Like many urban neighborhoods in D.C. Congress Heights, which sits in Ward 8 has a rich history of change, fortune and future. Nestled on the hills off the coast of the Anacostia River, the communities boundaries are between Mississippi Ave. SE and 13th St. SE, to Alabama Ave. SE to the southwestern boundary of St. Elizabeth’s campus to Interstate 295. The area contains the largest commercial district in Ward 8, along Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. and Malcolm X Avenues.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue was constructed in 1855, when the Government Hospital for the Insane (later known as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) was built on the “St. Elizabeth’s tract. Its original name was Aslyum Avenue. It was named Nichols Avenue in 1879, in honor of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Superintendent Charles Henry Nichols. It was renamed for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 15, 1971.
The community went through a dramatic decline in the 1970s to the 1990s. During that time very little investment took place and many chose to leave the neighborhood due to crime, drugs and a better quality of life offered in the surrounding suburbs. During the late 1990s through today, however, the neighborhood and surrounding areas have experienced unprecedented levels of investment from both the public and private sectors.
One thing that has been constant in this community is the annual Congress Heights Day. The celebration which commemorates the community and its heritage holds a Congress Heights Day Parade, which is one of the longest standing community traditions in Washington, D.C. Each year in May, the community celebrates its heritage with a parade that features groups and leaders from Ward 8, including the councilmember, junior and high school marching bands and a host of other civic organizations and leaders.
This year marked the 32nd year that the community has celebrated Congress Heights Day and it is the longest continuous running community-sponsored event east of the river. Executive Director of Congress Heights Day, Monica Ray said, “The turnout was great and the weather was perfect for a parade.”
Ray introduced participants as they paraded past the main stage. There were several junior and high school bands, along with city dignitaries. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry served as the Grand Marshall along with the Little Miss Congress Heights pageant-winner, Rheina Carroll. Other dignitaries included the District’s city council Chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), Ward 4 Councilmember and 2014 mayoral candidate, Muriel Bowser (D), Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) and Councilmember At-Large Anita Bonds (D).
Ray also noted how this year the sponsorship was the best it’s been in past years. This year’s premier sponsor was Medstar Family Choice. Other returning sponsors included Capitol Services Management Inc., Congress Heights Civic Association, The Capital News Newspaper and Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation.
The celebration began Friday night with a Mr./Mrs. Congress Heights pageant, held at the Old Congress Heights School. Winners from the pageant get to ride in the parade route on Saturday. The grandmother of the Little Miss Congress Height’s pageant winner, Pat Carroll, said she was pleased to see her granddaughter win. “The family was really excited to see her win! She is our little shining star,” said Carroll. Carroll said this was Reina’s a 9-year old student at Naylor Road Elementary. Her grandmother, Pat Caroll said that this was her first pageant.
On Saturday, the parade began at 11am starting at Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., SE and Howard Road, SE. Participants marched up MLK Jr. Ave. to 4th Street SE, just past the newly renovated Old Congress Heights School. Behind the school, there was a sound stage where local artists and musicians were seen performing and inside the school a cheerleading/dance competition took place.
Event Coordinator, Ytieva Allen said, this year the planning committee was really pleased with the festivities. “This was our first year doing the cheerleading/dance competition and we had a great turnout!” The competition included several dance and cheerleading teams from the southeast community and participation was high. Allen said next year they want to continue with the competition and hope to grow its participation even more. “Next year we want to grow the competition to encourage more performance teams to come out.” Allen also noted how the event attracted more vendors this year than ever before.
Attendee Khari Simms said, “I was glad to see that the young ladies participating were doing actual cheer moves and not just moving their hips! They were well trained and very organized.” Simms said he attended the competition to support a friend who has a daughter that attends Mary Church Terrell Elementary.
President of the Congress Heights Civic Association, Phillip Pannell said he was excited to see how the event grows every year. “I really have to commend Ms. Ray, she pulled off a great show again! I continue to hear nothing but good things about Congress Heights Day and people are starting to care more about this community than ever before.”
Also notable throughout the parade was the future of the community. The parade traversed right by the future sight of the first transit-oriented affordable housing east of the river, located at Alabama Ave. SE and 13th St. SE. This location sits right at the Congress Heights metro station and will be developed into state-of-the-art office space and affordable housing.
The Congress Heights community has long awaited development, while most other neighborhoods across the city have been developing at a rapid pace. For example, Wards 8 has two different metro stops, the Anacostia and Congress Heights stations. Under the redevelopment of the St. Elizabeth’s campus includes the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which will house their new headquarters on the eastside (Coast Guard) and westside (DHS) of the campus.
On the eastside, where the Congress Heights metro station sits, city officials have shown renderings where development will take place above the station and around it, much like that of the Columbia Heights metro station in northwest DC.
But the effects of the move are unclear. Plans to emphasize mixed-use construction near the site were recently scrapped by the National Capital Planning Commission, ending expectations that the development could directly leverage growth nearby.
While it would seem that local residents will be used for construction jobs; business owners hope the 14,000 employees slated to eventually work at the site will bring their wallets/pocketbooks with them and enliven the area’s business districts; and real estate folks are imagining a horde of DHS employees who’ll want to live near their jobs.
Some residents seem hopeful of the changes that are to come. Ward 8 resident, Willa Holloway said, “[St. Elizabeth’s] needs some revitalization over here. Hopefully it will help improve employment because a lot of young people need jobs over here. So hopefully they get those jobs.”
Still, even amidst all the new development that is to take place in Congress Heights, some residents feel like more could be done. Ward 8 resident, Sherita Washington said, “I feel that anybody that has been in this neighborhood and community should be entitled, as the say “have first dibs,” on the jobs. Just like when these foreigners come in your neighborhood and they build their stores around here, they need to hire people in the community because we know the community. I just hope that when they do the redevelopment that there will be some kind of job security for people around this neighborhood because the homeless and the helpless are what we are.”
With development will come more amenities, something residents readily want and the community greatly needs. Within the radius of Congress Heights, there are no sit-down restaurants, but the area has seen spurts of development occur. In particular the Old Congress Heights School, was redeveloped in 2011 and Ballou Senior High School held its groundbreaking earlier this year to build a new school. So the other amenities will come.
What’s clear that the pavilion will bring is opportunities for new jobs and entrepreneurs. Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced at the groundbreaking of the pavilion that the rent for businesses will be a nominal fee of $1 for vendors. This opportunity will open doors for local residents who want to sell goods.
Further, this development will mean events like Congress Heights Day will see even more sponsorship in the years to come. Ray commented on how the future of the community means greater opportunity to showcase local and residential talent. “Not only do we want Ward 8 residents participating in the event, but we want as many Congress Heights residents to have access to the many things this community can offer. Once the pavilion is open and running, I am certain that the event will grow in the years to come.”