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North Columbia Heights Losing Churches as Demographics Evolve, Though Some Stay

Accompanying images can be viewed in the September 2015 issue PDF

By Larry Ray*

The North Columbia Heights (NCH) neighborhood is ever evolving, reflecting the transformation of the District of Columbia. What became of many of the churches is a telling part of this evolution.

The Early Years

The neighborhood is located in the northern portion of Ward One, with approximately 14,000 residents. The area’s boundaries are roughly Spring Road on the north, Kenyon Street on the south, 14th Street on the west, and Georgia Avenue on the east. Long ago, Ohio U.S. Senator John Sherman owned this square mile of land and sold it to developers in the late 1890s, which explains why 9th Street which runs through the neighborhood was re-named Sherman Avenue. (Sherman served in the Senate between 1861 and 1877 and again between 1881 and 1897; his brother was General William Tecumseh Sherman.)
During the early 1900s, developer advertisements urged potential homebuyers to flee the swamps and mosquitoes of downtown and move up to Columbia Heights. The neighborhood was founded by wealthy white Jewish folks. At 1121 Spring Road, there existed a Jewish home for the elderly which is now abandoned.

The neighborhood began attracting African-Americans during the 1940s and for about 50 years, many homeowners abandoned the neighborhood and renters abounded. Then came real neighborhood progress around 2000. On 14th Street, the DC-USA mall opened along with a new Giant grocery on Park Road. (See, “Major Retail Center Finally Opens in Columbia Heights; Great Excitement Generated in Neighborhood and Citywide,” InTowner, March 2008, page 1.)

Developers and entrepreneurs began to explore 11th Street between Kenyon and Monroe Streets. At 11th and Park Road Red Rocks Pizza replaced what was reputed to have been a bordello 11 years ago; Wonderland Ballroom at 11th and Kenyon opened 10 years ago; Room 11, six years ago; and The Coupe, 3 years ago. The New York Times called 11th Street “the Hippest Section of DC.”

The Present

So, where do the churches fit into this milieu? Here is a quick summary with details to follow:

Trinity AME Zion Church (777 Morton Street) is closed and sold and is being replaced by million-dollar “hip, happening and historic” row houses; Southern Bethany Baptist Church (1001 Monroe Street) closed and sold for $1.5 million to be developed into seven condos; Mt. Rona Missionary Baptist Church (3431 13th Street) is transitioning to Forestville, Maryland and its building is up for sale at $3.6 million. Remaining in operation are the Park Road Community Church (1019 Park Road), the Salvation Army Church (3335 Sherman Avenue), and the Church of Latter Day Saints (3423 Holmead Place).

Trinity is being incorporated into the new Morton Street Mews project by Maryland-based developer Opal, LLC. Their ad promotes the “chance to live in a historic church passionately preserved and reimagined…. Hip, happening and historic.” Roughhouses are priced from $700,000 to $1.4 million. The 1905 church building will be incorporated into the development. This church was designed by William Sydney Pittman, the first African-American to own his own architectural firm. He also designed Garfield Elementary School and the 12th Street YMCA. The son of a former slave, he married Portia, daughter of Booker T. Washington.

Southern Bethany Baptist Church operating out of a free-standing house on the northwest corner of 10th and Monroe Streets. Except for parking issues, the church and neighborhood had a quiet, distant relationship. Most of the congregants were not of the neighborhood. The sale for $1,450,000 to a developer was completed on April 9, 2015 and the plan is to convert the property into a seven-unit condominium.

Mt. Rona Missionary Baptist Church’s handsome building is for sale. The church played a major neighborhood role in the 1980s and 1990sl adopting streets and parks and sponsoring neighborhood fairs. Commercial real estate brokerage NAI Michael is advertising this 9,600 square-foot property at $3.6 million.

The Salvation Army facility and church was built in 1965 and presently serves an African-American congregation of approximately 60 worshippers. Its billboard proclaims, “Yes, we are a church.”

Park Road Community Church was founded in 1931, though its present building dates from 1971. Its primarily African-American congregation is led by its first woman pastor in 80 years, Reverend Dr. Shirley B. Cooper. Most of the congregation lives outside the neighborhood and its members have not become too involved with neighborhood groups.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) operates quietly among residential row houses and apartment buildings.

There was also a Rastafarian Church on 10th Street that has closed.

So, in conclusion, as with churches throughout the country, those here in Washington must confront many challenges as participation in organized religion continues to diminish 70.6 percent, according to a report this year from the Pew Research Center, and seems to be decreasing one to two percent each year; further, 22.8 percent of U.S. adults say they don’t have a religious affiliation. And the group least likely to affiliate with organized religion is young professionals — the group which continues to see the District as the place to be. The city’s demographics are changing. The African-American population has decreased from a high of 80 percent to the present 49.5 percent.

Yet, there are opportunities, such as congregations meeting in movie theaters and other non-traditional venues like the Ebenezer’s Coffee Shop church which attracts more than 100 worshippers at its services held in a renovated 1908 diner.

*Larry Ray is a 12-year resident of North Columbia Heights, former ANC Commissioner and President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association. He is an attorney and Senior Lecturer at The George Washington University School of Law.

Copyright © 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.