want to create for her.

The director, Michael Garcés is an actor, too. We have known each other for a long time. He is a great colleague, friend, and a fellow Angeleno who runs one of the most important community-based theatre companies in the US—Cornerstone Theater Company. But he’s also more than that. On a play, he is my confidant, my hand-holder, the interpreter of my vulnerability. And what’s really special about him is that he a great director. He brings himself into the work. If you read the script and then see the play, you know what he brings to the experience. When I look over during previews and he is going spastic watching something on stage, he is sharing it with me in a way that is profound, but also weirdly personal and shared at the same time.

So, how is the journey of this play different from the Getty Villa in Malibu, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, or the Boston Court Theatre in Los Angeles? Well, this is a version of the play that has benefitted from watching things move in space and reaped the benefit of some wonderful actors who have handed over to me a bundle of emotions and ideas that I had not quite considered in this piece before.

It helps that the Artistic Director, “The Shalwitz”, (as he will be called), and dramaturgs that include John Baker and a fun focused staff make it all seem like a place you want to live in.

So, what about Washington itself? I love this city. We’ve just started dating, so it’s complicated. I’ve been doing these residencies across the country, some a year long, some shorter, and each city blooms beautiful colors and unwittingly reveals other shades as well. This is a racially complex city. It’s a rich and poor city as well. It’s obviously very politicized. I can feel it on the long walk from my rented apartment up in the U Street/Cardoza neighborhood all the way down to Woolly at 6th & D Streets. I’ve loved taking the Metro to work every day, because the beautiful faces of the city are as extraordinary as the history and the buildings themselves. I’ve been humbled to visit the universities here and I can see that it is also a city for the young and the old. Maybe, from the outsider’s perspective, a city that is wrestling with change (gentrification) and tradition, is what I am very conscious of.

The monuments are great, but one late Monday night, Michael Garcés and I were looking for a place to have a beer and nothing was open. We gave up and got on the Metro. Getting off in our neighborhood, we came across this Central American/Mexican place called El Paraiso. Michael leans his head in and asks what time they close. He says 2 am. Yay! We sit down for a Modelo and some pupusas, and suddenly we are in every city in America. We are at home.

~Luis Alfaro, Playwright

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Whitney Louchheim & Penelope Spain on Mentoring Newly-Released DC Youth

In 2005, Whitney T. Louchheim and Penelope J. Spain founded Mentoring Today, a DC-based organization that serves youth both before and after they are released from incarceration to support their successful reintegration into their families and community. Mentoring Today’s advocates and mentors help youth with critical issues such as education, employment, and housing as they enter adulthood. Through these comprehensive, client-centered services, Mentoring Today strives to improve the juvenile justice system and empower young people to recognize their dreams and realize their aspirations. A few weeks ago, Oedipus el Rey’s Production Dramaturg, John M. Baker, and Woolly’s Connectivity Director, Rachel Grossman, had the opportunity to sit down with Whitney and Penelope.

Can you give us an overview of Mentoring Today’s goals and history?

Penelope Spain: Generally speaking, we serve youth who are transitioning out of juvenile incarceration back into the DC community. We pair youth with volunteer mentors about 4-5 months before they are released. We help their mentors build a relationship of trust and build goals as they are transitioning back into DC, and continue to support those goals.

What we do is target the youth who are most at risk of entering the adult criminal justice system, typically 17- or 18-years olds who are repeat, violent, high-risk offenders. It’s a voluntary program; they have to say they actually want to be a part of it.

Whitney and I are also defense attorneys on the side. We represent kids in the delinquency court in DC. These are younger, lower-level offenders, but that really helps us see the whole array of kids just entering the juvenile justice system—all the way to those who, unfortunately, do re-offend and are sent out to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities all over the country, and come back after that.

We started as an organization when Whitney and I were still in law school. In 2005 we got non-profit status, and in 2006 we took on our first group of kids. We actually took our first group of kids before we had any funding. It was a very scary and risky moment because funders didn’t want to support our work until they could see not what we were going to do, but what we were already doing.

Our first office was literally in a closet in a community center in Northeast DC. It had no heat, no air conditioning, and no windows. It was located right next to the largest open-air heroin market in DC. We would literally be escorted in and out of the building by some of the dealers. So we earned our street cred, and people—including our kids—would come and look at us and wonder what we were doing.

Eventually, we got off the ground, and were able to serve a greater number of youth, and hire more staff. But with the current economic environment, that expanded model wasn’t as sustainable.

Have you also seen the current economic environment impact the youth with whom you’re working?

Whitney Louchheim: Unemployment is definitely becoming a bigger and bigger problem, though I have to say it was already a huge problem. I feel it’s gotten worse, but I don’t think we’re seeing the huge impact that other people in the country are talking about. I just feel like it went from really bad to even worse.

PS: Even east of the Anacostia River, they say that there’s a 30% unemployment rate. When you actually look at the real unemployment levels—who has stopped working and who is not even on the radar—I would say it’s upwards of 50-60%. All of the youth we serve are boys, and there are so few father figures, or men in their community, especially ones who are working.

We had one young man who, prior to getting locked up, had been working three jobs at a time. He was die-hard. This was back in 2005 and 2006. Then he got a felony record, and he came out. He had gotten his GED while he was locked up. He read the dictionary, we sent him books galore, and he really came back a better educated and more determined young person. I think it took him about nine months to find his first job, and it was through a government program. Eventually, once he had a job, he could transition into other, better employment, but for our kids coming back from either the juvenile or the adult criminal system, just getting that first job—it’s next to impossible. Not only can they not find work, but they also quickly lose hope. At some point, they just give up. What are their other options?

Besides employment, where else do ex-offenders find hope?

PS: I think that’s where mentoring comes into play. We’re trying to shore up the young person’s sense of hope. And, to be quite honest, providing the young person with some of the most basic connections.

WL: Meaning even a phone. They can come in and use our phones. They can come in and use our internet. They can make copies of things. That’s a really huge thing for them to be able to have. It sounds basic, but it’s not out there.

Also, positive role modeling. Over the years, it’s been striking to me how our kids have no real models. Getting up in the morning everyday and going to work—that’s not a concept that really exists in their histories. So, we often try to give our kids internships in our own office to give them a sense of office culture, telling them they have to be here, and they have to be here at a certain time. When we work to get them jobs at other places, we tell them what they have to wear, tell them to call if they’re going to be late. But it takes a long time for that to sink in. It’s not at all obvious to them what you have to do to get a job. Often, even when our kids do get jobs, they quickly lose them because they don’t really get certain protocols to keep a job.

In DC, what’s the impact of incarceration on family solidarity?

WL: One of our kids just returned to his neighborhood, and he realized all of the other males had been locked up. So, he found himself surrounded by single mothers and their kids.

PS: We see so few fathers who are really engaged. And a lot of people who we serve have children, or while they’re in our program have their first child.

WL: I would conservatively guess at least half of our kids were, at some moment in their lives, in the child welfare system.

PS: And we see a lot of women–by the time their child comes to our program–whose children have been in and out of the juvenile justice system for five years or more, usually.

PS: So, sometimes, even though these kids are only 16 or 17-years-old, their caregivers have already checked out or given up. They just think, “You know, life is a lot easier when he’s locked up.”

WL: And these caregivers don’t have just one child. They have four other younger kids in the house. And they don’t want those kids going down that same road.

Do you see gangs acting as surrogate families in DC?

PS: Most of the kids we engage with are not involved with a formal gang. But certainly, neighborhood crews become family. Whitney mentioned the guy who came back to his neighborhood where all of the other males were gone. That has an impact. Even if our kids have lived in Northwest for the last five years, they’re still going to say they’re from Barry Farms, over in Southeast. That is where their “family” is, where their heart is. I think Mentoring Today tries to, in a way, redefine what that quasi-family is.

WL: And loyalty, and camaraderie. We definitely see the guys have an intense sense of loyalty and honor, and they connect it to a neighborhood. We praise that loyalty and that honor and that desire to be part of something—because those are good values. And we encourage the guys to put those values into better action. We want them to feel that it’s good to think that way, but we just don’t want it to go in the wrong direction.

PS: Unfortunately, so many people from their community have been locked up, that there is no longer a stigma. In many cases, I think they see being locked up as a rite of passage. That makes you a man. That’s where their friends are. That’s where their buddies are. Unfortunately—and this is rare—but we do see kids trying to get locked up again. I don’t know if they’re fully aware of it.

WL: Or if they would ever admit to it.

PS: But that’s where their friends are: locked up. And that’s where they know how to survive on a daily basis.

WL: It’s also where they know they can get three meals a day. In a very real way, we’ve definitely had kids tell us that either they don’t want to leave a juvenile facility, or that they’re trying to get back, because of the stability of having a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. That is scary but true. That happens sometimes, which is a horrible thing to think about.

For more information about Mentoring Today, visit

~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager

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